Challenging fashion: Comme des Garçons at the Met

Since I was a child, growing up in the 1980’s, I have admiringly followed the work and career of Rei Kawakubo. When I was too young to know what, precisely, avant-garde fashion was, I sensed that this designer was doing something special, unique, and somehow, important.

From the pages of W and Vogue, I pieced together an education in the adornment and presentation of the female body as idealized and imagined, often by male designers creating for the pleasure of male gazes. Kawakubo was starkly different in every way: female, Japanese, trained in fine art but not in fashion, and wholly original in her rejection of simplistic prettiness and conventional beauty. Her work lit a fire of possibility in my mind.

Snapshots from Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Photo by Irene Kaoru.

The Costume Institute exhibition featuring Kawakubo’s womenswear for Comme des Garçons at the Metropolitan Museum is called “Art of the In-Between.” Fitting with this title, the show presents over 120 examples of Kawakubo’s work in groups of textually defined dualities. These are: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. Under each heading, we are offered a selection of sculptural fashion objects (it seems wrong and incomplete to call them “outfits” or “clothes”) with an essay exploring the items in the suggested context. These essays seek to place the items in a chronological or conceptual context, but often raise more questions than they answer. (See them in the exhibition guide, here as a PDF.)

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Considering Tyranny on Independence Day

The founding fathers did something special when they designed the United States of America, with its branches of government designed to keep one another in check and protect the personal freedoms of individual citizens. For many Americans, though, the Constitution is something of a magical document, and the ideals of freedom and justice amount to some mighty magical thinking. For many Americans, oppression, corruption, human rights atrocities and war are things faced by other people in other countries — here in the USA, we’re protected by that magical document. We’re exceptional. We’re safe.

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, would like you to consider that this magical notion of safety is nonsense, which you may entertain at your extreme peril. On November 15, 2016, Snyder wrote on Facebook, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.”

He’s right.

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

In his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Snyder presents the expanded and fleshed-out versions of the 20-point list (from that much-circulated Facebook post) of ways free citizens can protect their liberty and each other in politically unstable and frightening times. This slim volume is packed with ample reasons why we should care about doing so, and chilling, cautionary illustrations from 20th century history.

This 4th of July, as we take a day off to meditate on what makes our country special, let’s also consider how we can keep it. On Tyranny offers grim warning alongside essential hope.

One of Jasper Johns “Flag” paintings, 1960-66.

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Book Review: Men Without Women

Having just finished Murakami’s new short story collection, Men Without Women, I am not immediately sure what to say about it. This collection of short vignettes by Murakami does not contain the magical realist pyrotechnics of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle nor the deeply poetic sadness of Norwegian Wood nor the character-driven page-turning mystery of 1Q84. What it does contain are expertly-paced tales made up of quiet, small, moments in the lives of men who all seem to pursue self-abnegation in lieu of love or relationships.

Portrait of Murakami
Portrait of Haruki Murakami. (Image source)

Murakami always does depict alienation, solitariness and quiet moments so very well. In his stories, it seems that these are what he finds most interesting about the human condition. Indeed, in a New Yorker interview, he describes this as his central aim.

What I wish to convey in this collection is, in a word, isolation, and what it means emotionally.

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An Artist Date with ferocious flowers

I haven’t been strictly following the weekly structure, but in my own haphazard and meandering way, this year I’ve been happily working and playing through Julia Cameron’s classic book, The Artist’s Way. By that I mean, I’ve been reading it here and there, writing my Morning Pages when I feel like it and sometimes even when I don’t, and whenever I’m feeling “stuck” or uninspired, I turn to the exercises and ideas contained within. I highly recommend this, whatever type of artist or human you happen to be. Cameron’s meditations are rather earnest and completely unironic, and they require a reader to bring a similar attitude. This isn’t always easy for me. If you can do this, though, there’s incredible personal growth and creative “unblocking” to be gained.

One of the most valuable things I’ve taken from TAW is one of the simplest: The concept of the “Artist Date.”

What’s an Artist Date? It’s a gift of time and play that you give your creative self. This could mean watching a movie, taking a class, going dancing, visiting an art museum or park…anything that you wish to do that brings you joy, that you do only for pleasure, and that you do alone. Cameron describes it as “once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly. “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery.”

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Review: Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values

A highly meditative take on how to conduct oneself in life and in business with others, Kofman’s book, Conscious Business, contains much to discuss and learn. I picked it up in response to reading an article by Matt MacInnis, the CEO of San Francisco tech firm Inkling, where the book is required reading for all employees. Having just wrapped up my first experience taking an early stage startup from 1 to 20 employees, and wishing to understand more about how leaders may intentionally create business culture where employees can not only create business value but thrive personally and emotionally as well, Conscious Business felt highly relevant.

