how christophe chemin helped prada explore the complexities of womanhood
Navigating us through the narrative of autumn/winter 16, the Berlin-based creative polymath invites us into his whimsical world of mermaids, minstrels, metaphysics, mythology and more.
"It's about the history of women," Miuccia Prada explained backstage. "Women have more facets. We are so much more complex than a man. She has to be a mother, a lover, a worker, a beauty... We explored these different moments — different dramas, different happiness. She's beautiful when she's unhappy and she's beautiful when she's vulnerable. Because we need to understand where we are now." To help us understand, Prada once again collaborated with Christophe Chemin on the collection's prints. Building on the surreal narrative of their autumn/winter 16 menswear coming together, the French-born, Berlin-based artist took us on a journey deep inside the architecture of the soul of women. From drawing, directing, photographing, design, and writing, this self-taught artist's work dances from one medium to the other to develop its ramifications freely, its possibilities, and also not to be trapped in a niche or attached in any artistic field. Ideas always come first. For this creative coming together, that initial idea was that "women are, secretly or not, ruling the world," he explained over email. "Miuccia being one of them. The nature of women is a peaceful force, as you have to be extremely strong as a women, and still nowadays. I do sincerely believe in women, I am very optimistic about them, and I see positive changes mostly coming from them."
If Frédéric Sanchez's show soundtrack of PJ Harvey, Nico and Edith Piaf instantly helped set the mood in Milan, Chemin's whimsical world of mermaids, minstrels, metaphysics, mythology and more, was one to savour. Inviting us deeper into his doodled daydreams and cut and paste collages, the artist navigates us through the narrative.
How did the collaboration evolve from the men's show to autumn/winter 16 womenswear?
It was a long journey and an intense experience in such a small amount of time. I did start to work very quickly on my own without any direction from their side, that is: exactly right after the menswear show. I returned to Berlin and immediately started to get mentally very involved, developing tons of ideas to share and suggest later on to Mrs. Prada and Fabio Zambernardi - they were still busy working on the Miu Miu pre-fall collection at that time. It was images that I collected, and all kinds of sources that came instinctively to my mind: moods, but also movies, music, and architectural elements. For example, there was that obsessive idea of a woman walking through landscapes, and women as landscapes. A sort of vagabond, and a gypsy - out there, in the Nature: in the rain, in the sun, in the snow… It was the character of Sandrine Bonnaire wandering in Agnes Varda's Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) and Nico walking through all kinds of deserted landscapes in Philipe Garrel's La Cicatrice Intérieure. Mermaids and caryatids, medieval minstrels, mythology, tracking shots, mountains, fountains, fire, astrology and metaphysics, constituted the vision of an invitation to a voyage.
With the woman I felt we could find very subtle ways to be subversive, always in between the lines. I didn't want to repeat myself visually. The Prada woman is a strong and layered intellectual woman. It is a winter collection, and I liked the idea that from far people would perceive attractive floral patterns, a colourful summer vibe, but that from close or looking at the sides and the back, these pretty organic visuals would reveal something else… A dead bouquet of peonies, for example. For the man, my work was printed on shirts; it was more "flat" and direct. Fronts and backs were identical, you could identify the drawings quite well, and it was important, as the message there was bold and political - even though upon reflection, I'm not sure that many people really looked at them attentively or questioned them. Nevertheless, the woman had to be different and surprising.
Did the collaborative process with Miuccia and Fabio change at all?
