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Interview: Nick Knight on Political Fashion

published on 23 July 2008

Nick Knight discussed the ideas behind the instigation of the 2007-2008 film and essay season Political Fashion with Penny Martin.

Nick Knight discussed the ideas behind the instigation of the 2007-2008 film and essay season Political Fashion with Penny Martin.

Penny Martin: To what extent do you think fashion should be ideologically engaged?

Nick Knight: Photography, along with the other arts, is communication. And if you’re communicating you should have something to say. If you’re in the privileged position of doing a global advertising campaign or if your work is on the back of every magazine, on every bus stop, every billboard and in every shop window in every city worldwide, it’s an enormous audience you’re talking to. The idea that you’re not saying anything with this opportunity seems a waste.

Penny Martin: Do you think turning serious political ideology into fashion trivialises it?

Nick Knight: I don’t think that political thought is constant. I think there is the same degree of change within the political spectrum as there is within fashion.

Penny Martin: What periods do you think have been the most successful in using fashion to express political comment?

Nick Knight: I think fashion is political comment, the statement you make when you dress. When I started dressing as a skinhead in the late Seventies, it seemed to be relevant in questioning who I was, what social class I was; a rite of passage in a time when that no longer existed. It became a way of feeling empowered and of feeling of some belonging. People would have no idea if I was left-wing, right-wing, gay, straight, violent, non-violent, into the girls, into the dancing, into the music... They would assume any stereotype they projected onto skinheads was what I represented. The immediate reaction I got was very, very powerful. You come to realise just how important your outside appearance is and also how you can use that.

In terms of historiography, Dior’s 'New Look' of the 1940s caused enormous reaction on the streets. Or Yves Saint Laurent, in the 1960s, promoted a particular free-thinking, liberal, progressive attitude through the way he dressed. In that sense, he designed political clothes, though later his political opinions became much more mainstream. Also the non-sexualisation of women through the clothing of Yohji Yamamoto in the 1980s or the way that Leigh Bowery dressed at Taboo, it was such an outrageous provocation. Yet people weren’t outraged by it, that was the strange thing. He would go out covered in swastikas, with his head painted blue and incur virtually no physical threat because he was so far from frame of reference people had that they treated him as 'spectacle'. He had a funny knack of carrying all this off and making it look non-threatening, it was a lot more to do with beauty. But when you have a man bending over and spraying water at a crowd out of his anus, it’s reasonably aggressive as a political stance.

McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2001 collection (Voss), when he presented a fashion collection in a glass box, I thought that was a great political statement about power in the industry. With the fashion audience sat around the front of it looking at their own reflections; after waiting an hour you were humbled and looking at your feet. To do that to the whole of the front row, I thought was the naughtiest form of political comment.

Penny Martin: Let’s clarify that distinction then – if there a difference between radical fashion and political fashion?

Nick Knight: This project could be called 'Radical Fashion' or 'Ideological Fashion', but I prefer the title 'Political Fashion'. In this Political Fashion film project, I’m really looking to encourage people to say something with the voice they've been given; to realise the possibilities that they have at their fingertips and the absurdity of not using them.

Penny Martin: So what is the difference between someone expressing personal politics through their dress, and someone using their field of creativity, to express a political point?

Nick Knight: Well, in this project, we're asking people to use their medium, whether it’s modelling, fashion, filmmaking, sculpture, whatever it is, to express a point or political belief they have, through fashion.

The problem with using the word ‘political’ is that it’s a very narrow, constraining word to define the concept as I see it. I think of 'the political' in terms of body politics as well as politics of race, the wearing of fur or political correctness in dressing. So the brief is purposefully very wide. One could use the brief right from framing one’s own political and social values, through to using it more specifically to say: ‘well, actually, I feel quite upset that there aren’t more black women used in advertising and I want to make that political point by making a film.’

I'm not asking people to make political fashion films as some sort of crusade to back up a whole set of preconceived, 'right-on' view points... I’m hoping that we won’t just get a series of moralising films on all the issues we kind of know already, but something more contemplative, that explores the politics of beauty. I’m hoping there’s going to be a wider range of issues, dealing with the fashion industry is run or the way that imagery is produced. I’m hoping to be surprised by what people send through.

Penny Martin: Given that fashion is an intrinsically capitalist medium, is it logical to encourage, for instance, an anti-capitalist statement in that context?

Nick Knight: I’m not sure how to do it, partly because I haven’t started to do the project myself. But I don’t see the whole of the fashion industry in terms of capitalism. It is a problematic context, but I don’t think that should stop us from attempting to make the statement.

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