Fashion photography was in its infancy in 1923, when Edward Steichen was given the plum job of chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. But as plush as it sounds—if the position existed today, the competition would be cut-throat—accepting the assignment wasn’t an easy decision for Steichen, who considered himself a fine artist rather than a lensman for hire. Despite his misgivings, he went on to produce some of the most celebrated portraits of the twentieth century, including a very modern-looking Marion Morehouse posing in a Cheruit gown in Condé Nast’s Fifth Avenue apartment and Gloria Swanson seen through a scrim of black lace. To celebrate the unmistakable stamp he put on photography during his years with Condé Nast, the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, in conjunction with the Musée de l’Elysée, has organized “Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, 1923-1937,” an exhibit that opened at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris this week and runs through December 30. For more information, see www.fep-paris.org.
As the pioneer and sole practitioner of her unique form of girly guerrilla art, 21-year-old Belarus-born artist and model Elle Muliarchyk is in a class all her own. Her MO is simple but daring: She smuggles her camera and assorted incongruous objects into the dressing rooms of upscale boutiques and photographs herself there, dressed in the shops’ expensive wares. Other covert operations have followed, but for her latest project Muliarchyk has gone legit: She’s collaborating with Bella Freud on a series of photos (like the one above) that will replace the traditional runway show for the designer’s upcoming namesake collection. The full set will be revealed in a few days, in time for the Frieze Art Fair. As the photo sessions wrapped up, we sat down with the artist to ask her what happened when Elle met Bella.
Was modeling what inspired you to make fashion a central part of your art?
I’ve always had a mystical affinity for fashion designers. They’re the ones who create our second skin, the way we appear to the world. Designers are basically playing God and cheating God by allowing us to be something other than what we are.
How different does it feel to work with a designer instead of dodging into dressing rooms to collaborate with the clothes?
Working closely with Bella gave me a very intimate glimpse into how a designer’s mind works. While taking self-portraits wearing her creations, I wanted to become a medium for everything that’s inspired her over the years—from things from her childhood and teenage years to her life right now. So the photographs became our mutual self-portraits, each of them telling a different story from our lives.
It all happened like in a romantic comedy! One sunny day I opened my e-mail and saw a message from Bella Freud. I thought it was going to be one of those “penis enlargement” offers and I was going to delete it. Luckily, I opened it. She had seen my dressing-room pictures and simply wanted to let me know she really liked them. It was so cool! We clicked immediately and our collaboration became inevitable.
Had you ever photographed her garments before?
I actually used a Bella dress in one of my guerrilla missions. On my travels I find beautiful statues of saints in churches and I dress them up in designer clothes while the priest is not looking. I put Bella’s dress on a male saint while there was a wedding going on and the couple was exchanging their vows, so, naturally, no one was paying attention to me! I hope God doesn’t punish me too much.
Personally, I think that sounds like a beautiful offering.
I thought so. Don’t saints and martyrs deserve to be dressed in the latest fashion?
The decadent minxes and modish harlequins that made an appearance at Miu Miu last night come from the pen of Swedish illustrator Liselotte Watkins, who’s also worked with MAC and Absolut and whose drawings have been featured in Wallpaper magazine. Apparently, it was all a bit of a last-minute deal. As Watkins told a Swedish Web site this morning, the Miu Miu team called her just ten days ago after spotting her illustrations in a book, and she didn’t even see the clothes, which feature portraits of cool girls-about-town, such as Pop co-founder Stefania Malmsten and Maria Eriksson from the Concretes, until after the show. Not that she’s complaining. “When a company like Miu Miu calls and says that Miuccia likes your stuff, you go, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for noticing me.’ You don’t demand to see anything in advance.”
Like so many other military staples before it, the trenchcoat has successfully gone from the front lines to the front row, building an interesting history in form, fabric, and fan base in the process. In “The Trench Book” (Assouline), journalist and historian Nick Foulkes dissects the garment that has been loved by officers, gentlemen, and flashers since the mid-nineteenth century. Here, the author gets personal about his topic, stressing that “anyone who is interested in dressing well must be interested in the trench.”
Where did your love affair with the trenchcoat begin?
?I’ve always been interested in smart clothes. I liked to watch old films just to see what the men were wearing. When I was going to school there were jumble sales where you could find really great old suits and trenches. You could buy them very cheaply in those days—and you could fit a half bottle of spirits in the pockets and no one would notice! So I had this amazing wardrobe that was made on Savile Row and cost nothing.
When were the golden years for the trench?
It seems wrong to talk about trench warfare as a golden age, as there was so much killing, but that’s when I think it was at its best. And in “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, a 1943 film directed by Powell and Pressburger. That for me is the perfect trench. I quite like the 1850′s as an era as well, so that would be number two on my list. At that point, it was not exactly a trench, but an Aquascutum coat with a military function. And then there’s always Peter Sellers [as Inspector Clouseau].
Why do you think trenchcoats have stood the test of time—and continue to be reinterpreted by designers every season?
One reason is that they last a really long time. They’re meant to be indestructible, which makes them the ultimate environmentally friendly coat—the use they get being recycled by so many different owners! They’re also immensely practical. Plus, military clothing always influences fashion. You put this thing on and you feel powerful. It looks good on anyone, irrespective of physique. In a trench, men feel like a swaggering officer, and there’s little better than a woman wearing one that’s tightly belted.
Who’s your trench icon?
Many people think of Humphrey Bogart but I’m afraid I’m going have to stick with good ol’ Colonel Blimp.
What do you think all of the designer interpretations of this classic?
The trench has survived to become a fashion icon because it functions as a spare-parts bin for designers who can look at it in its original form and say, “Ooh, I’ll take that detail and incorporate it into my own design.” Which ensures that it will survive for future generations.
Alain Benoist’s “Facade” magazine, the now defunct publication that chronicled international personalities (Andy Warhol, Grace Jones) and Paris nightlife in the era of La Palace—think a French version of “Interview”—is getting its own exhibit. Starting on October 8 and running through the 18th, blown-up images from the cultish mag will be on display at the Passage du Désir gallery. “Facade” published only a handful of issues between 1976 and 1983, but its legend lives on; Colette, for example, included the pub in its From the Street to the Night show, which opened on Monday night. The shop is also selling an extremely limited-edition box set—only seven—of the “Facade” Window Case, a transparent case containing issues 1 through 14, with prices ranging from $7,000 to $30,000, depending on the set’s number in the print run. And that’s not all: We’ve heard rumors that a “Facade” number 15 is in the works.