Fashion and it’s Cultural Legacy

Dis_placed’s Creative Director Giancarlo Pazzanese on what fashion can teach
A historian of apparel and founder of the subversive digital fashion label dis_placed, Giancarlo Pazzanese has a mind with the gravitational pull of the sun. Attracting inspiration and insight from the worlds of art, queer culture, post-punk, and spirituality, the Chilean-Italian creator, lecturer, and artist's digital designs will have you pulling your screen a little closer and zooming in. Giancarlo spends his days time-traveling between fashion's present and history to inform a complex and nuanced design aesthetic steeped in cultural commentary. dis_placed digital design collections reflect his practice of living with a deft awareness and questioning of the collective conscience. Giancarlo has lived his life in motion, and his brain moves and skips just as fast. We connected with Giancarlo to zoom into the mind and heart of this grounded, wise and curious designer and discuss the reverbs of fashion across culture and the opportunities of the digital realm.

In search of a more diverse experience of art, museums, and culture, Giancarlo left behind his homeland of Chile in his early 20s and rebuilt his life in Amsterdam. Giancarlo had found his spiritual home and set roots down for a life dedicated to art, teaching, and discovery.
“I wanted to live in another model. The Dutch culture, especially in Amsterdam, is very open and inclusive. You can just be yourself and express your opinions. It's quite free.”
— Giancarlo Pazzanese
You’re an artist, but you have had little threads tying you to the digital world since the beginnings of your professional life.

Yes, I studied visual arts and graduated from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and then worked as a graphic designer doing the first websites at the end of the 90s to finance my art practice. After that, I worked for a sustainability organization moving web 1.0 into the 2.0 space.

What was your art practice like?

Performance, street interventions, poetic actions in the streets. Everything was documented and captured with digital photography. I always had this thing with materiality. How to travel and move. I always wanted minimal materials. With painting, you need so much equipment, a studio. But with the performances I was doing for 7 years, I just had myself and the garments. Clothing is important to be able to go into the character.

And now you are a teacher at the University of Amsterdam.

I thought I needed to share my knowledge again and return to creativity. I went to the Amsterdam Fashion Academy teaching contextual studies, which is cultural studies. In 3 years, I changed the curriculum from a historical fashion course into a review of fashion history. We go back and forth between technology, gender rights, sustainability, body positivity, and post-colonialism. And that's how I came into digital fashion. Covid came, we switched to digital, I had more time, and I started self-training.

In your teachings and creations, you have a big focus on fashion’s cultural influence.

I think that fashion is part of culture, is an expression of culture, and a mirror. It's not apart from anything. Even when you're dressing for escapism, you’re escaping to something. I came to understand and love fashion's deep cultural reflection during my five years of teaching. I reviewed the history of fashion as an artist. I merged art history with fashion history and then started embedding these notions of gender, racial equality, queerness… Fashion can be a perspective to analyze culture, just like art and religion. For me, sometimes it's even more fascinating because it's wearable, social, political, and maybe in the last decade, it's a comment. You can wear fashion as a political comment. The dimensions of fashion are directly related to the human experience.
“Fashion is part of culture, is an expression of culture, and a mirror. It's not apart from anything. Even when you're dressing for escapism, you’re escaping to something.”
— Giancarlo Pazzanese
Fashion is more democratic, or universal, than most art or religion. Did you see an opportunity to interact with a wider audience with your digital fashion designs?

That's right. Instead of spending time shopping, I spent my months in lockdown watching resources online and learning how to design digital clothing. They produce zero waste. All you need is electricity and a good computer to make your clothes. After months of creating, I selected some garments and released my first fashion collection.

You caught our attention with your collection 'Paleo Punk', where you have crafted garments out of digital spikes, leather and skin. Human skin is a pretty wild material to choose for clothing. How did you land on the idea?

This first collection went back to the spirit of the art I was creating in my early 20s. I was really influenced by post-punk and grunge. I made this bed with spikes and rubber latex. It was a little weird, a little BDSM, and it was exhibited in a clean gallery. Paleo Punk was an expression of these art objects. I turned the bed into a digital skirt covered with spikes. The skin bodice comes from the rubber sensation, but I wanted to do it in digital human skin. I approached Paleo Punk with each piece as an artwork, a part of a series.

What bands were you influenced by?

Sonic Youth, The Breeders, not so grunge but Death Can Dance, Medieval electronic experimentations, This Mortal Coil a mix of dark punk, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, and Nine Inch Nails. The inspiration was also pop art, kitsch, camp, queer sensibility, arthouse movies, and religion. And I'm obsessed with religion, and connecting science and spirituality. Materiality and immateriality. And how they connect in this reality which is real. Oh, and museums; contemporary, historical, botanical, museum of bibles, the most random museums, and churches.

Does spirituality inform your work?

I was from a household with a very religious mother and a father who was anti-religion. There was always this conflict between the materialist view of life - you have to succeed and work, life is what it is, and that offered a valuable lesson to enjoy this life - but my mum was focused on this future paradise and this other reality.

