When Fashion Week Poland was launched in 2009, the hopes that Łódź could be recast as an international fashion capital were still high. Over the next couple of years, the media fed these expectations, describing the event as an annual emergence of the Western spirit,1 the organizers dreamed of “remaking Łódź into a fashion center as grand as New York City or Milan,”2 while city hall generously kept the funding flowing, on the assumption that “hosting the only major fashion event in Poland would significantly raise the city’s international profile and help bring together fashion figures, designers, and stylists from Poland and abroad.”3 Drawing on the city’s history of involvement in textile production and research (the Faculty of Textiles, currently the Faculty of Textile Art and Fashion Design, was established at the local Academy of Fine Arts just after the war), the stakeholders expected the event to become a major success that would help offset the major losses brought on by the post-socialist transition – which struck the country’s light industry base particularly hard4 – and rebrand the city away from the poverty and rampant unemployment that it became synonymous with. “Two planeloads of journalists flew in from Paris”5 for the Łódź Fashion Week, wrote Jacek Kłak, one of the event’s organizers, in 2010. The once vacant industrial spaces now “hosted acclaimed stylists, designers, buyers, even TV stars. After all, celebrities are de rigueur at a fashion show,”6 a piece in Dziennik Łódzki emphasized with no small measure of pride. The only threat to the event’s projected success came from Warsaw, which had more capital at its disposal, financial or otherwise. It soon became apparent, however, that the fears were unjustified – similar events in the Polish capital, like Fashion Weekend Warsaw, most of which were much smaller in scope than their Łódź-based counterpart, failed to meet expectations and soon disappeared from Warsaw’s cultural calendar.
This Polish hunger for fashion is one of the key threads running through the work of Tomasz Armada, whose designs, stylings, and photo shoots typically interrogate both national fantasies and class aspirations of Poles, alongside our (often unsatisfied) consumer desires and needs. Here, fashion is reframed as a convenient instrument of subversive and consistently ironic inquiry into the disparity between rising economic capital and low cultural competence. “Although it is the fourth largest garment manufacturer in Europe, the Polish fashion industry is still deeply peripheral. We’re a sweatshop for our Western neighbors, while the local fashion scene is wrapped in red-carpet affairs of high society and faux elitism, automatically severing itself from the rest of the world, including much of its potential clientele,” comments Armada.7 Here, fashion is conceived as a system of meanings8 – ostensibly unpredictable but still dependent on elusive trends and based on principles discovered and then deliberately exploited by the designer. Armada’s critique stems from his view of fashion as utterly capitalist and consumption-driven, informed by a fetish of creativity rooted in the need to anticipate upcoming trends and incarnate them into as few as two or four garment collections per year. Armada deftly excoriates the mechanical imitation of Western tendencies, including specific dress styles and visual codes, but also particular designer strategies, such as upscaling and the poverty-chic aesthetic, focused on commodifying and mainstreaming decay, deterioration, and ugliness, or the practice of deconstruction, which recast the critique of the fashion system into an object of consumption. Armada’s efforts seek not to ridicule or expose; the designer lays out his goal in clear terms: “It’s time to shake fashion up in this country, and that’s not something I can do myself. Much, then, depends on you.”9
In his Antropologia codzienności [The Anthropology of the Mundane], Roch Sulima juxtaposed two figures, the bazaar man and the supermarket man, to illustrate contrasting practices, relationships between objects and subjects, and, consequently, different ways of being. Sulima also observed that the spread of supermarkets, whose number grew steadily from the mid-1990s, had both stalled and encouraged modernization in equal measure: “the marketplace-bazaar form matured, potentializing its capabilities in the face of approaching crisis.”10. This, in turn, bred “a peculiar type of vernacular activity and mentality,” metaphorically described as the “bazaar or marketplace man,” with his “bazaar” style. This typology, however, requires further elucidation, as the era also spawned another species, that is of the thrift store man. While second-hand clothing stores have a long history in Poland, their popularity exploded during the post-socialist transition and the ensuing influx of second-hand Western garments. While Sulima does not explicitly use class categories, he still writes about distinction and ways in which consumption determines class position – both of which comprise, in my opinion, a key interpretive frame through which to examine Armada’s work. From this angle, the thrift store emerges as an especially interesting case, as it incorporates a variety of class affiliations. For some, the thrift store is a must, the only available option outside the bazaar, while for others a deliberate choice, unprompted by economic considerations. For the latter, the thrift store is a source of better-quality clothing, where people with appropriate competences can distinguish wool and silk, and even identify trends coming back into fashion.
