We loved the collection — but not for the same reasons Tam made it.
However, in DRAUP’s eyes, the NFT-inspired collection from Vivienne Tam is worth a circle back— though not for the reasons you might think.
Normally in The Lost i we discuss physical symbols translated into the digital world. But in Vivienne Tam’s SS23 show, we saw this turned on its head. We saw digital symbols made physical.
Why Print PFPs?
Before JPEG clad models graced the runway, Tam gave her reasons for creating a collection centred on NFTs, stating:
“Emerging from the world of gamers and young men, a new vocabulary is emerging, rewiring the current fashion landscape as we previously knew it.”
This “new vocabulary” which Tam talks of refers to the set of images making up PFPs (picture for profile). Often taken from the animal kingdom — from apes to toads — they are wordless, symbol-based and most importantly DIGITALLY native.
By putting these symbols, this “URL vocabulary”, on an IRL dress, Tam's collection claims to be “building a bridge to the future,” one between the digital and the physical.
Is that what's really happening here?
Gemini, the co-creator of the NFT project Awkward Astronauts, framed their partnership with Tam as a way “to inspire women and girls to explore the world of crypto” by mixing NFTs with fashion. But looking at the collection in this way — purely as an educational “bridge” to engage a consumer group Web3 fails to serve — is, to us, reductive.
Through Gemini's lens, Tam's collection becomes no more than sports jerseys for those batting for the Web3 team. Propagandistic logos for a digital agenda.
However, if we view Tam’s use of PFPs in a different way, taking into account both fashion’s history of appropriating out-of-context symbols to tell stories and Tam's history of doing exactly that, this collection becomes far more interesting. To give you some examples from the past:
Moschino X Maccy D's
Moschino’s Fall 2014 show took the McDonald's logo and re-contextualized it in high fashion to spark questions around American consumerism, class and culture. By supplanting symbols, Moschino toyed with the traditional meanings of the golden arches to create clothes with real potency. The collection showed that by producing ironic or tacky outcomes, fashion can give new meaning to old symbols with new impact.
Jean Paul Gaultier X The religious icon
For his Spring 2007 collection, Jean Paul Gaultier borrowed from the most iconic of symbolic languages: the Christian visual tradition. As risqué as it was memorable, the collection showed the power of re-contextualising to bring about new ways of seeing the familiar. Attempting to remove the religion by transporting the iconography onto the runway, Gaultier's symbol collab asked us to reconsider divine imagery from a purely aesthetic viewpoint.
Tam X Mao’s portrait
Finally, Tam herself has worked with popular symbols to make her own commentaries. Her SS95 collection saw Mao’s portrait, many in comical stances, printed across clothes.
Drawing on the legacy of 60s Pop Art — where creating new contexts for symbols was the bread and butter — Tam has for a long time played with the power of iconic images to produce new transgressive statements. Here, Mao’s portrait is not interpreted at face value (as some underhanded support for Mao’s regime), but again, the collection uses context to investigate the legacy of Mao’s image.
So, what does a PFP on dress actually mean?
For the SS23 collection, Tam's explanation for using PFPs was uncomplicated. But her design history — her history of using clothes to subvert a symbol’s original meaning — tells a different story.
Deemed a “new vocabulary”, these PFPs are supposedly embroidered on these clothes like badges to help laymen learn a foreign tongue. But can we all say (with a straight face) that these PFPs, this “URL language,” is the future digital language for everyone to learn?
With so few holders (10,000, for most collections, is nothing compared to the number of internet users) and many with inaccessible floor prices, it seems like a long shot to say that these PFPs represent an egalitarian “new vocabulary” as some suggest.
From a different perspective, instead of referencing a new universal language, these PFPs represent the new standards of exclusivity & wealth (two elements that are fashion-fueled). Now on clothes, those standards are associated with the wearer. A look at the high profile owners of the PFPs spotlighted on the catwalk (Punk 6529, Yat Siu and others) only supports this view.
But that's okay!
In fashion, there’s nothing wrong with referencing wealth. The tacky and the gaudy are timeless subject matters. Make a t-shirt print out of dollar signs, or better yet slap a luxury label on its front, and you would be doing a very similar thing.
In our eyes, bad fashion comes when a symbol’s true meaning isn’t acknowledged. It’s bad fashion if a symbol is one-sided, its meaning left unquestioned. It’s bad fashion to be too straight forward.
We loved Tam’s collection, but we believe viewing it from the brand’s perspective alone does it a disservice. Without tension or humour, a symbol loses all power in its fashion context — or worse, it becomes the most boring thing a symbol in the fashion world can be: earnest.