May 24, 2010

Drawing Miss Jessica

The world of fashion is one I have a contentious relationship with. When I was a child I wanted to be a fashion designer. I understood the world visually, via style, first, and I would constantly be feeling fabrics and drawing little stick figures with dresses, flourishes of lace, satin, sequins, and ribbons in place. I dressed up Barbies, even cutting and dying their blonde tresses to match a look I was going for with each of them. When the then-newly-minted Fashion Television came on, I watched with saucer-eyes as girl after girl pranced down bright runways in all manner of thing beautiful: big hats, heely boots, swooshing wraps, tight skirts. It struck me as glamorous, theatrical, and exciting.

As I grew older, my fascination with fashion changed, transforming and integrating itself with my other pursuits, and into a passion for visual art, performance, and music. Fashion felt insubstantial, and in some cases, even cruel. My relationships with those in the non-profit world, coupled with my own research, gave me shudders when I learned the process of harvesting, manufacture and production involves a fair bit of exploitation. A recent clip of a current BBC World series hit me, as an Indian woman, formerly a garment factory worker, expresses the same ideas. It's troubling, and it makes that "faaabulous dahlings" look at little less... um, fabulous. Never mind the narrow, old-fashioned ideas of what constitutes beauty (specifically female beauty) or presentation; the idea that a tall, thin, hipless, white girl of 18 looks better on a long (read: boring) runway, and is part-and-parcel of the "fantasy" fashion sells is... utter nonsense. My fantasy involves full hips, big lips, crooked noses, and lack of poses, standing, talking, sharing, connecting. Take that, Karl Lagerfeld.

So I was really impressed, happy, and intrigued when I attended the show for Canadian designer Jessica Jensen last fall. It was set in an art studio, and it featured all size, shape, and race of woman touching and feeling the garments, placed on faceless mannequins throughout the space. It was Warholian, experimental, daring, and very unusual. Jensen has since gone on to have a trunk show in Toronto, and is getting all kind of kudos for her elegant, comfortable designs and creative, curious approach. Also? She's ethical, which only makes her more fashionable, if you ask me. And her connection to art, as you'll read, is undeniable. Maybe, just maybe, my faith in fashion is being slowly restored.

What was the first piece of fashion you saw that made you want to go into the fashion world?

I can't pin it down to a piece of fashion that I saw. I just remember opening a large trunk full of fabrics in my mother's art studio and immediately asking her to teach me to sew. I wasn't quite patient enough for her to share her expertise... so I hopped on the machine and just played and created with no real understanding of the technical details behind the process. I knew at a very young age that I would go into fashion... by Grade 7 I had my heart set on attending Ryerson. Although I toyed with the idea of architecture as a career, I only ever applied for the fashion program at Ryerson. My parents weren't surprised by my confidence when not applying for other programs as a back-up plan. I was sure of myself and a little naive regarding the competition.

Do you have a favorite visual artist who influences your work?

In all honesty, my favorite visual artist is my husband. He sees the world very much as I do and translates his romantic and nostalgic sensibility into his work. I'm also regularly influenced by other artists, from openings, readings and films that I have recently viewed. Every artist has a unique perspective on life and there is always something from each that I can draw on for inspiration.


Your autumn show, at the Thrush Holmes studio, was really memorable for its mix of art, fashion, and conceptual design; how did this event come about? How much has his work been an influence on you?

Thrush has always been a strong influence in my life. We grew up in the same town, took art class together in high school and moved to Toronto within a year of each other. He remains a close friend of mine and Joshua's. I would say that the three of us are constantly competing, motivating and inspiring one another. Thrush's Gallery is very comforting to me and no other venue seemed to hold the same impact as his. The structure itself parallels his character of modest grandeur. Joshua's landscapes also, despite their size, speak softly and the venue allowed them to breathe along with my collection. I wanted the show to hang like an exhibit, allowing the product to speak for itself and enabling the audience a chance to view it the way they would a work of art, appreciating the detailed hand-work that goes into each piece.

