Victoria Bartlett Will Get Unhinged in Milan
At the VPL show almost two weeks ago, many of the models came down the runway with abstract, hand-crocheted accessories by the young designer Aran Baik. Based on anatomical drawings, the accessories served to outline and extend the skeletal lines of the models’ bodies—ribcage, hip bone, shoulder blade. The pieces spoke to the collection’s theme, Atlas of Anatomy, but they also worked as an elegant summary of the obsessions VPL designer Victoria Bartlett has nurtured since she launched in 2003. Bartlett’s fascination with the body is frank. Her collections have often seemed like the product of a dialogue between a choreographer and an X-ray technician. Bartlett has opened that conversation up to a variety of collaborators. Baik was one of several designers who participated in VPL’s recent Spring show. And over the years, she has worked closely with many artists, most of whom delivered work to VPL UNHINGED, a retrospective opening on September 27 at the Dopolavaro Gallery in Milan. The show will feature new work from some—including Mark Borthwick, Jack Pierson, and Jessica Metrani—while others, like Steven Klein and Collier Schorr, are contributing iconic pieces from their archives. Here, Bartlett talks to Style.com about tap-dancing twins, time capsules, and exposing what lies beneath.
VPL UNHINGED opens toward the end of fashion week in Milan. Was that timing coincidental, or did the gallery intend for the show to find a place on the calendar?
Actually, they invited me to do an exhibition in June, around the time of the men’s collections in Milan. But I was just too busy, so we pushed it back. The intention was never to be part of fashion week, but more like something at the edges of it. We also felt like the show couldn’t just be about clothes. This is more like a dialogue with VPL, in different mediums—photography, painting, etching, sculpture, film. We’re going to have a performance, too, the night of the opening. Everyone in the group will be wearing one-of-a-kind showpieces.
What kind of performance?
Dance, dance. I’m obsessed with dance. I’ve incorporated it into many of my shows, too. And Jessica Metrani and I worked on a new video for the show. It’s hilarious—this one woman, she’s made to look like conjoined twins, attached at the underwear, tap dancing. You only see from the underwear down.
I know that several artists are contributing new work to the show. What’s some of the archival stuff that will be there?
The most recognizable image is probably the print we have from Steven Klein, based on a photo he took of Yvonne Force Villareal for Vogue. It’s her, surrounded by models in underwear, like a Vanessa Beecroft installation. A very beautiful, cinematic image. And Collier Schorr is giving us an image from an old editorial, of boys in underwear, and Judith Eisler is giving us a painting. It’s like a film snippet of underwear. She’s actually done painting on clothing for me, and we discussed doing that, a new version. But this seemed more apt. It’s interesting, though, that so many people have wanted to come up with new work.
What do you think it is about VPL that these artists like to grapple with?
Well, I have a deep fascination with bodies. I love looking at anatomical studies and all those sorts of things, and that fascination with body and flesh plays a huge role in VPL. Contouring the body, or revealing flesh, or exposing the underpinnings that cover part of the body—the peeling away of layers, you know? That’s the dialogue that’s most important to me. And I think, for an artist, it’s an interesting topic. I mean, none of this work is about “clothes.” I wanted to visit the different ways people represent studying the body.
What is it about the body you find so fascinating?
God, all of it! I’m fascinated by movement, I’m fascinated by skin, I’m fascinated by the way we all ignore the fact that we have these complex machines inside us. I think that’s part of what interests me about injury. If you break something, if you bleed, you’re forced to become aware of these mysterious things going on under your surface. And it’s all so intricate. Our bodies, they’re almost like couture pieces. So many layers, so detailed. And so many things can go wrong…
I suppose we are all made-to-measure.
I mean, we’ve all had it drummed into us that these medical things are sort of sick and dark, and they’re not. Life is beautiful. There’s even something beautiful about the fact that our bodies are mortal, you know? We’re time capsules. You’re born, this unique being, you live and you leave, passing something on. Spiritually, I find that comforting.
This interview just got heavy. Let’s talk about the new collection.
Well, the collection is called the Atlas of Anatomy, and it’s based on these fourteenth-century diagrams. Their purpose was medical, but the men who made them were artists. At the time there was this association between art and medicine, which was lost until recently. You see the outer skin, and the flesh, and then the organs.
Was this collection influenced by the fact that you were working on the Dopolavaro show at the same time that you were designing? I imagine that putting together a retrospective occasions some reflection.
Working on this exhibition definitely made me go back to the inception of VPL, and the ideas it came out of. It’s nice to do that. In the fashion world things move so fast that it’s hard to sit back and look at what you’ve made and reflect on it. This collection, I really went back to the body. That’s always where I start, but this time, the inspiration is really quite direct. In some ways, I’ve cycled back to my very first VPL collection. That one had a lot to do with surgical implements and cutting. And as I said, the diagrams I was looking at this time show the body flayed open.
VPL stands for “visible panty line.” And all along, you’ve really pushed the idea that the difference between underwear and, you know, regular clothes is fungible. So, I have to ask—what do you make of the “pants optional” trend we’re seeing right now? Of course there’s Lady Gaga but there was even a VPL moment at the Spring 2010 Alexander Wang show.
It’s interesting, because before VPL, when I started working at Miu Miu, my first interest was doing the whole visible-underpinning thing. And in the last year or so, that’s been realized more. Whether that has anything to do with me, I can’t say. I mean, it’s happened before, people bring bringing underpinnings into outer-world. Rudi Gernreich did it, for example, partly just as a result of the fact that he began using fabrics that were generally associated with underwear. My reasons are more philosophical. I like to show what’s hidden.