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With a strong desire to break the stereotypes related to gender, the stylist Seunghee Son and the filmmaker Lusha Alic have worked together on this film. Focusing on the concept of performance and on the relationship between fetishism and feminism, the final result is imbued with an intense, experimental, dark and even hypnotizing vibe. We talk to its stylist and creative director about what does ‘neutral fetishism’ means, how does she approach it, and what are the next videos to come in this series exploring the bond between socially accepted attitudes and non-conformist individuals.
We already know Lusha, since we’ve worked with her in some shoots. But let’s talk about the both of you. Who are Seunghee Son and Lusha Alic?
I’m a stylist and creative director based in London (United Kingdom) and Seoul (South Korea), whereas Lusha is a filmmaker and photographer based in London – though she was born in Slovenia. We both graduated from London College of Fashion and share a common interest in themes related to gender when producing a body of work. To me, photography and fashion film are mediums to explore the subversion of a pre-established and confined idea of gender identity and challenge the gender binarism that has been deeply settled down in fashion – or culture in general.
How and when did you two meet? 
I came across Lusha’s works on Instagram a year ago and was obsessed with how she plays with imageries of the human body – especially the female body form – and accompanying sensual vibe. I got mixed feelings over her aesthetic: it is somehow dark but strong, raw and even unfamiliar, weird. Her body of works provide new perspectives of gender representation, which made me want to approach her to collaborate. So I sent her a direct message on Instagram, and that is how we got to work together.
Have you ever worked together before, or is Strange Encounters: Fetishism + Feminism II the first collaboration you do?
Strange Encounters: Fetishism + Feminism is the first collaboration we’ve done together although I wanted to work with her way before this project – while I developed the concept/mood for this film, I had Lusha in my mind as a filmmaker all the time.
How did you come up with this project and idea?
The project began as my graduate work at university. I have always asked myself questions about gender roles and wanted to visually satirise the culturally defined gender identities. During my final year, the film The Danish Girl was released, which rekindled my attention to the matters of gender and sex as well as to the art of the moving image.
With regards to fetishism, the inspiration came from my daily activities related to fashion, from window-shopping to reading magazines and watching runways. I noticed an increasingly flowering of fetish elements including latex, PVC, bondage, and masks on runways of a broad range of brands, from Alexander McQueen to Balenciaga and Hood by Air. On the other hand, many fashion magazines started to illustrate diverse aesthetics, including androgyny, through fetishist styling.
From this observation, I felt that there was a contemporary appropriation of fetishism. Some years ago, the term used to be perceived as a thing related to the ‘world of dominatrix’, but now it seems it’s depicting non-gender-conformist people. Surprisingly, this idea actually corresponds to a contemporary trend of fetishism, masquerading and cosplaying, which in practice leads population to experience its own fantastical life. With this in mind, I felt the need to overcome a common misconception, and this is how I extracted an idea of ‘neutral fetishism’ which may sound complicated and somewhat ironic for most people.
What do you mean by ‘neutral fetishism’ and what is its relation with feminism?
Neutral fetishism refers to a new trend that doesn’t conform to an established gender identity in terms of style, clothing, and role-playing within S&M practice. This idea stems from feminist movements, given that there has been always a core and reciprocal relation between fetishism and feminism. In other words, the idea of fetishism in fashion has evolved alongside the rise of a second and a third wave of feminism: in the 1960s and 1980s, the highly sexualized culture and clothing revolution (like the mini skirt, for example) hailed as a sign of women’s liberation, empowerment and celebration, while the representation of fetishism in fashion deviated from its role of driving men’s sexual arousal, and thus moved beyond objectifying women. So the practice started to become a medium of transgressing social and cultural codes.
On the other hand, the most recent trend of fetishism, masquerading as another or cosplaying, is not necessarily associated with patriarchal heterosexuality nor traditional gender roles, as the practice is a matter of attitude, performance and sartorial codes. This aligns with the third-wave feminism, which incorporates elements of queer theory, transgender politics and a rejection of gender binarism. Fetish culture now challenges traditional notions about gender, sexuality and the body just as fashion does. Therefore, contemporary fetishism compels to set gender boundaries and it is becoming neutral. And this is how I came up with the concept.
How has the creative and production process been to get to the final result?
