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Long overdue was the retrospective of Piet Paris at the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem. Now visitors can enjoy work by one of the Netherlands’ most prolific fashion illustrators spread over 10 different themes. 

By Cassandra Pizzey /asdf 16-05-2013

The designer himself is present to show the press around his self-designed exhibition entitled ‘The Rooms of Piet Paris’. Looking proud yet humble, Paris – dressed for the occasion – takes us through the ten rooms that make up his retrospective. 

Afraid of creating three large white spaces, the illustrator, art director and product designer took a series of drawing tables as the starting point of the exhibition. Underneath the glass are displayed works made throughout the years. “I don’t see my work as art though,” Paris is quick to add. “My work is given value because it is applied.”

Entering the exhibition through an anti-chambre, the visitors immediately has to choose whether to go left or right. “My two favourite works are hanging here, both made for W Korea.” He goes on to explain the symbolism in the works as we reach the first room, filled with some iconic fashion pieces from past catwalk shows and their corresponding illustrations. 

From Viktor&Rolf to Prada, Marni and Monique van Heist the walls are adorned with the collections as the illustrations are carefully presented on the tables. Paris tells how he captures his subject – the first theme – from catwalk to publication. “There are only pros to illustration, over say photography. Through sketches I can present my own interpretation of fashion, it’s the essence of expression. It doesn’t matter if a dress is blue in real life and I make it red, it’s about dissecting the various layers within a garment or look, storytelling by taking certain elements of a design.”

It’s clear after spending just five minutes with the designer that he is very passionate about his work, “regrettably nowadays there is no room for me at international catwalk shows,” he says. “But thanks to live streaming and websites like Style.com we all get to sit front row!” Many of the illustrations on show are for magazines – he has a permanent spot at Dutch Vogue – or campaigns but he also creates free work. 

Leading the group on towards the second room, the theme this time being textile, the designer explains how he creates the look of various materials. “I love experimenting in how to express different materials, but I never spend too much time on a single illustration. A fashion illustration needs to have something fast-paced about it.”

The next two rooms, symmetry and shape, seem most iconic for Paris’ work. Symmetry plays an important role, the designer points out how he is most satisfied when the inner shape created by two figures reveals a shape such as a heart or in the case of ‘Paris’ – and illustration for the city’s tourist board – the Eiffel tower. “Symmetry gives an image a sense of calm, it must have to do with left and right brain.” 

After the first four rooms which aim to educate the visitor about Piet Paris’ work, the next rooms are more colourful, more frivolous, a bit more interactive.

Explaining about his techniques, use of colour, products, set designs and contributions to various editions of the Arnhem Mode Biennial, Paris talks about the opening of the exhibition a few days earlier. About not wanting a traditional gallery-style opening with lots of people and lots of wine. “That’s not necessarily a recipe for a good evening. Instead I chose to combine this old fashioned trade I practice, with high-tech in the form of a live-stream on the website of the MMKA.”

He walks over to the archive table and starts searching through a pile of prints. “These are some of my earlier works printed on cards with the dates on the front. It shows you how we used to work at the academy (ArtEZ).”   

“We used to create illustrations of fashion looks for trend bureaus,” Paris explains. “Of course there are a few fashion designers who are or were great illustrators themselves, Yves Saint Laurent, Rolf Snoeren, and what about Karl Lagerfeld, he just puts pen to paper and a design is born.”

The passion in the work and willingness to share his method, some of his secrets even make Paris’ exhibition pretty compelling. When asked what message he would like to send visitors the reply was simple: “I want to get young people passionate about the the craft, the trade that is illustration.”

The overview exhibition has come about with help from Modekern, the Institute for Fashion Heritage which is currently creating an online databank of Dutch fashion designers, starting with ArtEZ alumni. Modekern is an initiative of Academy of Arts Arngem (ArtEZ), the Museum of Modern Art Arnhem (MMKA) together with the Gelders Archive and The New Institute (formerly Premsela) 

The Rooms of Piet Paris is on show through 4 August 2013 at the MMKA.

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