I wrote a very long text to Miuccia, an open letter of more or less ten pages, where I tried to organise all these ideas and inspirations I had in mind into a strong structure. It was an entire proposition. In the letter I spoke of my feelings toward the fashion system, my relation to clothing, seasons, the points I know we have in common in our respective work, my very personal views on women, all kinds of different thoughts I had the urge to express; and a very clear and concrete proposition of delivering her twelve non digital collages (which is the technique I mainly use in my work as I love to use knives) that would be based on the months of the French revolutionary calendar. If you remember, the artwork I did for the men was based on the idea of Classical History and a collection of specific years as a sort of map of the past. This time, I wanted to relate yesterday to today to tomorrow. The French revolutionary calendar came to my mind as the structure that would unify the whole and induce the idea of a constant change and repetitive movement. It was not so much the Revolution that interested me there, but specifically the feminine words they invented to name each month based on Nature, and their pure sonority. I wrote each descriptive tableau under the influence of these twelve extremely beautiful and poetic words. A whole cycle built ironically after a system that was relating women to Nature. Each month being a very unique woman archetype, with its very detailed universe, weather and aesthetic. I sent it to Miuccia. It took her quite some time to read it, and I have to say I got really anxious waiting for a reaction.
In the end, she liked my long letter and its propositions so much, that not only did I do artworks out of them, but she found there a quite direct source of inspiration to design some of the clothes and articulate the collection. She also asked to AMO to create small video animations called Premonitions inspired by the universe described in the twelve texts I sent her. As time was running short, we decided I would focus on six months of the Revolutionary calendar: Germinal, Floréal, Thermidor, Fructidor, Vendémaire and Nivôse.
She used the artwork titles printed in big on the clothes, a simple and brilliant decision. As she has never used words printed on clothes before, it is a real premiere. She hates slogans and messages on clothes - and so do I. But to print these words, that even don't exist in French (most of the month names were new words coined from French, Latin, or Greek) it is almost a Dada gesture in all its poetry. It doesn't need any explanation. She is an incredibly instinctive person, and during the whole process of us working together, she never doubted of the result. She completely trusted me from the beginning. It is also interesting that she did bring back the visual I created for the menswear in very twisted colours variations for the womenswear.
Only one or two things, details she changed: on the first collage I sent her, called Germinal, she asked to the design team to remove from my picture male figures that were suspended into the trees. I have not really any explanations why these figures bothered her to the point that she had to remove them… And the visual of Floréal that I like very much, is so much zoomed in, that it is now hardly readable.
What first drew you to the nature of women?
My fascination for women is the answer. They are so much more refined than men. The interior Castle, it is a reference to Teresa of Avila (the mystic nun) and the fairest of the seasons to Nico - the heretic and the saint. Architecture has a very important role in this new series, that's why there is so many keys as accessories… Women are mysteriously built vessels, sacred because ineffable. The idea that the inside is reflected in what is outside and vice versa, this fluidity of movements inspired me a lot. Spaces, territories and borders. That idea I have that women are, secretly or not, ruling the world. Miuccia being one of them. The nature of women is a peaceful force, as you have to be extremely strong as a women, and still nowadays. I do sincerely believe in women, I am very optimistic about them, and I see positive changes mostly coming from them.
"Women - iconic women, strong women and poetic women," is how Frédéric Sanchez summed up his show soundtrack. Which women were at the forefront of your mind?
An army of women, not only muses. Not only the ones people tend to remember, but all of them, the totality. The one that can not really talk for her own rights, the beautiful one, the oppressed one, the sexual one, the nurse, the healer, the anxious mother bending over the cradle, the leading one, the old one, the political one, the one that nobody talk about, the forgotten one, the one that wasn't born genetically as a woman but that knows that she is going to have to be strong because she is a woman… The fighting one, the one that is peaceful. The silent one and the loud one. I tried to think about all kinds of women and celebrate them in a joyful Elegy.
Of course I have to say that Nico and PJ Harvey had a very special place: I only listened to their music while working on the project. I am very happy they ended up in the show soundtrack: it was really an emotional experience for me to sit in the audience and look at those fearless and romantic girls walk while Nico's haunting voice was singing: "Your winding winds did sow/ All that is my own/ Where land and water meet/ Where on my soul/ I sit upon my bed/ Your ways have led me to bleed". It was unreal, I almost collapsed… I'm a real Nico fan. I go faithfully visit her grave at least once a year, bring her flowers and booze. She is buried here in Berlin, in a small cemetery that is in the middle of the Grunewald forest. It is only reachable by foot or by bike. It is such a surprise to think her rotten dead body is lying there under the earth. She escaped Germany and its traumas at such an early age… Her mind was so tormented, and yet she was buried in such a peaceful place, surrounded by the nature.