For me, spirituality I tie with looking for your identity. I did a series of self-portraits every day when working as an artist. Now we live today in a selfie society, your own layer. So, again, back to skin. For the exclusive pieces for Special Items, I focused on skin patterns and hair.

And that concept also served as inspiration for your puffer jacket Under My Skin you created for Special Items

Under My Skin is a self-portrait in a garment. The print is made of a direct scan of my arm. I made this print in 1997 when I got my first home scanner. It was an impulse to scan my body, just like the Palaeolithic men printed their hands on the caves. With these few inches of my own skin, I designed a virtual endless pattern of my skin. By reflecting the pieces, I obtained different hair waves and created rhythms and different shapes made out of human hair. This garment also plays with the concept of human fur in that sense as well. When I created my first collection, I rescued this ‘vintage print‘ from my personal archive and transformed it into a puffer jacket. Since then, different versions have seen the light. Three of them will be dropped in collaboration with Special Items. This is a garment about empathy. It is not just an ego trip to have other people wear my skin. It is an invitation to the user to step into someone else’s skin, anybody. An open invitation to see from another perspective. A garment that will spark conversations about being the other, inhabiting a skin that is not yours, showing human hair, nudity, and hopefully many more conversations around the notion of the self and the body.
“This is a garment about empathy. It is an invitation to the user to step into someone else’s skin, anybody. An open invitation to see from another perspective.”
— Giancarlo Pazzanese
How do you bring your love of the material into the digital realm?

Spikes and skin and hair were how I brought that tactile sensation into Paleo Punk. I focus a lot on texture because I'm an artist. I love the tactile. Skin and hair are very interesting to me. I looked at hair on different body parts to talk about hair on women, in gay culture, and the shaming of women in general. I think it's important to push forward but look back. It is all woven together.

And when you do look back, you realize that women removing their hair is so recent, it's been such a short period of history, yet it's so pervasive. And I think these pieces of yours challenge us to expand our definitions of what is beautiful, beyond what is 'accessible', but really how we define beauty.

Fashion speaks. The fashion that we wear and analyze has a voice. It is speaking to us. It is a mirror, but it is a reflection of its time. The crosses of history, fashion, culture, and art are amazing. Everything merges. I think we need to learn a lot about gender roles and other notions of beauty. I would say that's the most important thing I teach to my students - to take existing notions of beauty, equality, and history and harness that inspiration to create something new.
Because the digital fashion realm is a brand new space, do you think it can enable us to dismantle the systems that exist and create something from scratch?

It's impossible to make something from scratch. We always bring some baggage. We always have these templates of what is beauty, that pants have two legs. We will be able to create and reinvent in the metaverse, and so many creative people are entering the space, but it's also a space where old stereotypes will be repeated. With AI, we have male and female voices - why not gender-neutral? A lot of technology is embedded with unconscious bias, language, and racial bias.

Where do you think work needs to be done?

When we create these avatars, we are making new representations of people. Digital images are just pixels, but nevertheless, the representation of identities and body types is important. I see a lot of repeating patterns in users and gaming, mainly connecting to sex and gender. 'The hot chick' in the games - the Lara Croft. There's hypersexualization and hyperviolence. The sexualization of women bothers me. It perpetuates stereotypes and affects young boys, men, and women of all ages. As artists and creators, we have a responsibility when we put images out for public consumption.

The diversity we have been building towards in the physical world over the last decade needs to be reflected on this white canvas. In my opinion, representations of queer, trans, plus size, 50+, and multiracial avatars are missing. But I am seeing digital avatars which don't conform to the norms. Even beyond humans, we are starting to see alien avatars.

If we're not creating the world we want to see, who will?

With digital fashion, you choose to express yourself in whatever way, and you're not creating social exploitations. You're not creating any waste. The worst you're doing is consuming electricity which you'd be doing on Netflix anyway. Digital fashion takes 5% of what it takes to produce a physical t-shirt. We can dare to express our identity, to wear a zebra, and change the day after - and it doesn't kill the animal, use space, create waste. I like physical clothing too, but digital fashion - it's another layer that you integrate.

People are braver with their online selves too. I think a lot of men would feel uncomfortable wearing a dress in public because the reaction is so unpredictable, and perhaps they don't feel physically safe. But online, people can play with their identity more and just block the haters.

I do think you can find new expressions online. Someone transitioning between genders, or is fluid, can explore, plan and see themselves through the other gender. In reality, we experiment with our physicality, with haircuts or whatever, but this is a totally different identity that you can develop.

And just taking the time to consider our modes of expression and how we identify ourselves isn't something we do regularly. I think that mindset can be, personally, transformative and liberating.

The metaverse allows us to explore other bodies, genders, and dimensions for our avatar in a non-invasive way. We can all have a digital expression that doesn't necessarily have to match our physical selves. And there can be several of them which don't necessarily have to correspond with our identity. We can have these skins and layers in these new spaces. The creative and expressive possibilities are endless.
Interview: Sally Paton
Imagery: Courtesy Of Giancarlo Pazzanese
Date: May 1st, 2022