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Katherine Moore

The following note was received by the editors. While we generally only publish by invitation, we do read all submissions and, from time to time, publish those we like.

The past several issues of The Revenant have included drawings by New York based designer Young Koh. So well have her clients kept her reputation confined to the limited sphere of true fashion cognoscenti that relatively few outside that world know of her work or of her exclusive but passionately devoted client base. So it was a surprise (and wasn’t, for isn’t it always only a matter of time before word gets out about these sorts of things) to see her featured on your site. Koh’s is work that calls for attention. But what can we say about it? Is the work that the work does something that calls for words?

I’m assuming you answered this question in the negative, hence the standalone images. To be sure, the work does stand on its own. But if we were to speak of Koh’s work, what would we say? I’d like to offer an attempt.

To begin, we would need to eschew traditional ways we talk about fashion. Even considering the work in terms of “fashion” itself implies, to take but one example, a kind of relationship to time Koh’s work attempts to avoid. Fashion, as we know, is “fashionable,” soon destined to become “unfashionable,” outmoded by new “looks.” The wearer of Koh’s clothing, however, does not sport a new “look” and hence is not fashionable. In some sense, the wearer of Koh’s clothing resists the “look” of the world and its time, for the clothes are not seen nor worn in relation to the fashions of “the day.” Rather, they the clothes speak from a standpoint taken from within the time of life of the person lucky enough to have arrived at the point of wearing them. We find in Koh’s work a kind of fashion that is neither fashionable nor unfashionable.

I’m afraid I’ve already gotten ahead of myself, but readers familiar with Koh’s process will at this point anticipate the rest of what I’ll say. For those less familiar with her method, let me take a step back. Young Koh’s designs evolve out of a partnership with her clients. Through dialogue with Koh, the client articulates her initial sense of what she thinks she wants Koh to design. This involves pointing to existing, typically ready to wear or haute couture pieces (themselves more or less ready to wear in the sense of having been conceived independently of those who will in fact wear them) and discussing their personal sense of style and what they think “looks good” on them. Typically, in the course of dialogue, the client discovers that she in fact does not know what she likes, having only been offered styles that designers have determined “look good” at a particular time. The question of what the client would wear if she could wear anything (rather than simply being worn by other people’s clothes) is one that few people have ever asked themselves and is the question Koh leads her clients to pose. Engaging with Koh in this sort of dialogue (I speak from experience!) leads to a sort of productive confusion, one that problematizes the client’s relationship to all past experiences of fashion. Moreover it positions the client and the designer as equals, as co-creators of an apparel (for a personhood) that has never appeared in the world before.

It is from this state of empuzzled wonderment that the real collaborative work of designing the clothes begins. Koh’s dialogic process thus allows drawings to come forth that are less “bespoke” fashions than fashions through which the client speaks for herself, as it were, possibly for the first time. We call the resulting clothes “ultra-bespoke,” not in the sense of “ultra” as we find it in the more and more commonly used term “ultra-luxury” (i.e., “super” or “extreme” luxury), but in the sense of “beyond” – clothing that is outside or on the other side of what fashion per se can speak.

If Koh’s process sounds familiar, we can say that there may be a relationship between her dialogic method and that of a certain ancient thinker whose conversations led interlocutors into supramundane realms. Koh is essentially engaged in a difficult form of maieusis, helping her clients to be reborn as the authors of their own appearance. To engage Koh’s services is to run the risk that one might not be up to the task she demands. If to author one’s own wardrobe can be a form of self-expression, what if it turns out one has no self to express?

Yet I myself am wandering into dangerous territory, I fear. If it is correct that those who wear these remarkable works of existential collaboration stand beyond the saying of fashion, what we say about it, were we to say anything, runs the risk of reducing it to something it isn’t and can’t be. Essentially, I think The Revenant was right to showcase Koh’s work without comment. Yet it does call for attention.