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White Nights at Decades – The ‘haute papier’ of Bea Szenfeld

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I’m always late to the party – as I was late to Decades’ opening night party for Bea Szenfeld earlier this month – a double treat, as I hadn’t been to Decades for what felt like decades; and local (and maybe international) costume/styling legend B. Akerlund was co-hosting. And so I’m late to this party, too – the web and media fest kicked up in her wake. Booth Moore weighed in at the Los Angeles Times and at least a half-dozen of my fellow fashion bloggers (no – I’m not going to single you all out). This is just to give notice that the show/window installation/’haute papier’-couture-sculpture will be up for just one more week at the store; and it’s worth a cruise down Melrose to have a look. The window displays make a wonderful holiday fantasy on snowy furs and jewels – white, feathery, ebullient and effervescent, and best of all, not fur at all. Nor for that matter pearls, pom-poms, crystals, beads (or breasts – I’ll explain), feathers, or fringe. All paper; and according to Szenfeld, hand-cut (with knives or scissors) and folded or strung together.

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We’ve seen paper in fashion before – including origami-like constructions comparable to Szenfeld’s modular polyhedrons – from designers everywhere from here to Japan. Dresses and other fashions in paper enjoyed a brief vogue in America during the late 1960s (and at the level of fine art – Warhol executed some silk-screened paper dresses). But Szenfeld’s creations – mostly for the upper-body are authentically ‘haute’ – all cut, folded and constructed by hand – and moreover, embodying a real luxury in their magnificence and art, even in the humblest of materials. It might be nice to see a complete turn-out (though I guess, a body-stocking just might do for some of these pieces); but the craft might be lost in similarly constructed leggings or skirts. Szenfeld sent them out on runways earlier this year in exactly this fashion – the models practically nude beneath the pieces. That they function as art – one-of-a-kind, quasi-kinetic, fluidly sculptural pieces – is self-evident, underscored by that body-as-armature support. But it’s also clear that within certain (environmental) limits, they would also function beautifully as evening wraps – capes and capelets, cloaks, stoles or shawls, and ponchos.

I used to joke about how spectacular it might be to ‘wear’ (or perhaps more accurately, ‘carry’) one of my larger canine nieces as a living fur wrap or stole (yeah – dog slobber is a real deterrent). Szenfeld presented a magnificent ‘lion stola’ of lozenged cut paper (which I understand has already sold) draped around the mannequin’s shoulders. Then, in addition to a spiky bearskin vest or mantle of interlocking tetrahedron ‘paper planes,’ there is the actual ‘teddy-bear’ in two separate renderings – one essentially held in place; the other worn as a full-body headdress-cloak – both magnificent. Then there’s the poncho in all-over springy crepe-paper ‘breasts’; or the cloak in similarly strung circular columns that would be a marvelously serviceable opera coat. And why settle for a diamond collier when you can cover yourself in white ‘crystals’? (Please don't misinterpret those small quotes, possums.)

Yes, durability (and conservatorship?) might be an issue. These wraps aren’t going out too often before being retired (as Booth Moore put it) to ‘a mannequin in your living room.’ But Szenfeld has sent comparable garments out on the red carpet. Björk wore a spectacular hip-length, short-sleeved jacket in all-over garnet or cranberry-colored overlapping intersected hemispheres, blooming spherically at the shoulders – like Christmas tree ornaments crowned with barrel cactus spines – to receive the 2010 Polar Music Prize. I’m not sure if this garment was entirely hand-made; there may have been some machine-cut elements in those interlocking hemispheres – but so what? The point is that, setting aside the fragility of these ‘haute papier’ creations, Szenfeld is dedicated to a very wearable, and yes, durable fashion – luxurious, flamboyant, theatrical, yet nonetheless sustainable fashion. (She has worked, always inventively, with other ‘up-cycled’ materials – e.g., PVC.)

It was only natural that Szenfeld’s path would cross with that of Akerlund, who’s costumed so many music videos. But her career has already taken so many unconventional turns – from the Swedish Project Runway (she won over Gareth Pugh!) to Stella McCartney, to Swarovski to Opening Ceremony, to Hello Kitty, to, well, cleaning the slate. It’s as if Szenfeld was beginning a whole new career – re-defining couture and art moment by moment – perhaps not unlike the way many of us approach art and fashion here in L.A. Happy New Year, possums.

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