Telfar on Blurring the Boundaries Between Fashion and Performance Art

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Telfar: Park Nights 2018Photography Layo Mussi, Courtesy of Serpentine Galleries

The subversive New York fashion brand proved yet again that when presenting new work it refuses to adhere to the rules

Just before dusk on Friday last week, a crowd gathered on the grass outside London’s Serpentine Gallery in anticipation of the latest instalment of Park Nights, the institution’s annual summer programme. Running since 2002, each year Park Nights invites international artists and creative practioners to respond to the Serpentine Pavilion as the outdoor structure is redesigned by a differtent architect every time. This season, it was Mexico-born Frida Escobedo who was given the task, realising an enclosed courtyard compiled of a lattice of cement roof tiles, creating peep holes around the exterior of the building. It was through these perforations that we viewed the evening’s performance – titled Not For You, For Everyone and directed by Telfar – which took place inside the walls of the pavilion, leaving the audience outside to peer at the activity within. 

“From the beginning, we wanted to do something to the audience’s bodies – to change this relationship between performer and spectator,” explained Telfar Clements, founder of the subversive, New York-based fashion brand. “We saw the site and we realised all we had to do was close the entrances. It made the interior a private space that our artists could really own – and it choreographed the bodies of the audience – creating this situation of hundreds of people pressing their faces against a glowing, sonorous building.” 

And indeed, one did feel like a spectator and a participant all at once; the voices of the performers – a South African music group collectively named FAKA – reverberated in unison into the atmosphere, while the crowd followed the silhouettes of moving figures around the peripheries of the pavilion, vying to get a glimpse inside. “We just heard recordings of their music and saw images of them online,” Clements and Babak Radboy, the brand’s creative director, say of why they chose to work with FAKA for this commission. “We were in love with what they did, but really became obsessed after they performed with us at Spazio Maiocchi/Kaleidoscope during men’s fashion week in Milan.”

It will be next month, during New York Fashion Week, that Telfar stages its S/S19 show. But, somewhat surprisingly, Clements and Radboy chose the event at the Serpentine to present a sneak preview, with FAKA modelling some of the simple, black, topstitched denim garments which will form part of its next collection. This move posed the question: was what we were seeing a fashion show or an art performance? And, why was a brand releasing its unseen collection – usually sacrosanct and swathed in secrecy – ahead of the orthodox fashion schedule? The answer, quite simply, is that Telfar is unorthodox; its modus operandi is to subvert prescribed systems and blur the boundaries between different mediums. 

Park Nights itself has been supported by COS for six years running, and the fashion retailer’s creative director Karin Gustafsson agrees that forward-thinking collectives such as Telfar are integral to the richness of the programme. “The Serpentine Galleries are at the forefront of contemporary arts and innovation, areas which provide so much inspiration to both COS and myself personally since I was a student at Royal College of Art,” she said. “We are proud to follow the development of the programme and artists.” 

Park Nights continues until October 7, 2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London.