Sensory Experience in a Virtual World: Three Young Designers in Focus

As our stay-indoors-dystopia trudges into its eleventh month, an early symptom of a wandering fashion sense may present itself in the form of recent searches on eBay like ‘vintage velvet loungewear’, ‘green knitted balaclava’ and ‘faux fur bonnet’. With nowhere to go where people might look at us, the sense of sight in fashion has been reduced to looking at shoulders on Zoom and the top halves of faces at supermarkets. We finally have chance to experiment with the strange and probably ugly. Even the most fashionable of the work-from-home brigade have relinquished their visually appealing outfits in favour of something that feels comfortable. When looking and being looked at disappears, fashion must search for a more all-encompassing sensory experience.

Of course, fashion and the senses have long been connected. In 1972, Diana Vreeland’s pioneering Balenciaga exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art played traditional Spanish music, and the galleries were misted with the scent of Le Dix. While Vreeland was revolutionary in constructing a playful, multi-sensory experience of fashion, the exhibition retained a disjunct between seeing, smelling and hearing.  Innovative young designers Chet Lo, Monirath and Helena Thulin, on the other hand, are pushing the boundaries of bodily experience by creating and thinking through the senses. Without ignoring the aesthetic importance of design, they invite us to imagine, too, how things could taste, smell and feel.

Chet Lo’s ‘durian’ designs, accessed via https://theface.com/style/chet-lo-fashion-designer-central-saint-martins-knitwear-lil-miquela

A recent graduate of Central Saint Martins, Chet Lo makes vivid, tight-fitting knitwear that stretches over and hugs its wearer. The fluorescent colours and spiky textures of skirts, leg-warmers, and puff-sleeved jumpers are shamelessly striking. But the arresting visuals take us on a further sensory journey – Lo’s trademark puckered, pointed knitting technique (which was a ‘happy accident’ in his final year of study) mimics the appearance of the durian fruit, an Asian fruit known for its potent smell and formidable spikes. We are taken aback not only optically, but also by imagining a powerful smell and taste. Described by i-D magazine as ‘push[ing] the boundaries of wearability’, the softness of these garments’ feminine silhouette is contrasted with the abstract prick of sharp thorns. The 24-year-old designer’s mantra is to let things happen naturally, so it seems fitting that his happy knitting accident twists ideas of wearability by combining the body’s ordinary outline with an otherworldly-but-natural fruit that conjures up an abundance of sensations.

Departing from the fun and fruity, Brisbane-based designer Monirath creates jarring jewellery and hats that wholly challenge the way we consider accessories and their visual appeal. Her most recent ambitious project includes the ‘Water Hat’, a clear, rippled, ambiguously plastic hat that fastens under the chin with a white or black satin ribbon. The reflections of the wrinkles in the hat create ‘wave refractions’ on the wearers face when beneath a source of light, evoking the sensation of skin submerged in water. Made to order, each ‘Water Hat’ has a different arrangement of waves, creating a unique sensory experience that alters both the feel and appearance of the face (Monirath, with a playful nod to Instagram, describes her work as ‘a real life filter’). Such ground-breaking design gives birth to an entirely distinctive accessory that is not only aesthetically beautiful, but interacts with the body and its surroundings, activating both real and imagined senses.

Helena Thulin, an alumni of Studio Berçot in Paris, similarly experiments with the connection between accessories, nature, and the senses. Through delicate beading, the French designer portrays the simplicity and prettiness of a flower, freshly picked from a grassy meadow. Her earrings, either an asymmetrical pair or a single earring, imitate the individuality of wildflowers. Indeed, her designs are intended to be cherished like a flower, and her beading techniques are intentionally reminiscent of the childhood pleasure of making daisy chains.

‘ASTER CHINENSIS – Pair’, Helena Thulin, accessed via https://helenathulin.com/collections/earrings/products/aster-chinensis-pair

The dainty floral jewels are often photographed on a bed of grass that you can virtually smell and feel, reminding us to associate Thulin’s jewellery with senses evoked by nature’s flora. Toying with the senses even further, a recent promotional shot by Ignacio Barrios for London concept store 50-m shows her beautiful crystal flowers sandwiched jarringly between two slices of white bread.  In creating naturally charming jewellery that is intentionally photographed to arouse the senses, Thulin’s designs are almost good enough to eat.

When considering the work of these young artists, an argument put forward by fashion scholar Marco Pecorari feels pertinent: ‘the materiality of dress is not its sole defining element but rather is part of a network of affects and sensorial activities’. In an increasingly digital universe, feeling connected to our bodies through dress is crucial, and a new generation of designers are helping to activate all of our senses with their innovative and striking designs.

By Kathryn Reed

Sources

Zoë Kendall, ‘Screwing with silhouettes: these designers are reimagining shape and form’, i-D, published 7 January 2021, https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/bvxy54/young-designers-reimagining-fashion-silhouettes (Accessed 8 February 2021)

Jade Wickes, ‘Chet Lo: a designer set on switching up the knitwear narrative’, The Face, published 3 December 2020, https://theface.com/style/chet-lo-fashion-designer-central-saint-martins-knitwear-lil-miquela (Accessed 8 February 2021)

Marco Pecorari, ‘Beyond Garments: Reorienting the Practice and Discourse of Fashion Curating’ in Annamari Vänskä and Hazel Clark (eds) Fashion Curating: Critical Practice in the Museum and Beyond (London, 2017), pp. 183-198.

Chet Lo, personal website, https://www.chetlo.com/ (Accessed 8 February 2021)

Monirath, personal website, https://monirath.com/ (Accessed 8 February 2021)

Helena Thulin, personal website, https://helenathulin.com/ (Accessed 8 February 2021)