For an artist so preoccupied with fiction, fashion is a relatively undiscovered country for Theaster Gates. The Chicago-based artist made his name with “Plate Convergence”, an exhibition of work by the fictional Japanese ceramicist Shoji Yamaguchi (Gates created all the works himself and hired an actor to play Yamaguchi’s son). He used that narrative as a springboard for the discussion of both the marginalisation and the fetishisation of ethnic groups and artistic media.
Now, he’s front and centre for Prada. Gates co-chairs the Italian house’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, with Ava DuVernay, and has staged two exhibitions at Fondazione Prada in Milan. This week, he opened the third iteration of Prada Mode, the peripatetic members club, in London (previous pop-ups have opened in Miami and Hong Kong). “Prada Mode London differs in one really important way: we are actively highlighting and engaging the amazing artists, musicians, trend-makers, and fashionistas of colour in the United Kingdom and beyond,” he emails, from Chicago. “I’ve adopted the role of a platform-maker in this iteration. With the help of Elvira Dyangani Ose, we’ve built a very simple framework that allows creatives who live and work in London and beyond to have a platform where they can have the conversations that they want, share the many gifts that they have, and simply be together.”
Gates is equally concerned with the regeneration of ailing buildings – which brings us to the starkly beautiful 180 The Strand, in London, his base for Prada Mode. In his native Chicago, Gates has converted former crack houses into cinemas and an abandoned bank into an arts centre. 180 The Strand, therefore, seems a natural fit to host this programme: the Brutalist building once comprised part of the Arundel Great Court complex designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd and built between 1971 and 1976, running from the Embankment all the way up to the Strand. The south end was demolished but the north end remains, and has recently been converted by the property developer Mark Wadhwa into a creative and arts venue, housing artists’ studios, exhibition spaces, as well as hosting London Fashion Week.
“I’ve known of The Strand now for a few years, I’ve walked the floors of the offices and I’ve seen as new projects have come into the building,” says Gates. “Initially, it was hard to see the tremendous ambition of the space, in part because the scale of its former office use was so great. It seemed like too much to overcome. But Mark Wadhwa and his design brilliance and tremendous thoughtfulness altered what it means to bring people together. He has been able to assemble a cohort of users that includes magazine producers, designers, and artists.”
Gates now terms 180 The Strand “one of the most important places for contemporary culture in London” – and it will host a feast of creative types under the Prada Mode umbrella, including Grace Wales Bonner, the director Larry Achiampong and the artist Phoebe Boswell. “London is one of the most active and productive creative scenes of this time,” he insists. “Our hope is simply to create space where people can share their big ideas and come together.”
Fashion is fertile ground for Gates, being, as he puts it, an industry that is without real diversity. “After the incident in New York surrounding the question of racism, I felt really encouraged to partner with Miuccia and Ava DuVernay to give deep consideration to how the need for diversity and representation could create more understanding, but could [also] add layers of new hotness to the fashion world,” he says. “It feels like Prada is now an important part of how I hope to give back to a world of creatives.”
It's no easy task, as Gates acknowledges. “A couple of things that I feel like I’m personally discovering over and over is how many professional fields there are that are inherently biased and without real diversity,” he says. “The fashion world has been that for a long time. Every once in a while, a great artist or great designer will emerge who is of colour or comes from an ethnic or national background that adds real flavour to the work. What I hope to help do, with support from Prada, is to think about how we can create a pipeline for success.”
As for clothes? “Fashion and fiction presents an interesting intersection,” Gates asserts. “I believe people use what they wear as a way of cloaking who they are, or taking on additional personae. I love this about clothes. In my own case, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can simplify my clothing life, to no avail, even in trying to cut up all my clothes in a recent exhibition at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. There are times when the imagination has the capacity to articulate and reflect an interior truth. Sometimes we need fashion, architecture, design, and music to help us get to those truths that we sometimes can’t say directly.”