How To End A Chapter

 

“I don’t like to throw things away, but I also have the ability to end chapters of my life.” Helmut Lang

It is one month away from the launch of my book. There has been a flurry of interviews, podcasts, other media and press events. There are many requests for photos, not of who I am today, but who I was as Accidental Icon at the height of her fame. There are requests to do style posts on TikTok. I have found this challenging as like the former fashion designer and now artist, Helmut Lang, I am not someone who likes to dwell upon or live in the past. When asked to comment on fashion in interviews now, Lang responds, “I’m not in that world anymore” and moves on. I have closed that chapter and I too want to move on.

The incessant demand these days that I reconnect with and speak as the person I was, is frustrating because during the past three years I have not been her. I cannot summon up the affect, the memory, the attitude or even dress like she did anymore. While the early chapters of my book are about becoming Accidental Icon, the later chapters address how I changed. What began as a way to express myself artistically devolved into one that was more about consumption than creativity. A life I did not intend, and that made me unhappy. Discomfort showing it was time yet again to reimagine the life I wanted to be living. What once was an exciting adventure became a cautionary tale. I want people to interview the person at the end of the book, not just the person in the beginning. The story cannot be told without them both.

Upon the publication of my first non-academic book, I wonder why no one has asked me how it feels to be a first-time published author at age 70 rather than how it felt to be a mannequin wearing clothes on Instagram? Is it because I appeared so youthful back then and not so much now? Did people not realize that clothing was just my “material” as Louise Bourgeois pointed out to Helmut Lang when he wanted to change careers, “Materials are just materials, they are here to serve you, the subject is what you want to express”? I say what I want to say about my “subjects” and clothing, photos, words or my body are just the “materials” I use at any particular point in my life to do so.

Today I am grandmothering. I am community-building. I am writing. I’m wearing a faded second-hand denim shirt and vintage Gap overalls, the same ones I wore when I was 40 and exploring what kind of creative life I might have after moving to the city and ending a marriage. I secretly wish I could wear this to my book launch, but people will expect me to wear something stylish and cool, something one would not expect a 70-year-old to wear. My concession is that I wear my overalls in my author’s photo. I am still undecided about what I will wear to the launch. I am more excited about being in conversation with an author, Chloe Cooper Jones, I admire.

These days I’m re-reading some of the writing I did when I first started my blog in 2014. During that time, everything was new and exciting. My reinvention was in motion, evolving. In my writing I explore the intersection of fashion and art, today when designers and fashion houses are a brand, a nostalgic dream. Based on the recent emotional reaction to the Martin Margiela couture show, the artistic and intellectual vision of John Galliano, I am not alone in this wish for fashion to be less concerned with commerce and more concerned with art. In the early years, the way I was talking and writing about fashion was a genuine creative expression, controlled by me. I lost that freedom and creativity when I too became a personal brand.

I’ve been going through those early blog posts, like I went through the clothes that hang on the racks in my closet room. Clothes that were sold, donated and recycled. I find a series of posts I wrote in 2015 about Helmut Lang. Now I see the attraction, what made me suddenly become fascinated by him as a person, though admittedly I always liked his clothes. In 2005, at the height of his career as a highly successful fashion designer, he walked away from it all to devote himself to a calling he first espoused as a youth and never lost sight of; to be an artist. He had no formal training in fashion design or in art. In fact, his training was in economics. I think I wanted to know how he mustered up the courage to do this. It’s almost like I knew I would need that same courage in the future.

Lang had many friends who were artists: Robert Mapplethorpe, Jenny Holzer, Juergen Teller and Louise Bourgeois. I look back and note how my writing/performance was always on the periphery of whatever I did. If one looks back at some of his campaigns and designs, his interest in art was always there. He used images in his advertising such as 85-year-old Louise Bourgeois wearing a crown. He collaborated with Jenny Holzer on an installation for the Florence Biennale, called, “I Smell You on My Clothes,” representing how the smell that lazily lingers in a room or on an article of clothing creates remembrances of the person who left them. This collaboration was recycled into perfume ads and even into the design of his stores. According to the Wall Street Journal, he was one of the first designers to stream his runway show on the internet.