In Tomasz Armada’s work, these three spaces – of the thrift store, the bazaar, and the supermarket – comprise a reservoir of fabrics and patterns pushed out to the fringes of the fashion world, here offered some sort of representation. In the pictures, the glimmering white and yellow jacquards of daintily patterned curtains – a staple of Polish interiors of the socialist era – blend with polyester tracksuits and vertically striped nylon jackets. Leopard print fabrics, widely connoted with small-town fashion sense that was ridiculed as a prime example of tastelessness by the once-popular blog Faszyn from Raszyn, went along with equally exotic sweatshirts stamped with golden leopards, aesthetically hewing close to 1990s couture-baroque patterns of Gianni Versace’s luxury brand. The “feral” prints can also be found on the picture-bearing blankets sold in the marketplaces of the Łódź district of Bałuty and in many other Polish and Eastern European bazaars. Blankets emblazoned with tigers and wolves, hung up by vendors in their makeshift stands or thrown over couches in flats nationwide, are remolded on the bodies of Armada’s models into coats with red lining. Other suppressed aesthetics include acrylic blankets, doilies and table runners, as well as distinctive couch prints – brown, discreet, going well with all sorts of interiors – sold in open-air bazaars and used car marketplaces by Polish manufacturers. Here, the fashion designer draws on a class imaginary, where objects are directly tied to specific manifestations of proletarian and lower middle-class identities. These aesthetics, considered unacceptable to dominant mainstream culture, particularly those of its spheres involved with making and reproducing fashion, are here represented by grandmothers, football fans, blue-collar workers, housing project dwellers, or the tracksuit-clad dresiarze (Polish chavs). They are the comfort objects of that culture, betraying their class affiliation in the eyes of the representatives of dominant culture. The arrangement, however, is devoid of shame – the emotion remains outside of Armada’s logic of action. His shameless gaze meticulously records, reveals, and puts suppressed aesthetics on full display.
In his Obrazy wychodzą na ulice [Images Take to the Streets], Łukasz Zaremba interrogates the entanglement of these suppressed aesthetics and the modernizing and conservative discourses, using as example objects and practices typically interpreted as simplified or crude attempts at professional outdoor advertising. Glitzy banners of various sizes strapped to fences, “rags” with photos from stock libraries, or simple lettering rendered in oil paint or glued onto doors to small stores and shops are widely derided as shoddy, cheap, unprofessional, and unattractive. Zaremba, however, sets out to defend them, demonstrating along the way how the hierarchies of images are tied to aesthetic judgments and political beliefs. It is through this lens that Zaremba also examines Sulima’s bazaar/supermarket binary.11 While the “unprofessional” images and practices, including the ghastly advertising and open-air marketplaces, are most definitely embroiled in free-market culture, which they participate in and support, they could also be viewed as a manifestation of involvement, engagement, and creativity. In this sense, the “man of the bazaar or the marketplace,” often stripped of any authority, is, in the works of Tomasz Armada, a deliberate artist, granted full agency, legitimately and sovereignly participating in culture. The goal, however, was not to engage in simple nostalgization or to idealize the bazaar as a space of traditional economic and social practices, mentally stuck in the past. Neither is it a relic of culture or an alternative to the mainstream; rather, it is a fully valid component of the country’s economic landscape, engaging a considerable portion of Polish society that often fails to find itself represented in the mainstream.
