"To Throw a Piece of Clothe onto the Body" A Discussion with Damir Doma
His name is Red
In 1964, when Michelangelo Antonionni directs his first colour picture starring muse Monica Vitti he titles it: Deserto Rosso (“Red Desert”). In 2009, when Damir Doma, former apprentice of Raf Simons, presents his SS10 runway show, he also chooses red to expand his colour palette.
Damir Doma says the idea of colour came upon him by working on human anatomy, imposing itself because of its association with blood, which he equates to life, as a pulsation, movement and energy, all essential notions of his work and worldview. He also underscores the importance of the sensual, quasi-tactile relationship that must exist between the garment, its shape and its colour. For Damir Doma, colour has to be more than a cosmetic detail introduced for flash or variety’s sake; it must occupy a central place and function, as illustrated by his work: colour and the choice of fabric provide depth to the garment and their colourful, layered assemblages. “Usually, when I create white outfits, I try to choose shades of white, when I create grey outfits, shades of grey, because it gives much more depth to the outfit and you have some kind of layering.”
The layering of monochromatic but never monotonous pieces that constitutes an important part of his work is echoed by a layering of colours, or more precisely various shades of colours. This choices of red, in fact reds going from brown-red to flaming orange, passing through bright red, definitely places him outside the circle of “dark” creators to which he was, for a time, erroneously assimilated.
The notion of fluidity, of which red is the emblem, is indivisible from the notion of liberty in the work of Damir Doma, as according to him: “freedom of the body permits freedom of the mind”. This belief makes itself manifest both in the choice of supple, fluid fabrics and in cuts that adapt to the body instead of constraining it. Damir Doma says the garment must be a “piece of cloth thrown onto the body”, merging with its curves and singularities. Unlike other stylists like Gareth Pugh, who presents oversized shoulders or Rick Owens, who designs high heels, he does not want to alter the silhouette of the person he is dressing: “I do not want to change the volume or the shape of the body”. While he may create jackets that may appear to be variations of formal and business menswear he does not feel any affinity to classical tailoring, because it lacks respect for human anatomy, aiming, according to him, to transform it in what it is not: “It makes the shoulders look broader than they are, and the hips narrower than they are”.
On the other hand, Damir Doma likes to imagine, between care for comfort and Beuysian reminiscence, that a garment lays on or even floats down the body and that it is like a blanket in which we would drape ourselves.
This conception of the garment as a protective surface to wrap ourselves in can incidentally be illustrated by the plays on layering characteristic of his work and in a recurring detail found on his jackets: the high, asymmetrical collars buttoning on the collarbone like a blanked folded up on the shoulder.
The importance of layering can also be seen in the styling of his intricately constructed and original weaved scarves, conceived as clothing in their own right rather than mere accessories:
While the classical suit is the antithesis of his approach, he feels closeness, although his inspiration is found elsewhere, to the kimono and more broadly, to the relation the far-east weaves between garment, body and nature. His FW09 and SS10 shows bear subliminal signs of that tradition as seen on looks presenting scarves tied up like sarashi.
Comparing clothing from the eastern and western traditions embodied by the kimono and the suit jacket he wonders: “How can this huge piece of fabric adapt to your body while this small garment that we created is trying to change the body, something especially prevalent in menswear.” Damir Doma rejects anything that rigidify clothing, making it more like a corset, a garment that he rejects more than any other due to the constraints it imposes on the body. His jackets are never lined or lapelled. Additionally, while traditional menswear presents sharp shoulder lines to catch the eye, Damir Doma draws rounded and sloping shoulders. In this case his design vocabulary is the exact opposite of the one of Carol Christian Poell who uses aggressive pagoda shoulders and a virile, even warlike affirmation of the male silhouette.
Ignoring the constraints of classical tailoring, Damir Doma’s attention can be displaced towards peripheral or marginal areas of the male body. He thus pays particular attention to the line linking the shoulder via the collarbone, which must be caressed (he uses the German word “schmeicheln”) by the shape of the garment. An asymmetrical vest from SS10 stands as an enlightening example of this cut, precise yet supple, it respects human anatomy while emphasizing its beauty.
