Published 30 October 2016 © Christine Dauber all rights reserved.
Throughout the month of October, Brisbane was treated to a series of events intended to focus attention on and raise the profile of Queensland fashion designers and trends. In particular under the banner Resort 2016, the James Street precinct became the focus for a three day festival which included lunches with fashion industry notables, seminars on fashion, art and design, talks and parades. Arguably, the highlight of this festival was Cruise, the Friday evening presentation of Queensland designer Gail Sorronda’s 2016 spring summer ready to wear range. Anticipation ran high, for Sorronda had, over a period of ten years built an outstanding reputation in Australia and abroad for her signature style of darkly romantic, highly feminine fashion garments. Since graduating from the Fine Arts Fashion course at Queensland University of Technology and winning the Mercedes Benz Start Awards 2005 with her debut collection Angel at MyTable, Sorronda has been acclaimed for her innovative highly stylised collections. She has attracted the attention of leading international designers such as Karl Lagerfield, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabanna who featured her garments in their Milan store Spiga2. However, on this occasion it was her talent for dramatically innovative, performance driven, theatrical catwalk productions that ensured that this evening’s promise of an “experimental” offering would be one to remember.
This requires some explanation. In 2014 Gail Sorronda launched her collection Mermaids Exist: As Above/So Below at the Sydney Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Taking inspiration from the Disney movie The Little Mermaid 1989, Sorronda’s catwalk production opened with a dance segment enacting an enchanted underwater vision styled by Sorronda but interpreted by curators and dancers from the Queensland Ballet. In keeping with the title, the gowns were “fluid and floaty”, and some fabrics incorporated Disney prints of the red headed mermaid herself and a bright yellow and blue animated fish called Flounder. It has not been uncommon for fashion designers to collaborate with artist’s to achieve a particular effect or fabric design. This was the case when Sorronda worked with Australian artist Michael Zavros to produce fabric which featured a recurring motif of swarming killerbees for her 2013 collection Just Like Honey. However, as is shown by her performative approach to Mermaids Exist, the concept of “experimental” production for Sorronda has a very different emphasis and one which casts her simultaneously as both fashion designer and auteur. As fashion designer Sorronda creates garments for market to the fashion public but her role as auteur is not quite so clear and it is this aspect of her work that is explored here in relation to her trans-seasonal (Cruise) collection throughout October 2016 Quelle Horreur.
In the exhibition Fashion: The Greatest Show on Earth 2003 at the Bellevue Museum Washington, curator, Ginger Gregg Duggan examined the concept of staged spectacle as it related to the catwalk. He concluded:
As with stage performance, shows created by designers like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen feature far more than garments. In most cases, they read as mini dramas, complete with characters, specific locations, related musical scores and recognizable themes. (1)
So too Sorronda’s presentation deployed a number of different genres and modalities to achieve predetermined affects that indicated a vision beyond the functionality of the garments. At this point it must be pointed out that since 2007 husband and business partner Atlas Harwood has played a major role in both production and marketing of the Gail Sorronda label. His musical acumen as basist with the post-punk, gothic oriented, brood band Gazar Strips has been invaluable: (2) so much so,that Sorronda describes their association as “interconnected”. (3) Using a themed drama based on the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden they carefully chose the venue and the musical accompaniment to add a backdrop to the drama that would itself impart certain anticipated expectations for the attendees. The site for the Brisbane event was not a garden but St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fortitude Valley. Designed by Andrea Giovanni Stombucco and built in 1880-82 the church’s monumental gothic structure and stained glass windows lent an ethereal and quasi religious quality to the night’s candlelit proceedings. Inside the building an air of shabbiness induced by the peeling paint created a sense of decline if not one of decadence. The music was played on what is the oldest pipe organ in Brisbane. The soaring rich sounds could be heard by devotees as they sipped champagne and rose water whilst waiting for the doors of the church to open. The musical repertoire seemed not to have been chosen for its religiosity but rather for the ironic nature of the titles as these seemed to simultaneously reference the spiritual life whilst undermining the stability or surety of the promise offered by the sanctuary itself. The program included: The Cure: Boys Don’t Cry; Fleetwood Mac: Everywhere; New Order: Turn My Way and David Bowie: Ashes to Ashes.