The choices of patterns, textures, and colors may seem incidental, based on that stroke of luck that often accompanies shopping in thrift stores, but they ultimately betray the designer’s sweeping competences, combined with his sensitivity toward suppressed aesthetics. Well-versed in fashion history and tailoring techniques, and with a good ear for context, the designer is able to combine seemingly distant aesthetic extremes, but also create certain afterimages of patterns and figures commonly associated with luxury couture. Images of low and high fashion blend and overlap. A two-piece suited put together from white and yellow doilies and pinned together with a flowery brooch brings to mind the tweed blazers from Coco Chanel, bearing the fashion house’s iconic camellia. Running a little closer to Polish contexts is a set of striped tablecloths adorned with classic folk art-inspired Łowicz motif, made of a blend of polyester and wool that was particularly popular in Poland in the 1960s and ‘70s. Although they are distinct afterimages of local homespun fabrics that once filled Cepelia cooperatives, they were found in a Dukat second-hand clothing store operated by a company importing garments from the UK, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.
“Pauper fabrics” – scraps, rags, garbage, the discarded refuse of the fashion system that remains its inherent part – are recycled by Armada into unique outfits, one-offs, never to enter serial manufacture. These include pants from nonwoven fabric, commonly associated with household cleaning cloths, a shirt made from doilies and table runners, housecoats, and a down jacket filled with scraps from a serger, a machine that uses an overlock stitch to finish the sides of fabrics and prevent tearing. Such recycling practices are typical in economic crises and periods of transition, when new have not yet begun operating at capacity. Although Armada’s recycling efforts might be read as a deliberate cost-saving measure, the practice carries a surfeit of meaning. Here, the recycling (without “producing” additional unwanted scraps) of Muslim prayer mats and soccer scarves manufactured for the 2012 Euro championship that found their way to Poland among the many tons of garments imported from abroad stems not from an effort to counter scarcity; on the contrary, it is driven by the need to manage an excess of clothes. The universalizing power of that overabundance is then turned inside out by Armada, as he takes wholly ordinary, mass produced, and unwanted objects and uses them to create something unique, singular, almost inimitable.
Armada’s designs and stylizations are usually photographed in their local – urban or small-town – contexts. The fashion designer returns to his youth in Końskie, visiting his grandmother in the village of Modliszewice and showcasing his Konfekcja12 collection on family members and acquaintances, often against a backdrop of characteristic, usually faded patterns adorning wallpapers, coverlets, carpets, and curtains. The gesture imitates images from the marketing campaigns of luxury fashion house Missoni (renowned for multicolored knitwear) whose brand image centered the multigenerational character of the family business. Using family members as models is supposed to suggest a long and storied sartorial tradition, with clear overtones of Italian provenance. Thus, Armada performs a subversive gesture: he operates with effects, rather than meanings, and grounds the whole process in simultaneous similarity and contrast (to Missoni). Armada’s return to his childhood, retreading the well-worn trope of an artist confronting his past, produces no undue nostalgia; instead, it aims to capture: not the transformation of his childhood neighborhood, but rather the lack of expected change and modernization across small and medium-sized towns remaining outside the metropole’s area of interest.13 In the material sphere, it captures both the peculiar suspension of the normal passage of time, and the struggle to catch up to the “developed world” – after all, the interior of the apartment is still filled with fabrics straight out of the Polish People’s Republic. In the background of the 2018 shoot in Końskie sits the “only rail station in town, shuttered early in my childhood. Since then, the windows had to be boarded up with corrugated steel, because the building was regularly pelted with stones ripped from the tracks.”14 (Two years later, President Andrzej Duda would sit at a single school desk positioned on the platform for a photo op that would show him signing the recently passed rail transport bill into law.)
The widespread closure of rail links across the country in the 1990s, which ended up isolating entire communities, are not the only afterimages of the post-socialist transition visible in photographs of Armada’s designs. Here, the pictures not only document the designer’s collections, but animate the garments themselves, suggesting meanings inscribed into the photographed fabrics, patterns, and figures. Like the materials the clothes are made of, the pictures themselves are suspect, too – in sharp focus, saturated with color and harshly lit; the shots seem poorly framed, incomplete, they seem incidental, spontaneous. Their quasi-documentary character is not supposed to argue for the veracity or integrity of these representations, but rather match the form and character of the garments they document.
