Throughout my practice and past roles, I have come at fashion curation from a social history perspective. I was first drawn to dress by the sense of character it can convey, the way people use clothes to communicate, and what this might mean in different contexts, eras, cultures. Most of my work, therefore, has been around biography and dress, talking about the way we wore and what role clothes play in our stories, with fashion framed specifically as a social subject.
I wanted to work at LCF so that I could learn more about what went on behind the seams in fashion – to be able to read technological as well as social developments in a garment and to understand how a thing is made as much as what it might have meant for it to be worn. Working at the College and with staff and students coming from different practices and perspectives has only made me more aware of the myriad of considerations and contributions that are made in the process of producing a finished piece. To take in and consider all these different aspects of an object’s biography is still to view it through a social lens. This approach just also ensures that we mark the stories, and the work of, the people behind the clothes, too.
All of this was in my mind as the Piecemakers exhibition began to develop. I was working on another project in which I was interviewing a range of fashion designers. While it was a privilege and a pleasure, the project left me more curious than satisfied. The rooms I was ushered into were spaces where concepts were conceived and designs developed, not where, typically, those designs went on to be manufactured, particularly not in the quantities required by the industry. While the insights of these designers were fascinating, I became increasingly conscious that I wasn’t getting the full story and that, in some cases, there was a disconnect between the creators of the concept and the - uncredited - creators of the components required to bring that design into being.
I began to research the makers and manufacturers behind the work of London designers. After researching and visiting a range of makers and manufacturers who fit the theme, I narrowed this selection to a set of seven piecemakers. I worked with each of these teams to select tools they felt were essential to their practice and that would shed light on the skill behind their work. For me, the highlight of the project was getting to visit these different production sites, observe the work in action and speak to and learn from the different people involved. It was fascinating to go from the front room of a former townhouse converted into Rare Thread’s weaving studio then on to the surprisingly vast and efficient factory floor of Gina.
Alongside the tools and text in the exhibition, we included specially commissioned photographs and films (links at bottom of page) by the photographer and filmmaker Carlos Jiménez. Carlos spent time in each of the manufacturing spaces featured in the exhibition, building a great rapport with their respective teams and showing real respect for their work, their knowledge and generosity in taking part in the project. The images and films he produced are part observation of the people and their environment, part contemplation of the tools and processes they use.
The core concept of the exhibition was to have the work of these piecemakers represented by tools that gave insights into how crucial components of our clothes are made. Many of the tools selected were small, and ran the risk of being overwhelmed, or even abstracted, in the gallery space. I relied on the skills and expertise of Ligaya Salazar and Vanessa Pike to translate this narrative into the gallery and to create an exhibition design that enlightened the visitor and elevated the objects rather than drowning them out. Kat Thiel’s brilliant mounting work – creating subtle supports and ties to fix the objects in place, as though they were at the ready to be used – was key to this.
The main feedback I got when doing tours of the exhibition was surprise at the different people and processes behind one garment and acknowledgement that we take the production of our clothes for granted. Visitors repeatedly told me, for instance, that they had never considered how or where a button was made or thought through how someone might press a pleat. It was satisfying to share these stories and celebrate the work of our Piecemakers.
Piecemakers, Fashion Space Gallery, 11 October 2019 – 11 January 2020
Read more about Susanna Cordner''s Research