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From porcelain sculptures made out of clothing to a fabric that dissolves when touched by the water, Lara Torres’ research has made her accomplish amazing goals. But her research is ongoing, never-ending; she wants to understand what does fashion mean: as a tool, as a system, as a social construction. By asking questions, she develops projects that make us think of what we wear and why do we do it, but most of them end up unsolved. Because the impossibility of succeeding – in that aspect – is what makes her continue, in a way. Meet the London-based researcher and professor pushing the boundaries of what does fashion mean.
First of all, could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Lara. I am a London-based Portuguese artist/designer and researcher. After many years having trouble describing what I do, I tend to describe my practice now as being rooted in fashion but no longer subjected to its disciplinary boundaries. Fashion practices are what I do in order to understand what fashion is. In parallel with my practice, I have always worked as a teacher and I am currently the Course Leader for the MA Fashion & Textiles at School of Art and Design at the University of Portsmouth. I find it very important to keep an ongoing dialogue with students and readdress concerns as time goes by.
I assume that as a designer you started in fast fashion. How were you before and how are you now?
I started working in fashion when fast fashion started to be the rule instead of the exception. I first studied fashion design in Oporto (Portugal) in the early 2000s. The Portuguese industry was finding it hard to compete with the new players, like the cheap labour that countries like China proposed, with much lower prices than the Portuguese industry could ever offer. I became a fashion designer within that framework, but I soon became discontent with the way fast fashion was taking over the market. I started abandoning the mass production industry and pursuing my own approach to fashion, which was a model based on fashion as a form research. I started moving away from the market and more into conceptualizing fashion as a way of understanding it.
What’s the most remarkable thing during your investigation and research process?
I believe that the most remarkable thing during my research process is the acceptance of failure as part of the process itself. That offered me a range of new possibilities regarding what fashion is. The acceptance of failure as part of knowing things showed me that fashion is something more than just a physical object; it’s an idea and most of all a belief.

In your Out of Metrics conference held at Mazda Space in Barcelona, you said that you started experimenting with fashion as a way to answer some questions related to it. Which were these questions? And once you solved them, what are the new ones you have now?
The questions I had in relation to fashion are as overwhelming now as they were in 2005 when I started my research project. They are very general questions like “what is fashion?” and as such, they are an unsolvable mystery, what the philosopher Jacques Derrida would describe as an ‘aporia’, a philosophical puzzle. In philosophy, an aporia is a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises (i.e. a paradox).
The fascinating thing is that in the process of solving the philosophical questions I had about fashion, I learned a lot about fashion as a discipline. I realized how complex, layered, and mysterious fashion is, as opposed to my initial idea that fashion was, like everyone said it was, shallow and superficial. I have learned that it is definitely not superficial, although at first sight, it might seem to be.
In order to understand fashion, you investigate and experiment with several different disciplines (artistic, technological, scientific, social, etc.). How’s your approach towards them? How have you educated yourself in all these different fields of knowledge? And how do you decide who are you going to work with in every project?
My approach is slightly different in every project, but there is one common thing to all of them: they start with a question that I need to answer, and the media in which I work is decided based upon that. So, to make it straightforward: when I have an idea that I want to explore, like transience, I think about what I want to communicate and find the right partners to work with. When I did An Impossible Wardrobe for the Invisible in 2011 it was about creating a temporary wardrobe as a metaphor for fashion’s impermanence.
I’ve experimented with materials for a long period of time and their complexity led to the conclusion that the best way to approach them was through video recordings of their performativity. After that decision was taken, I put together a call for performers and invited a co-director I knew to collaborate with me in materialising my vision. I believe that no matter what medium I use, I tend to work as a director.

Do you ever think that you may encounter a question whose answer you can’t find? That despite all your investigation and theoretical research, there will be a point in which you can’t understand fashion any further?
That happens constantly. In fact, I believe that the impossibility is what drives my search. I try to understand fashion but it’s so complex that I am inevitably bound to fail. It’s in between the search and the failure that the work happens, the research.
Fashion as identity. What does this concept mean to you?
To me, it was in researching clothes as identity that I started to relate fashion to memory and take that as a pathway into understanding our relation to what we wear. We make decisions on a daily basis about our appearance, mostly assuming that people will read us in a certain way. According to several authors, fashion as a language is a system that is not settled and constantly being reformulated. Still, based on a belief, we make decisions about what we wear on the assumption that we can materialize our personalities into fabric, colour and form and make others read us in a certain way according to what we wear. It is fascinating, isn’t it?

