“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art” – Oscar Wilde
On the ground floor of the Victoria and Albert museum, in London’s Kensington, adjacent to a long gallery filled with classical sculptures, busts and sketching students, is the Toshiba Gallery, housing the museum’s Japanese art collection. There you can see, among other artefacts and treasures, what it probably London’s best collection of both modern and historic kimonos.
There’s also a candy pink Hello Kitty rice cooker, and an Alice in Wonderland themed Lolita outfit – but we can leave those for another discussion. The Toshiba gallery reopened in 2015, after months of conservation work, and the refurbishment of the gallery, and marks a point in a long history of Western fascination with, and fetishisation of, Japanese art and culture.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that, “in fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country.” His point was that people understand culture, history, travel in an idealised and stylised way – we view it through art. He meant that, when we tell stories – even stories that are told in history books – we are always, in some sense, artists designing the way we are to be seen. Before him, the Impressionists – Van Gogh, Degas, Manet, Whistler, Pissaro – had also fixated on Japanese art, and before that, it played an important role in 18th Century European interiors, and dressmaking, symbolising empire, power, travel and expansion. Maybe Wilde chose Japan as his example because it is art that fascinates artists.
When I think about this idea that we learn about foreign places and different periods of history through design and artifice, I always wonder how some historian would look at times now? In an age of social media, it seems more relevant than ever. Everyone has access to a high quality camera, everyone can art direct and window dress their lives to the nth degree. What would cultural commentators a hundred years from now do to understand and define our current social patterns and behaviours? Would they unearth Instagram accounts saved in digital archives, and study the way people self-present and aestheticise their digital selves? Study the photographs in magazines, and the way they’re emulated by readers themselves? It’s the first time in history that every individual has their own personal media channels, and I can’t help but wonder what this means for someone in the future looking back at our strange days – millions of individual records of the way people aspire and design their lives.
Clothes obviously play a hugely important part of that – they always have done. From the symbols of power embedded into historical portraits, to the way a pair of boots is styled and posed on Instagram today, what we wear has always been a place where this kind of artistic performance of identity happens. It’s almost like the kimonos in the V&A, highly crafted, designed and valued pieces of art in themselves, function like metaphors for the way we treat what we wear today. The concept of Arena Martinez began with the art works, the pieces themselves, but the decision to use the kimono as a canvas came immediately after, like a natural progression. All the craft and painting and embroidery, as well as the tradition and social symbolism, working like the self-presentation and artistic work that we do on ourselves, to align ourselves with one group, or another, or to highlight our creativity and difference.
There’s something about these simple, elegant shapes showcasing such incredible craftsmanship, and embodying the sense that the way we dress can truly be like an artwork. I suppose it was always like this, really, clothes have always been artistic spaces in some way, but with Arena Martinez, I wanted to take this idea, and run with it as far as I could go, creating kimonos that were canvases for the art work that I saw all around me, that people could live their lives in.