Clothing Reacting to the Chromatic Spectrum — Q+A with Ying Gao
Ying Gao is a Montreal-based fashion designer and University professor, as well as the former head of Fashion, jewelry, and accessories design Programme at HEAD-Genève. She has achieved personal distinction through her numerous creative projects, including six solo exhibitions in France, Switzerland, and Canada, along with more than one hundred group exhibitions around the world.
Her work questions our assumptions about clothing by combining various design fields, namely fashion, product, and media design. Ying Gao explores both the status of the individual, whose physical contours are transformed by external interferences, and the garment’s function as a fragile transitional space. Her work testifies to the profound mutation of the world in which we live and carries with it a radical critical dimension that transcends technological experimentation.
YG: Ying Gao
EL: Eve Laliberté
EL: What led you to choose clothing design as a medium?
YG: I noticed that you used the term “clothing design” instead of “fashion design”. In fact I am not at all purist. On the contrary, I believe that fashion is precisely the system that encompasses the object: clothing. Garment is the substance of this system. Fashion remains the dominant phenomenon in which clothing is a component, although I am convinced that some clothes are considered marginal within the current fashion system. I see that in North America, as in Europe, there are two systems, the fashion system, and the clothing system. There are, of course, other things that are not part of fashion properly speaking, nor clothing.
YG: Now to better answer your question… When I was a child, my mother took me to Yves Saint Laurent’s first exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Beijing. This was in the 80’s and China was still a country where all dresses conformed to social and political norms: blue and gray uniforms, which I found rather beautiful, especially since I always loved sobriety. The work of Yves Saint Laurent, to be truthful, did not strike me by the elegance of its style, by the richness of its fabrics, the precision of its silhouettes, and even less by the intense colors, which, in fact, hurt my eyes. His work communicated to me a much more essential quality, which influenced me during many years: the concept of the foreign, the dissimilar, and the different. The only thing I really saw, that day, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Beijing, was a certain difference. A difference in culture and in world vision. I felt very banal that day, and I told myself that I would like to accomplish something different when I grew up.
“Fashion is a sort of ‘encounter with time.’ The future belongs to those who use the technologies of their time. “
EL: In your work, the design seems to be at the heart of the narratives that you imagine, as a pretext for the elaboration of alternative visions. When did you decide to approach the garment with a critical and conceptual perspective rather than following the market’s view?
YG: I think that fashion is a sort of “encounter with time.” The future belongs to those who use the technologies of their time. But both technology and fashion embody the most fragile and ephemeral aspects of our culture, insofar as that which is cutting-edge today will be old tomorrow. Fashion designers have known for a long time that they are working with a fleeting material that will never be timeless. The integration of electronic technology seems to modify that creative process. I spent my teenage years in Switzerland. I first studied fashion design at HEAD-Geneva, and then at the UQAM’s Design School in Montreal, where I now teach. Professionally, Switzerland taught me to be thorough and to focus on details, whereas Montreal gave me the freedom to think and experiment. I would call my design aesthetic “speculative design” or “design fiction”: It’s radical, experimental and slow.
I'm not creating science fiction. These are not the clothes of the future. These objects represent for me the here and now.
EL: Your work plays with the notions of fiction and imagination. Your collections seem to be rooted in technological dystopias. Why is it important to consider these scenarios through art? Can this generate an impact? How?
YG: When people tell me that the garment of the future will communicate our emotions, that it will light up to show if we are happy or sad, I systematically answer: “but I hope that it will never happen!” Because it's such a depressing concept. Depressing, because it has no nuance. As little nuance as a Christmas tree or a billboard. I’d like to think that my garments are not gadgets, but rather design objects that have been extensively reflected upon and have a conceptual and aesthetical "life", corresponding to their technological mission. As for sensory technology in everyday fashion, I think that in certain fields, such as extreme sports, military, and medicine, it’s already there. I would like for people to understand that I'm not creating science fiction. These are not the clothes of the future. These objects represent for me the here and now. The ideas I express through these objects reflect the questions and uncertainties that we are already experiencing today.
EL: What is your relationship to literature? Is it a source of inspiration?
YG: I have to read a lot when I start a project. I am often inspired by literature, auteur films, and documentaries. But I do not theorize. I do not write, because it's not my domain. Raymond Depardon, Jeff Wall, Lydia Davis, Oliver Sacks, Sophie Calle, Roy Andersson, the Moomins… Auteur films, philosophical essays, fiction, medical stories... all these inspire me.
EL: Although your projects are implanted in the technological world through the use of interactive media, most of them have a very organic aesthetic. Is the exploration of this duality - rather paradoxical - voluntary in your work? What space does it occupy?
YG: The key element is neither technological nor organic, it is rather the intangible. This notion is a key component of both my creative concepts and the very manufacture of my clothes. Items which may not be touched or picked up are an integral part of my clothing structure. In some cases, this immateriality is expressed using fabric so light that it hardly seems to be there, as if the raw material was air… air to which one would have given a visible form. Other impalpable elements are also inherent to my practice: a garment can be activated by the sound of a voice, the stimulus of a look, a burst of light, animating both the concept and the garment itself. The intangible is also manifested through the idea of mutation. Change, flow, and non-fixity are attributes of my creations. Clothes change their appearance, metamorphosing in unpredictable ways.
EL: How do you think screens and connectivity affect our relationship to the environment and to each other?
YG: I am not sure if my interactive creations address this societal phenomenon at all since one of my hobbies is… Instagram. What a pleasure and what a waste of time! I had never thought I could be a photographer but over the last 8 years on Instagram, my followers have proven to me that, indeed, I am quite capable of wasting time on yet another social network! My other hobby consists of documentary films, which I watch voraciously, encompassing a whole range of subjects. The subjectivity of documentary filmmakers fascinates me. I love to look through the eyes of a stranger and to understand the world from his or her perspective. My third hobby is to feel anxiety for several hours every day. Gilles Lipovetsky defines “hypermodern times” as a contemporary period that reflects a radical intensification of modernity, including its obsession with finance, science, democracy, and individualism. Each aspect of existence includes excess and a certain duality, where more than ever frivolity masks deep anxiety. This anxiety is something that I see and live through every day. Paradoxically, it makes me feel alive and pushes me forward. What motivates me the most is incertitude and failure.
EL: Do you believe that design has a potential for change in relation to current social and political issues? Do you have a responsibility towards these as a designer?
YG: While completing my Master's Degree in media design, I worked as a fashion designer and all too often I heard that designing is pointless. I wondered a great deal about the role of a fashion designer and I wanted to do what a designer was supposed to do: create, innovate within our social context. Through my interactive garment projects, I hope to encourage people to consider the importance of innovation in fashion design. The evolution of contemporary fashion should consider putting emphasis on materials and their relation to the urban environment. This may motivate designers to create in a design laboratory and not in their “sewing-shop.”
EL: Your pieces are part of museums’ collections and have often been exhibited as an object of art. Do you believe that this is where your collections communicate best?
EL: We read somewhere that you are currently writing a book. Could you tell us a little more?
YG: Oh no, that’s a secret…