In the opening moments of the drama the organist played “In my Garden” from the Swan’s 1987 album Children of God . Again the choice is remarkable for its subversive quality. The original soundtrack marked a shift to a more religious direction for the Swans and Michael Gira (guitarist and producer) has stated that the lyrics could be seen as a comment on the Catholic Church. (4) In the ballet two dancers (clad in skin coloured leotards to resemble nudity) from the Queensland ballet provided a choreographed drama of sublime temptation that had been created by the talented Jack Lister (dancer/choreographer) also from the Queensland Ballet. At the moment when “Eve” (dancer Alana Sargeant) bit from the apple the parade commenced and in keeping with the text, the models (being aware of their nudity) enter and are of course clothed. In conclusion The Madonna song Like a Prayer resonated through the vaulted spaces of St Patrick’s.
Yet this does not fully describe the completed structure of the soundscape as solfeggio frequencies had been blended/overlaid across the score to provide a subtext which was orchestrated by experimental sound artist Laurence English. The solfeggio scale (a tonal approach) was used in ancient ecclesiastical music and most specifically in pentatonic medieval chant. However, at that time the frequencies themselves had no way of being measured and it is likely that they were not actually fixed. Where once this mode of singing was used to illustrate the perfection of God there is a perception today that the frequencies have power and healing properties which induce a sense of harmony with the universe. A place of perfect harmony with God and nature is also a conception of Paradise or Eden before the fall.
Consideration was also given by Sorronda to the spatial dimensions of the church to achieve maximum impact and effect for the unfolding scenario. To this end architects NITID were engaged to design a set that was situationally unique to St Patricks. They determined “to transform the church into an ethereal garden of light and shadow where stage, catwalk and seating boundaries became blurred, immersing the guests within the spectacle itself”. (5) With no raised catwalk, the seating was reconfigured, thus necessitating the models to move in a sinuous circuit throughout the interior. The twenty-two models were not required to change their garments and each carried an apple on her journey toward the candle lit altar.
Within this Eden-like construct Sorronda’s adherence to a monochrome black and white aesthetic interspersed with the occasional red garment which evoked the role of the temptress, proposed not so much a conflict between good and evil but more an ambiguous journey to enlightenment. Again this broader understanding of an age old tale seemed at odds with the designer’s restrictive palette which might be construed as being limiting to both personality and design. Yet the opposite is the case. It is her subversive attraction for contrary or oppositional forces together with her “obsession for the angelic, gothic and paranormal”, (6) played out in monochrome black and white, which suffuses Sorronda’s creative oeuvre. Rather than limiting her design acumen, her adherence to monochrome demands a higher standard in both structure and design.
Hence, we see a stylistic brand (Gail Sorronda) of architecturally elegant garments that ultimately transcend the ever changing approach of the fashion fad. For instance, in this collection, there are repetitive motifs such as large balloon-like sleeves, voluminous amounts of fabric, ruffles and a fluidity of movement in a textural tension between garment and body, all of which have appeared in previous collections. In addition there is a complimentary range of contemporary accessories including ear rings, necklaces, hats and shoes which are available through the boutique. Almost contrarily, the garments themselves – except in the symbolic associations of black, white and red with good and evil – seem not speak to the theme or to the title Quelle Horreur. However, in the Western world, the creation story of the Garden of Eden has underpinned and naturalised the role of women as being subordinate to men for over two and a half thousand years. Most importantly, the role of Eve in this mythological story has cast women as morally frail and open to temptation and has subsequently been used by religious and governmental institutions to stultify and restrict women’s freedom. What horror indeed!!
