AIGA Body/Language Conference

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by Lindsay Ballant

Fashion and graphic design have always flirted with each other. One need look no further than a William Klein photo, a Pierre Cardin dress, a Marimekko pattern, or a Brodovitch layout to see how these two spheres intertwine. The AIGA celebrated that convergence with “Body/Language,” a daylong event held last month at the elegant French Institute Alliance Française in Manhattan. Guests and speakers comprised a thoughtful mix of notables from the fashion, design, and advertising worlds—Isaac Mizrahi, Andy Spade, John C. Jay, Ruth Ansel, and Abbott Miller—speaking on topics from hairstyles to typefaces, from street culture to haute couture. Debbie Millman, host of “Design Matters” (and a PRINT regular) brought her signature charisma to the stage as host and moderator, easing the fresh-faced audience into the event with an opening presentation about her own past fashion faux pas, which was received with empathetic laughter.

The speakers who followed provided insights on the design/fashion matrix from every point of view. Abbott Miller, in a presentation aptly titled “Graphic Fashion/Fashion Graphics” looked at fashion through the eyes of a graphic design historian, with a witty categorization of couture logos based on their implied gender. His declaration that Yves Saint Laurent was the first “pan-sexual” logo, and his comments on fashion typeface favorite Didot—which, he quipped, is “the anorexic typeface”—had the crowd in (wait for it) stitches.

Europeans Paul Boudens and Étienne Mineur represented the cutting-edge scene in current couture. The Belgian Boudens showcased his penchant for the tactile, classicism, and “happy accidents” with exquisite collaborations with members of the Antwerp Six; the low-key Parisian Mineur of Incandescence Studio left the crowd stunned with his wizardry for A collective gasp was heard when Mineur acknowledged he does most of his own programming.

Brodovitch and his profound influence in the world of magazines couldn’t go without mention during such an affair. Legendary art directors Ruth Ansel and Yolanda Cuomo, both direct descendents of Brodovitch’s editorial legacy, spoke of his work at Vogue and Bazaar, and how his revolution of the page remains the standard for fashion publications today. While the crowd seemed appreciative of the history, I sensed they were eager for Ansel and Cuomo, both celebrated art directors in their own right, to share more of their personal anecdotes of collaborations with the legendary likes of Fabien Baron, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.

One of the most fascinating themes of the day was the role of personal style and entrepreneurial spirit in the marketplace. Designer-cum-businessman Jeff Ng, founder of Staple Design, and Gordon Hull and Daniel Jackson, who founded Surface to Air, recounted how their silkscreened T-shirts and art projects led to multi-national lines of urban wear, and participation within a global market. A-lister Andy Spade, who came off as the Spade brand personified in an ensemble that covered the spectrum of khaki, stressed the importance of keeping the Kate and Jack Spade brands true to their self-proclaimed “outsider” origins. He made clear the brand’s devotion to its philosophy: “Make art, not ads.” Fashion populist and superstar Isaac Mizrahi discussed his attraction to Target, how their “design for all” mantra coincides with his personal conviction about bringing quality design and fashion to the masses. Mizrahi could always be counted on for his whimsical observations: “I think you should be able to judge smart people for looking bad like you judge dumb people for not being smart.” Entertaining stuff, but seriously … imagine design and fashion joining forces to create a utopian amalgam of style and substance. Now that would be fabulous!

Lindsay Ballant is the associate art director at PRINT.