FSJ Reflects: Miranda July's Interfaith Charity Shop
This fall, artist Miranda July partnered with a group of religiously-affiliated charities to produce the Interfaith Charity Shop pop-up in Selfridges, London. This site-specific, participatory shopping installation inspired multiple FSJ contributors to reflect on their experiences as visitors and consumers. We received the two pieces below and loved them both, so in the spirit of art that encourages individual engagement from numerous parties, we thought we'd share them both here, in conversation with one another.
Fashioning Friendships in the ‘Humble British Charity Shop’
by Annie Streater and Rebecca Smith
I was delighted when I received a warm email from a fellow London-based FSJ contributor, Annie Streater, who had commented on a piece I had written and suggested we meet for a coffee. I have always found that fashion has provided an easy route to making friends. Throughout my life, I’ve found that many of my most enduring relationships have been generated from a chance remark about shoes, or a throwaway comment on a dress that led to lunch. In the course of conducting research for my project “wearingwellbeing,” I have further sought to explore the ways that fashion might be good for us; however, the generative capacity for clothing to forge bonds is one “good thing” that has come up again and again. Indeed, the way we bond over fashion encourages flourishing, creates happy moments, and builds thriving communities.
As it just so happened, the day Annie and I were both available for a chat was also the day I had earmarked to visit the Miranda July exhibition in Selfridges, so it seemed natural to arrange to meet there. What I hadn’t anticipated was how the experience would provide a solid foundation for friendship-building, which we both felt warranted further exploration with a shared piece of writing. And where better to share it than the source of our connection than FSJ?
Annie: I've always been a solitary shopper. I don't like the distraction that comes with shopping in the company of others – the passive browsing-while-chatting and the constant pressure to discuss and validate choices really gets in the way of what I'm there to do. Not only do I not care for the opinions of others (they're my clothes, dammit!), my shopping process is simply not conducive to being sociable. I like to take my time to peruse the rails, touch fabric, inspect care labels. It's not unlike when I visit a museum or gallery, wherein, too, I find the experience infinitely more meaningful as a solo endeavour. Several years ago, a friend surprised me with tickets for the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A. As circumstances would have it, she ended up having to cancel, but urged me to go without her. While I felt bad that she missed what was an incredible exhibit, I'm secretly glad I was able to walk through the gallery at my preferred glacial pace, studying and scrutinizing each work of art in silence while connecting with my own thoughts. The experience of walking around a space – retail or gallery – deciding which pieces to engage with and allowing myself to feel whatever reaction they provoke, is, for me, less of a social practice than it is an introspective one.
I'd never much considered the parallels between art and retail before, but upon entering Miranda July's latest installation at Selfridges, I found myself questioning the very definitions of these two seemingly disparate spheres. The pop-up shop, located inside a prestigious London department store, far from being a designer concept store, moulds itself instead in the image of one of the unsung heroes of the British high street: the humble charity shop. A collaboration between Miranda July and four faith-based charity shops, who run and staff the store-within-a-store at Selfridges, this project sees the opening of the UK's first interfaith charity shop – a nod to the diversity served by charity shops around London, and to the diversity of London itself.
As someone who shops almost exclusively second-hand, I found myself in familiar territory, unperturbed by the plain shop fittings, fluorescent lighting, and singular fitting room in the corner. It was uncanny. What I wasn't used to, however, was the crowd. The excitement buzzing in this tiny outfit felt more like the launch of a new designer collaboration at H&M than a local shop touting donated cast-offs.
This is where it started to get interesting for me. Instead of my usual calm, calculated perusal of the wares on offer, I found myself frantically rifling through racks and grabbing hangers off the rail with barely a closer look, not even checking the tag for the size. Moments later I was in the fitting room, curtain thrust open, posing for photos in my hastily but intentionally composed outfits. “This is my 'Hillary Rodham Clinton circa 1994' look” I chuckled, as I stood in a black turtleneck and boxy red and navy tweed jacket with giant gold buttons and shoulder pads you could land a small aircraft on. Another look comprised of a pair of houndstooth slacks and a tucked-in black t-shirt emblazoned with “MORE ISSUES THAN VOGUE” (curiously, something I'd seen countless times on Instagram but would never have bought had I seen it in a regular store). Finally, I switched the slacks for my own black skinny jeans and layered on a Kate Moss for Topshop sheer printed blouse with pussy-bow and billowy sleeves. I wore it open over the logo tee, feeling very rock 'n' roll – like a willowy, androygenous model in a black and white The Kooples ad. I was on a fashion high, and I didn't care who was watching.