Ultimately, the performance tapped into the viewer’s imagination and psyche to create a heightened sense of reality as to the garments’ ability to transcend the reality of everyday life. As auteur Sorronda offers a different experience to that which is offered in the boutique context. This experience goes beyond a simple concept of exchange to build a relationship with the consumer that is mediated by the garments. The fashion launch is particularly suitable for this agenda for a number of reasons. Firstly the launch represents a symbolic moment when creativity and consumerism finally intersect at the moment the collection enters the public domain. Secondarily, it denies the market aspect of fashion as it invites attendees to view the garment for free when in fact the range is very definitely for sale (7). This process is facilitated by the chameleon like existence of the fashion garment as it moves into the public arena.
In the store, the artistic nature of the garment is compromised by both its commodity status and its hanger bound appearance, which makes it possible and mandatory to inspect its fabrication process. Contrarily the absence of the body emphasises the functionality of the garment as opposed to its auratic qualities which become clearly visible in such a narrative driven parade. Constructed around an “ethereal garden” of Eden with its mythic expulsion, what the launch offered to those present was a romantic idyll of feminine power and romanticism where a “new order” based on the reinstatement of the feminine is articulated. But this was not all that was offered because this is to overlook the power of the brand Gail Sorronda and in particular the significance of the Quelle Horreur collection which has been featured with seventy three images in the June issue of Vogue Italia (8), thus confirming Sorronda’s ability and status as international designer and celebrity. Fashion critic Joanne Finklestein writes: “The brand invests the everyday practices of the fashion lover with the specifications of taste, social location and subjectivity” (9). That is, potential purchasers are offered more than just an exterior look which acts as a sign to their personal identity. To wear the garment offers a distinctive and precise way of moving through the anonymity of city life that has become significant of modernity’s impact on urban culture. The subjectivity of the individual is publicly performed by the wearing of garments which are given credibility through their status not as fashion so much as by what Vivien Westwood has described as being the new “couture creation” (10). It is this sense of the unique or special that gives the wearer confidence.
As with all catwalk productions the aim is to create impact, effect and ultimately desire in the purchasers mind to stimulate market response. However, this purpose is subsumed by the spectacle wherein Sorronda invites guests to experience vicariously her personal vision thus cementing a relationship that is not distant, as one might expect with a “celebrity”, but immanent. This sense of closeness is further enhanced by Sorronda’s regular attendance at her boutique shopfront in James Street Fortitude Valley. The purchase of a garment acts as documentation of that relationship. This mirrors current trends in celebrity culture which see the boundaries “between public and private, ordinary and famous disappear” (11). It is from this position that Gail Sorronda through the artifice of spectacle and performance is able to step in to comment on politically sensitive social issues which in turn invests her garments with a cultural significance reflective of her own personal mythology.
Dr Christine Dauber has an Honours Degree in Art History from the University of Queensland and holds a PhD from the same university.
(1) Anonymous. The Greatest Show on Earth Opens at the Bellevue. Thursday 10th November 2016, http://www.artdaily.com/
(2) Arcilla, Miriam. Creative Couples Gail Reid and Atlas Harwood broadsheet Brisbane, 23 September 2016, http://www.broadsheet.com.au
(3) Personal interview.
Cassidy, Leah and Fitch Kate. Beyond the Catwalk: Fashion Public Relations and Social Media in Australia. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal 14 1 &2 .
(4) Released through the Caroline label.
(5) NITID Architecture Interiors.
(6) Above n2.
(7) Young, Angy. Fashion Tuesday. Enchanted Spectacle and Other Dreams.
(9) Finkelstein, Joanne. Chic Theory. Australian Humanities Review. March 1997 1-6.
(11) Harmon, Kristine. Celebrity Culture. Bibliographic Review The Hedgehog Review Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture 98-106.
Dean, Lucy. But What Were They Wearing.
Evans, Caroline. Enchanted Spectacle. Fashion Theory Vol 5:3 271-310.
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