Features Published 28 January 2019

Paula Varjack’s Retail Theatre

As Marie Kondo fever sets in, Paula Varjack explains how her new show The Cult of K*nzo explores the performativeness of shopping.
Francesca Peschier

Paula Varjack’s Cult of Kenzo. Photo: Nikolas Louka

The last designer collaboration I queued for was Dita von Teese for Mac. I waited outside Selfridges amongst a huge crowd of misjudged veils and non-sensible shoes to get my poster signed and buy a red lipstick that does nothing for me. The anticipation, dressing up and achingly slow advancing through Selfridges like some vintage clad snake was as theatrical as any promenade immersive performance.

Knowingly or not, we all buy into retail theatre. Faced with online competition, the high street has to be creative in making shopping an experience, rather than a means to getting trousers that don’t make you look like a duck pretending to be a human (this might just be me). Internet shopping isn’t immune either. Packages from Etsy arrive with a shower of confetti and stickers, a psychological trick that makes you think ‘present’ not ‘overdraft.’ Retail theatre makes us want to buy, from an enticing sweetshop display of lipsticks to social media advertising that shows fast fashion pyjamas as a must have for brunch in an influencer’s kitchen. It’s 100% performative, a Made in Chelsea actor pedalling hair vitamins-cum-theatrical event.  

Artist Paula Varjack knows all too well how it is to be drawn into the spectacle of shopping. Entranced by the epic 2016 H&M collaboration with Japanese designer Kenzo Takada, Varjack knew she had to have it – nearly all of it. She was initially unaware of the frenzy these designer collaborations can create: ‘When I first heard about the KENZO x H&M collaboration I naively thought you could just walk into H&M and buy it’ she says. Instead Varjack found herself lining up in a shopping centre at 4am before spending over £400 on her ’emergencies only’ credit card. ‘Leopard print dresses are not an emergency’ she acknowledges, ‘I had never lost my mind like this before. I am someone who normally buys second-hand. I tend to think £70 is a lot for a dress. so, what happened?’

What happened was that Varjack’s Westfield binge became the basis for her playful but pointed Cult of K*nzo, developed with director and dramaturg Martin Bengtsson. In this one woman show, she captures the dizzying feeling of being swept up in a consumerist hysteria. The exhilaration of Black Friday crowds or nearly coming to blows over high street edition Versace earrings (again, this might just be me).

Varjack paints a vivid picture of the flash of realisation that came that same fateful morning and would spark the making of the show. She was passing a florist and saw her ‘garish pink and green leopard print bags’ framed by ‘rows and rows of roses ‘. ‘It was like playing with a kaleidoscope and finally seeing the patterns shift into focus. How did Kenzo do it? How did H&M do it? I wanted to explore what drives people to want things, particularly clothes.’

In Adorned in Dreams Elizabeth Wilson writes that it is our dress that links the ‘”¦biological body to the social being, and public to private.’ What we want to wear is tied intrinsically to how we want others to see us.  ‘I see what I wear’, says Varjack,as a form or creative expression, and as a creative act’. We discuss our looks for 2019. I’m going for ‘Baroque Italian Professor on her way to a funeral’ (very Dolce & Gabbana 2018) whilst Varjack favours a ‘lux seventies disco doll time travel crashing 90’s’ club kid house party. Like a cross between studio 54, AbFab, and Party Monster‘. For Varjack, clothes are an immediate way of showing herself as ‘someone who likes to stand out, who likes to communicate being part of a group, and also at various points in my life who identifies with being queer and identifies with and relishes being femme.’ Prior to making the show, she had been thinking a lot about identity, ‘how we communicate who we are’ and find our ‘tribes’. This led her to thinking: how did those in the queue next to her come to want what she wanted?

Varjack notes that as the daughter of an economist, it was probably inevitable that she is ‘interested in narratives created by money’. Indeed, Varjack’ previous work Show Me the Money explored the precarity of making a living as an artist, and the knock-on effect on an arts scene when creative freedom is restricted to those with means. ‘There’s no real story,’ she notes ‘in the people who buy Kenzo online or from Harvey Nicks. But these people like me that queue? There’s a desire for access that is built into not having the access in the first place’.