Like many entries in the popular, introspective “how to succeed in business” genre, this book can be summed up quickly at a surface level with a few pieces of seemingly basic advice. Here they are, boiled down: First, take personal responsibility to the extreme, and approach problems from a place of curiosity about how you can take more responsibility. Second, practice extreme compassion in your dealings with others. Third, when you act in accordance with your values, you will succeed in life even when you appear to lose. I will address each of these main points and their implications.

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Ethical Fashion: A rant and guide for fabulous women (Updated!)

Since I swapped my East coast corporate job for West coast startup life, I’ve been struggling to refresh my wardrobe in a way that will keep me comfortable (no matter which coast I’m on), professional (from meetings to yoga class to business trips), and still looking like myself style-wise (something I can’t explain but I know it when I see it). This is harder than it should be because I want to avoid the biggest problems with modern shopping: In a world choked with “fast fashion” – disposable, poorly-made mass-produced garments that are often 1) made by slaves and children 2) in factories that pollute the Earth, and are often 3) ill-fitting and 4) short-lived style-wise – what’s an ethical fashion-lover supposed to do?

It’s hard to find clothing that looks good, is responsibly made, and well-constructed enough to last for years. To even try to do this almost feels quaint. If you care about style, fit and quality, and you happen to be a professional woman, congratulations, you’ve got a double whammy of a problem. Women’s clothing is much more trend-driven, more expensive and usually less-well-made than men’s clothing – good luck finding a suit with functional pockets.

I’ve been floored by how hard it is to find functional women’s clothes at all, even before imposing the preference for ethically and sustainably produced garments.

I know I’m not the only one out there hunting for the right fit, so I thought I’d share what’s working for me, and in the process, honor a few kick ass women-run businesses. Maybe it’ll help you find a gift for yourself or the awesome women in your life.

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Call for art: FIGMENT Oakland now accepting art submissions

The 4th Annual FIGMENT participatory community event celebrates Bay Area creativity

Oakland, CA – The organizers of FIGMENT Oakland, the Bay Area chapter of the global participatory art organization, have announced the opening of their art submissions portal in preparation for the 4th annual FIGMENT weekend event on June 10, 2017.

Artists, community organizers and performers of all types are encouraged to submit finished artworks, artworks in progress, concepts, performances, workshops or even games for inclusion in the 2017 event. Unlike many creative events, there is no fee to submit works for consideration, no fee for participation and no fee to attend the event.

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SF Spring

san francisco street

I was so taken with this beautiful, green Spring scene yesterday, walking down Noe Street. Sometimes San Francisco sneaks these little fairy tale moments in where you aren’t expecting them, and I’m so grateful for them.

Review: Grit

Grit is considered a “must-read” by many in my professional circle. For good reason – it’s an engaging, thought-provoking book. It’s useful and satisfying for its clear explanation of the core concept of grit (which is essentially: passionate perseverance) and its many inspirational stories. It’s also frustrating as hell for the nuance it lacks.

On the surface, this book is about the power of effort, and how deeply, mistakenly, undervalued the power of personal will is in our society. Modern people tend to romanticize and over-value “natural talent” and under-value sustained effort – to the great disadvantage of many. It’s a wonderfully empowering idea, and one that Duckworth meticulously supports with research. Much of this book consists of stories supporting the simple truth that talent is an inferior predictor of success in one’s career, to the ability to continually try hard. Those of us who aren’t born with genius level IQs should take heart – the brain is plastic, we all have the power to increase our mental abilities, and the work of exercising our minds to achieve excellence is something anyone can do.

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Review: Political Fictions

I experienced a large range of low emotions in the wake of the 2016 presidential election: disbelief, shock, anger, indignation, confusion, revulsion, despair, depression, anxiety. This book was a necessary choice for this moment at the end of this particular year, in part, because I wanted to settle back in to Didion’s exacting language after enjoying two of her books so much, and because I was seeking some political and historical perspective.

The connecting theme of this collection is the creation of narrative – the media appearances, showmanship and public relations efforts that create the image and stories we the people then digest about the politicians for whom we vote and in whom we place our trust, such as it is. There are two essays that qualify as brilliant and one real dud (about Newt Gingrich). The best essays in this collection come first, and my favorite, “Insider Baseball” (about the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign; linked below), provided some of the historical perspective I’d been seeking. (The comparisons between Dukakis and Jackson are especially interesting when viewed through the 2016 lens of Clinton and Sanders.)

The key idea I took from this book is simple, but I hadn’t fully articulated it for myself before. It is this: Not only is the increasing disenfranchisement of the American citizen – the shrinking electorate (only an estimated 57.9% of eligible voters voted in 2016) – is not actually a “problem” for those in power, that small insider political class. It is, in fact, the desired outcome. It is to the advantage of this political class, and this disenfranchisement has been going on for many years worth of news cycles, the political system operating almost completely outside of the experience and concerns of so-called regular people.

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