Michael Gabellini in Conversation with Valerie Steele

Designer Michael Gabellini and fashion historian Valerie Steele discuss the idea of simplicity and Donald Trump's style.

Designer Michael Gabellini and fashion historian Valerie Steele discuss the idea of simplicity and Donald Trump's style.

For the second iteration of our semiannual Dialogue, FIT Museum director and curator Dr. Valerie Steele discusses the subject of simplicity with the architect and designer Michael Gabellini. The detail-driven work of Gabellini and his firm, known for their projects with clients such as Jil Sander, Giorgio Armani, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Ian Schrager, can be described as at once intricate, rich, layered, and pure. His firm’s current roster includes the just-opened 1436 flagship store in Beijing and the interiors of residences at 152 Elizabeth, a seven-unit condo building by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando currently under construction in New York’s Nolita neighborhood.

Valerie Steele: How would you define simplicity? What do you think it is?

Michael Gabellini: It’s quite complex. [Laughs] For me, simplicity is doing something that adds value to something. It’s the discipline of design: the idea of oscillating between a want and a need. As an architect, there’s a need—a performative aspect—and a want—a desire to venture into the world of experience and pleasure. We’re always residing between the functional dimension and a layering of an aesthetic or an experiential dimension.

Steele: In a way, fashion design is so different from product design and architecture—because functionalism comes in a far second. Fashion is about novelty, originality, pleasure, and identity. In fact, a term like “wearable” tends to be a dirty word; it means you’re not creative and just doing something too basic. 

I think the idea of simplicity in fashion is problematic. On the one hand, it has the idea of being something basic, which is simple or easy, like a T-shirt. And often, when you get a great designer, like Narciso Rodriguez, who’s often described as a minimalist, the clothes look simple, but there’s a lot of thought that goes into them. Narciso understands drapery and pattern-making. His clothes are not easy to knock off. 

There’s a distinction to be made between simple and basic. Something can look simple but be very complex.

Gabellini: For me, you can equate fashion with the discipline of architectural design. We’ve done a lot of work with fashion designers. Let’s pick up this concept of minimalism: take Jil Sander, for example. Everyone equates simplicity with minimalism. Spatially, in architecture, the perception is that it’s about reducing something, or “living without.” With Sander, the idea of the suit—not that she invented the concept of the power suit—of “daywear,” that it could be quite expansive in terms of its aesthetic dimension. You could wear it during the day and transition into evening; it’s something that had an extended utilitarian value. What was fascinating to me about Sander is, if you think of a sexy chassis and open up the hood and marvel at the engine inside—that was really her playground. She was interested in what the performative quality or functional dimension of a jacket was. But when you put that jacket on it moved like a pair of jeans; it had this sense of comfort, and that in turn could give you a more qualitative aspect of confidence.

Steele: With designers like Jil Sander or Albert Kriemler of Akris, the clothes are often described as “classics” with the implication that it’s fairly unchanging—or in some sense basic—but both of them put a lot of research and development into making the best jacket or pair of pants. Anyone can make a pair of pants in size zero, but how do you do it so that it’s still flattering in different sizes? How do you make a jacket, often with different materials, so that it performs better—so it doesn’t wrinkle when you sleep on a plane, doesn’t feel like a cheap polyester jacket that won’t wrinkle under any circumstances? A lot of the best fashion designers who are associated with minimalism or a certain kind of simplicity actually have done a lot of research on this.

Gabellini: It’s the notion of tradition vs. technology. To continue with the Sander thread: As a designer and a pioneering minimalist, the way she engages in her work is by understanding the body and the way it moves. I remember when she began thinking of menswear, specifically, and how men move differently. She’d think about the shoulder, and how complex it is in terms of proportion and stabilizing the form. She’d use layering—anywhere between 12 to 15 layers—to create a garment of lightness, buoyancy, and movement. Through this process, you create an emotional and physical connection. It becomes an experience.

Steele: When I worked with Albert Kriemler, he’d talk about how it’s not enough for something to look good—it has to feel good, too. He’s always trying to make clothes effortless for the wearer. I remember seeing how carefully crafted the shoulder was, even in terms of having a specialist person iron each piece so that as it went together. 

