Trying and Failing. On Ann-Sofie Back by Philip Warkander

Trying and Failing

“What interests me with fashion are the social and cultural aspects. I draw inspiration from that, how we disguise, confuse and lie with our clothes. The way we dress to aspire to status, class or originality e.g. I attempt to find something that bears relevance to my own life, that encompass my reality. I want the wearer to get attached within the bounds of familiarity and reality rather than fantasy.” /Ann-Sofie Back, press release, A/W 2002.

Since the launch of her eponymous brand in 2001, followed by the more commercially motivated Back in 2005, Ann-Sofie Back has incorporated materials that aren’t what they first appear, and worked with details deliberately set out to confuse. This tactic of confusion and playful disorientation challenges two of the most fundamental concepts within fashion theory: “distinction” and “imitation.”

By Philip Warkander

Fashion, in the shape of garments we wear and accessories we use, categorizes us socially and culturally, which creates a distinction between different types of individuals. Through what we wear in our everyday lives, differences between women and men are emphasized and accentuated. Distinctions between social classes and lifestyles can be discussed using the shorthand of blue and white collars, and it is easy to tell the preppy crowd apart from the more artistically inclined simply by looking at what they wear. This way, fashion distinguishes between social categories, and in a hierarchically structured society, those in subordinate positions will often feel the desire to imitate the more fortunate.

According to sociologist Georg Simmel, this wish to imitate others is one of the strongest driving forces in fashion. When socially subordinate groups of people aspire to resemble those in power and control, they set a chain of events in motion. Not wanting the sartorial distinction between classes to be blurred, members of the social elite will want to reinforce social differences by distancing themselves from the lower classes. This is done by redefining what is considered fashionable, and subsequently classifying the former look as passé. However, in time this new look will also trickle down the social scale, and a new fashion will need to be invented. This process repeats itself endlessly, constantly delivering fashion novelties for the avant-garde to initially love and later dismiss, producing new sartorial ideals for the followers to imitate.

This analysis of the fashion cycle is based on the concept of a rather homogenous society where everyone strives in the same direction, toward a common goal. Much has happened since Simmel first published it in 1904. In today’s dominantly postindustrial society, social distinctions are decidedly more blurred, and things are not always what they seem. An imitation may operate also as a distortion, and garments that distinguish can turn out to be fakes: playing dress-up and make-believe in a volatile fashion world.

This contemporary context influences much of Ann-Sofie Back’s design. By hiding the larger part of a belt, leaving only a small centrally placed piece visible, she has produced a number of illusionary versions of a faux-minuscule waist. Recurring materials were for long time leatherette, velour and sequins, creating a sense of failed glamour, appearing expensive and exclusive at a distance but revealing themselves as cheap imitations up close. This design strategy undermines this most central of themes in fashion: the desire to imitate, to aspire to look like those better off. For Back, the imitation is fake, and the authentic non-existent.

Between the concepts of fake and authentic exists a strong tension. Fake is often considered a threat linked to the worst kind of imitation, plagiarism. Back takes this one step further by making the process of imitation and failed aspirations the core of her design. Much of her work is constructed as unsuccessful attempts, design failures and faux-pas: stitching pearls to T-shirts with prints of gold jewelry (A/W 2005), producing sunglasses that appear to be dripping with blood (A/W 2009), and displaying rings and necklaces seemingly piercing fingers and neck (A/W 2010). This playful approach to what is real and what is fiction is interesting but also raises important questions. If everything can be considered an imitation and a play with concepts, is there such a thing as an original? If fashion is a game of associations of the mind, is there an actual core? In a design process based on the concept of failed imitation and unsuccessful aspirations, the act of trying, rather than the act of actually doing or succeeding, is placed at the center of our attention. This reversal of a cultural order highlights the performative aspect of fashion, undermining the notion that social distinctions are stable constructs.

In interviews, Back often articulates this theme through a narrativization of her own experiences, growing up in a bland Stockholm suburb. She has often told the story of how she grew up in an academic family, with frumpily clad parents not interested in fashion, style or aesthetics. From an early age, Back would dress up in over-the-top outfits in order to compensate for the lack of fashion-forwardness around her. She longed to get away and attempted to use the magic of fashion to transport her elsewhere, anywhere but there. By dressing a certain way she tried to adorn herself in dreams, this way creating a new sense of reality. However, eventually she realized that the dreams were merely clothes, commodities in the system of market economy. Her sartorial aspirations had been mere fantasies, a chimera enforced to sell clothes to consumers who thought they had found an escape out of their dreary everyday existence.

Taking this insight as a starting point Back began experimenting with a reversal of this trick. In her design, aspirations are deliberately deconstructed, exposed as failed attempts to impersonate better version of reality. The notion of exclusivity is defined as a joke, the concept of good taste made fun of. The aspiration to imitate the elite through design and choice of materials is inverted; instead the act of failure is highlighted, the unsuccessful attempt of pretending to be better is considered a more interesting concept than actually succeeding.

The aspirational theme of Back’s design touches on one of fashion’s major paradoxes – the clothes we wear, representing our dreams, fantasies and innermost desires, are also part of a global system of market economy. Interestingly, Back is herself part of the same system she plays tricks with through her design. If fashion is a commodity marketed in the shape of a dream of a more glamorous life, she reveals the dream to be false by implementing failures in her designs. She turns the disappointment into empowerment by claiming the fake to be real, the mistake to be deliberate.

Philip Warkander is currently employed at the Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University, where he’s completing his thesis on the definition of style in a fashion theoretical context. The thesis is the internationally first to ever be completed within the newly established academic discipline of Fashion Studies.