Richard Soderberg / OBSCUR
Interview for Nasty Magazine.
“Avant-garde“: during the time-lapse of a day it might happen to come across this term more often than I drink water due to its high frequency usage among the aesthetically radical aspiring brands when describing themselves. There are so many of them out there and yet so different, but all tending towards a style transgression, towards attaining an extra-aesthetic status, in one way or another. There seems to be a diffused tacit assumption that avant-garde designers have an outstanding value than designers of other kinds. Yet which would be the common element that gathers all of them under the umbrella of this concept? Moreover, is it an actual term that still has meaning in our contemporary culture – and especially in the fashion arena – or its value lost its value due to an excessive usage?
Engaged in a dialectic with Richard Söderberg, the designer behind the Swedish-born / Berlin-based brand Obscur, we are trying to understand weather this term is still holding sway now, and if so, how.
Coined in France, “advance guard” or “vanguard” stood for a military unit sent ahead of a main body to prevent unexpected contact. The modern sense of it originated afterwards in Paris, when the French Court started to give a higher importance to artists, as “men of imagination”, than to other professions, so stating the supremacy of creativity above all. John Berger, in the “Theory of the Avant Garde” explains how the meaning gradually shifted from Art as such as avant-garde, into the avant-garde in Art. Some calling it one of the most influential concepts in the history of modernist Art, avant-garde was the embodiment of a transversal experimentation that fragmented or rejected the norm, an opposition to traditional creations that were seen as mere repetitive duplicates of themselves. It has since then spread on all directions, being widely embraced by the fashion industry as well.
Retrospectively, it might seem right to use the term to characterize Comme des Garçons or Yohji Yamamoto in the 80’s, Challayan or McQueen in the 90’s, maybe even Rick Owens back in the 2000. As Baudelaire argues, “The chief task of genius is to invent a stereotype“, looking back, in almost all fields, it seems that has always been a group of people that had a bigger picture of the world, that seemed more autonomous than a majority of the population. Is this what we should call avant-garde?
[R.S.] I think that trying to grasp the meaning by giving names and making classifications we somehow remove the intrinsic essence of the concept, to begin with. By this I mean that as soon as you unravel something, as soon as people use the avant-garde nomenclature for it and as soon as it looses its aura of mystery, the magic is gone. There is a love-hate relationship to the avant-garde, because it draws your interest, but once explored a bit more profoundly it might loose its intensity and evaporate. I think this is a very fast and intense process that can be very destructive and it can be easily compared to the fashion industry and to the global context that we are experiencing right now. We are living the era of the “The Internet of Everything” as they call it. Information is racing into our minds more agile than we are able to handle. It all moves faster and faster and we have the sensation that we need to strongly grab onto something anchored in this exponentially accelerating roller coaster.
Avant-garde fashion isn’t always designed to be used on a daily basis, it can be about showing how things can be done differently in terms of clothing. Pushing the boundaries, being innovative sometimes implies the use of materials that are uncommon for clothing. The result might be that those pieces cannot be worn for everyday purposes or cannot be sold in retail stores, are we speaking then about wearable (sometimes) artworks? The importance of form over function for you.
[R.S.] Wearability vs. form is subjective and there is no absolute answer to that. To me function is becoming more and more important, but only to the extent that a garment needs to be comfortable to wear. I don’t need a piece of clothing that would enhance my anatomical movements and that can be inverted, turned upside down and inside out. This is something that is becoming popular in fashion now and will probably progress even further. I don’t mind it, but honestly – besides the main role of keeping you warm, wearing clothes should make you feel good about yourself, should help you define who you are – from there on everything else is a manipulation and distraction from the essential goals to me.
Do you consider Obscur related to this concept whatsoever?
[R.S.] As I see it, the true meaning of avant-garde does not always consist in a groundbreaking idea, let’s say. It is also about the process of how that idea is conceived, realized, expressed, it is about the discipline of controlling your work and yourself. The intentions I have for my brand makes it very difficult for it to be widely understood and accepted. I would avoid positioning Obscur inside or outside this rank, I like thinking that it’s a realm where I am completely honest with myself and where I am living my work to the fullest.
On the other hand, could the avant-garde, niche fashion that makes it into the mainstream, be seen as a story of decline instead? Let’s consider Rick Owens for example.