It’s interesting you mentioned that Sander is inspired by Neopolitan menswear—the original jacket that felt as easy as a sweater—because womenswear has so much to do with the visual. Increasingly, with Instagram and all the fashion shows available on the internet, there’s less attention to the way clothes feel and to the craft of making it. The way most designers are taught is: You make a sketch, pass it off to an underling. Then you get a designer, like Rick Owens, who really understands pattern-making, and he’ll do things that are so much more creative, because it’s not sent off to a subcontractor. Those designers create something holistically from the bones of the construction.

Gabellini: You can also think about the concepts of the conventional—and unconventional. When you think about the conventional, you think about something basic; unconventional, you think about something artistic—somebody that’s operating in their own world. It’s interesting, though. For me, convention is also about common sense, deeply rooted in some form of tradition and craft, an experiential way of knowing. I actually look at convention as something that’s embedded with memory and meaning.

What you’re seeing with millennials—and I have a studio full of them—is that they are computer-driven and reside in a socially manipulated environment, yet have such a basic understanding of who they are, what they’re able to do, and what they want to do in the world. Today, perhaps there’s a misperception of the role of the pattern maker, or even the traditional methods of producing something. It’s more about the worker vs. the creator.

Steele: Initially, with fashion design, there was so much craftsmanship involved. Designers were artisans long before they were “designers.” Usually, they were a couturière, a woman who sewed and knew how to make a dress. But by about 1860 it had switched to the male couturier, someone who designed clothes and ran a fashion business. The actual making was delegated to subordinates who were female—the seamstresses, pattern makers, etcetera. They were really proletarianized. At the time, clients were connoisseurs, but today most consumers can’t tell the difference between objects that are well-made and those that are not.

I remember once sitting with a dealer in Indonesia while he showed me what a hand-stamped batik was like compared to something that was hand-drawn, then something machine-stamped compared to something that was just a fake. You could see a quality of detail that isn’t seen by most people.

Gabellini: You’re raising this idea of fake vs. real, imitation vs. creation. It’s something I always struggle with in our work in terms of process, because we’re all computer-driven within the design studio. Yet if you ask somebody to draw a line—to truly create a calligraphic moment that’s original, organic, and spontaneous—they have a lot of difficulty doing it. However, with the continuous development of software and technology, design is becoming more intuitive.

What you’re talking about, which I think is so compelling, is this comparison between the practitioner vs. the artist. It’s something designers are always confronted with. We’re not artists. As architects, we have to get a license to perform what we do, and there’s a functional responsibility.

Additionally, we actually have clientele we’re engaging with. The world of design, in this sense, is very complex. You have to peel away something that’s process-driven to achieve something that’s more than a straight act of creation.

Steele: Going back to this idea of creation, traditional craftsmanship and technology are not at all necessarily in conflict. On the contrary, they work together. Technology can enable you to make ideas real that wouldn’t have been possible without it. You see this quite clearly with architecture—the kinds of architecture that couldn’t be done without it. Now it’s starting to be seen, as well, in fashion. Certain kinds of 3-D printing can accomplish something not just more cheaply or mechanically—they’re making things that couldn’t have been done before without that technology.

Gabellini: My work is something that I think of as pretty simple and straightforward, yet the concept or details are not easily digestible for everyone. It’s like fashion, which also struggles with the mass and public dimensions. It’s like going from prêt-à-porter to couture: How you engage the complexity of craft is how it equates with the end user.

Steele: Which goes back to value, both in terms of economic value as well as artistic value. The old Marxist idea was that the more work you put into something, the more it was worth. This isn’t necessarily the case, but it does tend to influence how we value a lot of things.

Gabellini: When you’re computer-driven, you have an ability create “hyperform.” The way I look at design is something you could call “slow form,” rather than “hyperform.” Not unlike a fast-food analogy.

Steele: It’s funny you mention this, because soon we’re doing a panel at FIT on fast and slow fashion, based on the idea of fast and slow food. With fast fashion, technology is used to make it cheaper—and to make more of it. Potentially, of course, you can use technology to make something more special. Let’s say you have a hand-tailored suit just for your body, but if you could do a body scan and put in a program so that the suit was made specifically for your body, you’re using technology to get a much more personalized result. 

I liked your idea of convention. In Anne Hollander’s book Sex and Suits, she talks about the suit and how it has succeeded and lasted for centuries not only because it’s more functional but because through a process of trial and error it became the convention. With it, you could aestheticize the male body—and later, the female body—so that it looked better. If correctly
done, a suit could make your shoulders look broader, your waist narrower. You could be styled by the suit in a way that’s conventional—everyone recognizes it’s a suit—but also in a way that’s an idealizing, an aestheticizing.

