about design dialogues

The Design Dialogues site houses all online publications from the School of Design Strategies at Parsons School of Design.

This site is funded by the Stephan Weiss Lecture Series on Business Strategy, Negotiation and Innovation. This lectureship was launched in 2002 to commemorate the life of the late artist and sculptor Stephan Weiss, husband and business partner of the fashion designer Donna Karan. Weiss co-founded Donna Karan International in 1984, and was instrumental in every significant venture the company undertook: launching and structuring new brands, most notably the Donna Karan Beauty company; signing new licenses; establishing in-house legal and creative departments; devising its computer design technology; orchestrating the company’s initial public offering in 1996; and negotiating its sale to the current owner LVMH Moet Hennessy – Louis Vuitton.

about the school of design strategies

The School of Design Strategies is an experimental educational environment. We advance innovative approaches in design, business and education. In the evolving context of cities, services and ecosystems, we explore design as a capability and a strategy in the environmentally conscious practices of individuals, groups, communities and organizations. For more about the School of Design Strategies, visit the SDS Magazine.

Journal of Design Strategies
Designing W/
The Integral City
New York, Phnom Pehn. Phnom Pehn, New York.
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J. Morgan Puett

Section 1: Stephan Weiss Lectures

A Winning Fabric, A Broken Text

Joke Robaard

Figure 1

Comme des Garçons advertisement, American Vogue, March 1983. Text: More of this season’s changes-”one-step-further” fashion-from Comme des Garçons: a big black squared-off cotton top, matching asymmetric skirt, both slit with irregular cut-ups ... new shapes, new ideas.

The sentences in Figure 1, from a 1983 issue of American Vogue, accompany a series of photographs of the innovative work of Comme des Garçons’ design team, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. 1 As Roland Barthes argued in his book, The Fashion System, garments may be “read” through the details of their design, disclosing facts and norms pertaining to the sociocultural context that created them. 2 How, then, are we to read this “written” garment? The only direct textual information offered by Vogue are the words “slit” and “irregular cut-ups.” There is no use of typical fashion rhetoric, and almost no description of the character of these revolutionary clothes. Still, the words are significant, since “in effect, language allows the source of meaning to be attached quite precisely to a small, finite element (represented by a single word).” 3 The descriptions exist to direct the eye of the viewer: describing the garment encourages the purchase of the dress. During the early 1960s, when Barthes was researching the rhetorics of popular and commercial culture, fashion was developing gradually into a highly structured industry fueled by the mass distribution of images. Fashion images needed to provoke fascination, fashion texts an appropriation of specific garments and trends.
Fashion images needed to provoke fascination, fashion texts an appropriation of specific garments and trends.

American Vogue projected a cool, almost distant message in 1983, trusting its somewhat educated public to understand. That same year, the Dutch lifestyle magazine Viva reacted to the high production costs of the so-called “poverty” look with an article under the headline “Paris: From Chic to Seedy.” 4 Manufacturing holes in a piece of fabric was immensely expensive in the context of mass production. Yet the post-punk Japanese style revolution epitomized by Miyake and Yamamoto explored all properties of textiles, celebrating them in all their possible material expressions-transparency, vulnerability, unfinishedness. This was in strong reaction to the glamorous post-war fashion surfaces as well as the earlier release of mass produced, deconstructed surfaces. Vogue characterized this phenomenon in terms of a distinction between two different appearances: “One represents a sleek polished point of view ... the other is freer, more experimental from head to toe.” 5 Viva instead employed a vocabulary familiar to many of its readers, expressing distrust of new appearances in almost gossipy terms. Whether they appear in fashion, politics, or architecture, words are able to encourage or break down, much the same way that textiles can be constructed and deconstructed.

Wagner’s 1876 opera Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) begins with three goddesses, the Norns, sitting on a rock and weaving the rope of the world’s destiny. As they pull and stretch the cord, it suddenly breaks. “Our eternal knowledge is at an end,” they lament. “The world will know nothing more of our wisdom.” 6 In Wagner’s opera, the world is projected onto a piece of woven fabric and its history determined through the act of weaving. I recalled this desperate scene and its animating metaphor upon viewing an issue of the Dutch newspaper NRC Next from 2012. The cover illustration shows a man and a woman struggling to hold onto the last threads of a shredded piece of fabric, alongside the headline, “The Euro Knitwork is Tearing Apart.” In the accompanying article, writer Caroline de Gruyter explains that the French have developed a specific word for the decline of financial integration in Europe: détricoter, or unknitting. 7 The slow unknitting or unraveling of the EU system’s structure is occurring, she suggests, not through wear and tear but through a process of unwinding, as when a sweater is carefully unknitted in order to create a new one. But what are the repercussions of “unknitting” such a complex set of relationships?

Figure 2

Front page of the Dutch newspaper NRC Next, May 10, 2012. Headline reads: “The Euro Knitwork is Tearing Apart.”

Textiles appeared in many fashion magazine advertisements in the 1960s and 70s; in fact, textile brands helped fuel the fashion industry. After the 1970s, textile production almost disappeared in Europe and the US, as textiles and clothes increasingly came to be mass-produced in Asia. Accordingly, advertisements related to textiles began to disappear from fashion magazines (manuals for textile production had already disappeared as people stopped producing their own garments). Traditionally close relationships among designer, producer, and user were coming unraveled.
Manufacturing holes in a piece of fabric was immensely expensive, yet the post-punk Japanese style revolution explored all properties of textiles, celebrating transparency, vulnerability,and unfinishedness.

