Jonathan Saunders, on taking over the Tate Tanks lobby for his latest show
There was a sharp chill in the air on Sunday night as people waited in the dark for the doors to open. Towards 8pm, they finally did, and guests filed down a ramp familiar to many during daytime hours. An eerie green light, made even eerier by simulated fog, beamed from the far end of the enormous turbine hall. And as hundreds of heels struck the floor, the echo of clip clopping added another sensory element to an unprecedented occasion.
Indeed, this was not just some underground dance party, held in an abandoned industrial space on the outer edge of London. This was the Tate Modern and everyone had assembled for Jonathan Saunders’ S/S 2013 fashion show.
The runway zigzagged through the subterranean lobby of The Tanks, the museum’s newly expanded space that used to house the former power station’s oil tanks and is now a venue for performance art and film. Massive mirrors leaned against the pillars so that when the show began, the reflections of models and guests could be viewed like some sort of installation piece. It was a moment worthy of Thomas Struth.
But after the show - an impressive collection of sleek silhouettes enlivened with op-art colours, holographic striping and lustrous sequin paneling - Saunders shrugged off any grand comparisons. ’I have to be humble about it,’ he said during a quick chat back outside in the dark for a cigarette. ’It’s the Tate Modern for Christ’s sake. And it’s a couple of pencil skirts.’
Really, though, the Scottish designer’s mastery of sharp colour and graphic prints makes a gallery setting the perfect backdrop. It’s the reason why he has selected the Hayward and Barbican galleries in the past and view-orientated vacant office spaces such as Paddington Central and Broadgate Tower more recently.
’There are two types of spaces I find relevant - ones where you relate to normal life like office space and I love that feeling that gives,’ he explains. ’Gallery spaces are inspiring in the way they’re laid out - which is not in any way to suggest that fashion is art. But it makes it easy.’
And so for this, arguably his best executed collection yet, why not aim high? The museum, Saunders revealed, had been a dream space from when he was a student; once he had confirmation, he also gained inspiration. ’It’s tough as designers to draw inspiration when you don’t have any time to be inspired,’ he admited. ’Whenever you can grasp a chance to get that, then you do.’
Art and design factor strongly in Saunders’ work. 1940s photographer Paul Outerbridge was a reference for his A/W 2011 collection, and the female subjects photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld were inspiration for S/S 2011. Meanwhile, Brancusi’s aerodynamic sculptures and Irving Penn’s sand collages were starting points for A/W 2008; the work of Ettore Sottsass was cited for S/S 2008; Daniel Buren for A/W 2007; and David Hockney for S/S 2006. The list is substantial, to say the least.
Beyond the art influence, dance - in particular the Scottish choreographer Michael Clark - factored into his references, too… even though Saunders ultimately declared the collection ’non-referential’. Those iridescent leather skirts and slinky sequin separates had disco in their DNA.
Meanwhile, the space - in all its rawness - will soon be closed for additional expansion; it will never again look like it did for Saunders’ show. Which gives the designer some small satisfaction. ’It’s about creating a world and creating an atmosphere,’ he says. ’It’s so important in fashion to try and show a point of difference. And the venue and the space in which you show and the feeling you’re trying to evoke from a collection, is all a part of that.’