Furthermore, I wanted our guests to use the installation as a way to better understand the story behind the product: the visual inspiration, the design illustrations, the campaign images, the campaign video, and lastly the product itself. I never thought about how it would be perceived. I spend more evenings at art openings than I do fashion shows and I am of the strong opinion that designers are also artists. Fashion is simply a different medium and it is a shame that the audience is only given 60 seconds as it comes down a runway to see it and appreciate it. So much is lost in the distance between the viewer and the model.

When we spoke last Fall, you emphasized how it was important to you to meet the people who make your designs. How much do you see the fashion world changing to a more conscious kind of ethos when it comes to sourcing and production?

I'd like to say its making drastic improvements, but that would be a falsity. The majority of product sold in North America is manufactured to be competitive in price - a strong consumer demand. There is of course a trend to make socially responsible decisions wherever possible. Even Walmart is making these changes in their own way. I am in a position where my product is not solely driven by cost, and therefore I have the luxury of carefully choosing who I work with. Every worker that I employ in Toronto, New York, Italy and China is skilled in their work, and each takes pride in what they do. I try and meet everyone that works on my product; this way they know how much I care for it and they try to emulate the same respect and pride.

You're known primarily for handbags and leathers, but you're also into clothing now too -how difficult was it to expand? Or was expansion always in the cards for you?

It has always been in the cards. I'm still testing the market, slowly, with ready-to-wear, and I won't launch a full apparel collection for quite sometime. My core business is leather goods and it is important to me to build my customer base before I expand into other product categories. With that said, I also plan on expanding into footwear, jewelry, eyewear, fragrance, home goods, etc in years to come. My vision for Jessica Jensen is a lifestyle brand providing modern day women with effortless style for their everyday lives.



What is your definition of "style" in the 21st century?


21st Century style, to me, is a strong sense of self and the appreciation for times past fused with a new perspective.

More info on Jessica Jensen here.
Special thanks to Tatiana for arranging, Kimberly for photos, and Jessica, for ... being fabulous.

May 17, 2010

Appetizer


I had one of the best meals of my life Saturday. But I'm not going to tell you about it.

At least, not yet. Between joejob drain, chasing stress(/inspiration), planning, and mad, passionate New York organizing (yes, I'm moving there), not to mention cold feet and a coughing dog (true), the timing just seems wrong to ruminate on the subtle, if no less voluptuous joys of a meal well-digested and thoroughly enjoyed.

I will tell you this: if you're in Toronto, get your good, hungry self on over to the other side of the Don Valley Parkway (ie The Great Divide), to The Local Company (511 Danforth Avenue). Stay tuned to this space for details on the tasty morsels, delectable nibbles, and gorgeous big bites of what has to be one of the most delicious meals I've ever enjoyed. For now, a little lick.

Alongside gorgeous design, The Local Company has a wonderful ambiance that's partly attributable to the classy surroundings, though kudos must go to the fabulous Suzana Da Camara and her talented musicians; their cover of Sade's "No Ordinary Love" was every bit as sensuous as my creme brulee, and her superior French-language tunes were completely and utterly... lovely. The servers were equally attentive, knowledgeable, efficient, friendly, and very, very witty, exploding any degree of stuffiness that might've been created from such a gorgeous, modern space.

And give me a moment (however brief -for now) to swoon over the chef! I've always thought chefs were rock stars, and that's made clear here. Sault St. Marie native Trevor Middleton is truly dedicated to his craft, approaching it just as much an artist as he does a crusader, teacher, and (true) geographer; affable, honest, and deeply committed to promoting local, sustainable food, lovingly cooked, he told me he wants people coming to The Local Company to get a taste of "Grandma's" kitchen. Oh yum. What a deliciously posh, passionate, creative Grandma Mr. Middleton is. In true granny fashion, I left happily overstuffed.