Gabellini: There are definite parallels in how you think about residential design and fashion. In residential design, you operate within a private space that can be quite specific, elevated, and very unprescribed.

Steele: So much of fashion is end production and designed to be disposable. Your buildings are theoretically supposed to last, if not eternally, like a Greek temple, at least for a while, whereas especially with fast fashion people have become conditioned to throwing out the clothes in a matter of weeks or months. Which is an extraordinary situation. It’s certainly not simple, the mounds and mounds of used clothes filling waste piles and being shipped overseas to Third World countries.

Gabellini: In fashion, the end result of consumption is waste piles? So what does actually become of these clothes?

Steele: Landfill. Or they’re sent abroad in these gigantic bales to Africa and the Middle East—which destroys the local fashion industries, because you can get free or super-cheap stuff from Western dumps. There’s actually a movement now to keep that from being dumped because it’s appearing to have a destructive effect.

Gabellini: Going back to the act of creating something that’s direct and can be understood and consumed, one of the people I’ve always been fascinated is with the Czechoslovakian scenographer Josef Svoboda. He was a set designer. He operated in a lot of different fields and his vision of simplicity became instructive to me. In theater, if you turn on a single light bulb on stage, you should be able to create 1) a sense of place, 2) a time of day, and 3) an emotional state—white light or a red? Regardless of the discipline of design, it’s how you formulate the concept of simplicity and the process of breaking down its complexity. There are many moving pieces to his theory. In fashion, there’s always this idea of the lone wolf.

Steele: Well, that’s the image—but it’s false!

Gabellini: [Laughs] Yeah, the genius! It’s really not about them. It’s about how it’s done. The light bulb is a great metaphor for this. It’s something you plug in—it’s also connected to the water, the dam, the electricity plant that powers it. It’s the connective thought to the macro environment.

Steele: There’s also the idea of the light bulb as a sudden epiphany of genius. People go, “The light bulb turned on and then I did this!” Creativity studies tend to show it’s not just the lone genius with the epiphany moment, but a whole group of creative people working together in a matrix within which these ideas are encouraged—or discouraged. It’s not that suddenly in Florence in the middle of the Renaissance, weirdly, all these genius babies were born. Rather, it was the context: People were interested in art, there was competition, there were buyers, etcetera. It was conducive to encouraging creativity.

I’ve been working on a new edition of my old Paris Fashion book, trying to figure out what it was about Paris that made it a center of creativity. People would come from all over the world to be there, and partly it was this arena of players encouraging and competing with each other, including the people wearing the clothes, the connoisseurs who were more knowledgeable and able to pick up on something interesting. Alexander McQueen was probably a genius, for example, but if he hadn’t been in the place to get clever people to work with him and people to appreciate what he was doing, could he have made it? No.

Gabellini: It’s back to invention vs. imitation, and how you look at that. I come from a tradition where imitating—or the act of imitation—is called practice. There’s something you admire and emulate, and through that process of permutation, you create a magnetic attraction to a group sharing similar passions. You can think of Picasso, Braque, and many, many artists who were inspired by one another.

My interests and sensibility are more minimal than embellished. The psychology of minimalism has always been that in order to practice it, you have to go off to the ashram for a year. It’s always been about doing without. It’s cold, it’s spare, and also something that’s maybe based on an assumption of guilt.

Steele: You certainly see that with Adolf Loos: Ornament is crime! It’s not that he abolished it. But that’s certainly the image you get. Or Chanel: Style is refusal!

Gabellini: You’re right! I think it’s interesting that you can often see within fashion the arc of an individual’s career, and the different inspirations they studied and absorbed along the way. I embrace minimalism as something that is, like in film, a process of editing. It’s about concentrating experience. Akin to creating the most sublime tomato sauce imaginable. [Laughs]

Steele: You don’t take out all the tomatoes!

Gabellini: Something can always go wrong. For me, the act of creating something simple is actually enhancing a function. With a house and its interiors, it’s thinking about daily activities and necessities. It’s how you look at that in increments to enhance functionality or combine different adjacencies. Convention says you have a bath next to a bed. Unconventionally, you could say that you don’t, and therefore you can change and separate them. What’s happening now in design is the experimentation of recomposing adjacencies of functionality in more unconventional ways.