In 2015, Calvin and I attended an exhibition of some of Lang’s sculptures in a New York City gallery. In 2010, a fire in his Soho studio destroyed what remained of Lang’s archive after he had made donations to art, fashion, and design collections. After months of sifting through the debris of what remained, he actively destroyed what was left and repurposed it as materials to be used in the service of his art. He took what remained of the archive, put it into an industrial shredder and then spent the next five years contemplating their reinvention into pieces of art. The result of which is what we found ourselves looking at that day. Taking the shredded and crushed materials that comprised his archive, he cast the mix in different color pigments and resins and baked them in the sun. The remaining artifacts that were once clothing, shoes and accessories re-appears as sculptures in long metal tubes that are 10-12 feet high. I felt upon entering the exhibit that I was in a stark and magical forest until I looked closely and made out bits of denim, metal, leather, feathers, parts of his printed logo and other fragments of his work as a designer. In these sculptures, I saw the passing of his former identity and a recreation of himself as an artist.

Creative destruction is a process through which something new brings about the end of whatever existed before it. Its counterpart is creative renewal. In his current reinvention as artist, the designer Helmut Lang recycles articles and artifacts from his life, his surroundings, his history his relationships and through the various processes he applies to his materials, removes the connotations one had to those things in the past and reconfigures them to say something new in the now. In a 2022 interview in Upstate Diary, Lang reveals the intuitive nature of his work, “What happens to me during the work process, intellectually and form-wise, is that I approach a piece with an unknown beginning or an imaginary idea, which I have not experienced and therefore remains innocent, waiting to be explored…My process is more intuitive than historical. I had no formal training in fashion, and I have no formal training in art. Consequently, I am creating my own language by being unafraid and experimenting the hell out of things.” I am struck by how similar this feels to the exploration and work I am doing now. It is how I approached the Accidental Icon project, the way I have always approached a piece of writing or come up with what I decide to wear. It’s why I enjoyed blogging so much, I never knew what I’d write about until I started writing. To this day, that remains the best writing I do. I’ve never gotten what I wanted when I tried too hard to get it. It’s when I don’t attach that I do.e

Reading about how cathartic this destructive process was for Helmut Lang, I almost wish I had some concrete archive of Accidental Icon that I, too, could shred. That would firmly close that chapter. Maybe this book is my industrial shredder. In it I have said goodbye to who I was, and it opens a door to who I want to be in this new decade that will end when I am 80. Like Helmut Lang’s sculptures, in the writing of this book, I realize a childhood dream.

I’ve already responsibly disposed of much of my wardrobe. I can archive and take down Accidental Icon’s Instagram and Facebook. The website I never liked to begin with can go too. I return to my early blog, cutting and pasting words, sentences and paragraphs of ideas not fully fleshed out, people to be researched and returned to, garments I want to talk about differently now that we are in a new era. These fragments turn into a long document waiting for me to find a different form to contain them and “bake them in the sun”, a new way to think about the editing process. As I continue to experiment with “unknown beginnings and imaginary ideas”, it feels like for right now this Substack is my “studio”. It’s where I can creatively renew those pieces of the past, like I did with an old blog post today, and see how they can become something new.

What’s been lurking on the periphery of your life, and how can you creatively renew those “materials”?

It is now one month until my book launch. I’m going to humbly ask if you haven’t already pre-ordered if you could consider doing so. Apparently, this is very important for first-time authors to get their book on reviewers’ radar screens. It comes in hardcover, Kindle and Audiobook formats (I did the audiobook, so you’ll hear my real-life voice). Here’s a link, How to Be Old and I thank you in advance.


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