Chef is also incredibly kind to guests at The Local Company. Amazing fact: it's very reasonable. Really. That's what you get for not being in the trendy part of town. But then, who would want to be? It's worth the drive, for so many reasons.

In short, I had an orgasm on a plate. But I'm not going to tell you about it -yet. After all, there's value in food foreplay... right? You'll have to wait for the gooey details.

Sex on a plate, here we go again.

May 12, 2010

The Face In The Mirror Won't Stop

A few nights ago, I watched a special on The Doors that aired as part of the excellent series American Masters. When You're Strange, written and directed by Tom DeCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, explores The Doors' meteoric rise to fame in the late 1960s. The piece featured footage of a bearded, shambolically (and possibly shamanically) hot Jim Morrison bombing through the American Southwest in a badass Mustang as flashbacks of the band's history and most memorable (and infamous) moments were detailed.



Watching it, I was transported straight back to my teen years, when I worshipped Morrison's flow of words and The Doors' peculiar, Weill-tinged, carnival-meets-jackhammer-like sounds. I dreamed of the day I'd go to Pere Lachaise cemetery and throw myself dramatically over his grave, all tears and brandy breath, mounds of black velvet and raccoon-kohl eyes appropriate garb for the sighing romantic leanings of late teen-dom. In retrospect, I don't think The Doors were meant to last. As Depp intoned in the documentary, Morrison was a "trapeze artist" -one who, alas, couldn't fly as well as he or any of us (past or present) wished. His military-man father, both shockingly unimpressed by his son's ascent and strangely prescient of his demise, was launching squadrons of fighter planes in the Vietnam war as people stared at the dark, Greco-Roman beauty that suddenly emanated from the dull, puke-coloured walls of the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

Looking at him in his "later" years (his 27 seemed more like 57), the iconic singer/poet seemed amused by his fame even as he was appalled by it. The constant demands it made -on appearance, as well as creativity -were ones that, in his eager immaturity and self-conscious mythology, were ones he seemed singly ill-equipped to deal with. It's interesting to note how the doc's narrator, Johnny Depp, has escaped such notions but, in the process, has also accepted the reality that his grave may very well have "yarrr" scrawled across it. I suppose living in France -the land of Gitanes, good cheese, great wine, and better conversation -probably helps.

De Cillo eschews using talking heads in When You're Strange and instead opts for narration, unseen archival and personal footage, and basic storytelling. He also has written Depp's lines in the present tense, so we're experience Morrison "in the present", as it were. "Both innocent and profane, he's a rock and roll poet... dangerous and highly intelligent," continued Depp, "no one's had this exact combination before." True enough. But if Morrison's sneering rebellion against his fame was to grow a beard and gain a beer gut, it didn't quit work. It increased the mystique around his quasi-poetic leanings, and as the documentary points out, just before his death, Morrison was ready to return to America to start recording with his abandoned, vaguely churlish bandmates. But it wasn't meant to be. Jim joined that great "feast of friends" that would include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Keith Moon and John Bonham.

But let's not be predictable here and place him, leather-panted and head permanently tilted, in the pot-smelling pantheon of the Young-And-Tragically-Dead Rock Stars. Hooey. I think of the late "trapeze artist" the same way I think of Arthur Rimbaud: young, beautiful, dangerous, peevish, stupid, reckless, and damnably gifted. Tom DeCillo's documentary underlines the leanings to poetry, art, music, and this constant drive to live-live-live even as the trip to the desert ends, the music's over, the resurrection subscription is canceled. Wherever he is, Jim is smirking: he's always and forever resurrected, thanks to a million different thrills, from photos to Youtube to the appalling streams of tours with lines of earnest, if absolutely wrong lead singers.

"Nevermore!" cackles Jim from the great beyond, before adding, in that famous woozy baritone, "Is everybody in?"

