MONOLITH by Abasi Rosborough
“...It was completely foreign to anything I had experienced - the calculated modern precision of the steel plates in this ancient barren space was fascinating and godlike.”
Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough are two affable young designers who take pride in their craftsmanship and design process. Talking to the New York-based design duo was enjoyable and illuminating. After having worked in large fashion corporations, they founded Abasi Rosborough in New York City in 2013. The two were looking for a more creative avenue to express their views on clothing, all while using the skills they acquired at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where they met as classmates. Abasi and Rosborough analyze cultural production and find inspiration in sartorial traditions to produce their work. Their practice crosses lines between fashion and art. This exhibition focuses on one of their recent collections that connected both disciplines.
During a trip to Qatar, Greg Rosborough visited Richard Serra’s site-specific piece East-West/West-East. The experience greatly impacted him and inspired Abasi Rosborough’s spring-summer 2016 collection MONOLITH, which is the subject matter for this show. According to Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, a monolith (mon’ō.lith) n. is a “single large block or piece of stone, as in architecture or sculpture.” While Serra’s work is comprised of four monumental plates arranged according to the topography of the Brouq Nature Reserve in Qatar, the designers focused their collection on a singular large structure, rather than on multiplicity or a set geographic location.
Greg Rosborough described how Richard Serra’s work transformed the landscape. In his perspective, the artwork removed it from a specific place and time. “It looks like you’re in outer space [... the plates] are standing alone in the middle of the dessert and it’s very haunting...” Years prior, in 1998, Hal Foster described Richard Serra’s work as governed by three dynamics: “engagement with particular precedents; elaboration, through pertinent materials, of an intrinsic language; and encounter with specific sites.” I argue that Serra’s three dynamics as described by Foster can elucidate Abasi Rosborough’s MONOLITH collection, as I will proceed to explain.
Engagement with particular precedents
Abasi Rosborough’s work is deeply inspired by sartorial history and art. The classic men's two-piece suit was devised in mid-19th century Europe. It is now a global staple of menswear and has suffered minimal modifications since its inception. Abasi and Rosborough grappled with the idea that a garment has existed for over a century and yet it can be very uncomfortable to wear. Greg Rosborough wondered, “How strange is it that we live in the 21st century and no designer has meaningfully designed a suit jacket that respects your body’s natural anatomy and range of motion?” So they proposed multiple structural changes to the basic pattern of a suit jacket, including adding a oversize knit gussets at the underarms that allow more mobility for the wearer. That newly designed jacket is one of the staples of the brand. It is a garment that they have manufactured since 2013.
Drawing inspiration from artwork, the fashion collection MONOLITH then became inspiration for new illustrations and photography. A dialectic between disciplines where art feeds fashion and fashion feeds art. The brand’s campaigns are spearheaded by Abdul Abasi, who also photographs the collections. For Monolith, there were two campaigns, Odyssey and Horus. In Odyssey, the designers collaborated with an artist from Stockholm named Cecilia Carlstedt who, according to the designers, created “graphic, minimalist” illustrations of the garments. They describe her work for this campaign as “Giv[ing] you space to dream.” The illustrations use bright bold colors contrasting with black vertical structures, her interpretation of the monolith.
For the campaign titled Horus, Abasi’s photographs featured models in sleek clothing against a background of a large black geometric structure. He juxtaposed the roughness of concrete with the softness of fabric, referencing the texture and appearance of Serra’s metal plates in East-West/West-East. “It came full circle, starts from an art piece, to fashion to art piece,” said Abasi.
Elaboration, through pertinent materials, of an intrinsic language
Abasi and Rosborough were particularly inspired by the materiality of Serra’s piece. They experimented with fabrics and leathers to create textures and colors that referenced the pallette of East-West/West-East, as well as the patina developed through the passing of time.
For the ARC Ascent Jacket - a collarless jacket with an asymmetrical zip placket - the designers mixed materials. Made with undyed kangaroo leather and hand-dyed American denim, it presents a stylized patchwork that mixed shades of beige with textures of cotton and leather. Their use of this specific type of leather is an ode to Serra’s work. “We used Kangaroo leather that is completely unfinished so when you touched or squeezed it, the fat in the skin would cause striation with a marbling effect,” said Abdul. “So the wearer interacting with the garment actually changes the surface of it. Similar to Serra, whose exhibition will look different in 20 years, and in 100 years because it is constantly being bombarded by the Earth’s elements.” Like the artist’s work, which is meant to transform over time, the designs for this collection are made with materials that will show signs of aging.
Various fabrics used in the collection, such as the hand-dyed cotton in the ARC Denim Jacket, were intervened by the hands of the designers. They gave the material a distressed look, again referencing the effects of time and the elements.
Encounter with specific sites
Serra’s piece in Qatar was made for a specific location in the Brouq Nature Reserve, the height of each plate designed to match the topography. The title East-West/West-East refers to the multiple viewpoints from which the visitor can experience the piece. Similarly, in Abasi Rosborough’s designs, east and west intersect with multiple approaches. Numerous garments from the brand draw inspiration from traditional dress. For example, a pair of pants from MONOLITH are a homage to Middle Eastern clothes. “Through our research we are not only looking at Western clothing, but also Eastern, Middle Eastern, African [...] we think it’s all relevant,” says Abasi. “Historical syrian pants are just as relevant as 5-pocket jeans.”
The Abasi Rosborough workshop is located in Midtown Manhattan, where they manufacture garments with precision and nuance. Whenever possible, the designers source fabrics locally, at times manipulating the materials to achieve desired effects. They explain, “we love that integration into nature and how things can be refined and informed by nature. It can react and be interactive and change over time. There’s always a beauty in that. So there’s a lot of layers.” In the ARC Après Shirt for example, the designers used raw dupioni silk. They used this material because they found in it both “beauty and brutality.” Abdul described the silk’s texture as “knubby and [with] all sorts of imperfections.”
Abasi Rosborough’s Monolith collection draws upon Richard Serra’s recent site-specific work East-West/West-East, an instance where art and fashion intersect. This exhibition centers around creative processes and the ongoing dialogue between fashion and art. However, while Abasi Rosborough’s practice has poetic elements, the duo view design as a problem-solving discipline. It is here where they diverge from the paths of art. They create garments that they consider necessary, that respond to a need in the way people relate to clothes (ie. mobility) or the materials used to make them (ie. deadstock fabrics ). “Everything we do involves process,” stated Abasi. “We use art but we use the anthropology of mankind starting from [...] the first garments, what function they had and try to apply them to a modern context.” Design, then, is dislocated from a set space and time, with a vocation - inserted in modernity - of advancing the practice of fashion.
Tanya Melendez Escalante, New York, NY, 2016