The defunct buildings, viewed as the vestiges of social ties and the vast restructuring of property ownership, alongside rubble interpreted as the material manifestation of decay, provide not only a backdrop for the collection, but also a key context about where the outfits come from and who designed them. The urban landscape of Łódź is far from homogeneous – comprising the postindustrial spaces of factories and tenements, the monumental common use structures built in the socialist era, and even the majestic edifice of the Grand Theater. Here, however, photogenic buildings, recognizable public spaces, squares, and streets are a rarity. Instead, Armada centers on liminal spaces – tenement courtyards, back alleys, and other places that few ever visit except to dump old furniture or unwanted potted plants. Neighborhood and playground objects – benches, monkey bars, carpet hangers – denote the many forms of spending time that working-class children and youths engage in. The outfits confirm that comfort and that autonomy, disputing the sense of elitism that Polish designers tend to strive toward – rather than get “wrapped up in red-carpet affairs,” Armada instead seeks to tear them down and lies upon them. The pictures explore the many different forms in which garments can exist in space amidst other objects, as well as the bodily practices of existing in ambiguous spaces situated on the fringes of capitalism and commercialism. As such, they document the ways in which public spaces may be appropriated for personal use and safe spaces generated on the sidelines of the dominant gaze. The best example of this can be found in the literal, corporeal occupation of space – relaxing on the grass, a soccer field, or the couch as an expression of pleasure, comfort, and trust. Here, physical limitations seem illusory. Scaling gates and fences, a recurring motif on the photographs, suggests the ability to transcend urban boundaries and reach even the most remote, inaccessible spaces.
One of the most intense debates to rock the Polish fashion world in recent years – interrogating the aesthetic and class character of the process of “catching up to the West” – was prompted by the cover of the first-ever issue of the Polish edition of Vogue. The picture on the cover showed two supermodels, with the Palace of Culture and Science in the background, leaning against a black Volga, a legendary socialist-era car. The debate revolved mostly around the backdrop rather than fashion itself, as the models were both clad in rather unremarkable jackets from the luxury French brand Givenchy. Despite that, the cover was soon incorporated into the broader framework of Iron Curtain aesthetics and post-Soviet chic, its most prominent representatives including designer Gosha Rubchinskiy. Althoughthe style, as Agata Pyzik notes, “might have initially betrayed some genuine longing for simpler times, less oppressive and less dominated by capital,”15. it was quickly captured and retooled into a mechanism driving and driven by big profits in fashion.
In this race, Poland emerges as a doubly peripheral country – “Not savage enough, too civilized,”16 too much eastward leaning to be considered a part of the West, and too Western for the all-too-frequently Orientalized East. In consequence, it is not “strange” enough to capture Western attention and profit off self-exoticization. The simple slogans written in Cyrillic on Rubchinskiy’s T-shirts sell much better than ones adorned with Latin script, as the former engender a sense of strangeness – just unintelligible enough for a Western audience to become an appealing export product. Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia (co-founder of the fashion collective Vetements and creative director of the Balenciaga fashion house) exploit a very specific Western reading of Russia or, more broadly, the Soviet Union. Thus, they capitalize on a peculiar fetishization of the East based on the false premise that “over there” everyone looks like the models in their campaigns: clad in a tracksuit and with their heads shaved to the skin, they spend their time Slav squatting in socialist era housing projects. Sensitive toward local materialities Tomasz Armada’s designs are only seemingly easy to incorporate into the broader post-Soviet look. They remain remain critically detached from any possibility of imitating the style they hew particularly close to. If Rubchinskiy- or Vetements-branded outfits seem to transcend inequality, Armada demonstrates that the transcendence is superficial, happening solely on the aesthetic level. In his designs, stylizations, and photo shoots, Armada draws on issues of class and shamelessly puts aesthetics suppressed by the dominant, mainstream culture on full display.