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Art & Culture / An Intellectual Fashion

An Interview with Jean-Philippe Toussaint

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

Untitled © Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Donatien Grau meets visionary writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. Widely acknowledged as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s spiritual son, and the continuator of the legacy of the Nouveau Roman, he is the author of over ten novels, and several books of essays. In 2012, an exhibition was devoted to his visual work at the Musée du Louvre. His work for cinema includes six feature films. His literary work has been translated in more than twenty languages.

How would you relate fashion to elegance?
Elegance is a form of grace, made of precision and harmony, a spark of relevance and concision that can materialise in the pleats of a dress and the falling of a sentence.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
I don’t ask myself any such question.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Roland Barthes did?
Barthes was less interested in actual fashion than he was in written fashion, in the way it exists than in the way it is depicted. It is the same for me when I created a dress made of sorbet in Running Away or a dress made of honey in The Truth about Marie: these dresses are made of words rather than being material.

"I am not particularly interested in fashion, but it fascinates me as an incentive for writing: the airy grace of adjectives used to describe colours and materials" — Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
I am not interested in the political side of fashion.

Would you relate the concept of fashion to the one of style?
Yes, there is style when there is a shape.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
I don’t look at it from the point of view of intellectuality.

You are fascinated with the contemporary world and with the notion of integrating fashion in your novels from the perspective of this contemporary world. What role does fashion play in your writing?
I am not particularly interested in fashion, but it fascinates me as an incentive for writing: the airy grace of adjectives used to describe colours and materials, the sonority of names of fabrics, their precision, their variety. Fashion also interests me as a symptom of the contemporary world. In my books, I take into consideration the radical transformation of fashion shows at the beginning of the 1980s, when they became performances in their own right, blockbusters, on a set, with a whole scenery and music. The fashion show organised by my heroine, Marie, at the Spiral in Tokyo is at the same time conceptual and minimalist. With the honey dress, Marie invents a dress that is tied to nothing, that stands on the body on the model by itself, a levitating dress, light, fluid, melting, slowly liquid and syrupy, floating in the air while being at the closest to the body of the model, since the body of the model is the dress itself.

Literature in general, and your novels in particular, integrate an element of imagination. What is the relation between imagination and fashion?
My imagination had been focusing on Marie’s creative work for a while, as if I were quite keen myself to design couture dresses. I had already featured, in Running Away, a collection of sorbet dresses, “which melt on the body of the models, merged with the skin in liquid, light tobacco and old rose filaments.” I exerted my taste for vocabulary and adjectives of colours in order to describe “the ice creams, the sorbets, the granites, frulatti, and frappes, that melt on the bare skin of the models, onto their shoulder and around their hip, their skin creeping and the top of their breast hardened with the cold". I provided a variety of ingredients and materials, and played with fabrics in a fantasy of colours and tones, from flesh to mango, lemon, mandarin, peach, melon, before engaging with tones reminiscent of blood and colours of storm as a sign of mourning for the end of summer, tragic sorbets, dark and crepuscular, mauve and black, with blackcurrant, blueberry and bilberry. With the honey dress, I go even farther: it is the opening scene of Naked, the prologue of the book. From the beginning, the reader is introduced to a baroque, colourful world, where fantasy, tour de force and prodigy are brought together. But there’s also a reflection on artistic creation, which is very close to an essay: it can applied as much to my own work as to Marie’s work. Indeed, I speak about myself, and about my own research, when I write that: “in the duality inherent to creation – what we control, what goes away – we need to engage with what goes away, since there is room, in artistic creation for chance, for what is unplanned, unconscious, fatal, fortuitous.”

In two weeks Donatien Grau will interview the designer Bernhard Willhelm.


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