Steele: One thing you notice in terms of design conventions is the color phobia, which runs rampant. In fashion, it’s all black, grey, and blue. Color, like ornament, somehow pollutes the design. That’s another thing with simplicity: It’s so often confused with purity. Which is such a loaded term. How can there be impure—immoral—design?

Gabellini: For me, it’s thinking about notions of perfection vs. Eastern notions of the imperfect. I certainly tilt more toward the imperfect. I’m thinking of the Polish artist and filmmaker Artur Żmijewski, who is blind. He invites disabled people to perform tasks that foreground their impairments, and captures the outcomes with startling honesty.

I just came back from L.A, where they had a Black Mountain College exhibition at MOCA. It was very revealing. When you think of a tradition of design—a culture of practice—and this kind of pan-disciplinary sense of design, there’s a perception: Are you, as a designer, supposed to become a kind of Renaissance man or someone who’s doing one thing very well? There’s an inclination toward specificity in any kind of profession. A portion of the exhibition was the art of textiles—people like Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg engaged fabric in some of the early performances and “combine” paintings. For me, the show was a crystallization of how design can be a springboard for problem solving with beauty embedded into it.

Steele: One of the things that makes fashion so different from other types of design is that it’s on the body. It has to do with the person’s identity and appearance. You’re pushed more to a conventional idea of beauty, in part, because it’s hard-wired into us when it comes to our assessing our human beauty. There’s a book called Survival of the Prettiest, by Nancy Etcoff, which talks about how people really are hard-wired to prefer people who are young, who have symmetrical facial features, who have healthy-looking skin and hair, because all of that indicates they’re a viable mate to reproduce with. If your Paleolithic ancestors preferred people who had skin diseases, asymmetrical facial features, and were grossly overweight, they wouldn’t have survived. 

If you have clothes, the clothes should enhance what we’re talking about in terms of human ideals of beauty. Because of this, people are much more tolerant of bizarre-looking designs and other objects around them than they are of the clothes they’re wearing. Think, for example, of when Rei Kawakubo did her Body Meets Dress collection, which has weird bumps all over—you looked like a hunchback. When Merce Cunningham used Rei’s clothes for one of his dances, the dancers had problems because it was difficult to move in the costumes, but people didn’t say “Oh my God, that’s ugly and horrible” because it was modern dance. When it comes to their clothes, though, people certainly don’t want to look like they have a dowager hump, or a big fat stomach, or a strange ulcer-like thing coming out of them, because those just violate every idea of human beauty.

The relationship between beauty and simplicity goes back to this idea of symmetry rather than asymmetry—the latter of which is maybe not more complex, but it’s certainly more complex to register and deal with.

Gabellini: Symmetry is a construct of the Western world. The notion that attaining perfection is better than embracing the imperfect has always captivated me.

Steele: I know that Japanese aesthetic theory favors asymmetry, but not for human bodies. Symmetry is something that’s been in fashion across the board: Asia, Africa, America. People just favor it. Ideas of beauty are remarkably consistent. Now it’s Kate Moss, and it used to be Marilyn Monroe. They all have a 0.7 waist/hip differential, in contrast to a young fit male, who is 0.9. So yeah, the breast or bottoms might be bigger or smaller, but they’ve all got the same waist/hip differential because that says “female.” This is a really easy way to say “nubile” or “fertile”—she’s not pregnant, she’s not prepubescent, she’s not old, she’s able to perform. I think our ideas of what’s beautiful are hard-wired into us; it’s not all cultural.

Gabellini: The question is, what do you do with all that knowledge?

Steele: Precisely.

Gabellini: Within fashion and with regards to body type, there’s a backlash against women who go to extremes to conform to a type.

Steele: On the whole, do you think that simplicity is better than complexity in design? With minimalist and maximalist designers, what are the pros and cons of both? In fashion, there’s been a minimalist trend the past few years, but now it appears to be out the window and everyone’s going maximalist.

Gabellini: It’s two sides of the same coin. The shift between a want and a need is constant. That’s how I have to look at the act of designing something, whether it’s a private residence or a commercial condominium. For example, we’re working with Tadao Ando on a condominium in Nolita. We had a discussion at one point, because housing in America is a new idea for him. His preference was creating something unique for an individual or a family. I don’t really think of him as an architect; I think of him as a master builder—a practitioner. He said that it’s all the same act: the process of thinking about living simply.