[R.S.] Considered from the baudelarian perspective mentioned above, we could say that Rick Owens did create a new stereotype. He was at the right moment, in the right spot and also had the right ideas. If creating something new can be a difficult task, creating a new stereotype can be virtually impossible if you are not aligned and fully anchored to the current status quo.
Avant-garde could represent the absolute moment of fashion, le beau inédit, whose manifestation is that of intense experimentation but its progressive character, of preventing stagnation by pushing the boundaries, marks a fine line between bringing fundamental change for better or bringing it just for the sake of it, or sometimes even for worse. We arrive then to a concept emptied of meaning – if it ever had a meaning – as it tends to point to a certain quality and value of “newness”. Why do you think this concept has such a great value in our contemporary culture?
[R.S.] Right now we are kind of living a stagnation of that stereotype created by Rick Owens and people are anxiously expecting something new to happen, and I feel there are not many brands that actually push themselves outside their own box of convenience. And those who try to do it most often face serious issues because the industry is in fact not willing and not yet ready to accept a change. And I am saying this because I have experienced the turmoil first hand.
Never ending search for the supreme up-to-dateness of the constantly changing contemporary culture, trying to keep up with the dynamism of the industry, to survive its perpetual uncertainties, and the need to network, to establish ubiquitous connections while knowing that most of them are just transient and shallow relationships… All of us who have distaste for these conventions seek to escape them in one way or another. Do you feel that an avant-garde should be/is able to challenge these values?
[R.S.] Boundaries should always be pushed and change should always be present. I do think that our perception of what a healthy change should really be is altered by what the industry is telling us that it is. Truly genuine and soulful ideas rarely root from stress and repetitive cycles. Change creates change! So far I do not see the industry changing its course and therefore I doubt that the work of truly contemporary artists can be well be presented within its cage. I wonder if there is something out there able to reset the way we think, our vanity and the hyper-dynamic course that the world is following? A hydrogen bomb, maybe? Let’s hope not though.
But can one maintain autonomy outside of these conventions?
[R.S.] It is quite difficult to survive this business if you do not play by its rules. Nevertheless, I do hope that good things will come to those who choose to walk on the periphery trying to become the masters of their own canons. And in the end, I don’t think anyone should question anyone else’s work or their methodology, unless they question it themselves.
*** about Richard Soderberg
Do not wonder who he is and do not ask from him to remain the same. There is the reality of his world, notably particular from the reality of the world, dichotomic in appearance yet complementar in substance. Designing is like writing letters to himself, an introversive process in which his interest is directed inwards, an exercise of draining his sensibility and creating an independent thinking. Not trying to conceal/dissemble his irregularities, he is self-consciously immersed in unquiet visions of abysses to explore all those part of himself with a different viewpoint from his own. All growth is a leap in the dark, as Henry Miller argues.
Essentially predisposed to liking the distressed and the different, fashion for him is a genuine impulse that comes from within, is torment, is fevered participation, is length, width, height and depth. Influenced by the Wave/Goth/Techno, he is devoted to Berlin for its raw, pure musical scene, undistorted by too pretentious people that emphasize other things more than the music itself.
He grew up with prosthetics joints, synthetic materials and people without limbs all around as his dad is an orthopedist. His attention is caught by the roughness of objects and his studio is filled with industrial machines and instruments that in theory would not have anything to do with actual clothing. And this attraction for sturdiness sometimes reaches the level of wanting to create objects rather than garments as there is nothing more tiring for him than flipping through an ordinary fashion magazine, or going to an average clothing store where the clothes hang softly one next to the other, being only what they really are: garments. That is one of the main reasons for all the particular materials with unusual structures that one finds in his collections (in the AW13 collection there is a classic coat completely made in iron). Obscur has a raw but refined atmosphere where the mind constantly wants to escape the subliminal machinery of fashion and create some unfamiliar beauty.
He always felt very important to define who he was through clothing, but now, a posteriori, after designing his way out through this aesthetic for the past 5 years, he feels he wants to rise against himself, against what he has been doing, against the endless grudges of the fashion industry. A constructive riot, in which he is looking even deeper into his dark craters, searching to create something that is both wearable and special enough, in this moment, when he doesn’t find it necessary to scream too much.
Published in Nasty Magazine, The Concrete Issue.
photography / Richard Soderberg