The philosopher of fashion
Anyone who expects a professor of fashion design to be dressed in bright, colourful clothing might be disappointed when meeting Clemens Thornquist. His work attire may be simple and usually black, but his ideas are more innovative and expressive. Under his management, the Swedish School of Textiles’ fashion design programme has been awarded top marks by the Swedish Higher Education Authority and received this year’s Prize of Honour at the Elle Gala.
Doing, understanding and getting a good overview. That’s what Clemens Thornquist is passionate about. He is Professor of Fashion Design at the University of Borås’ Swedish School of Textiles, and his passion has certainly been expressed in dramatic ways from time to time. Such as when he studied three first-cycle textile programmes in Borås – textile design, textile engineering and textile economics – all at the same time!
However, he has no regrets, and is steaming ahead with research education, writing textbooks about creativity, pondering philosophical approaches to clothing and the body, and more besides. Join us as we listen to the black-clad, quiet-voiced Professor Thornquist stitching together the story of his work.
But first of all, how does he feel about the Prize of Honour from Elle and the Swedish Higher Education’s ‘very high quality’ assessment? His tone is calm, proud and matter-of-fact:
Clemens Thornquist took over as Programme Director for the Swedish School of Textiles’ fashion design programme when he was just 30 years old. A decade later, he has succeeded in implementing many of the changes that he wanted to make. His view of what fashion education should involve is unconventional. Instead of assessing students’ work visually according to whether this is something he would want to wear, or that would sell well, he asks himself: “Is this different? How could it be applied?” Perhaps his approach could be described as being more thorough and comprehensive.
“Fashion research often involves investigating what a garment means in a particular context, such as identity, power issues, discussions of gender and so on,” he explains. We are in his office, with its stylistic features including stacks of books, an enormous window facing out onto the House of Knowledge sculpture, and an antique velvet sofa.
“But I’m more interested in finding out more about the theory of clothing, what clothes actually are. What is a jacket? When does fabric become a garment? Here at the Swedish School of Textiles, we put more of an emphasis on this than many other educational institutions do. The way I see it, we devote ourselves to a kind of basic research: defining a garment.”
“I realised that I could focus on clothing”
Professor Thornquist believes that both technical and artistic knowledge are required in order to be able to work in a thorough and creative manner. The programme offered in Borås boasts a strong tradition of doing, using creativity to link together techniques and materials. Which is exactly what he wanted to achieve.
Clemens’ mother often knitted and sewed clothing when he was growing up. He enjoyed using her sewing machine, even though he was more disposed towards the sciences. At school, his strongest subjects were maths and physics, and he spent much of his time working with electronics, such as building amplifiers.
“Our family often went out climbing and walking, possibly because my mother is Austrian. I liked outdoor clothing, and I made an improvement to the first Goretex jacket produced by Patagonia: I sewed protective Kevlar patches onto the elbows. I then took my jacket to the Naturkompaniet store in Lund, and showed them. They asked me if I could do some jobs for them. Although nothing actually came of it, it was a real eye-opener – I realised that I could concentrate on clothing.”
Work: Professor in fashion design at The Swedish School of Textiles, University of Borås
Age: 40 years old
Live: in Sparsör outside of Borås
Spare time: no
Attitude to planning: there's a lot of things you can plan, but also a lot where you should just go with it and not plan at all.
Passionate about: body and clothes
Makes me happy: when people surprises you and show a new side of themselves
Gets angry with: when things go too slow, especially in processes of change
Have: a great deal of patience nevertheless
Favourite app: Systembolaget
Read: mostly books related to my work, and Filter magazine
Have written: among other things: a method book for design “Artistic development in (fashion) design”, and a poetry book that describes the differences between art and science “Pattern – Science and Art”.
Tips to get the creativity going: start working on something. See that ”making is remaking”, everything comes from something that already exist.
Best advice for travelling by plane: bring only hand luggage, bring as little as possible
Once he had completed his upper secondary education, including extra maths and physics, Clemens began studying at the Academy of Cutters and Designers in Malmö. The course included many theatrical expressions and unusual garments. He showed a collection at Stockholm Fashion Week, but felt that he still had a great deal more to learn.