“The acceptance of failure as part of knowing things showed me that fashion is something more than just a physical object; it’s an idea and most of all a belief.”
What applications do you find in your pieces/projects?
My projects are usually tools to discover/reveal ideas, to create awareness or think of something that hasn’t occurred to me yet about fashion.
In one of your earliest projects, The Mimesis, you work with the themes of memory, time and humankind’s alienation through a series of moulds, ceramics and other pieces. How do you translate the conceptual frame into the tangible objects?
The Mimesis was a really long experimental project, one of my first, and it was about materializing fashion as memory. It is very straightforward if I put it into words now, but it demanded very dedicated constant material research for months. I had an idea and invited two collaborators to bring their own knowledge from their disciplines into mine. I collaborated with Mario Nascimento, a ceramist, and Catarina Dias, a jeweller, to develop methods in which we would translate found fashion items into materials that could perpetuate their shape and ‘memorize them’ in the process.
The initial concept of reproducing the mechanisms of memory was effectively translated in developing methods of dipping found garments into a liquid porcelain and firing it at high temperatures. In the process of making the porcelain pieces, the original fabric piece was lost (in the fire) and in a split second the porcelain would crystalize and perpetually keep the shape of the original fabric in great detail – all the texture, folds and creases were embedded in the porcelain.

Linked to the previous one: in addition to working with memory and the everlasting, you’ve also worked on other projects in which the garments disintegrate when touching water (or any liquid), so they’re ephemeral. What’s the relation between the first ones and the latter? What are the similarities and differences?
The technique of mould making that has been with us since ancient times was used in Mimesis to make plaster moulds out of flat garments. In these garments, the positive of the mould would be a latex reproduction, so that brought in an interesting paradox: the reproduction would be a memory of the original garment, would grow old and disintegrate (latex is an organic material that ages through time). I considered taking that idea further by working with materials that would disappear entirely that would burn or dissolve into nothingness.
These pieces of clothing that disintegrate/dissolve are present in projects such as Self Portrait and Young Couple, among others. How did the idea of creating these new materials come out? How was the process of experimentation like from the first idea to the final result?
The initial idea came from taking further that aspect of destruction already present in my former projects Mimesis and Fragment, where a latex/porcelain garment fell apart each time it was worn, becoming more and more disintegrated. I wanted to depart from that and take it further, making something that would entirely disappear and cease to exist entirely – taking the whole idea of fast fashion to an exaggeration, and speculating what the maximum extent of it would be.

Creating pieces that don’t leave a trace is an interesting idea. Have you ever thought of using this ephemeral fashion for environmental social/political campaigns?
Interestingly, An Impossible Wardrobe for the Invisible was awarded the Unique Design Award at the Fashioning the Future Awards put on by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion in London. I applied for that award exactly because I thought it had a role to play in environmental social/political campaigns. The PhD I have been working on for the last five years has a strong emphasis on defining what ‘critical fashion’ practices can be and what role they can play in bringing awareness about fashion’s complex sustainability issues. It is very political in the way it has been positioning fashion as a tool.
Thinking about the future, do you have a main, final goal? How far do you want to go in your research?
I believe that my goal is to help bring to fashion the possibility of thinking critically. Making fashion self-aware is something that I think has gained momentum in the last four years or so. I want to help develop the tools to do it. That is why I have been engaged with academia in recent years. I think that this context can be helpful in developing a kind of fashion thought that brings together theory and practice.
What are you currently working on? What can we expect from Lara Torres during the years to come?
I have a lot of interesting things I will be working on in the next few months. I am part of a show next May that celebrates the tenth year anniversary of London College of Fashion’s Fashion Artefact programme at the Venice Biennale 2018 Architecture Exhibition. I think it will be extremely interesting to see how the MA Fashion Artefact has been challenging assumptions about fashion as a medium. I will also be taking part in the Arnhem Fashion Biennale, an initiative of Artez Fashion and the city of Arnhem in The Netherlands, The State of Fashion, which will discuss new definitions of luxury.
I am currently working on my next project, for April this year, a short site-specific project, where I am working with Coimbra Botanical Garden (1772). I am interested in working with flowers, plants and their historical context. I hope to also publish some written articles that reflect my recent research and can contribute to the wider discussion about an expanded field of fashion.

Laura Nistal
Andrés Caldera, Simao Dias and Rogerio Martins

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