Before I knew it, four of the six items I tried on found ‘themselves’ at the till, being slipped into a bright yellow paper bag to come home with me. This whole process, from rack to bag, took no more than fifteen minutes; undoubtedly the fastest I've picked up items, tried them on, and made the decision to purchase them. Not only that, but I felt genuine excitement for all of the pieces I had bought, instead of looming buyers' remorse.
So what happened here? How was a self-identified shopping pedant able to throw her rulebook out of the window and grab fashion with both hands? It wasn't the fact that all of these pieces were one-offs – after all, I'm a seasoned hunter of pre-loved treasures – nor was it the low prices. So, all other factors being equal, I can only conclude that it was “the community wot dunnit,” as we say – a fact that bodes well for Miranda July, whose aim for the project is to utilize “the inherently participatory conventions of commerce”.
And participate we did. I'm reminded of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, a mind-bending piece of political theory that I studied in university and still don't quite fully understand, written at the height of France's intellectual revolution during the 1960s. This text, devised as a riff on Marxian critical theory, critiques the “spectacle” – essentially, mass media and commodification – and the passive subjects that consume it, in a society where “social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.” In other words, to borrow from one of the greatest lines ever to emerge from pop culture philosophy, “the things you own end up owning you”. This comparison might seem a little over-the-top, but as a shopper in this unique store, the blur between art and commerce makes it hard to tell whether you are experiencing art, or creating it. Whereas most art is static – presented as-is for public viewing – Ms. July's installation, like much of her work, requires constant, active participation from the public in order to exist at all.
So which is the object, and which is the subject here? Is the shop ruling the shopper, or vice versa? As I physically interact with objects in the space (select clothes), and put myself on display (try them on), I become an arrangement of subject and objects; art within art. It's unclear if this was part of the artist's intention, but it's a fascinating take on the relationship we have with clothing, commerce, and community. In the same way that I expect art to make me think differently, this installation made me act differently.
Rebecca, where do you think the line between spectator and participant lies? Did you find yourself behaving differently than you usually would in such a setting?
Rebecca: The blurring of lines between art and shopping, curating who I may become when I purchase a garment is very much part of my daily experience of performing my identity. I am unfazed by the rules; convention is of little interest to me. I find myself acting roles as an extension of the clothes I have chosen on any particular day. Personally, I have no fixed style, I am not dictated to by the space I occupy, if I have a desire to behave unconventionally I will, I dance in supermarkets and express sartorial inappropriateness if I fancy.
I was aware of myself as participating in an extraordinary space in the Miranda July installation. I was behaving, acting, contributing in a way which was flamboyant and communicative – even by my extrovert standards. I found myself playing the role of stylist, enjoying the freedom to share ideas about how complete strangers should dress – try this…that would look great on you…here, button it like this…add this scarf. None of this was any of my business; no one had solicited my opinion. It didn’t matter that these shoppers hadn’t asked for my input, they accepted it without question as I pranced around in a long green evening frock and high gold heels, barking orders as if I were Diana Vreeland yelling dictates to Vogue minions in the 1950’s. I exaggerate for effect of course, I wasn’t that dictatorial, Miranda July was amused; we were creating a theatrical performance in her carefully designed backdrop.
We added an extra layer to the unreality of a bland and boring recreation of a typical ‘British High Street’ scene dropped into this mist of luxury. I was struck by the bemused attitude of the shoppers as they entered this unusual space, many had no idea what was going on. I wonder if it was that sense of confusion that caused people to let down their guard? I noticed that the level of interaction in this small contained world within Selfridges was palpably different to the reserved manner that shoppers displayed in other areas of the store. As they crossed the threshold they let go of their reserve and participated, seemingly without an overt awareness of a change in behaviour. I also wonder how many found themselves questioning their expansive conduct after the event. Did they resort back to a hidden consuming persona that concealed intentions behind a barrier of yellow carrier bags when they resumed their promenading in the other areas of the store?
As someone who frequents both art shows and charity shops I am intrigued by the crossover in creating a space that is neither one nor the other. The experience of being in this installation, with all its unreality, was a bit like taking drugs before heading out to the supermarket – not that I have ever done that but I can’t find a clearer way to explain the feeling. There was a condensing of time, we were there for almost three hours, and I only bought one five pound leopard print blouse. If I step away from the familiarity of being in a charity shop, where I buy frequently, what have I learned from this fusion?
I would like to think that we can learn how to generate enjoyment from shopping by watching the way traditional, emotionally closed, fashion shoppers interacted with this installation. I believe that joyful fashion – participating in transforming who we want to be when we dress – could be re-invented with a retail environment that encourages creative playing, just as this space does.
