published in SSAW Magazine Spring/Summer 2013, p. 166-171

A conversation with Benjamin Shine about iconography, masculinity
and Haute Couture.

When Benjamin Shine and Riccardo Tisci met, two souls educed one idea and a metaphysical coalition was created. Shine is known for an unconventional approach to material, creating artworks that consist of ‘one-piece’ constructions. Famous for his delicate portraits, depicting iconic personae of (pop-)cultural, historical and political realms by elaborately folding, layering and constructing a single piece of transparent tulle. Adding depth and character with each fold, curve and technologic wave. His love for finest crafts and the manmade artwork re- echoes within the œuvre of Riccardo Tisci and his Haute Couture creations for the celebrated house of Givenchy. An echo so sharp and gloomy as confessional whisper in a gothic church. By applying the fragile principle of Shine’s craftsmanship onto selected menswear garments, the longing for (self-)decoration, allegedly perceived as sinful lust, finally becomes an eligi- ble choice for today’s man. Most consequently, Shine and Tisci chose one very symbolic subject for their joint predict: the portrait of the Madonna.

Benjamin, what do you love most about the collaboration?
Translating my tulle work into clothing with riccardo and the Givenchy team – it doesn’t get any better than that!

By merging the worlds of religious iconography, sportswear and Haute Couture you created a ‘moving art- work’. Are you interested in the physi- cal ‘transportation’ and thus extended ‘visibility’ of your idea or more in the disruption of regular definitions of ‘garment vs. piece of art’?
Certainly both are important elements. These pieces are as much about challenging the context in which they are presented as they are about the subjects they are exploring.

What further meaning does the image of the Madonna bear for you personally, besides its cultural background?
her image always evokes a sense of strength and fragility to me. This is a quality I explore throughout my tulle work. I find the relationship between strength and vulnerability particularly poignant, as it’s so prevalent throughout life.

Is there a depiction of the Madonna that you particularly adore?
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Study for the face of the Virgin mary of the Annunciation’. It’s an incredible drawing which I was mesmerised by when I first saw it at the Louvre.

How do you feel in regard to the manipulation and therefore distortion of the portrait?
I regard the manipulation as a literal manifestation of the image rather than a distortion. The inherent ambiguity acts to draw the viewer in, to make sense of what they are seeing and hopefully ignite a deeper emotional connection.

Are the ‘saint’ and the ‘brutal’ two poles that attract each other?
Yes, I would say this is often the case. however, there are those who are brutal yet believe they are saints – and worse, to some they are con- sidered such. It’s a question of be- lief... it’s a question of religion.

Which role does ‘pain’ play within the chosen subject and its portraiture?
I think there is most often an undercurrent of both pain and sor- row reflected in the image of the madonna.

Within your body of work, the scale of folding and manipulation varies. Is this principle also applied on the Haute Couture garments?
Over the years my technique has developed. Initially I was using very small pleats and as my confidence grew in handling the medium I discov- ered how to control more free-flow- ing folds. The works today incorporate several techniques, all of which are combined in creating these pieces.

Which detail of human physiognomy attracts you most?
The eyes. As the saying goes, they are the windows to the soul. In portraiture, they play an important role in conveying expression and bringing the portrait to life.
Which other body parts would inter- est you to be examined within the art of ‘portraiture’?
I find hands are wonderfully expressive. I recently completed a large-scale installation of two elderly hands emerging from 50 metres of tulle. I think we are attuned to human emotion and can sense it in postures, gestures and the smallest of inflections that don’t even concern the face. I’m always interested in discovering other ways to explore portraiture.

Is there a different approach and view on male respectively female portraiture?
historically, there has been dis- tinct ways to convey masculinity and femininity. However, I tend to focus more on defining the individual’s presence within life’s fleeting nature, rather than any specific masculine of feminine overtones.

Who is the perfect, ideal woman, man, human?
Perfection isn’t something I really consider or evaluate in people. I think it’s the imperfections and im- balances that make people so interesting and individual.

What strikes you most about the tech- nique of using one single piece of tulle to create a layered, 3-dimension- al ‘drawing’?
I have a long-standing love of one-piece construction. I’m attracted by the sense of harmony and poetry these pieces imbue. I also like the challenge of pushing the limits to see what form or function can be achieved.

Reviewing the boom of sportswear and boost of prints, texture and em- bellishment in menswear, one might assume the customer prefers a safe territory of known, established gar- ments like the sweatshirt and T-shirt. But then we choose clothes with daring details – an act to remain untouchable and virile, yet controversial? Can the Haute Couture sweatshirt be regarded as a soothing alternative that allows men to build a new masculinity?
It’s an interesting point and the idea of a ‘new masculinity’ seems true. With such a desire for creativity in menswear, I think you’re right – it’s a case of retaining a masculine aesthetic but finding unexpected ways to add interest, without falling into an overtly feminine aesthetic. In that respect, I think riccardo’s bold decisions to marry my technique with menswear was visionary, as the pieces manage to retain a masculinity – even though they are haute Cou- ture, made from delicate tulle.

Are men afraid to be perceived vulnerable?
I think vulnerability has been associated to weakness, especially in relation to ‘the man’ as an image of strength. however, I think this has evolved where vulnerability reflects honesty, sensitivity and a respect for true emotion.

Are you vulnerable?
Yes and it’s something I rely on in order to create and think with sensitivity and passion.

What is your softest spot, your Achilles’ heel?
My family and those I love.

Have you ever had your portrait caricatured at the street?
Yes, and it was suitably unkind.

What is the most radical piece of clothing you own, and which is the one you love to wear the most?
I don’t own any radical piece of clothing.

What is the true ‘love story’ behind your collaboration?
I’d say this lies in the synergetic nature between Riccardo’s vision and my tulle work. There is a mutual love and respect for fabric and the endless possibilities it presents as a creative and expressive medium.

And finally: Which ‘word’ comes to your mind when you look at the final result?