Having the garment be akin to a caress does not imply it must closely hug the body; unencumbered by linings and structural reinforcements, his clothes are not like armour, which does not imply they are a second skin but rather an unstable and floating frontier. In reality, his cuts always leave a distance and a space between the body and garment, a way to allow liberty of movement but also permit appropriation and self-expression. Far from any will of mastery or even stranglehold over the wearer, as seen in the work of a creator like Thom Browne, Damir Doma likes the idea that his clothes can be adapted, transformed by whoever ends up wearing them. This possibility is sometimes present in the very DNA of the garment, as can be seen with various fabric strands used to vary sleeves length.
Beauty is always bizarre
It is this flotation, this margin that the garment brings between the wearer’s body and the garment itself that best defines silhouette according to Damir Doma: an unusual but not unnatural silhouette. In this sense it could be said that Damir Doma’s definition of beauty meets the one put forward by Baudelaire, for whom “beauty is always bizarre”. However, according to Damir Doma, bizarre does not stand in opposition to nature but is merely one of its many possibilities. In this sense he is not Baudelairian, as he rejects cosmetic flourishes; that is, what is not natural. On the contrary, like kimonos, like oriental civilizations, like the nomadic people that inspired FW09, Damir Doma is looking for a greater correspondence between person and garment, in other words Nature. This also explains why he favours natural fabrics like linen, boiled wool, crumpled cotton and other similar treatments that allow these materials to keep their natural irregularities, thus preserving the memory of their origin.
Yet fluidity is not shapelessness, haziness is not being fuliginous. Even the most destructured Damir Doma garments holds an implicit or underlying structure that a careful study allows to identify: “I don’t want to create a whole mess out of the outfit, there must be some kind of structure in the styling, in outfit as a whole.”. The kimono once again comes to mind; an ample and fluid garment, that allows a wide range of motion without being formless. On the contrary, its architecture and construction, like those of Damir Doma’s garments, are rigorous and singular.
Damir Doma’s work can be separated in two main periods with an inflexion in FW09. The first was based on deconstructing the classical shape of garments, in this sense being similar to what Ann Demeulemeester is doing, a designer for whom he did work for a time. He then abandoned this critical process of deconstruction, finding a singularly creative and inventive venue, articulated around the dynamical tension of volume and shapes. Meanwhile, his work, like Antonioni’s in Deserto Rosso, underwent a stylistic simplification and refining, as illustrated by this asymmetrical vest:
SS08 and FW08, characteristic of the critical period, still play with the codes of traditional blazers by rearranging, displacing or deconstructing them: in FW08 lapels are shortened and reduced to vestigial remains, asymmetrical and also detachable in FW08, they signal their functional uselessness. In FW09 the lining juts out from the bottom hem, interfering with the classical shape. In SS10 lapels entirely disappear and the closure goes from linked to an invisible one (hook associated with hoop). Consequently the shape is both refined –Damir underscores it took him four seasons to reach this level of simplicity-, and made more sophisticated by a double asymmetry: decentred buttoning and neck opening, now marrying a curvilinear side with a straight one.
“I have a classical mind”
Asymmetry, another of the characteristic attributes of his vocabulary, is mobilised in a paradoxical, hence surprising, way. Damir Doma admits he has “classical mind” formed in a “classical way” (arts, Latin, mathematics), which pushes him to design a “classical” asymmetry, meaning an asymmetry that does not struggle against symmetry, does not try to destroy but rather to redirect or destabilize while subtly underlining it. In this effect asymmetry is not anecdotic as it can be with other designers.
Taking this jacket as an example, we can observe the construction of the side panels and the sleeves echo in a way that could be qualified of symmetrical. The sleeve hems hides the back of the hand, thus integrating sleeve and arm in the organic unity Damir Doma favours.
The other area his work explores is founded on the dynamic tension internal to the garment or silhouette, playing with contrasting shapes and volumes. Contrasting a puffy thigh and a slim calf is emblematic of this kind of work, as displayed on FW09 pants (also featuring oversized or complex multi-pleated waists) or on those surprising SS10 transformable pockets. Slouchy, puffed hips became a characteristic trait of the Damir Doma silhouette and of his personal look, as he wears his own creations.
