Ten emotional and soaring notes on Fredrik Floens costume practice
By Runa Borch Skolseg Photos: JULIE HRNČÍŘOVÁ
Text commissioned by Norske Scenografer for Prague Quadrennial 2023
The first time I met Fredrik Floen was in 2014, we were sitting in the canteen at the University of the Arts in Oslo and talking about our love for Rei Kawakubo and Miuccia Prada. I remember going up to the office and Googling him. I found a bit of everything as I scrolled through, including a video he had made. It was called Mosjøen Fashion Week and in the video he walks back and forth on a windswept beach as if it were a catwalk. There was something sketchy and unfinished about all his creations, which he later justified by the fact that his poetics was to spend about 5 minutes on each thing, which corresponds to how I work when I write. Afterwards, I have understood how much Fredrik can produce in a short time, in off periods he is an underachieving superhuman and in good times an overachieving superhuman. There is something megalomantic about how he both creates and works. His costumes are like a multi-headed monster; you can cover up, unbutton or disappear.
Meeting Fredrik's artistry is like meeting an educated Renaissance person paired with a dog on speed. Without exaggerating, he is a big thinking designer with romantic undertones. His garments point both backwards, forwards and to the chaotic present we live in. A stream of historical, theoretical and pop cultural references that intersect and become unexpected combinations. A long party dress in cat print with a matching headpiece that looks like something a royal might have worn to a christening or wedding, a floral blazer with oversized shoulders that lead my mind to Vetement's first collection. Floen's creations often have a cut that may point to his fondness for Kawakubo and Margiela. All three question the ideal body and use carnivalesque techniques to achieve and deflate ideals.
Before moving on in this text I should say that I am a close friend of Fredrik and we've been working together on many projects. We share a mutual love for fun, fashion, expensive coffee and escape rooms. We have both an individual practice, but also a collective one. Since we obviously are doing very different things, he is a designer/costume maker/artist, and I am writer, playwright and critic, our mutual interests are coming out in completely different forms, still I always feel some way of connection with Fredriks work, something the Germans call heimisch.
Central to Floen's artistry are headdresses that can refer to eras in history or trend cycles in fashion, it can be to separate gender and social classes as it was long used in Ancient Egypt, or a diadem/veil that, among other things, covered Siduri in Gilgamesh , which showed that she was of prosperity and wealth. In the Middle Ages, headdresses exploded, and there was a richer and more whimsical variety that often covered the hair and head for moral reasons or social class. In the Renaissance, the French cap was popular and during the Baroque there were large wigs adorned with lace and feathers. All these times and gestures are found in Fredrik's costumes, but often deconstructed to resemble something else. As if the headgear exists in its own limited universe while being influenced by times and trends. An example can be the large hat with lots of tentacles and flowers often seen on the artist Metteson, which is a kind of neo-baroque headgear and/or one of the many headgears that in the Middle Ages would represent money and prosperity.
Another recurring element in Floen's artistry is print, it can be a toga collection in Gingham that can point to good and evil forces as it does in the country of origin Malaysia and or be a renewal of ancient popular garments, as a bridge between different times and trends. In City of Passion, a piece we did together in 2022, the characters in the city were wearing other cities like Rome, NYC and Berlin, the costumes were referring to them both living and being the city. In the work he presents during the Prague Quadrennial, he has taken it further. It's a total embrace of pop culture and clothing that could make the algorithm on tik tok take off. There are cats, dogs, cowboys, skulls, stars, dollar signs and Disney. The print both comments on the times we live in, and has a sense of nostalgia, a longing for the past or an attempt to rewrite one's own childhood. There are long dresses with enlarged breasts in snakeskin, armor in thick leather and short dresses with magic wands that can represent the phallus. Floen always dresses himself in the shortest dresses like an overgrown child in a fashion version of Hansel and Gretel. He builds small and large imaginative universes of disney-clad sluts, medieval couture, carnival fashion, fairytalecore and renaissance feminine.
When I think about what kind of art I often feel a desire for, it's art with a lot of intertextuality, I guess that's the reason I love Kathy Acker, or Demnia, or Clarice Lispector. Their work is like an onion(yes what would a norwegian txt without a reference to Ibsen be?) where there are so many layers and different ways to read and think with and about it. For me this also applies to Fredrik. He uses his costumes as a way to approach meaning through excess, collage, passion and permutation. The costumes draw on classic stories and medieval figures that unite fantasies that he himself has created or borrowed from other historical and contemporary lenses with the often violently alleged limits he may have encountered in his own life.
