Fashion is political. Our clothes are an identity, an armour. They say something about us – about our class, our wealth, our tastes – to the world. And the industry that serves to make those statements is built on fundamental gender, racial and financial divides, not to mention that its foundations rest on environmentally unsustainable processes and practices.
And yet, as Paula Varjack hints at in her latest show, fashion is also frivolous. Making performance about fashion, as Varjack is doing, risks a perceived absence of seriousness. The aesthetic of Cult of K*nzo plays up to this, with its loud, colourful prints (a trademark of the designer label in the title) and almost cartoonish performance style. It’s a bit silly, a bit flippant. But like the fashion industry itself, there’s something darker at its core.
Varjack’s show is about fashion in general and Kenzo in particular. Aside from Varjack’s own dedication to the brand, exemplified in the central narrative of her mission to get her hands on its 2016 collaboration with H&M, it’s an apt symbol. Founder Kenzo Takada was an outsider, a poor Japanese immigrant in Paris, whose clothes were his passion. This backstory, accompanied by fluid line drawings projected onto the screen behind Varjack, is seductive. It paints Kenzo as an artist and as an underdog – two things audiences love (guilty as charged). In doing so, it glosses over the exclusivity of the luxury fashion that Kenzo’s brand now hypocritically exemplifies.
This kind of paradox and ambivalence ripples throughout Cult of K*nzo. Without labouring the point, Varjack makes visible the ways in which fashion both crafts identity and at the same time restricts itself to certain types of identity. As shown through the video clips of catwalk shows and the designer price tags projected on the huge screen at the back of the stage, fashion might promise self-realisation, but the non-rich, non-white and non-skinny need not apply. Varjack also dances – sometimes literally – around the ways in which fashion simultaneously liberates and manipulates women. In the eyes of our culture, to care about fashion is to be elegant yet shallow, at once a bold trendsetter and a style slave.
All this contradiction around identity extends to the performer herself. Throughout the show, Varjack talks about herself in the second person – she queues outside the shop at 4am, she drools over designer bags – as if trying to distance herself from the guilty, unfulfilled desires of a love affair with high end fashion. Cult of K*nzo is coyly autobiographical, using Varjack’s own experiences even as she herself disowns them. At times, this device can be frustrating and confusing, especially when there’s more than one ‘she’ in a scene. But it also speaks to the shame that women are so often made to feel, both for being too fashionable and not fashionable enough.
Varjack answers shame with exuberance. It’s rare, I realise, to see a woman on stage get so gleefully, unabashedly excited about clothes. At times that excitement is pushed to the edge of ridicule, as if to say “huh, look at the mad things fashion makes us do”. But there’s also a genuine love here for all the best things that great clothes can give us: colour, confidence, fun. Those qualities are shared by the bold, vivid print of the Kenzo x H&M bags and clothes littering the stage, making it easy to see how these items might spark such enthusiasm.
At one point in the show, Varjack plays edited video clips from an interview with Kenzo’s current creative designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. In the interview, they both keep talking about stories; fashion, they insist, is about weaving narratives. Stories – as Lim and Leon probably know – are powerful. It matters, then, to ask who is telling these stories, and how, and about whom. This is what Cult of K*nzo does best, whether adding mocking voiceovers to designer perfume adverts or asking why Naomi Campbell has never been the face of a make-up brand. There are (perhaps inevitably) things missing – most notably the fashion industry’s environmental footprint and supply chain ethics. But Varjack manages to pin down the story that fashion sells us and uncover the emptiness at its centre.
The Cult of K*nzo was at York Theatre Royal on 25 April. It tours to Newcastle, Salford and Wolverhampton in May and October. More info here.