This tension is not only localized within specific garments but also made apparent when viewing the whole silhouette, as seen with paradoxical associations between flaring tops and fitted bottoms or, on the contrary, a fitted top vs flaring bottom.
Lastly, SS10 footwear will feature thick rubber soles instead of the thinner leather used so far, as Damir Doma wishes to counterbalance the summery, light and diaphanous fabric of the garments.
This relationship of dynamic tension that results in the forces at play being equilibrated rather than opposed is even present in collections seen as coherent entities, as evidenced by FW09, built around two opposed and complementary silhouettes: star shaped centrifugal silhouettes and ovoid centripetal silhouettes:
Damir Doma persistently insists on the internal logic that must govern garments. The anecdotal, superfluous, illustrative and folkloric are thus banished from his vocabulary, an evolving process as in hindsight he finds FW09 to be slightly overloaded. As to the pendulous strings that became one of the characteristics of his aesthetic, they go beyond the practical function that would be enough to legitimate their inclusion. They also have a structural, dynamic and tactile role. The strings act as an extension of the seams of the garment, underlining its construction, architecture and structural lines. They also fill a dynamic role, accompanying movement, prolonging it to remind us that it is an essential part of how Damir Doma conceptualizes a garment. Lastly, they fill a tactile, even sensual function, as with strings placed at the sleeve’s hem that caress the palms and move in conjunction with arm movements.
Like a river carrying away its banks
Damir Doma’s work is as sensual as it is conceptual. “There is always a concept to be found within the piece and its construction.” This can be seen in the “Infinity” series (FW09) where the end of a seam returns to its origin, giving coats and cardigans a characteristic ovoid and enveloping shape, imbuing reality to the metaphor of clothing as a blanket.
Conceptual, Damir Doma’s process is also relatively abstract, as he creates without a precise idea of his audience. Thereby he never works on a human model but on a sexually ambiguous atelier dummy. This might thus explain the relative indifference of the stylist to the gender of his garments. “I know, of course, that there are men and women, but it is not what is most important to me when designing.” His pieces, often pleated or draped, often surprise by putting forward parts of the body that menswear do not usually show, like the throat, chest or collarbone, exposed in SS10, or the tightened and elevated waist of FW09.
In addition, Damir Doma signals that the Occident has strictly compartmented styles, clearly distinguishing between male and female dress. We could also add that this clothing segregation reinforces sexual identity by accentuating physical characteristics, i.e. secondary sexual attributes (large hips and narrow waists for women vs large chest and narrow pelvis for men), highly correlated with social and sexual codifications of gender (sexuality and maternity vs warrior virility).
However, it should be noted that Damir Doma does not feminize menswear. He imagines clothes that are neither masculine nor feminine or that are both at once. Better: clothes that stand at equal distance between masculinity and feminity, tracing in his design vocabulary this essential psychic bisexuality first recognized by Freud at the start of the XXth century. This conjures, once again, the image of the kimono, worn by both men and women. His clothing are neither androgynous nor hermaphrodites: they ignore sexual differentiation, not in the roguish manner of Jean-Paul Gaultier or the provocative one of Vivienne Westwood, but in a subtle and soft way, using the logic of “gentle transgression” that recalls SS10’s statement of intent. Damir Doma will also propose, for SS11, a women’s line composed of both existing menswear models and new creations specifically destined to women. Let us note, at last, that this tension is translated in the use and assemblage of fabrics: Damir Doma’s creations pair preciosity with austerity, fragility with coarseness, lightness with monumentality.
Garments designed by Damir Doma stand at the frontier of multiple geographical and cultural worlds: from oriental braids to Mongolian coats, passing by Touareg cheich. However these citations and references are not anecdotal as they are tightly woven with his personal history. Born in Croatia and raised in Germany, Damir Doma exists at the meeting place of different locations, epochs and myths: between Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, Mitteleuropa and Eastern Europe, orient and occident. Varied influences that left a trace in his work and that he conjugates, not only with grace, but also fluidity, operative word of his designs, his vocabulary and his aesthetics, but also of the installation recently presented in Tokyo, bearing the emblematic name of Identity.