RUN Church, RUN Restaurant, RUN Store
Modern Art (London), September 1 - September 30, 2017
The work of fashion designer and multimedia artist Susan Cianciolo is intrinsically linked with New York City, and specifically with the avant-garde culture between the 1990s and early 2000s. It is during this period that she designed her now legendary Run collections which, as the name suggests, broke free from the constraints of conventional fashion. These unusual collections featured entirely hand-made, couture-like pieces that shared elements with both the grunge aesthetic and the ethos of domestic craft. The emphasis was on process, which was collaborative and time-consuming, rather than outcome, which partly aligns her work with Japanese and European deconstruction and conceptual fashion from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The materials used were mostly second-hand clothing, vintage fabrics and textile scraps, an approach that positioned Cianciolo amongst the pioneers of sustainable fashion. The presentations were just as unusual: a hybrid of performance art, gallery show, film and catwalk presentation.
These are just some of the elements that have made her creations unique and immediately recognizable, and particularly relevant for younger generations who are attracted to her work’s aesthetic and ethos. Eckhaus Latta’s colorful world, for one, is a testament to Cianciolo’s legacy and spirit. To the British fashion literati, on the other hand, her creations might also bring to mind the early upcycling experiments of Jessica Ogden, who has become a friend and frequent collaborator of Cianciolo, and the now defunct London-based Junky Styling studio. In many ways the aesthetic and the ethos of her work seem decidedly foreign in London today: Her art feels like a sort of crafty disturbance or a time warp. But considering the renewed urgency of sustainability imperatives and the growing number of slow and artisanal fashion brands now emerging in the UK and elsewhere, the first solo show of Cianciolo’s work at Modern Art in London represented an opportunity to get reacquainted with one of the pioneers of sustainable fashion.
The exhibition was articulated in three spaces with the first, dedicated to Cianciolo’s famous “kits.” While the designer was known for producing DIY kits as part of her collections since the 1990s, in her more recent gallery work she uses the term to describe cardboard boxes that contain objects, fragments, tools, drawings and ephemera from her archives. These aggregates of items are what remains of collective workshops and collaborative making sessions led by Cianciolo. This bestows them with a creative energy and a powerful sense of place that evokes the feeling of finding oneself in an attic full of memorabilia. In the gallery, kits were displayed on hand-made textiles or pallets and presented titles such as "Kids Outfit Kit" and "Drawing Kit." The materiality of the work evokes feelings of intimacy and warmth, bringing to mind lazy childhood afternoons spent playing and making just for the sake of doing so.
Throughout her career, Cianciolo has produced work with and for friends and has emphasized the importance of a sense of community. This sense of communal making dominated the rest of the exhibition. A second space dedicated to Cianciolo’s composite textiles also housed drawings and structures such as "RUN Church" and "RUN Store." The large textile hangings were the result of the artist’s long-time dedication to quilting and collaborative textile making, which entails the creative re-use of fabric and a coming together of participants with various skill levels, whose traces are visible on the displayed work. Upcycling and the relational aspect of making have always gone hand-in-hand for Cianciolo, who understands sustainability not only in terms of environmental impact, but also more broadly as sustainment and creative resourcefulness.
Similarly, Cianciolo’s structures, which also fall under the umbrella term “kit” and thereby suggest that they are meant to be used, aimed to create a temporary space through collaboration and resourcefulness. "RUN Church" and "RUN Store" served as lightweight sanctuaries brought to life by various artefacts, items, plants and clothing. The atmosphere was spiritual and almost sacred; a sense of positive energy and creation pervaded the assemblable spaces.
The last section of the show was dedicated to the installation "Circle of Chairs," which, similar to the structures, the tapestries and the kits, served to materialize a community in the space and, in doing so, highlighted the collaborative nature of textile and fashion and the concept of collective authorship. The installation also conceptually linked Cianciolo’s current work with her RUN collections from the 1990s, which were often the outcome of open sewing circles.
The solo show at Modern Art proved that Cianciolo’s work still has the power to quietly subvert notions of value in fashion and to escape the conventional structures of the industry while also offering alternative models for making and thinking about fashion.