The Cartography of Fashion [Text inside catalogue]
Nadja Stamselberg, 2006

To articulate fashion, expressed as a social signifier and a harbinger of a personal identity, requires an awareness of the cultural dimension of the problems of our time. In the1970s Brazzaville, an unemployed-youth movement in Congo, coined the term sapeur. Originally a French slang term (equivalent to threads), the title denotes a person who flaunts their appearance by wearing expensive, fashionable clothing, exhibits the promise of French modernity, and shows a common desire to indulge in European luxury goods. The dismissive social and economic differences between Brazzaville and Paris, and the irreconcilable desire for French luxuries despite dismal economic future suggest a degree of irrationality. By believing themselves equivalent to their European masters, the poor and unemployed Congolese devoted themselves to the labels of Parisian haute couture. It was not simply about gaining admiration and recognition, wearing haute couture allowed the sapeurs to enter the mainstream, and to pretend what he was not granting them an identity. The phenomenon of the Sape is site specific. The chaos that was the Congo during the reign of Mobutu provided a perfect setting for the emerging trend. However, the movement spread from Brazzaville to Kinshasa, where it became and remains an important part of popular culture in both West and Central African countries.

WESSIELING’s artistic practice acknowledges fashion as a major social force. It highlights its effectiveness, not only as an economic colossus, but also as an engineer of social practices. The interplay of consumer tastes, social habits and personal identity are the backbone of her installations. In addition to fashion and personal identity, which are constituent features of modernity, her work encompasses the places where these interactions are played out. This inclusion of a place, a locality plays a major role in her critical inquiry.

This is particularly evident in her latest work: Game On: The World Fashion Conquest. This work brings together the powerful relationship between metropolitan modernity and fashion culture. Inspired by the classic board game of world domination Risk, WESSIELING makes a theoretical intervention into the phenomenon of the ‘fashion week’. She concentrates on the cities that host a fashion week and their reasons behind it.

Nevertheless, one cannot escape the fact that fashion show is not only the promotional linchpin of a multibillion dollar industry, but that it is also central to the development of department stores, and thus to the rise of consumer culture. By her own admission Ling was quick to dismiss fashion week as a marketing ploy. However, she later admitted that her first impressions were hasty, and that the event serves a more noble cause of straightening local identity, branding cities as fashion capitals, and generating tourism. For example, the New Zealand city of Auckland saw a 25% rise in tourist revenue after introducing a fashion week to their calendar.

One of the questions the work raises is whether these fashion events create a unique fashion identity for a city or whether indigenous culture become ambiguous and indistinguishable from other cities that host fashion weeks. Vis à vis the situation in Brazzaville, by bringing European fashion to the city, the sapeurs quickly made local attire obsolete. The phenomenon, with its political stakes and social implications, has contributed little to the progress of the original culture, failing to make Brazzaville Africa’s fashion hot spot. On the contrary, it has reinforced the global expansion of the occidental culture, with a sapeur’s highest achievement being to obtain the status of ‘Parisian’. To this end, many cities that have fashion week have very little to do with, and are not traditionally associated with fashion. Among others, Port-of-Spain, Santo Domingo, and Reykjavik have fostered the event in hopes of greater global recognition and promotion. It is for the same reason that Teheran has organised the first Islamic fashion week.

Many refer to globalisation as little more than reconfirmation and reinforcement of the old colonial system. World powers are re-conquering the world through expansion of goods and cultural commodities. Fashion and globalisation is at heart of WESSIELING’s body of work, and she has dealt with the issue throughout her artistic practice. Game On: The World Fashion Conquest plays on an underlying critique of fashion globalisation in subtlety. Furthermore, one can argue that WESSIELING’s latest offering presents a positive, more presentable face of globalisation. With the focus on cities, spaces that have a particular significance in the postcolonial globalised imaginings, she makes an incursion into a current theoretical debate around fashion and identity. WESSIELING refers to synthetic communities, concepts and ideas that have been produced by the media. The locality of the cities is not immediate, their image fluid and open for interpretation. Like a sapeur, who uses his haute couture to assert his equality with the colonial master and his superiority over his neighbour, cities organise fashion weeks to create the image they wish to project.

The six Mission Cards, which are intrinsic to the game, are based on the artist’s perception of the objectives of these fashion weeks. These vouch to promote competitiveness in the local garment and textile industry, to serve as a platform for this industry to compete internationally, to promote fashion designers, and to attract local, regional and international buyers. In addition they claim to raise a city’s profile, fostering a positive image for tourist industry, boosting regional and/or international cooperation and acquiring the world fashion capital status. Claiming to celebrate and promote provincial singularity, the Mission Cards are accompanied by the six Verdict Cards, each featuring a list of cities that share the same mission for their fashion week.

The game board is displayed on the runaway of a catwalk, and features a map of 85 cities from around the world that host a fashion week. WESSIELING’s choice of colours is that of a classic board game. Expanding on Risk’s continent palette she introduces a two-tonal variant. Instead of outlining the continents WESSIELING lays a web of longitudes and latitudes, with each city situated on the corresponding intersection. The intriguing lines, with their ‘weaving effect’ represent the global network between cities. The absence of continents further champions the ideals of globalisation, of a world as a global village void of the geographical constrains and its colonial implications.

The ‘armies’ are presented by 85 cubes of compressed T-shirts, with the name of the city printed on the front. Apart from the obvious relation to clothes, the plain white T-shirts WESSIELING uses as pawns reflect her initial perception of fashion weeks. At the outset cities seem to be selling the same thing, albeit with different packaging. Although, one can decorate it, a plain, white T-shirt is a basic product. There is nothing new in creation terms. WESSIELING shared this sentiment before intensive research began.

The game’s objective is to collect fashion-week cubes with the same mission as your Mission Card. As the players sit around for the game exhibiting on the runway, they emulate front-row occupants in a fashion show. Traditionally reserved for high-flying fashion editors, buyers and celebrities, these seats also accommodate designers, cultural policymakers and representatives of the cities’ tourist boards. In the fashion industry, the authoritative fashion editors can manipulate a trend. However, with The World Fashion Conquest, cultural policymakers and a board of tourism play distinctive roles in shifting the cultural landscape of their cities. WESSIELING takes the game further, beyond a simple game of chance to one of defence and offence. This reflects the rivalry between the cities and their desire to outshine and outperform each other. It also mimics the strategic element of Risk. Both games are not simply of chance, but of strategy. Holding a fashion week is not simply about presentation. It implies a strategic role.

WESSIELING’s portrayal of the glamorous world of fashion as a world domination game comes within the framework of accepting the values of the singular. By deconstructing the fashion weeks’ objectives and situating them firmly within the realm of the particular, WESSIELING executes a critique of globalisation. After all, the fashion-week game is not about designers or creations. It creates a space for imagination. It is an image-making exercise, and requires imagination rather than substances. Concurrently, she questions whether cities are slaves to fashion or enslave fashion for their own objectives. This brings us back to the story of Brazzaville, a city as yet without a fashion week, enslaved at the same time by its colonial past and the promise of a globalised future.

WESSIELING is a London-based visual artist whose concerns the relation among fashion, identities, and cities. Interactive-ness is central to her work. She uses interactive installation to consider how fashion represents and connects our cultural selves. She is currently a Senior Lecturer at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London.

Nadja Stamselberg born in Bosnia-Herzegovina, received her BA(Hons) in Fine Art Painting from Central St Martin College of Art and Design in London, followed by MA in Arts Criticism from City University, London. She is currently writing her PhD at Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.