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Victor Wilde and Bohemian Society: Progressive Fashion with a Fine Art Soul

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Victor Wilde approaches fashion as an artistic undertaking. His label, Bohemian Society, pursues a combination of avant-garde mixed-media design and hand-wrought craft, with elements of painting, text, and assemblage that go way beyond overused terms like "wearable art" to achieve a gallery-worthy level of innovation, edginess, and risk. Wilde sees fashion as the ultimate forum for a literally -- and metaphorically -- collaborative, interactive art form, wherein the viewer (the wearer) completes the story/narrative/final form/meaning of a work of art/piece of apparel -- finishing it at last by the power of their kinetic and emotional presence and participation.

It has been said that fashion is art; and sometimes art is fashion. But usually what we mean is that the fashion in question is so unusual, well-crafted, conceptually expansive, and creatively conceived that's it's like art. Armani and McQueen have had museum retrospectives. Fashion photographers like David LaChapelle and Richard Avedon have achieved fine-art status with their commercial images. But even then, it's still a simile with something to prove; it's rare that "art" is evoked as in "take it off your body, frame it on the wall." I think what they mean is that they are delighted and surprised to encounter clothing that makes people feel the way art is supposed to make people feel -- smart and emotional, kindred to something outside themselves; reflective of something hidden and essential about the world; beautiful and dark with evidence of how it was made inherent in the finished object; enduring, but of its time. That's how I see the clothes being made in downtown L.A. by Victor Wilde's Bohemian Society -- but with all that art-world love, come certain practical-world problems.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Gaby Esensten.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Adrienn Recio.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Adrienn Recio.

Since its founding in 2003, Bohemian Society clothes have made their claim on fine art status in part because their prolific line has consisted mostly of one-of-a-kind pieces. One jacket has been defaced by an all-night Sharpie-fueled poetry session; another taken to a gun range, blasted with ammo, and had its wounds lovingly edged in silk thread; a tuxedo shirt's pleats un-accordioned and rolled in paint, buttoned up with bullet casings. Other techniques include burning, cutting, slicing, piercing, hand-painting, screen-printing, densely brocading, gem-encrusting, embroidering, and gutting. Often Wilde's pieces are made using the original vintage garments (also, parachutes) of which there tend to be very few available; fashion artifacts. Now in its 10th year, it's only fairly recently that Wilde has learned to create and work from patterns, so that, for example, most of the pieces in his new 2013 Spring/Summer collection, Destruction is Creation, can be produced to fill buyers' orders in a ready-to-wear world. The floating-halo, electric-light cloud-collar dress might be an exception -- unless maybe he's figured that out, too. But seriously, just how does a knack for autodidactic, interdisciplinary, mixed media originality translate into a workable production model? You can't take every piece down to the gun range.


There's a useful analogy to be made here between oil paintings and printed editions -- both in terms of production process, labor-intensiveness, and accessible pricing, as well as in terms of satisfying the fullness of the artist's vision. And there are bigger, trippier issues raised, such as, what does the concept of the singular object mean in today's post-copyright, digitally captured, infinitely reproduced culture? Wilde still haunts vintage shops for components and inspirations, but they feed into a slightly more industrial process -- still occupying the same huge and marginally chaotic loft in downtown L.A. It is not a factory yet, but it's getting there. The "society" part of the name is no joke, either. Models are photographers are seamstresses are tailors are models. This kind of everyone-does-it-all methodology has a post-punk zeitgeist to it that the clothes share as well. And in truth, punk is a big influence on him personally and artistically -- and the punk era is currently getting a lot of credit for its prescient boundary-blurring. It has been the subject of several recent exhibitions and books celebrating music's graphic design and fine art counterparts. Besides the lingering influence of its fashion sense, this scholarly trend appreciates how punk derived its power from its interdisciplinary permeation, and the fact that it was all done by everyone, all mixed up together -- bands did their own posters, made their own clothes, took each others' pictures, created other band's videos, filmmakers were on board from the start. It was social. Demented and sad, but social.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Adrienn Recio.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Adrienn Recio.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Lucas Logan.

I first encountered Victor's irresistible work in 2009 as part of an ambitious project in downtown Los Angeles they were calling the Integrated Circus.The Integrated Circus was more than just a groovy name for a gallery -- it was a literal description of the kind of creative cross-pollination that goes on whenever the Bohemian Society is concerned. Blending avant-couture with contemporary art exhibitions and unpredictable performative happenings, the Integrated Circus combined art that you could see, touch, wear, collect, and participate in. The eye-popping, one-of-a-kind shredded and retooled garage-glam clothing of Bohemian Society was my takeaway from that lovely but ultimately star-crossed experiment. That and a vintage blazer with bloody handprints all over it and the words, "I've had sex in this jacket 23 times" scrawled on the back. It's popular at parties.

In October, Bohemian Society launched its stunning Spring/Summer 2013, "Destruction is Creation" at a Los Angeles Fashion Week event at the appropriately goth-luxe Carondelet House. The orgy of mesh, chrome, blood orange, chimerical detailing, luminous parachute rompers, leather fringe, hand-dyed fabrics, painted shoes, chain mail, and androgyny was a little misunderstood by the L.A. Times, instantly redeemed by Women's Wear Daily, and maybe the most shockingly, violently gorgeous thing I've seen in the past six months of doing my gallery rounds. It was impossible to remember I was at a runway show and not a sculpture gallery. I don't know what the fashionista lingo is, but this line is best understood in terms of shape and symmetry, affecting palette, economies of mass and scale, optical movement, the nude body, illusion, spectacle, drama, and abstract expressionism -- all popular words in my art-critic notebook. Plus, despite the new production methods, there's still very little chance of ever showing up at a party in the same dress as someone else. Of course, if that does happen, the dress may well be on a guy. Boundaries broken. It's the Victor Wilde way.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Lucas Logan.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Lucas Logan.

Bohemian Society | Photo: Lucas Logan.

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Top Image: Bohemian Society | Photo: Lucas Logan.

About the Author

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.
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Thanks to everyone who was a part in making this piece. I am very proud of it!

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