His father, a lawyer, advised him to choose a programme that led to an academic qualification if he wanted to study textiles. Clemens had seen that the University of Borås offered such a programme, and this was one of his reasons for choosing to study here. During his studies at the Swedish School of Textiles, Clemens specialised in suits. He tailored lots of suits – at least 30, by his estimates. In order to learn more, he took the opportunity to visit the Oscar Jacobson tailoring workshop, which was located in the same building as the school. He describes himself as a little shy, but he overcame his shyness thanks to his desire to learn.
“I asked them if they had any jacket patterns that I could use, but they didn’t give out their patterns. However, they showed me around, and I could pop in each week to see what they were doing and how they did it. I learnt a lot there, and it was a good way of learning about techniques and stitching.”
Three programmes in parallel
But Clemens missed mathematical challenges, and so he also began studying alongside the textile engineers. He had seen one of their mechanics tests, and realised that it was something he could do. He also ended up studying the textile economics programme. And he studied all three programmes in parallel.
“It was fun to do, but I also wanted to get a good overview of the subject. That’s in my nature. But obviously I was pretty exhausted by the end of it…”
He speaks calmly and quietly, without sounding arrogant or boastful, despite it being obvious that he is a man of extraordinary discipline and drive. After a brief interlude during which he studied psychology, he won an internship at Vivienne Westwood’s fashion house in London. When a crisis situation arose, he offered to step in on a trial basis to make a prototype from toile. This would not normally be part of an intern’s role, which would usually consist of working for free to cut fabrics. However, the prototype was a success and the fashion house saw that he was a useful worker who could construct garments and sew samples. After that, he was paid for his internship.
“It was highly unusual, and I was pleased to be offered a job there. But I turned the job down and continued studying, completing a master’s degree in textile economics at the Swedish School of Textiles.”
By now it was the late 1990s, and the winds of change were blowing at the school. The management had a vision for the future, with plans for professors, research, doctoral students and closer links with industry. Clemens completed a doctoral degree, with a thesis on how we relate to things, both from a design perspective and in purely philosophical terms. The position was financed by the school, but he carried out his research at the Stockholm School of Economics since Borås had not yet been granted authorisation for third-cycle studies. His supervisor was Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, who was in contact with the theatre director Robert Wilson.
“Robert Wilson is a highly eccentric man who is renowned for his avant-garde work with visual art and performance art in the USA. He needed a new personal assistant to travel with him around the clock, and Pierre thought I would be suitable for the job as I had put up with Vivienne Westwood, another famous eccentric. And so I became a kind of assistant artistic director for his artist’s residence near New York, which ended up with me being there for three months of the year for five years. Working with Wilson formed the basis for my thesis, and I learnt a great deal about organisational theory and design methodology there.”
His thesis was about being in charge of Robert Wilson’s creative work camp for 70-100 people. It was a matter of forgetting his own needs and focusing fully on Wilson and his ideas.
“I organised it all, and I was responsible for the budget and for keeping everything running, so there was a lot to deal with all at the same time. There were a lot of major productions for producers around the world that needed to be put together, and despite everything being incredibly chaotic I was gradually able to make out some kind of almost autistic, systematic structure. What we’re doing now at the Swedish School of Textiles has been heavily influenced by both Robert Wilson and Vivienne Westwood.
“One example is how the main focus at Vivienne Westwood was on the garment from a form perspective. Did the lines work? What was the garment’s relationship to the legs, or to the hands? And there was also a design perspective in Robert Wilson’s theatre, and a real emphasis on how the actors moved. It was only when everything was ready that the words were added to the play.
“At that time, fashion education wasn’t like that – there was usually a theme to follow: ‘flower’, or ‘angst’, or whatever. But I didn’t want to work like that. My collaboration with Wilson and Westwood has given me a more material, more formalistic way of looking at things.”
Freedom at the Swedish School of Textiles
At around the same time that he defended his doctoral thesis in 2005, Clemens – who by then was 30 years old – took over as Programme Director for the fashion design programme in Borås and began to implement his ideas.
“I taught a lot, and I worked with my students to start making fast-paced changes. I used a scholarship that I’d received from Handelsbanken and spent three years visiting around 70 fashion programmes around the world to understand how to teach fashion, and what programmes and trends there were. I also wrote a few books about subjects such as creativity, and became a docent at the same time. This meant that the sometimes rather closed artistic programmes often welcomed me, and sometimes even asked me to give lectures.”
During these travels, he met and got to know several people who have had a major impact on him, such as Francine Pairon, Yoko Takagi and Linda Loppa (see the time line below), and with whom he still collaborates.