Charity shops on any high street in the UK play a community role as well as being part of the commercial field. The shoppers who frequent them behave in a friendlier manner than you would usually find in a fashion boutique; staff are a mixture of “real” paid retail assistants and volunteers, and there is a varied intention to be helpful in generating revenue to support a charity whilst at the same time providing affordable clothing for those who may not be able to afford new garments from traditional stores. They are both centres of commerce and places of refuge. They are hubs of extended support for people who may feel excluded from excessive indulgent consumerism. I know many charity shops that provide tea and “counselling” as an added bonus to cheap access to fashion. I frequent many charity shops that portray visual merchandising that wouldn’t be out of place in any high-end luxury boutique. As a mainstay of the British high street they fill in many of the gaps – actual geographical holes as well as emotional needs – that a dwindling retail trade has left behind. As spaces to research shopping behavior, and the way fashion is consumed, they offer areas of insight that could well assist in finding solutions to regenerating a lacklustre relationship to actual retail shopping as an alternative to online purchasing.
The business of fashion retail is in a state of confusion in the UK. Perhaps, looking at the “Art of Charity” would be one way to resolve the ethical dilemmas that are causing a mismatch in the way that millennial consumers want to purchase fashion. As is often the case with great art, the Miranda July piece left me with endless questions; I wanted to savour the feelings that being involved in the experience left me with. This is the direct opposite of the sense that I am often left with after a visit to a department store, such as Selfridges, which is more akin to eating junk-food. Lingering feelings of over-indulgence and too much mindless, unnecessary buying leave me feeling disillusioned with the world. This artful shopping trip left traces of happiness which make me smile at the prospect of fashion once again having a positive position to play in the world. And it cemented a new friendship for Annie and me.
The Interfaith Charity Shop
by Alessandro Esculapio
March 15th, 1909
“Excite the mind and the hand will reach for the pocket.”
— Attributed to Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Writing of world exhibitions in the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin observes that they “open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted” (7) I was reminded of this as I walked into Selfridges, one of the modern temples of consumption. Enchanting displays, seductive textures, enticing smells—a Disneyland for fashion and beauty in which every attraction is a sensory overload and a threat to your bank account.
“But it was the last window, above all, which held their attention. A display of silks, satins and velvets spread out before them in a supple, shimmering range of the most delicate flower tones: at the top were the velvets, of deepest black and as white as curds; lower down were the satins, pink and blue, with bright folds fading into infinitely tender pallors; lower down still were the silks, all the colours of the rainbow, pieces rolled up into shell shapes, folded as if round in a drawn-in waist, brought to life by the knowing hands of the shop assistants; and, between each motif, between each coloured phrase of the display, there ran a secret accompaniment, a delicate gathered strand of cream-coloured foulard.”
— Émile Zola, The Ladies Paradise (1995 ), 5.
“...the collective dream energy of society has taken refuge with redoubled vehemence in the mute impenetrable nebula of fashion.”
— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (1999), 64.
In Selfridges, this dream energy is encapsulated in branded corners separated by corridor-wide passages in white marble. Each corner is a catalyst of different dreams, but they all lead upwards. Even if you do not buy anything, you will still smell aspiration.
“Enchantment entails a state of wonder, and one of the distinctions of this state is the temporary suspension of chronological time and bodily movement. To be enchanted, then, is to participate in a momentarily immobilizing encounter; it is to be transfixed, spellbound.”
— Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics (2001), 5.
September 8, 2017
The erotic appeal of the inorganic. Enchantment “requires active engagement with objects of sensuous experience.”
— Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics (2001), 5.
In the midst of luxurious dreams, reality has claimed a space. A well-curated one.
“What do you not like about fashion shows? What should change?
I think the speed, this incredible, crazy speed. This need to produce so much clothes. I think that’s slightly out of control. I don’t really know what’s the way out, or what’s the way to change it. Recycle? I don’t know. But I think the industry feels slightly overwhelmed.”
— Lotta Volkova quoted in Nicole Phelps, ‘The Future of the Fashion Show: Super Stylist Lotta Volkova,’ Vogue.com.
Then why make more?
A question that echoes is my head as I walk into the Interfaith Charity Shop.
“Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste. He sorts things out and selects judiciously; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.”
— Charles Baudelaire quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, 2006, 108.
Enchantment may involve a “surprising encounter, a meeting with something that you did not expect and are not fully prepared to engage.”
— Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics, 2001, 5.
Thrift shopping is Surrealist shopping. It is stumbling upon a found object—a discarded object—a magical encounter. The luxury is the uniqueness of the object, the ‘here and now’ of the find, the energy of the object’s past.
Enchantment ≠ enchantment | luxury ≠ luxury
Miranda July's Interfaith Charity Shop was in place in Selfridges, London, until 22 October 2017.