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Close & Personal With Skin Tight

By Robyn Coffey

As much an ode to the human body as a fashion exhibition, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh presents the work of ten artists and designers who specialize in that most avant-garde of art forms: conceptual fashion.

The garments, accessories, videos, and installations in the show aim to examine the fine line where flesh ends and identity begins. The designers, seven of whom hail from Belgium or Holland—quintessential centers of conceptual design—reference inspirations far beyond mere style. Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort’s sensuous multimedia altar of flesh exemplifies the sexualized body, with large-format photographs of nude bodies as well as accessories and environmental furnishings that all invoke the color and texture of naked skin. Conversely, Hussein Chalayan’s garments focus on the technological and architectural elements of the body, as seen in his white fiberglass dress with remote-controlled panels that move up and down like those on an airplane’s wing.

Japanese label Under Cover’s cuddly/creepy ensembles bring to mind Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas if she were to design a winter line. Displayed on mannequins that are suspended from the ceiling and rotate slowly like hanged corpses, the coats are covered in a textural hodge-podge of mismatched buttons, big ugly stitches, rich brocades, and patchy fur, and are accompanied by toy designer Anne-Valerie Dupond’s beautifully misshapen bird masks.

But clearly the star of Skin Tight, Belgian Walter Van Bierendonck, is my new personal favorite. His eclectic, brightly-colored garments wouldn’t be out of place in a world where Alice in Wonderland is a sado-masochist and the White Rabbit has a latex fetish. From cartoon-print T-shirts paired with zippered black leather leggings to ridiculously oversized suits and ties, à la the Mad Hatter Tea party, black, plastic, insect-like helmets and tribal-style Astroturf headwear, Van Bierendonck is a force unto himself. Not only is the dark-side-of-pop-culture clothing compelling and highly original, the runway shows on video rival Broadway in full-scale stage productions, complete with light, sound, and water special effects. They run the gamut from whimsical—rows of male models in cowboy-punk gear line-dancing in formation—to bizarrely offbeat, as when his models appear looking like Vulcans from the set of Star Trek, only with horns and knobs protruding from their faces. Van Bierendonck continually challenges notions of conventional beauty, and in nearly every show the models are variously painted, pierced, dyed, or altered by prosthetics.

Despite the fact that the arrangement of the exhibition space in the museum prevented clear lines of sight to the video screens and prohibited smooth crowd flow, Skin Tight provides a rare and valuable glimpse at the work of designers who stretch our notions of what qualifies as body or clothing. Most of the garments are not strictly wearable, but it doesn’t matter when high-concept fashion is understood in context. Without fashion and its relentless trickle-down/bubble-up effect that allow us continuous redefinition of our identities, we will never come to recognize, as J.C. Ballard puts it, “that nature has endowed us with one skin too few, and that a fully sentient being should wear its nervous system externally.”

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