By Jet Van Overeem
In the summer of 2005 my mother posted me a newspaper clipping from NRC Handelsblad, which was part of a series about talented fashion-design students who completed their final exams at the Rietveld Academy that year. The clipping was about Dan Gonen (b. 1978). My mother sent me the article because she thought Gonen's work suited me—and she was right. At the time, I was looking for an outfit for the opening of Wonderkamers, and together with the museum press officer at the time and my friend, Marie-Jose Raven, had already tried the most curious creations of fashion students a number of times. And every time, I returned to the conclusion that while wearing these creations, I am no longer myself.
I was close to giving up on finding an outfit when I came across Gonen's work. Simple in line, restrained in color and made from high-quality materials, his clothing features screen-printed, embroidered and appliquéd motifs imbued with meaning and stories. The latter especially touched me. I didn't know many examples of designers who know how to make clothes into stories. It was unsurprising that he published poetry before moving from Israel to the Netherlands, as I later discovered.
The newspaper clipping featured a skirt made of traditional pinstripe fabric, where the classic stripe pattern became a metaphor for reading and writing through refined screen-printed motifs of open books. Each book included a ribbon bookmark and these were sewn on separately to enhance the effect. It was just as simple as it was imaginative. It was exactly the kind of creation I could step into and find that particular feeling of happiness. Shortly thereafter I made an appointment with Dan Gonen in Amsterdam.
Gonen made another of his graduation pieces for me in a smaller size: a light-grey woolen skirt with a screen-printed motif of a daydreaming girl sitting embroidering. The detail of the girl's embroidery was stitched by hand into the motif with yarn. Here, her thoughts took shape in appliqued circles. It is only, now, as I write this, that I realise the analogy with one of my own illustrations. Gonen also designed a matching top just for me, made of dark grey jersey fabric on which the moon and the stars appear.
No other outfit could have better symbolised the imagination but also the hard work I put into making Wonderkamers. As a handbag, I added a small antique basket, as an ode to the fantastical and unassuming imagination of children.
Mysteriously, both Dan and I have lost all the photos that were taken of us that night. I did manage to take some photos of the outfit—although not wearing them. And since my affection for Dan goes so deep, I fortunately need no visual material as proof.
The development of Dan Gonen's wearable objects continued smoothly in 2006. With four beautiful designs that symbolize the four seasons, Gonen won the Lancôme Color Design Award in Paris. His subtle designs—a coat embellished with a wolf and paw prints, and a summer dress with sun rays that overflow into pencils and then become snakes—stood out in the theatrical spectacle of the other entries. My colleague Madelief Hohé, curator of the Fashion Department at Kunstmuseum, The Hague, organized the exhibition Fashion NL: The Next Generation that Year. The designs by Gonen were featured and I was able to assist with their installation in "my own" museum.
Over the course of the year, it became increasingly evident that Gonen is more of an autonomous artist than a fashion designer. Even after the prize, he did not allow himself to be tempted into the rat race of the commercial fashion world and consistently followed his own path. His motto—"outside fashion"—aptly describes this instinct. As an artist, he strives for independent expression across the scope of clothing, in stark contrast to the primary objective of fashion in which meeting the taste of the buyer is central in order to sell as much clothing as possible.
Recently, Gonen's solo exhibition, Dionysos wears Kringloop, was held at Kunstruimte Lokaal Utrecht. There he exhibited his most recent work, consisting of clothing enriched with meaning, featuring Dionysos, the Greek god of growth, through red thread. There were beautiful pieces on display, hanging on the wall on hangers and busts:
A black dress with elegant, multicolored threads; a shoulder piece with a miniature off which a bird cage dangles, it spent its first life in a child's dollhouse; an ethereal set in off-white with flower stems that rise from a vase appliqued on the skirt and blossom on the matching blouse; a sand colored woolen cardigan with embroidered twigs and brown flower buds growing out of the pockets; and rough boots overgrown by tendrils.
I was particularly moved by a cream-colored, knitted hood on the wall, with faint spots that indicated a past life. Gonen applied two embroidered flowers, like eyes that gaze at the viewer uninhibitedly. The soul of the object coincides with Gonen's intervention.
Also this year, Gonen presented a hand-sewn, numbered, concise publication about his work. In it he speaks about clothing as a language, and the mysterious process in which words become art. This is the same in the case of the language of clothing, where an endless variety of fabrics made in different techniques, with a range of motifs and textures, function as words, according to Gonen. Buckles, buttons and zippers provide accents, and shapes are created by cutting and sewing. The words are formed by the individual pieces of clothing: a sweater, jacket, pants and shoes. The words are combined and sentences are created. And as Gonen passes his hand over the clothing, art—or wearable poetry—is created.
Translation by Stacey Vorster