Yes, of course. Some never left. We just got older, an inevitable reality that, like screaming fans, singalongs, and autographs, requires patience, fortitude, and grace.

Over. Due.

Pardon my lack of updates lately. In the midst of mad searching for full-time paid communications work, I've had to take on what I'm terming a "joejob" and it's been very draining to balance that with eagle-eyed job investigating and applying, radio interviewing, and creative pursuits.

A good friend of mine called my return to the joejob a form of graciousness, referencing a beautiful compliment I received on Twitter a few weeks back, in fact. Aw. It doesn't feel gracious, however; the entire experience is rather more grinding, humiliating, and energy zapping. I have to remind myself every day when I return home, cranky and haggard, that all of this energy expenditure pays off in the form of enablement: to be paid for my talents, and to not lose sight of what it is I really want to be (read: should be) making a living at. Blogging is, I'm coming to realize, a way of reinforcing that commitment and desire, and of fortifying my determination.

So, without further adue, a collection of things that have inspired me the last little while:

Busta Rhymes featuring Swizz Beatz - Stop The PartybyHypetrak

I can't say the sequel to Iron Man completely enthralls me though in all fairness, I haven't seen it; I just know I'd rather see Robert Downey Jr. without all that metal. He could probably convince me he's Tony Stark with just tin foil. (I wouldn't mind borrowing that Iron Man suit to wear to the joejob, however.) I'm tossing around seeing the flick itself, which has garnered mainly good notices (and huge box office). The steampunk-meets-high-tech badass design of Mickey Rourke's Whiplash might be the tipping point -and who am I kidding? Downey's good medicine for the weary: if he can rise up, then... ! It's fanciful, but don't laugh -it's also inspiring, kind of like this tune, "Stop The Party", taken from the movie's soundtrack. Bouncy and ballsy, it's a good post-joejob pick-me-up and has some swish, snazzy production courtesy of cutie smarty-pants Swizz Beatz. Nicely done.

Bono and Bob Geldof edited Monday's edition of The Globe and Mail. This has, as you might imagine, provoked a holy sh**storm of backlash, particularly online, where the blahblahblah-richrockstars-hype-hypocrites-how-dare-theys were out in full force since the announcement of their editorship happened last week. Yawn. I'm just happy it made for damn good reading, and gave voice to a range of activists, artists, and authors we don't hear from enough in mainstream media, especially in daily North American print. Dear Newspapers Everywhere: do this kind of thing more often. Ignore the haters. It's good for content, and, as evidenced by the Monday edition's popularity, good for numbers. Please more.

Brian Eno is curating the Brighton Festival, and people really like it. No wonder. He's brought a new kind of vision to a town that is hungry for unusual ideas and experiments. I've always found Eno a scary genius; when I met him many moon ago, I was so intimidated by his aura of... smart. A skilled, confident, razor-sharp kind of cutting intelligence surrounds him, and I barely got out my name, let alone my hand. Even now, the memory is vaguely chilling. It's a testament to the residents of Brighton and the surrounding area that they've so openly embraced the sorts of brave things Eno has introduced, particularly in, around, and on their public spaces. Kudos to them, and kudos to him. But then, that goes without saying. Durrrrr.

Not all new ideas from respected artists are appreciated, however. Graffiti street sensation Banksy was in Toronto, and did a number of works that were later removed or painted over. The latest work to fall victim to a fellow street artist was a clever Banksy piece showing a man holding a sign that reads "Will Work For Idiots" (which I *cough* relate to); the piece was tagged (yes, tagged) over by a ballsy local. Valid? Invalid? I find the whole thing such a perfect symbol of the focused inward-turned narcissism of the city as to be laughable in a really sad, frustrating way. Torontonians are constantly told the city is "world-class" and "cosmopolitan" -labels I've consistently smirked at as they've become more widely used (and marketed, and swallowed whole). Really? Ha.

