Carol Christian Poell is a Milan-based Austrian anti-fashion designer. He is known for his highly conceptual work in which he uses singular artisanal techniques. Poell’s most fabled pieces include a sweater knit from tanned pig intestines, a tie made of a horse’s tail, a whole piglet taxidermied into a purse, transparent leather, leather dyed with blood…
Born into a lineage of leather-makers, Poell’s collections are obsessed with cycles of life and death. In Poell’s Autumn/Winter 2001 video presentation titled “Public Freedom,” he continued to explore this fascination by locking models within the cages of a municipal dog pound in Milan.
The opening image is an unoccupied hallway lit by bright white fluorescent lights. The sterile scenery mocks the typical runway show by playing with the structure of the catwalk: there is no one walking in the elongated hallway, and where there should be seats for press, there are cages. The show has become a panopticon. The models pace around nervously—one of them puts a cigarette in his mouth but never lights it. Another grabs hold of the iron bars in a cartoonish “Free Me!” position. The video’s soundtrack consists of incessant electrical whirring and the harsh echoes of dogs barking; the cinematography is all tilted angles—poorly framed, poorly timed, the camera panning from our subjects into nothing. The discomfort is purposeful.
All of Poell’s clothing is infamous for either being so delicately constructed that the wearer might tear it at the seams, or for containing materials that might inflict pain on the wearer. These two kinds of constructions—frailty and pain—are conceptualized as the “DEAD END” and “SELF-EDGE” series. The “DEAD END” line is sewn in such a way that the garment threatens to pull itself apart, where a pair of pants might be made of a single piece of fabric held together by a thin overlock stitch (aesthetically mirroring the stitching on a fresh wound). The “SELF-EDGE” line is represented by impossibly strict materials and cuts; for example, Poell extends the sleeves of a moto jacket into a fingerless glove, and places rough titanium prosthetics over the knuckles and the elbow. In a rare interview, Poell mused, “I do not think of dress as a complement to the body. Rather I seek to annul the body—actually, I consider it only a volume and a three-dimensional form.”
“Public Freedom” likewise neglects the body. Every outfit is dysfunctional; tuxedo shirts are too long and untucked, pants are tucked inside of tall boots, leather gloves are built like tight mittens, belts are replaced by rubber bands, a sweater is knit from strands of thick latex… And the final step of this dehumanization occurs at the very end, when models are credited by first name only, like animals. Poell’s work is a veritable example of the term “anti-fashion” because he never adheres to trends or glamour; he is not concerned with elevating the human form. The look of his garments may sometimes be somewhat strange, but the vast majority of them are actually quite boring when compared to the colorful, shapely theatricality of regular fashion. Since the outward appearance of his garments usually hide a complex or fragile fabrication, the act of wearing them is extremely personal.
For this collection, Poell asked himself “about the difference between us and people who are in jail … I was thinking about Sunday clothes, which represent a rather false situation where even someone who beats their wife at home dresses well.” Poell gives nuance to the dichotomies—of life and death, freedom and imprisonment, appearance and inner workings—by leaving the cage doors open. In one instance, a model is even seen walking into a cage voluntarily, and in another we see a group staring into one from the outside. By including a permeability in the show’s performance, Poell is suggesting that these dualities, though seemingly unchanging and impenetrable, are constructs with which we engage (or perhaps suffer through) for some inexplicable aesthetic. After all, why would someone wear Poell’s garments if not for their own semi-masochistic enjoyment? This question could be posed towards any piece of clothing that isn’t immediately striving for maximum comfort—but the answer lies within our pursuit of supposed beauty, which imprisons us despite the pleasure it bestows.