Meeting Gabrielle Huguenot, The Snake Woman
“ I see my work as a reaction to what the fashion world can be like“
While attending the HEAD 2023 Fashion Show in Geneva last week, we met one of last year’s winners, Gabrielle Huguenot. The Swiss fashion designer, who was recently awarded the Grand Prix du Jury in the accessories category at the International Festival in Hyères, is back in Geneva to present the latest instalment of her artistic project. Embodied by “The Snake Woman’, a figure as fascinating as she is imposing, her work is a continuation of her Master’s project and reflects an unapologetically daring and innovative approach to fashion.
Who is this infamous Snake Woman?
The project presented at Hyères is a continuation of my Master’s project, which aimed at paying tribute to female figures that I grew up with and whose images transported me elsewhere. They are drawn from pop culture, particularly cinema, and while they are mainly secondary characters, they were central to me. These figures inspire me because I feel like I can see myself reflected through them in the fashion world. I think, for instance, of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby protagonist, who sees her entourage seize the object of her dream – having a child – and use it to objectify her. Her environment exerts great influence over her child, more so than we might imagine. There’s a tendency to overlook the process involved in realising one’s dream or project. In this regard, Sonia Rykiel writes that creation is the relationship between mother and child, between artist and creation, which can be ‘monstrous’, and make their relationship quite disturbing…
By creating my own “femme fatale”, whom I call The Snake Woman, I wanted to pay homage to these women. Additionally, I wanted to break with the notion of purity that we ascribe to the figure of the muse by introducing this mysterious and mystical animal, which symbolises the devil in many cultures and religions.
Can we say that The Snake Woman is somewhat your alter ego? Since you also embody her…
At first, it was a solution rather than a statement. I work with fetishistic codes, something that I find inherent in fashion, as it involves working with the body and creating objects of desire. At a certain point, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of using models, for I didn’t want to risk objectifying or fetishising other people’s bodies. Subsequently, this decision influenced my creative process at large. I wanted to create this stunning woman, and working with my body meant having to face my own insecurities, which ultimately nourished my work.
So your practice takes on an intimate dimension, even vulnerable?
Absolutely, it’s highly personal. I also see my work as a reaction to what the fashion world can be like because the notions of consent and body objectification are at the very heart of this industry. I had no experience as a model or performer, but it just felt right to embody the Snake Woman… It was also a quest for authenticity and honesty.
By taking this concrete stance, where I sort of say “my body, my choice”, I’m exercising a power that cannot be taken away from me, a priori. Nevertheless, going against what is, let’s say, the easy narrative, opens up the discussion and leads to dialogue, but it also shuts the door to certain opportunities…
I take it then that you have been shut out from some projects.
This is something that is done behind closed doors and it’s quite hard to see, but yes. To give you an example, I was recently ‘erased’ from a publication featuring the winners of the Hyères Festival. The aim of the article was to present the winners and their vision, which in my case means that I am physically engaged. In the end, I managed to wear my designs, and I selected pieces that implied seeing me in them. Only they took the pictures right as I was taking them off, thus showing only my hand with the ornaments. It was clear from the text and the pictures that they didn’t really want me there. I can understand that when it comes to an editorial, I don’t want to impose myself anywhere! However, if the aim is to illustrate my vision and my work, that implies my presence too…
Which, unfortunately, speaks for how we are still rather conventional… Is there a place for openness and challenging traditional codes in fashion?
That’s something that I find a bit funny about the history of fashion. Take the 80s, for instance, people got into fashion because there was the possibility of incorporating art and performance. It was a space for designers to bring their vision and give free rein to their imagination. Look at Mugler or Alaïa, they had completely different approaches, and yet there was room for them. Over time, fashion has become first and foremost a business. We’ve moved away from the artistic dimension and it’s all a question of ‘retail’. That’s where we see the split between art and fashion design.
Why didn’t you choose a purely artistic path then?
Many people have asked me why I didn’t do a Masters in Art. It may have been a more open environment, perhaps! But I wanted to force myself to stay in this world, even if I condemn it. There are major issues at the heart of the industry, that’s no secret, but if we see them as set in stone, nothing will ever change. I’ve taken a stance, and it may not always be a winning position (laughs) but I am committed to my vision. I believe that there’s a place for all approaches in fashion. It isn’t just business, clothing is a medium in its own right, like sculpture or painting. However, the reality is that the industry sees fashion as a product, and has transformed creation into a selling transaction. There’s something quite violent about that, which pushes the artistic dimension into the background…
So far, your practice is highly hybrid and therefore difficult to integrate commercially. How do you see it evolving in this area?