Your work here takes us on an allegorical journey, framed by the seasons and from Le Corbusier's Modulor to Les Fleurs du Mal, Japanese Wabi-Sabi Art to Max Ernst moons, and Berlin's nightlife, the prints are almost a collage of visuals and influences. Could you tell us how you accumulate ideas, how and where do you store them? How do you begin to thread them together - is it an organic process?
All these references you mention, they are kind of excuses and appropriations, or souvenirs. It's like saving from the street things people don't want to use anymore. An old book. A chair someone got bored of. I don't believe in the idea of the "new", and modernity, it means nothing. I am simply looking constantly at things, observing what's around me. Anything. Most of the time, things people find uninteresting. With the collages, I like the physicality of cutting paper. I love to reassemble things that already exist or rearrange them in a new order. It is almost a daily exercise.
Each piece is rich in symbolism. The more one looks, the more one sees. As the echoes of the soundtrack fade away and the fashion conveyor belt trundles on, how would you like to see critics, consumers and collectors interact with the designs?
Sadly, most of the people never really look at the work, even though it is there! They don't take the time to look at things anymore. The only thing that interest most of the critics is: how did I happen to meet Mrs. Prada? I find that deeply depressing. There is so much answers to find in the work, if you take the time to look at it. Each piece tells a different story. There is an immense attention to details, and I hope consumers will see that and enjoy wearing these clothes. I hope they will see the difference with the usual, and common these days, ready-to-trash.
Previously when questioned about working with other houses, you replied: "Prada is the only place where I could have done what I did; it wouldn't have happened anywhere else." How would you like to see this collaboration continue to evolve?
Yes, as I said, I never had any desire to collaborate with any fashion designer in any way. I always preferred to look at fashion from the outside. I like to look at fashion and follow what is being shown there. People say I know a lot about fashion and I like to dress, but I never saw myself as someone participating to that business! Also the idea of having my work printed on clothes was maybe the last thing I ever wanted to achieve in my life as an artist! It was never a motivation of any sort. But with Prada, everything happened differently. I even can not think about her as a fashion designer because she is so much more than that - I wouldn't waste too much time trying to find an adjective for what she is doing, who cares. What we have been doing has a meaning; it is trying through garments to elevate a bit the debate and raise questions about who we are. It is a relevant proposition in a time where people are really confused. Some people may not understand that particular thing we have been doing, find it inappropriate, only decorative or beautiful, they might call me pretentious or be jealous but I really don't care. The only thing I care about is to be true to myself, find pleasure in what I do and do what I feel the urge to do.
I honestly don't see myself creating more visual work to be printed on clothes for Prada. We did already a lot together, maybe enough, visually. More would be too much or a flat repetition. It could destroy the value of what has been done. And it is important to set a certain limit at one point, and when you feel that you reached it, to decide: "That is it. We said what we had to say together." Let's see. I have a multitude of other specific personal projects to propose to Mrs. Prada to collaborate on, or to help me with, all related to Art. And I want to collaborate with Fabio Zambernardi, one of the most talented person I ever met.
What excites you most about tomorrow?
The fact that spring is on its way, I can feel it.
The chance to witness one more time nature's awakening.
Suddenly, the smell of nature in bloom.
Finally, has this collaboration impacted the rest of your work at all? Has it changed your outlook at all, both in terms of creative collaborations and relationship with the fashion industry? If so, how?
No, I don't think so. I'm a total loner. For me the most important remains to "do" the things, I'm not so much into being recognised or promoting myself. It's nice when people like your work on a deep level, and want to know more about the process and what's in the work, but for me it is never a motivation. I'm happy some people discovered me through Prada, but what I want to be preoccupied with is the "do" thing. And it is always dangerous to talk about the "do" when you are doing it. You just do it!
From 18th March, this collaboration of drawings and collages will be showcased at 032c Workshop in an exhibition entitled, Keep your daisies for the cold days.
Text Steve Salter