Gallery Tripping: Joel Klaff's fashion statement | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Gallery Tripping: Joel Klaff's fashion statement 

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Imagine attending a ritzy charity ball dressed in an haute couture one-of-a-kind billowy gown made of reams of beautiful, pink, transparent . . . plastic, decorated with plastic roses and accessorized with a two-foot-high pink plastic headdress, an outfit called "Rosebud (I Love You)." Or think about settling down in the rec room for a good session of TV watching in a comfy suit made entirely of avocado-and-gold patterned--shag carpet. Or for that special awards ceremony at work, why not wear a three-piece suit--already bronzed?

Fashion designer Guy Taylor, aka performance artist Joel Klaff, is well aware that the clothes one wears reflect the wearer's financial status, social goals, and even his/her philosophical state of mind. In his latest line, some of which is described above, Guy Taylor explores the power of fashion to reveal inner states. But Guy Taylor also knows that the fashion industiy manufactures these states of mind, for conspicuous consumption. By using materials not usually associated with high fashion, this designer exposes the limited expression imposed on clothes by the industry, hoping to offer in his fashions a more complex, sympathetic relationship with the wearer.

Guy Taylor has not always been so sympathetic. The persona of slick fashion designer Guy Taylor was created by Joel Klaff in the early 80s for a series of performance art/fashion shows, which featured clothes made out of Astroturf (the Olympic Collection), dead grass and straw (the Fall Guy Collection), and U-Haul blankets (the Man on the Move Collection). "Guy Taylor is my ego," explains Klaff, sitting in his studio filled with pillows, Alpo dog food bags, pink plastic, a sewing machine, and his friendly old dog. Observing the massive conspiracy between the media and fashion industries that seduces people into buying, Klaff wanted to use this apparatus to further his own ego in the form of Guy, while lambasting the industries' power. Klaff describes the early Taylor: "Guy was a used car salesman, with no morals, bent on fucking the other guy. He went into things without any sense of the world." But then Guy got copied. The Olympic Collection featured headwear and purses made of globes. "Guy was very upset when Benetton came out with their campaign which used the globe motif everywhere. I wasn't that upset, but Guy was furious. I considered murdering Guy Taylor, making a big media event out of his funeral, but then thought again. Why should I be so lucky to get rid of my ego? Everyone else has to live with theirs."

Klaff reassessed fashion in light of recent trends in the art world, the most popular of which is appropriation, lifting images, techniques, and styles from the media and art history. "Fashion is the largest platform for appropriation. Why are all of those photographers snapping pictures at the Paris spring fashion show? Just to steal." Borrowing and quoting from past (and present) styles is business as usual in the fashion world, wherein we've seen revivals of the 40s, the 50s, and threats of a 60s comeback. Klaff himself has been influenced by Japanese fashion and tradition, evidenced by his Sony/Kimono Collection of 1980, clothes which reflected Japan's influence on the States through TV technology. But how far removed historically or culturally does something have to be to be quotable? Klaff ponders: "Antiques have to be, what, a hundred years old to be valuable? How old does it have to be to be recycled? I choose things very close to this time, to where consumers are now." Thirty-five-year-old Klaff uses things that have been popular in his lifetime.

Take, for example, the centerpiece of his new show, curated by Randy Alexander, which will be at Betsy Rosenfield Gallery through July 3. It is "Mini Man," a nonwearable "suit" made entirely of top-of-the-line aluminum miniblinds. These fancy blinds have become the yuppie status symbol of chic privacy, a fashionable way to control the view. If you open these blinds, however, mirrors mounted behind them will reflect back to you your own image. Another Klaff original, "The Search for Serenity Suit," is fashioned from those large photomurals that were popular in hip office spaces--giant pictures of bucolic scenes that were meant to calm workers slaving away in windowless prefab offices. The suit, displayed in front of a photomural collage of an old mill in the forest (though some of the panels are upside down), is oversized and the triangular hat obscures the vision of its wearer. The "Den Shag Mann" suit, made of shag carpeting, also reflects the modern search for individual comfort. "We line our vans with the stuff, cover our rec rooms with it, to bring inside an imitation of natural grass, the lawn, precious nature," Klaff explains. The backdrop for this suit is the remains of the carpet from which he cut the suit, and it looks suspiciously like early 70s minimalist process art.

Klaff does not want his own appropriation of materials to be taken as moralizing: "I do not in any way want to be elitist, or to criticize value systems. Let's just stop and see where we are at. Guy and I have been sitting around talking a lot about this stuff." Klaff, and Guy, are now trying to go beyond the faddishness of fashion to address the real needs that are met by these trends. Fashion can express a hope for interpersonal communication, as in Klaff's Rosebud dress: "In this new age, after all of the art about angst . . . this dress is about love, all about love. Everyone looked for Rosebud (from the movie Citizen Kane), we all look for love, when it is really inside of all of us." A severely romantic dress can communicate the desire for fantasy within a routine. Even the mundane routine can have transcendent value. Klaff has fed his dog daily for several years, but after realizing that he relies on his dog for a profound companionship, he made a suit out of Alpo dog food bags in homage to this relationship, ordinary yet personally special.

This more sensitive Guy Taylor knows that art cannot be created in a vacuum, and tries to speak to everyone's experience: the gallery goers, tradespeople, the neighbors. Klaff, who lives in Wicker Park, invited neighbors into his studio while making the clothes, and explained his needs to his suppliers. He went to a hardware store looking for "jewelry" to accompany his fashions, and the salesperson helped him find colorful faucet fixtures, chains, and reflectors that could double as earrings and necklaces. Everyone understood his purposes. Klaff's most extravagant suit is "The Comfort Master," a large white suit made of disposable pillows, "a buffer from the 80s shock wave." Klaff's neighbor Bernice saw the suit and glibly stated: "You could fall down in that suit and wouldn't feel a thing."

Guy Taylor has matured over the years, searching for ways to integrate his own fantasies and concerns into his fashion, in an effort to reach the psyches of a wide audience, its life concepts. Klaff feels confident of his creations, and has made peace with Guy: "I've found a place between my limitations and my ambitions, and have found myself compatible with that place. Guy is Guy, and I am I, a man for all seasons."

Think twice about the meaning implicit in the clothes you choose to wear, and cruise by the Betsy Rosenfield Gallery tonight, June 5, for the fashion show/performance featuring Guy Taylor's newest. Guy will not be wearing a pink carnation, or smoking a big cigar, but will be on hand to present and discuss his fashions for the sensitive 80s. For more information call 787-8020.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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