The Spring/Summer '21 season just past was certainly not the usual merry-go-ground of runway shows and parties. In putting a limit on fashion's old habits, the pandemic has begun to accelerate change within the industry- notably how we choose to communicate with our audiences. With IRL shows off the cards for the most part, many designers and brands have squirmed under the task of maintaining connections with the all important consumer and fashion critic, with many trying their hand at fashion film, an abundance of lookbooks and the odd live-streamed runway show. With lockdown kicking off in March, come September Instagram Live notifications had become exhaustive. And yet, when Marni live-streamed an event last month, they presented one of the most arresting alternatives to the fashion show so far, made in collaboration with artistic director Babak Radboy.
Rethinking every component of the show, from the model and the walk to the venue, Radboy and Marni's artistic director Francesco Risso asked 48 international protagonists to contribute video footage of themselves wearing the new Spring/Summer '21 collection for a project titled Marnifesto. Models, actors, writers and activists were filmed by their friends, family and lovers going about their daily lives; caught in their bedrooms, homes, local corner stores and all the places in-between. As some remained confined inside whilst others roamed about their neighbourhoods, viewers tuned in from around the world (no ticket required). Streamed as a collation of live and pre-recorded footage, Marnifesto created a global community, and for a few magical minutes offered that something we've all been craving: connection.
An exclusive previously unseen extended cut of Marnifesto featured on SHOWstudio further expands the Marni universe. The cast of the award-winning film Atlantics go about their day-to-day in Senegal, whilst others huddle round a telly in their bedroom. Crystal Rasmussen plays a moving song on the piano and rapper Mykki Blanco swings around a lamp post, with musicians Deem Spencer, Moses Sumney and Yves Tumor also featuring. All wearing the S/S 21 collection- a bricolage of painted motifs, striped knitwear, raw hems and swimming costumes cut into tank tops and skirts- here is Marni in the context of now, here is fashion making sense.
Marnifesto came up trumps because it succeeded in what others have failed to achieve over the past few months. It conceived a meaningful engagement with an audience within the context of fashion. It felt considered, original, clever. As the partner and creative director at New York-based label Telfar, Babak Radboy has a penchant for clever story telling when it comes to branding, having masterminded the infamous Telfar Clemens GIF and seven foot 3-D head. Apt at engaging with internet culture, Radboy is also part of the artistic trio behind Shanghai Biennial who, inspired by Chinese consumer culture and capitalism, play with ideas of re-appropriation- see their 'Head & Shoulders' towel dress. As the creative director of arts publication Bidoun, creator of the Berlin Biennale 2016 commercial, and a collaborator of Kanye West, Radboy is one of the rare creatives who can be trusted to shake things up.
Like Radboy's radical vision, the Marni protagonist we encounter each season is both eccentric and pragmatic. There is an innate intellectualism and essential understanding of culture within both parties- Risso is known within the fashion industry as being somewhat anti-fashion with his risky and playful takes on menswear and womenswear. Since joining Marni as creative director in 2016, Risso has successfully introduced his own take on the eclectic Italian brand, never shying away from playfully pushing the fashion crowd to new limits. Marni show-goers were seated on exercise balls in a car park for S/S 19 menswear, whilst Risso himself closed the A/W 20 womenswear show disguised wearing a rabbit hat. And so, S/S 21's Marnifesto, made over just two weeks, was all about finding new ways of doing things.
In an exclusive interview, Babak Radboy speaks with Hetty Mahlich about creating Marnifesto, the importance of risk-taking and ending the fashion system as we know it.
Hetty Mahlich: How did working with Marni and Francesco Risso come about?
Babak Radboy: I met Francesco Risso in early 2019 and we began talking about working together, but to be honest I knew that the way I like to work was not going to be easy in a traditional company structure. Also, I wasn’t interested in making a pitch or proposal without getting to know how they work and who they are. I mean, if you are going to communicate about a brand it helps if you are telling the truth.
So I proposed that before I said anything, we should spend three months together. I could watch the development of a collection into a show, and speak to each department to really understand the business. I was pretty amazed to be honest, by what I saw within the design process. There was something really magic happening in terms of process. I wanted to take that crazy, human, risky magic- that was essentially a social process-and make it the way they (Marni) do everything. So I wrote a little thing called Marnifesto and this became the title of our first project together.
HM: What was the brief for Marnifesto?
BR: The brief? I think the brief was a disaster! We were all in lockdown and cities were burning in America. So there was the question of how to do a show in this context, but also the question of why to do a show. I was calling Francesco to tell him that I couldn’t do the show, that really he shouldn’t do a show, and all the reasons why. In the course of that conversation I started describing a kind of show that wouldn’t betray all of that: it was meant as a kind of ridiculous or impossible example. Then I think we both realised it was something we actually had to do!
HM: What did you hope to bring to the Marni brand with Marnifesto?
BR: In Marnifesto, both the document and the show are about a different kind of working process and what comes out of it can vary. It’s a way of doing things that one hopes can be transformative inside the company, and then express that to the outside. It’s a process of de-professionalisation and disalienation. The aim is to stop contributing to the kind of relationships, subjectivities and image-regimes that create and are created by fashion in general because this tradition is not only toxic but also very boring.
HM: What instructions or guidance did you give to the 48 protagonists?
BR: Well I didn’t! That was the point. I told them all the reasons it would be stupid to do a fashion show right now. That the world was fucked, but that it was fucked before, and the least we can do is not go back to how things were. To not go back to ‘normal’. I had 48 conversations like that as a starting point to discuss what they wanted to do on September 25th at 4pm (Marni's S/S 21 show time).
HM: How did working under a limited time frame benefit the final outcome?
BR: It’s the element of risk. I think this is really underappreciated, it’s what professionals work with to completely eliminate production, but of course also that it makes you feel something. That’s why sports is the only thing left with a mass audience, that’s what musicians work with on stage. So we made our process extremely risky in terms of failure. On the other side of risk is trust.
HM: How did the live-streamed film differ from the initial concept?
BR: The concept was really just a process. There were no mood boards and barely any decks. We decided we would start on this process and see what came out of it.
HM: Marnifesto rethinks all aspects of the fashion show: models, the model walk, the show space. In light of this approach, where do you see the future of the traditional fashion show headed and should it still exist?
BR: Predictions are like votes. I vote that everything about the fashion system should end.
HM: This past few months we've seen brands and designers navigating staying relatable and communicating with their communities, whilst relying on the digital. In many ways, it's opened up the fashion world, which can more often than not be elitist and invite only. Do you think brands will continue with this more democratic approach, or is it only temporary?
BR: Fashion week was very weird. There is a disconnect. Underneath that, traditional brands do not see themselves as talking to people. This has never been a problem before. It is part of the sadistic allure of luxury. Brands were talking to the industry. They don’t see their customers as their audience when they present a collection. This is not so much because they do or don’t have a meaningful connection to the people who buy their clothes, it’s because the people who buy their clothes don’t have a meaningful relationship to each other. That is a social problem, not a branding problem.
To be really blunt, every time there is a movement for justice, the windows of fashion stores get smashed. This is not done by people who hate the brand, it’s just as often people who love the brand.