Fashion is political. Its core purpose––and I’m including garments, design, jewellry, photography––has always been about identity, self-expression. From Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking suit to Alexander Mcqueen’s Highland Rape show and most recently that iconic Beyonce Vogue cover, it can be said that fashion is one of the most accessible and creative ways of pushing political and social boundaries. At the same time, we also need to be aware of the politics in the production of modern fashion not only in the ongoing debate on cultural appropriation, but also the ways in which we consume fashion en masse, and how colonialism still continues to manipulate its sustainability. At a time when multiculturalism is being torched by anti-immigration rhetoric, the industry needs to utilize its political prowess, re-examine and dismantle its own guises of cultural exploitation. The question is how does fashion honestly reflect multiculturalism, without degrading difference?
Perhaps it is to foster the approach of designer Esna Su who actively seeks out both the horror and the beauty in her own cultural history as a way of unpicking contemporary issues surrounding cultural identities. After all the personal is political. Over the phone, Esna, a Central Saint Martins graduate, mused to me about the subtle nuances of her work: “I have always been fascinated by jewelry, we wear it all the time and continue to perform our everyday lives, sometimes without even realizing we are wearing the piece itself”. Trained in jewelry design, Esna carefully creates sculptural body pieces as a way of exploring the infinite possibilities of multiculturalism, without the destruction caused by appropriation.
‘Esna remarks that, ‘I wanted to give a sense of mobility to these pieces, as a way of shifting the way we depict and view everyday lives’.
Esna, born in a small southern town in Turkey near to a Syrian refugee camp, weaves together in her work an exploration of cultural diasporas and identities within a fragmented world. Her thoughtful approach is one gripped tenaciously as she seeks to discuss the refugee crisis but to also broaden the view towards the richness of Turkish and Syrian cultures that have been lost amongst anti-immigration rhetorics. Esna learned and brought traditional Middle Eastern techniques to the Sarabande studios, where she had held a 2-year place as an artist in residence. Situated in East London, the space is part of a trust set up by the late designer Alexander McQueen to harbor new creatives. It was here that Esna began to explore how different cultural traditions can move within, intersect and enhance contemporary environments. The result has been the ongoing project entitled Refugee and the Burden which at present has consisted of paper rush body pieces, performance and bags made out of a cobwebbing of leathers. Esna remarks that, ‘I wanted to give a sense of mobility to these pieces, as a way of shifting the way we depict and view everyday lives’. The pieces sculpt and contort, as though they are caught in a state of fluidity. It’s a subtle reminder of how cultures are not fixed to one flat entity, they move, they breathe, they adapt.
‘Esna’s reworking of traditional techniques is a similar visual signifier in touching on the nostalgic beauty of her regional traditions, whilst also exploring the burdens of a difficult history and complicated present.’
The weaving technique of Hashir used by Esna to create her headwear pieces is a traditional practice in the southern region of Turkey and Syria. Esna’s desire was to broaden her mind by actively “experiencing a different kind of struggle and the ways in which to express and overcome it”. Chatting about her work, I’m reminded of how McQueen would frequently use traditional craft techniques to create radically modern designs. The designer created his own exquisite tartans like the ones found in his 1995 show ‘Highland Rape’ as a way of paying homage to his Scottish heritage, whilst also unpicking the horrors of Scotland’s history. Esna’s reworking of traditional techniques is a similar visual signifier in touching on the nostalgic beauty of her regional traditions, whilst also exploring the burdens of a difficult history and complicated present. ‘My mother warned me that my fingers would bleed and that my back would be so painful that I wouldn’t be able to sit down’. Headwear pieces curve around the face and splay out into a golden mane of paper rushes. Hollowed out bags in deep vegetable tans contort around the hand and balloon out from the wearer’s body. The irregular forms lend the pieces a contemporary aesthetic and despite Esna’s eye-watering practice, the organic materials give a sense of comfort to her collection. Her works reflecting a truthful investigation of the beauty and the horror of cultural histories that we seem to sometimes forget coincide and inform each other.
This approach serves as a vital reminder of how we have to constantly confront ourselves with not just an isolated element of beauty or tragedy in a culture, but how we need to constantly challenge and educate ourselves with a wide world view and history. This starts with pointing the finger not just at each other, but also at ourselves. Like McQueen once said ‘there is blood under every layer of skin’.