In 1993, ten years after the construction of Comme des Garçons’ torn and cut-up clothing collection, a “winning” fabric called Dribbling was introduced by the Italian fashion designer Nino Cerruti, who borrowed the term dribbling from soccer to name a new material that could somehow absorb the qualities of a famous soccer player (Jean Pierre Papin, star of the Milan team, who endorsed the fabric). 8 “In order to produce a mere meter of the new fabric it takes 86 kilometers of wool thread. Then, an 18-step finishing process guarantees impeccability and pure comfort.” 9 Cerruti explained that Papin embodied the spirit of the times and the fashion and lifestyle trends of the 1990s, enhancing the value of his endorsement. Another historical “one-man” fabric was produced by Donald John MacKay of Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris; his tweed samples were chosen by Nike in 2003 for a limited edition of trainer shoes. The company approached MacKay in an effort to update their Terminator, a basketball shoe from the 1980s, and made an initial order of nearly 10,000 meters of cloth. Because MacKay could not produce enough in the loom shed behind his house, weavers throughout the Outer Hebrides were called into action to meet the demand. His tweed fabric absorbs all the colors of his surroundings, even the turquoise dots exactly matching the color of the sunlit seawater next to his house. The collaboration between Nike and McKay received a lot of media attention and helped establish the specific connotations associated with this fabric. Although you can perceive a textile simply as compressed matter, a textile’s full meaning always incorporates collective and narrative elements, such as Dribbling fabric’s connection to the physical qualities and fame of a soccer star, or the tweed fabric’s association with the Scottish countryside.

The term “social fabric” is commonly used to refer to the composition and coherence of society. Writers, intellectuals, and politicians frequently make use of this textile-derived metaphor to describe social conditions, including whether a community is strong and resilient or “torn” and disintegrating. Where does this expression come from, and what exactly does it mean? What is the relation between the “fabric” of a society, resilient or torn as it may be, and public discussion making use of such rhetoric?
A textile’s full meaning always incorporates collective and narrative elements, such as Dribbling fabric’s connection to a soccer star, or the tweed fabric’s association with the Scottish countryside.

Plato studied the technique of weaving carefully before he used it as a metaphor for the organization of an ideal state as part of a discussion about leadership and statecraft in the dialogue Statesman. 10 In this work, the character known as the Stranger explains that the statesman acts like a weaver, creating a perfect fabric. This conversion of technological thinking carries implications for the possible political and social organization of a state. The loom not only serves as a tool for weaving, but also imposes restrictions on the weaver: the warp is able to expand, while the weft is trapped within the boundaries of the loom. “Warp” people are leaders; “weft” people followers.

The use of the term “fabric” as a metaphor for society has continued in modern times. In the US, for instance, the writer and urban planning critic Jane Jacobs famously observed that “frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood.” 11 In Europe too, the notion has gained currency that the “fabric” of various communities has been “torn,” a phenomenon illustrated by the NRC Next article mentioned previously.

The bearing of textile metaphors on modern life coincides with the recent evolution of fashion. Since World War Two, fashion has become a huge industry, with its strict ritual of “seasons” and accompanying consumer behaviors. The idea of illusion attached to garments, along with the power of branding, is now mainstream. Today the process of developing a real, sustainable material, of knowing how to create a proper surface, is gaining new significance. Many artists have started to learn weaving again, designers are exploring and combining old and new weaving techniques, architects are expanding knotting and related techniques, and collective knowledge is shared. Indeed, the construction of textiles is itself based on collective knowledge: almost anyone can understand how to construct a piece of fabric by observing others and following their example. By studying the structure and binding of a material you immediately encounter the philosophical and metaphysical concepts that are involved. Suddenly, a piece of fabric seems infused with paradigms of expansion, contraction, infill, repair, fraying. Textiles, both as pure matter and as language, create an ongoing exchange between different cultural and social fields such as architecture, fashion, sociology, philosophy, and literature—not merely through words or images, but through the open but programmed character of textile techniques, which can be constructed and deconstructed at any moment.
Textiles create an ongoing exchange between different cultural and social fields such as architecture, fashion, sociology, philosophy, and literature—not merely through words or images, but through the character of textile techniques, which can be constructed and deconstructed at any moment.

In 1983, when Comme des Garçons initiated a series of new proposals for fashion clothing made of “disrupted” fabric, they created a contradiction in meaning: devotees of punk culture were literally ripping the fabric of their clothes, a symbol of their general rejection of consumer society, even as Comme des Garçons was proposing ripped material as a radical new form of elegance aimed at a broader public of consumers. As noted previously, American Vogue had a hard time finding appropriate words for describing these disrupted materials, and opted for a neutral sartorial language instead.

In daily life, the word “fabric” generates the same dualities. On the one hand, we have an almost archaic belief in a “woven fabric”: an endless dependence on the solidity and strength of a fabric. On the other hand, there’s a common experience of the decay or unraveling of this fabric, in actuality as well as in language. In its common use the term offers connotations of binding, cohesion, solidity; the cognate term “social fabric,” operating on a much larger scale, is used as an acknowledgement of the binding of a society. It is hard to describe how it looks when it is “torn.” Is there a fault in the weave or is it just wear and tear?

Figure 3


“Fashion: Steel Yourself!” American Vogue, March 1983, 352. Photo: Bert Stern.


Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983 [1967]), 4.


Barthes, The Fashion System, 14.


“Parijs. Van sjiek tot sjofel,” Viva Magazine, March 1983, 27.


“Fashion: The Contrast,” American Vogue, July 1983, 156.


Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung (Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1926).


Caroline de Gruyter, “Het eurobreiwerk gaat scheuren,” NRC Next, May 10, 2012, 4-5.


An. Ma., “A winning fabric,” Mondo Uomo 1993, 98; article derived from information insert in the magazine (author’s archive).


An. Ma., 98.


Plato, Statesman, Philebus, Ion, trans. Harold North Fowler, W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1925).


Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (New York: Vintage, 1992 [1961]), 186.

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