I spent most of the time on a theoretical research in order to create a storyboard rather than going through a series of technical experiments. I delved into the history of fetishism in relation to gender and into the work of Judith Butler, who introduces ideas about performativity and queer theory. Besides, I conducted further research into performance art, specifically art that represents fetishist themes or pieces where gender is challenged. More specifically, I studied Leigh Bowery, whose fashion, makeup, and performance works became references that act as stylistic influences for my outcome and provide a context for my own work to be situated within. In addition to that, there is also an inspirational article about Claire Barrow by SOMA Magazine that addresses her Fall/Winter 2016 collection as a form of artistic expression, rather than an outward manifestation of personality that reflects the gender identity.
This way of breaking the division between menswear and womenswear has had an immense impact on my point of view towards expressing gender identity through fashion. In short, the works of Leigh Bowery and fashion films produced by Claire Barrow were the two strongest influences on making a storyboard for my film. I put all the details, including scenes and references of moving image effects into the storyboard so that I could give Lusha a clear visual plan. However, there were some improvised scenes as well. It really saved the time of post-production since we did not go through any re-edition process.
Another important part of the creative process is gathering a team because I am looking for people and locations with weird vibes, which is uncommon and hard to find. Interestingly, I found Instagram more useful than agencies for doing the casting. Thanks to new communication technologies!
Guide us through the overall aesthetic of the film: the clothes, the makeup, the music, the set design, etc.
My intention is that all elements – including all the ones you mention in the question – induce a strong feeling that the model is consciously giving a performance. In particular, the styling and the makeup were done regardless of any gender-based taboo in fashion; it is more about expressing the art of dressing up and a corresponding attitude. For this reason, these elements are merely a medium of the performance. Meanwhile, the set design and the music provide a stage set for the performance.
I’ve read the project will become a series of fashion films. Why did you choose fetishism as the main theme? And what is the main aim of this project?
I particularly like how the words ‘fetishism’ and ‘feminism’ sound paradoxical. They are perceived as if they are not related to or rather confronting each other. No one, even tutors at university, expected that I would be able to illustrate gender non-conformism through fetishist elements. But my aim is to break a stereotypic thought on this concept by introducing the idea of neutral fetishism and by pushing the boundaries of gender roles and identity.
As a curiosity, what is your personal fetish?
To be honest, I have not found any particular fetish at the moment, which is ironic.
How many more films are you planning to do? And what other kinds of fetishism will we see?
As long as I can find any kind of fetishism that I can relate to feminism, I will continue producing. I cannot give an approximate number for now, but I can tell you that my interests for next films would be something practical rather than focused on an object – I have bondage and vacuum fetish in mind. In addition to that, I have been researching kinds of fetishism specific to Asian culture as well.
What is the role of the characters and the clothing? Can you explain us what is the recurrence of red numbers throughout the whole film?
As mentioned above, it could be said that the film pays homage to Leigh Bowery. The documentary film Legend of Leigh Bowery by Charles Atlas made me realise a side of his life that includes the physical and psychological hardship he had to challenge in order to break cultural gender stereotypes. With this in mind, I directed the role of the model in a manner that shows a dichotomy between fashion as a playful medium of fetishist performance, and a distressing gender barrier that has been deeply settled down under conservative society. Therefore, the model shows diverse emotions throughout the film: bliss, sadness, mystery, playfulness, creepiness, and so on.
In the meantime, the recurrence of red numbers throughout the whole film is a device that divides the scenes in an order of developing emotions and moods, just like a theatre play does. By doing so, the red numbers contribute to the impression of watching the model perform. Moreover, this linkage to the genuine play signifies gender-related restrictions in theatre, such as the ban of women on stage.
What feeling would you like to evoke to those who see this work? Is there any message/sensation you want to send/leave to the viewer?
I intended to evoke morbid fascination. But it is open for interpretation to each individual who sees my work; it could be regarded as a film addressing gender role stereotypes or denaturalisation of heterosexuality. However, it is more important for me to influence the way people think about the relationship between gender and dressing up. That being said, the film insists on a context where fashion is no longer a matter of gender, but of performance. Fashion should be a medium of self-expression and therefore there should be no gender-specific rules in clothing. The act of dressing up is a performance itself.
What can we expect from the next video of the series? Anything you can reveal?
The next film is about subverting traditional gender hierarchy within S&M practices. The inspirational reference comes from Allen Jones and the film Maitresse by Berbet Schroeder.

Vincenza Nobile

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