Photography Sølve Sundsbø. Image courtesy of Michaela Stark

Michaela Stark’s new designs morph the body to alien extremes

The artist and designer discusses Stark Naked, an NSFW exhibition of new work in collaboration with Sølve Sundsbø in Paris.

by Sophie Wilson
10 December 2021, 2:21pm

Photography Sølve Sundsbø. Image courtesy of Michaela Stark

Few have made a name for sensuous, body-positive lingerie quite like Michaela Stark. With her latest collection — titled Stark Naked and on show at the Dover Street Market-affiliated 3537 Gallery in Paris until 19 December — the couture artist pushes her practice to its furthest point yet, creating pieces that contort the body into shapes so otherworldly that they’re almost unrecognisable. In the Marais space, these chiffon, tulle and organza garments hang like sculptures; their transformative potential demonstrated in a new series of images created in collaboration with photographer Sølve Sundsbø and makeup artist Kevin Cordo. This is also where, on Tuesday night, Michaela staged a performance, taking a pair of scissors to an iconic Jean Paul Gaultier cone corset (with l’enfant terrible’s support, of course!) live on stage, before wearing the reworked piece in her signature body morphing style.

Michaela’s work has always been about highlighting perceived imperfections, with the body becoming as much a part of the final look as the lingerie itself. For this exhibition, however, she decided to show the garments separate from their worn context, so as not to distract from the hours’ worth of intricate handcraft invested in each piece. Body positivity remains an important message, but rather than accept the body as it is naturally, this is a collection created with the intention of transforming it beyond familiar perception. It’s an attempt to present human bodies as alien lifeforms, altered and exaggerated to extremity through humble cloth. 

The exhibition also marks the first time that Michaela has taken her work offline. While she has always struggled against Instagram censorship, the platform has long been the primary way for her to showcase her work. Until now. Indeed, this collection is a testament to Michaela’s versatility as an artist and designer, and her ability to create work that feels as at home in a formal gallery setting as it does on an iPhone screen. 

We caught up with Michaela to talk about fashion as fantasy, offline-versus-online, and pissing people off.

A photo of designer Michaela surrounded by suspended pieces of her work
Photography Swerious Lee. Image courtesy of Michaela Stark

How would you introduce your latest collection, Stark Naked?

It's a collection of couture lingerie that has been designed for specific models — me, Jade 'O' Belle and Dodo Potato. At the start of the year, I completed my Second Skin collection, which was all about me. I wanted to expand that. I started working with Jade 'O' Belle really slowly to develop this couture look on her then the exhibition came and that's when I brought in Dodo. We have been working on the shapes for months, making them so that they morph the body so extremely that you almost can't recognise it anymore. It's been designed to highlight the imperfections of our bodies; the things that we have been previously taught to hide. 

For this collection, I found a lot of inspiration in the skin and the flesh. I used silk organza, silk chiffon, and tulle that had all been dyed to either match the models' skin or to replicate aging or decaying skin. I've included embroidery that is reminiscent of wrinkles, stretch marks or veins. It's about referencing the body in a nondescript way, and allowing the pieces to stand as artworks on their own. In the images, Kevin Cordo did the body makeup, highlighting the red marks and all the lines that would be left from wearing a corset. That really exaggerated the shape.

An image a bruised body contorted into an exaggerated hourglass shape by a corset
​Photography Sølve Sundsbø. Image courtesy of Michaela Stark

This exaggeration through makeup gives the images this otherworldly quality. Is that the direction your work is going in?

Yeah. A lot of people put my work into the category of body positivity. It is, for sure, but a lot of the time body positivity is about celebrating the body as it is naturally. My work rarely shows the natural body. It's about accentuating the body into such a deformed shape that it's not natural anymore; it’s quite otherworldly, in fact. I've always loved this idea of fantasy. Fashion is fantasy, couture especially. I would love to create new worlds that you can experience in real life. Step by step, I'm bringing my work into the real world and I think it's going to become more fantastical — it's quite shocking to see the body morphed in real life, as opposed to on Instagram where we are already so used to seeing bodies manipulated with tools like FaceTune. 

Do you have a favourite way of presenting your work?

I'm starting to get really into the idea of performance. I started off by showing my work on Instagram and doing it from the privacy of my bedroom. I didn’t have to actually show anyone in real life and I was fully in control. Now I'm slowly starting to let go of control a little bit so that I can perform in real life and show my work in this whole new perspective. I think that's only going to evolve. I'm testing the limits of how I can show my work in real life. 

An image a bruised body contorted into an exaggerated hourglass shape by a corset
​Photography Sølve Sundsbø. Image courtesy of Michaela Stark

Your work is very much about how garments interact with the body, but in this exhibition the garments are presented more like sculptures and separate from the body. How do you think the context changes the way your work is perceived?

My pieces are designed so intrinsically with the body, but what I find is that sometimes when I show my pieces this way then the beauty of the piece gets lost. I focus on the tiniest, tiniest details in my garments, because I think they’re what add beauty to something. Sometimes when you put the corsets on, they get swallowed by the body and the real impact lies in how the body has been manipulated and is being shown. That's why I wanted to show my pieces off the body here. But they still refer to it so strongly that they almost look like living things. There’s a real sense of movement to them — there’s always something human and fleshy. 

What do you want people to feel when they see this collection?

I want them to feel something. Someone commented on my Instagram the other day saying: "This is disgusting. I feel nothing". I get so many mixed reactions to my work, but I just want people to feel something — whether it's hate or love is up to them. I love that people have strong reactions to my work. If you're not pissing some people off, then I feel like you're not making progress.

An image a bruised body contorted into an exaggerated hourglass shape by a corset
​Photography Sølve Sundsbø. Image courtesy of Michaela Stark

Stark Naked at 35-37 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, 75004 Paris until 19 December.

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