Delving into the superficial

By Victor Schagerlund

Dr. Philip Warkander, the world’s first PhD graduate in Fashion Studies, has made a career of in-depth investigations about the superficial. As associate Professor at Lund University, Warkander is working within the discipline which was first defined at Stockholm University in 2006. In contrast to, for instance, London College of Fashion’s approach- which is highly informed by sociology- this branch is consciously interdisciplinary, “where the object of study – contemporary fashion, historical dress, aesthetics, clothes, etc. – inform the choice of theoretical framework and methodology”, he explains. He thereby points out the significance of methodology in Fashion Studies “as the scope of potential method is so wide” and continues by saying that “most of the seminal texts were written in other disciplines, such as philosophy, art history and sociology.”

More concretely, Warkander means that the study of Fashion holds the key to understanding modern society. Unlike other cultural expressions- such as art, literature and film, he says “fashion is situated in our everyday lives, through its intimate connection to the clothes we wear on our bodies.” He develops this: “fashion has an immediate connection to how we define ourselves as individuals, how we express our dreams, hopes and desires, both individually but also collectively. Therefore, fashion also operates as a form of lens, through which we can study the narratives that are being told through what we wear and how we wear it.”

His outfit today is for instance chosen more based on comfort rather than looks, perhaps due to the fact he is currently writing a book about contemporary fashion and needs to be at ease to concentrate. Dressed casually in Cheap-Monday denim, an Emporio Armani hoodie paired with a Moncler Gamme bleu vest and Gucci sneakers, he remarks on the irony considering the subject of his book but quickly adds that “[hopefully his] sense of dress will improve once the book is done.”

Egocentrism and a strong sense of individualism are often present in fashion, and when asked about the relationship between innate taste and external influences, Warkander turns philosophical. “Where does the personality come from? Do we have a soul? Are we born with certain traits or do we develop them based on what we experience as children?’ Providing a balanced conclusion he believes it to be a combination and that ‘certainly some people have a greater inclination to think about and care for aesthetics, and to develop strong personal interpretations of style, and yes I do think this is part of the very core of who those people are, but that again brings us back to the original question of where we come from. In this life, I care a great deal about aesthetics and style, but will that translate to my next existence? I don’t know.”

In fashion, the analysis often never goes beyond personal opinion, which Warkander deems to be a critical error. In reviewing fashion, he states “[a] routine mistake is to filter [it] through our own preferences’, and instead ‘we should understand it based on the cultural and aesthetic context it is presented in, and from that point initiate our analysis.” Objectivity is not necessarily the aim he says, but “we should try to find as many perspectives and points of view as possible, to compare and contrast with, in order to crate a nuanced and critical account.” Further, he withholds that an understanding of the arts favours any thorough analysis of fashion as it “helps you connect the dots.”

Even having said this, Warkander remains hesitant to the current ‘academisation’, as he calls it, of Fashion education. After years of experience working at prominent schools in France and Sweden he has seen a tendency in which design students are required to write academic essays. “I would actually encourage young people to carefully think about what it is they want to do in fashion. For some, who want to work with management or the business aspect, going to university makes sense. But for others, who want to become stylists or photographers or something like this, I think they should try to become someone’s assistant, and learn the practical aspects of the trade.”

Similar to his career advice, his final style lesson is about self-assurance and that, in contrast to the dogmatic publications out there, we should “not listen to what others tell [us] so much.” Perhaps something easier said than done, when our wardrobes are synthesized by contemporary society.

Photograph: Tomas Falmer

 

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