Indeed, I am halfway between art and fashion design. For the moment, I’d like to keep this openness, which also makes the force of the project. Ultimately, I want my work to succeed in bridging this gap that we talked about, to reconcile fashion and this more artistic creation. I want to keep on pushing the boundaries surrounding objects, garments, accessories, and jewellery, while incorporating a slightly more commercial approach.
I’m currently joining an incubator that will help me develop the entrepreneurial aspect of my practice – everything to do with coaching, marketing, sales… I’m working on prototypes for pieces that will potentially be wearable, which is also challenging, for I don’t want to demystify the object and transform it into something too ordinary… I won’t be making shoes that cannot be worn forever, but that’s also what creates my DNA.
Speaking of, you originally wore those shoes, why did you make them unwearable?
That happened during the presentation in Hyères. My project had a global dimension, which included clothes, jewellery, shoes… all designed for The Snake Woman. The shoes grabbed a lot of attention, someone was particularly interested in them and wanted to buy them. In response to this demand, I decided to add spikes so that they couldn’t be worn because they belonged to The Snake Woman. The project was about creating this female figure and giving it back its power. All pieces of the collection are constituents of her persona, so I wasn’t going to rip a limb from her.
How does losing their functionality alter the nature of the shoes?
Well, that’s where I think there’s an interesting debate. For many people, they have become a sculpture, but if you ask me, we’re still talking about a pair of shoes. At which point, if at all, do they transform? There were quite strong reactions to this modification. Some people just couldn’t accept that the shoes were impossible to wear.
I find it fascinating to challenge creative limits, whether in terms of technique or references. One of the things I like about accessories is that you create a piece, place it on the table and then watch people’s responses. I find that moment remarkable. People either hate or love my piece, it’s rarely a neutral reaction.
Your pieces have quite a singular character, they are both imposing and alluring.
That’s exactly it, there’s an interplay between seduction and fear, and I find that brilliant. It’s about the tension created in the object, which follows the logic of carnivorous plants and gives rise to very instinctive emotions. At one point during the presentation in Hyères, children saw the pieces and wanted to touch them. You could feel their excitement; they wanted to get closer but didn’t dare. One of them said to me “It’s weird but pretty”. His mother felt a bit embarrassed by his answer and wanted to apologise for him, but I thought it was the perfect summary!
Perhaps that’s also created by the contrast between the sparkling stones and the raw and brutal nature of the sourced materials on which they are inserted.
I like to play with provocation in my work, and sometimes I deliberately use “controversial” materials. My spiked shoes are made from snakeskin, a problematic material to employ, and I agree. Only it’s leather that was bought in the 70s and can no longer be sold due to the new legislation. There’s stock sitting in warehouses because it cannot be sold or thrown away. And it is precisely in this context, where there is no production and no commercial value, that their use makes sense. The same goes for the necklace I’m wearing today, it is made from a dog leash that is now banned. Is it sustainable? Yes, but it doesn’t look like it and in fashion, it’s all about appearances. We want holy water.
Speaking of provocation and controversy, can you tell us about the perfume you’re presenting today?
I’ve always been passionate about perfume. Whenever I presented a portfolio or a project, I chose very specific fragrances to accompany them in order to create an atmosphere. As the winner of last year’s HEAD Fashion Show, I had the opportunity to create a fragrance in collaboration with Firmenich, and this is the result. My idea was to make it exude a complex universe, perhaps not the easiest commercially, but I wanted the perfume to deliver yet another kind of bodily experience – adding a new layer to the Snake Woman’s universe.
The aim was to create an unpleasant smell. This creation is a bold proposal, I’m aware of that. The perfume also raises questions regarding our awareness of body odours and the feelings we ascribe them, such as shame. What’s more, female genitalia are much more objectified than male genitalia. Therefore, the aim is to offer an honest image of male genitalia through a fragrance that deliberately gives off a questionable scent.
It’s called “Négligence”, dare to smell it?
Interview by Cristina López Caballer
Photos: Ayka Lux