This gets me thinking about the nature of creating a fashion collection and how there’s not this transitional nature of beauty, even as it relates to sexuality and all of the things happening in terms of identity. Maybe this is going a bit off topic, but this morning I was listening to NPR, and there was a segment on how, with tax day upon us, changeability is upending tax structures. Whether you’re gay or transgender or have multiple partners or multiple offspring with different partners, how do you file for the very thing to stay stable within your community? The tax structure is actually discriminating against belonging. For me, simplicity has to also extend into society. The idea of complexity and simplicity is a continual cycle of renewal and rebirth, and hopefully an expansive view of the possibility of change.

Steele: Another thing that strikes me, on a completely different tangent, is that the scientific definition of elegance for physicists has to do with the simplest solution—that’s the “most elegant solution.” We tend to think of creativity in terms of artistry or craftsmanship, but there’s scientific and technological creativity as well. Going back to your comparison between using technology vs. traditional craftsmanship, they’re in effect part of the same range of pictures. Even the most traditional craftsmanship involved various forms of earlier technology.

Gabellini: It’s a culture of denial we live in. Is the Earth changing? Global warming? Our current culture opens up diverse disciplines operating between the facts and something that’s part fiction. The way in which even some architects, who shall go unnamed, think of themselves as artists. They’re not artists; they have to uphold gravity!

Steele: Don’t they hire an engineer for that? [Laughs]

Gabellini: For us, just holding up one floor above the other and creating space—there are ways to go about that. When you think about form or creating space, it goes back in time a bit to the idea of type. In fashion, there’s typecasting; in the spatial dimension, type or typology of space has a historical dimension to it. Now, with the advent of the computer and digital technology, you have the possibility to expand or create different ideas of geometry. Which can, literally and figuratively, place you in a different space. It’s always curious as to whether these ideas of hyperform vs. slow form, or minimalist vs. maximalist, or conventional or unconventional play together.

Steele: To what extent should clothes follow the line of your body or create alternative shapes around it? This is a very basic question. Trousers and shirts are the obvious way to go—two arms, two legs—or do you go, “All right, but there are plenty of other ways to cover or wrap the body.”

Gabellini: Ian Schrager often uses the Leonardo da Vinci quote “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” As someone who has worked with Ian, I can say it’s something he really believes in. In the end, we’re talking about flip sides of luxury, which is basically commodity. If you think about luxury, it should equate to ultimate comfort, and the end result of that is pleasure. There’s a process of creating in any design discipline: It could be basic, or it could be something that’s sculptural.

Steele: Going from simplicity to luxury opens up a whole other can of worms as to whether it’s about comfort, or pleasure, or rarity. I’m reminded of these pictures I saw of Trump building interiors. Which I’m sure Donald Trump thinks are luxurious. It makes me wonder: Is “dictator taste” an actual indication of sin? Is it evil to have bad taste?

Gabellini: [Laughs] What’s going to become of the White House if Trump is elected?

Steele: Is it going to be gilded everything with gigantic, horrible portraits of the dictator? Everybody laughed at Saddam Hussein’s palaces, but there does seem to be something you could call “dictator luxury.” These are modern dictators we’re talking about, though. You could certainly say that the Tokugawa shoguns had beautiful taste—beautiful and austere.

Gabellini: I love that! You could say with “dictator luxury” the one mistake they make is to imitate rather than evolve something.

Steele: But they’re imitating Versailles on some hideously debased level. [Laughs]

Gabellini: As a part of an apprenticeship in Italy, I went to Pietrasanta and learn how to work stone. While I was there, I visited a family-owned studio of sculptors going way back. In Sem Ghilando’s stone yard at that time, there was a commission in production for a Japanese real estate mogul who decided that at some point Italy was going to get carved in half, and that half of it—from the Uffizi down—was going to fall into the ocean. Because of that, he commissioned all of the works of Michelangelo: Is it complexity or simplicity to actually recreate something? Because he was bringing them back to Japan, he recreated them at ¾ scale, actually reducing them and creating something absolutely absurd.

Steele: It’s so kitsch! Even the Japanese, who so often have supremely good taste, did this! I guess you could say simplicity is usually not kitsch, whatever else it might be. You might say sometimes it seems too boring or basic, although at a high level, like Katsura palace [a 17th-century villa in Kyoto], it looks simple but is hugely sophisticated and unbelievably beautiful. The one thing you could say is that simplicity is almost never kitsch. Can we say that? That it’s less likely to be kitsch than maximalism?

Gabellini: Simplicity is most certainly not Trump!

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