As we walk around, it’s obvious that Clemens feels at home – both at the school itself and with the students and colleagues who surround him. Here, there are fantastic spaces for many different purposes, including a small film studio and a large room with skylights where shows, studio workshops and other activities that require good light can be held. When the time comes to take photographs, he is determined that there should be no reels of thread, fabrics, patterns or sewing machines. No traditional fashion design images. And that’s final!
In Clemens’ experience, there has been – and still is – a great deal of freedom when working at the school, and on the whole the changes have not met with resistance.
“I also like the fact that we’ve been able to maintain a high pace. I believe that Swedish students have a fascinating starting point when working with fashion, a sound critical attitude which means they can create interesting things that do not only have a commercial, applied focus.”
The school has been authorised to hold examinations for third-cycle education for a few years now.
“I work with third-cycle education a lot, and I’ve chosen to focus particularly on basic research. One objective is to identify new methods and ways of working within art and design, and to demonstrate theoretical principles both materially and visually. For example, in our practice-based design research, doctoral student Rickard Lindqvist has presented a new theory about the body and has devised a method which is verified by a series of examples. It’ll be a new way of making clothing, and it’s a challenge that I like!”
Alongside making changes at the school, Clemens has also written a number of books, including about methods for releasing creativity. This involves ingenious and unusual methods such as draping fabric on a mannequin while blindfolded and not being satisfied until the form feels good to the hands, or wearing mittens so that larger gestures are made. His methods have been inspired by sources including the writers Sartre, Kafka and Dostoyevsky, and the musician David Bowie.
How do you go about identifying the unusual?
“It’s a matter of finding new materials and not only reading what everyone else is reading or doing what everyone else is doing. I hunt high and low, and I’m interested in going quite a long way back, to Aristotle for example. There, I feel I can find a more sober way of seeing things than via a French systems thinker, for instance. But there are many sources of inspiration within different trades and from different periods of time. I search among certain publishers, and I have fantastic colleagues who let me know when they’ve read or seen something particularly good.”
And so to a question that probably occurs to many of the people you meet. As a professor of fashion design, do you look at and judge people according to how fashionably dressed they are?
“Fashion is unimportant. But clothes are important. They’re one of the first things we and our bodies interact with. I can go round looking at how people dress, how they combine clothing and the details of their clothing, but I don’t really judge people according to what they wear. But if in my opinion they can’t manage to bring things together as a whole, then I might question how they can generally draw a conclusion in other respects. Building and seeing the bigger picture is part of the art of drawing a conclusion.”
Important people in my career
1999 – Dame Vivienne Westwood, fashion designer and businesswoman, London.
“She laid the foundation for a generally non-symbolic perspective of the body, art and design.”
2000 – Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, professor at the Stockholm School of Economics/Copenhagen Business School.
“He introduced me to a philosophical perspective, beyond the traditional social scientific perspective, in organisational theory (methodology) in relation to art and design.”
2001 – Robert Wilson, experimental theatre director, performance artist and visual artist, New York.
“As one of the world’s leading avant-garde theatrical artists, he has had a strong impact on my aesthetic perspective of the methodology and organisation of both things and people.”
2002 – Andrey Bartenev, performance artist and sculptor, Moscow.
“Meeting and working with Andrey opened up new horizons for the body and clothing, and I am still reminded of this on a daily basis.”
2003 – Francine Pairon, founder of La Cambre Mode and Creative Director of l’Ecole de Création de l’IFM, Paris.
“As the founder of one of the first ‘real’ schools of art within fashion design, Francine has been an important mentor to me.”
2004 – Lars Hallnäs, Professor of Interaction Design, the Swedish School of Textiles, University of Borås.
“A colleague who introduced interaction design and logic to my way of working. He also reminds me constantly to look at the philosophical basis for things.”
2006 – Yoko Takagi, professor and curator, Living Environment Studies, Bunka Gakuen University, Tokyo.
“Few individuals can capture and express things in research and exhibition as precisely as Yoko has, and she therefore complements my sometimes careless and coarse attitude towards things.”
2008 – Linda Loppa, Head of Fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, founder of the Flanders Fashion Institute and ModeNatie, and Director of Polimoda in Florence.
“One of the most – or perhaps the most – widely acclaimed people in the development of fashion design since the mid-1990s. Her friendship, her support and her acknowledgement of my work have inspired me to continue working hard to develop the subject area further.”
Text: Lena M Fredriksson
Photography: Lars Ardarve