Columns on fashion, culture and ideas

Art & Culture / An Intellectual Fashion

Iké Udé

Every two weeks, contributors from all fields of contemporary creativity and thought answer questions about the status of fashion in culture, and choose the pictures to illustrate their words

Iké Udé
Iké Udé Photography by Iké Udé

Iké Udé is one of New York’s most famous social figures. As an artist, he is acclaimed for his unique talent in photographing elegance. His work is included in the collections of many institutions, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Smithsonian Museum...

Iké Udé is one of New York’s most famous social figures. As an artist, he is acclaimed for his unique talent in photographing elegance. His work is included in the collections of many institutions, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Smithsonian Museum. As a writer, he first served as fashion editor of Flash Art International, before editing the Style Index and aRude Magazine. He is the author of Style File (Harper Collins, 2008), and of many essays. In 2009, Vanity Fair included him in its International Best Dressed List.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Fashion is an odd mixture of politics and commerce; whereas elegance is akin to poetry and its attendant musicality and quietness. I find the concept of fashion highly problematic; hence I generally tend to shy away from it most of the time. Its connection to elegance is at best suspect and at worst non-existent. Elegance is not purchasable; it’s not necessarily fashionable; it is not seasonal; it is not contingent on a fashion designer or on advertisement; it does not seek approval, not even from the mirror – it just is, complete in its very own state of effortlessness, grace and ineffable winning contagion. Endlessly, season after season, fashionistas and/or fashion consumers aggressively employ the latest fashion as a passport to elegance. But this is a false passport, fraught with fashionable aggression. It results in shrill, improbable elegance which is ultimately dubious because elegance is never, never shrill. In short “fashion and elegance” is a case of apples and oranges.

"Elegance just is, complete in its very own state of effortlessness, grace and ineffable winning contagion."

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
The role of history and art history in relation to fashion is fundamental – it is everything. Although the nature and uses of clothes exist in a daily manner, and are often taken for granted – it is precisely so as a result of a general lack of knowledge and appreciation of art history. Often, to identify a picture, a painting, is to identify the fashions of its time. Fashion – as problematic a term as it is – is perhaps the ultimate index of any given cultural moment. It is the taxonomy by which we deduce a historical person’s class, geography, religion, age, epoch, gender, profession, wealth or lack thereof and the list continues. One can argue that the fashions of the 1960s – tie-dye garments, long hair, the Black Panthers; or that the fashions of 1970s – bell-bottom trousers, platform shoes, Afro hair, or the Punk’s Mohawk hair, historically signifies these periods far more than pop/minimal visual art. When we talk about Edo period in Japan, the Ming dynasty in China, the Ashanti in Ghana, the Scottish in England, the Quakers in America, we have very clear, specific images of them: namely their fashions, and not necessarily their naked bodies, architecture, cuisine or even paintings.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
It is a language that invariable generates a multiplicity of discourses. It permeates every aspect of life – from birth to death. It is a most promiscuous compass with which we accurately chart and locate various pasts – across cultures/geographies and times/histories.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
In the end, despite or because of its “fun” façade, fashion is inevitably a political signifier. Imagine the extreme sartorial conservatism in a middle-eastern country such as Saudi Arabia where an ordinarily normal skirt can easily earn a woman some severe public flogging or jail time. Imagine if the Pope showed up wearing hip-hop or rock‘n’roll attire – there is little doubt that he would not only have his head examined, but also lose his job and be remembered exclusively as the Pope who wore the hip-hop attire. The Vatican example would also hold true for any American president who, for example, trades his clothes for his wife’s. In that case, no matter how great the American president is running the country, he will swiftly meet the same fate as the Pope who wears the hip-hop outfit. So you see how, in the aforementioned three instances, fashion quickly loses its “fun” façade and becomes a deadly serious political signifier.

How would you relate the concept of fashion to the one of style?
A fashion is essentially a social contract and communist-like; style is the individual's determination to skirt around the “contract” and/or communism with grace and intelligent refusal.

"A fashion is essentially a social contract and communist-like; style is the individual's determination to skirt around the “contract” and/or communism with grace and intelligent refusal."

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
The perpetuation and acceptance of certain fashion within a given society requires the intelligence of the ruling class to sweetly coerce the middle class and sundry people to be in agreement. But the consumptions of such fashion are basically uniformed and in want of thoughtfulness, absent of individual determinism.

You are an artist, an editor and a writer. How would you see the relationship between these different forms of creativity?
The common thread that unites them is the same – a passion for beauty, intelligence, love of conversation and sartorial appreciations. Thus, it’s akin to water, whether in its liquid, solid and gaseous states – it immutably remains H2O.

You are considered to be a 21st century dandy. What would be the ethics and aesthetics of a contemporary dandy?
Ethical sympathies for a dandy are a dangerous thing, I fear. That said, in that neighborhood a dandy’s ethics must be nurtured and informed by his aesthetic sympathies: the love of harmony, form, composition; keen appreciations for color; fluency in all the fine and applied arts in equal measure; equidistant sympathies for past and present fashions.

In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the writer and filmmaker Liz Goldwyn.

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