Make-up is also a big part of Floen's imaginative universe, our faces are billboards for shame, embarrassment, desire and anger and through his make-up he recreates wounds and places our frailty or strength at the center. The makeup in Floen's work is extreme and may be a reaction to the binary perception of reality implemented by Greek philosophers and how the duality that has shaped our perception of the world continues to do so. We have prioritized the mind over the body, the inside over the outside and make-up changes the body and its surface and is thus immediately degraded. We also tend to associate make-up with lying and escapism. Make-up in Floens universe is a transformational technology, and the real problem is that what changes or is fluid and not stable is scary. It throws us into uncertainty because it is almost impossible to gain access to anything tangible.
When I see Fredrik's work, I also see Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, Raf Simon, Ida Müller, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander Mcqueen, Simon Ascencio, Jean Paul Gaultier, Trond Reinholdtsen, and Demna Gvasalia. I see a designer who makes theatrical fashion and fashion theatrical.
For many years I found life very confusing and dissociative and it was hard to understand my place in it. I remember thinking how minimalism is a luxury that belongs to people who are expected to be understood. In Fredrik's many huge and exaggerated works there is an almost spiritual practice in trying to figure out how many costumes he needs to make it possible to live in this world.
There are many metariffs in Fredrik's costumes, which point back to him. As I write this I am thinking about whether it is not more correct to call it characters and not costumes or character costumes. When I dress myself in one of his dresses, or piece of clothing, I start to spin, it's like a demon taking over my body and voice and I feel the need to act, and speak in specific ways. Yikes! I surrender into the fabric, I am the fabric or the fabric is me. I am Fredrik Floens demon and he is my high priestess. I bow for his costumes, the costumes are not bowing for me.
I like portals, one of the first things I wrote in a poem was, the cunt is a portal, Fredrik Floen's costumes are also a portal into both familiar and foreign worlds, beyond contemporary political discourse. They are both frightening and magical, where precisely the effect and strength of the representation is demonic and all-important. The design works with a kind of double language as in fairy tales where everything is upside down, deceptive and beautiful in a sick and depraved way, but it is then just a trap. The costumes can be read as a kind of outlet for talking about the body in a theoretical, social and practical sense, and what follows from power, autonomy and desire. In his work, the body is central either as a progressing motif, obliterated, or transformed.
In our collaboration we have been talking a lot about equalizing my writing and his costumes as a linguistic practice. Fredrik's costumes represent a form of language, they write and change the story it tells and transform as the world around us does. To decode his many fantasies and silhouettes is to understand the society we also live in. It can be poetry strung over a body. They can be grotesque, real, fragile and terrifying. The costumes can confuse and question one's reality. They often move between truth and bad taste, showing how the past is as full of possibilities as the future, because the past has the richness of what has already happened.
Working against the establishment, Fredrik and I are always searching for a new idiom in our performance pieces, and manifesting resistance. Fredrik stages his costumes and fashion as a critique of capitalism, and explores the phenomenon through absurd structures and poetic quirks. He portrays his costumes as an existential problem of knowledge linked to questions about being a human being. Through the yearning for transformation inscribed in fashion, the costumes reveal themselves as a transcendent phenomenon that not only functions between media, but fundamentally in between, and his costume design investigates fashion's multi-referential intertextuality in different ways and uses it to deconstruct the myths of our time.
For me, Fredrik's costumes are both solipsistic and personal, they are about desire, denial and psychological warfare. Freud is out of fashion, but that is inevitable when we look at Fredriks costumes. The already mentioned childhood is definitely a progressive motif in his work, but I also think about the fact how fashion/costumes not only tell the world who we are and what we believe in, but also allow us to define these things for ourselves and that we lie a lot. Fashion can be an airbrush business and we often forget that behind crisp shirts, crystal-encrusted masks, fountains of taffeta and silk suits there are sweaty, fleshy and living forms that eat and shit. Fredrik's costume encapsulates the visceral and disturbing pleasure that comes from appreciating the bodily nastiness that the fashion world tailors beyond the bounds of good taste.
The practice of Fredrik Floen is a taking up space practice . When he enters a project it is with the idea that his design and costumes are autonomous dimensions that do not necessarily play in harmony with the rest of the production. Floen manifests resistance through the costumes and they never take the form of a shy character sitting in a corner. In this way, he also breaks the sacred costume design principle, he wants to, if he gets the chance, take advantage of every opportunity to create all-consuming works of his own, and Fredrik has shown me how costumes can be languages, characters of their own, take place and play the main role.
It is painful to write so briefly about a practice I know as well as Fredrik's, also difficult to summarize, to say something precise about a work that arouses many emotions in oneself. I'm afraid this text cannot do his costumes enough, that I will never be able to write anything fully about his work, but I'll let it go; his garments are both porous and with a rare strength as if they were armor. It is romantic, exaggerated, a thought map that can lead one into a long horror-fairytale trip with a potentially romantic ending. A place where your imagination can run wild or bind you to reality. A place where you can mourn what was, or yearn for what is to come. Perhaps Fredrik Floen's costumes are an oracle, a fortune teller and a moire, something that both sews and binds us together and shows us what has been and what will be.