More smirking -but this time in a good way -over a piece in The Atlantic exploring the scary genius of Lady Gaga and her relationship with Pop. The piece takes apart her appeal as both a tastemaker and taste-buster simultaneously. This really, really captures the phenom of Gaga, though I have to admit, I was disappointed the writer (James Parker) didn't mention Warhol, or later artistic counterparts that have so influenced one Ms. Germanotta. Maybe he were too distracted by the hat or the flaring bra.

Next up: musing on a new documentary about The Doors. When the music's over... wait. It isn't. Leave the damn light on.

May 2, 2010

It Ain't Necessarily... Oh Wait, It Is.


If there's one thing I adore, it's making connections -whether it's between people, or ideas, or a crazy, heady mixture of both.

So it was with a mix of curiosity and excitement that I attended the opening of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer recently. It's the final show offered in the current season of Toronto's Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, whose last work, Talk, I was pretty nuts about. The Soul of Gershwin was created and written by Joseph Vass, and it deftly draws connections between the musical artforms that so informed and shaped the work of the inimitable George Gershwin. Using a live band, Klezmerica -a super-talented music ensemble that has performed all across the US and at the International Klezmer Festival in Israel -along with three vocalists (Bruce A. Henry, Prudence Johnson and Robert Marinoff) and a narrator standing in as Gershwin himself (Michael Paul Levin), the show is a celebration of music, culture, history, and heritage -between and around and through several, in fact.

Musical combinations are sometimes magical and sometimes unusual, with surprising, delightful results. The duet between Henry and Marinoff, particularly, as the two engage in a kind of sonic duel between the plaintive intonations of a Cantor and the peppy joy of gospel is particularly beguiling; the duel soon gives way to a smooth synthesis, as the the intimate sonic connection between the two is rendered undeniable. Shalom and Hallelujah become joined in one joyous sound unto every Lord. Magnificent.

Another memorable moment occurs with the sung introductions to common Jewish traditions, followed by a winkingly sly "It Ain't Necessarily So" -a song that was considered scandalous in its day for its flagrantly non-biblical approach. The "shock" we realize, must've been every bit as pungent in the Jewish community as the Christian, what with the convenient lifting of a religious melody to underscore a fundamentally naughty, amazingly tuneful song that hasn't aged a day since its debut in Porgy and Bess in 1935. Johnson gives a playful, slinky interpretation that shows off the song's timeless appeal while underlining the sly, naughty lyrics that so shocked (and delighted) audiences at its premiere.

It's these kinds of connections -between past and present, between cultures, genders and traditions -that The Soul of Gershwin does so well: show (or rather, play) the history, and then show how Gershwin played with it to create something that was entirely new in its day, and still retains the gorgeous, rich sheen of genius crafted so carefully and lovingly by a man who understood how America is, at its very best, a crossroads of history, peoples, experiences, and an 'otherness' creating a unified whole. His music, even -or especially -now reflects this.

Now there were whisperings at the show's opening that the Gershwin pieces were few & far between. But those with complaints need to read the full title of the show: the musical journey of an American klezmer. It's not meant to be a turnstyle of Gershwin's Greatest Hits. "Klezmer" (in this sense) means a lowly-paid musician who plays parties. Vass & Co. clearly feel Gershwin was a kind of modern klezmer made good, and it shows. The production is par history lesson, part remembrance, entirely celebration. If you don't know much about Jewish music or culture, don't worry: cultural traditions and words are clearly explained, and Klezmerica, as a band, are completely mesmerizing. Levin's narration occasionally becomes slightly overbearing, if only because the power of Gershwin's music is such that it really doesn't need the kind of detailed introduction Voss has written, but then again, if you're not sure about the history, and enjoy context, the interjections might be for you. Overall, you'll come away from The Soul of Gershwin rich in knowledge, and in spirit. Shalom, Mr. Gershwin, and thank you, HGJTC. Can't wait for next season.