One of the obvious reasons that we want the spoils of high street collaboration is it is, for most of us, the only opportunity we will have to own a slice of designer pie. But exclusivity is also key to the appeal. H&M’s run of garments from the Karl Lagerfeld collection in 2004 was so limited that the man himself  commented on its inaccessibility. When someone who once called sweatpants ‘a sign of defeat’ thinks you are being snobby, that should likely give you pause. ‘We have to be honest with ourselves, that we want something especially because it can’t be had by someone else’ says Varjack. It’s the thrill of the hunt, ‘clicking refresh’ constantly on the website, our love for the items we get is inextricably tied to the ‘game’ of getting them.

It’s a well-known fact that sales of lipstick rise during periods of economic hardship. We can’t have the Chanel suit, but we can own a tiny slice of the dream.  A theatre experience doesn’t start when the house lights go down, but when you enter the building – or even when you triumphantly win the exclusive ticket ballot. Visual merchandising takes care as to how you progress through a store, where your eye is led, even the smell. Why do you think the beauty department is always on the ground floor? So that you can be wafted to the thousand-pound handbags of a wind of Jo Malone. Paula Varjack tells me about the joys of department stores: ‘I like their order, the quality of materials, the space around displays. The best mini staycation on bad weather afternoons is to have a glass of white wine at the bar on the ground floor of Selfridges while reading the latest copy of Vogue.’

This may seem whimsical and unimportant in our current terrifying political climate. Yet we should remember that not only is fashion serious big business, contributing over 20 billion annually to the UK economy, but a love of clothes and of buying them is so frequently gendered, dismissed as a frivolous feminine past time. ‘There are many people who love to take the piss out of fashion and say how ridiculous it all is’ says Varjack, ‘It’s an easy target. But that desire is grounded in something felt and real.’ She shares my dislike of the term ‘retail therapy’, a phrase loaded on both sides; offering consumerism as an easy pill for all our ills and simultaneously shaming women (where’s the montage with a dude swinging shopping bags down Rodeo Drive Clueless/Legally Blonde/Pretty Woman style?) for wanting to own nice stuff.  But Varjack also to the darker side of the need to buy, and how we are manipulated to do so:

‘A love for beautiful things is superficial and frivolous, and yet in the desire for what you can’t have or rarely can have, there is an edge.’

We chase the serotonin high of that moment when your tap in your pin and then the coveted item is yours. In describing shopping ‘addiction’ Varjack cites Adam Philips, whose recent book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life examines the importance of our rich, inner fantasy lives and selves. Phillips characterises addiction as ‘unformulated frustration, frustration too simply met’. It is this, Varjack says, that drives us: ‘There is a need you can’t identify, and it very rarely has anything to do with dressing up or clothes. You buy something that briefly makes you feel good’. Months after Varjack’s Kenzo spree, she got a well-paid voiceover gig, cleared her debt and bought a ‘real’ designer dress. However unlike her ‘fabulous’ Moschino/H&M red fake fur coat ‘tangled in gold chains’ she never felt she could ‘own’ wearing it. ‘I was nervous about ruining it and there never seemed to be the right occasion’ she says, ‘never special enough. I didn’t know how to wear it, how to justify it’. So, she put it in the show.

By dismissing a love of shopping as purely superficial and grossly capitalist, we deny an almost universally shared performative pleasure. We have a tactile relationship to the garments we love, and with the moments and memories they represent. As Marie Kondo fever sees us declutter, fold our pants, and reassess our ties to the things we own, the sheer joy and, yes, theatricality, that a rarely worn, sequin dress winking from the closet can give is coming under new scrutiny. ‘If you really love something you should buy it, and then make an occasion’, muses Varjack. She is, perhaps surprisingly, is an advocate for decluttering but what really ‘sparks joy’ for her is the potentiality of a stack of clothes, of her wardrobe appearing like ‘this bright candy bar wrapper of metallics and colours’. To steal an old quote, when we say we have nothing to wear, what we are really saying is that we have nothing to wear for the person we want to be today.

Cult of K*nzo is on at Camden People’s Theatre from Tuesday 5th to Saturday 9th February, 9pm, followed by a tour. You can see more of Varjack’s work at www.paulavarjack.com


Francesca Peschier

Dr Francesca Peschier is a dramaturg, lecturer, writer and ex-designer based in the New Works department at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with back-combing her hair to Dolly Parton heights and trying to create passable aerial hoop routines to goth rock classics.



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