‘Panty’ by Michaela Stark: for the Female Gaze

Last week, Michaela Stark morphed not only the architecture of the female body but also the dominant narrative of the Milan Fashion Week. With her new lingerie brand Panty, Stark brought to the fore parts of the body that aren’t ‘desirable’, and in doing so, she teased the idea of the MFW as a place for traditional beauty.

If you’re into body positivity you probably know well Michaela Stark’s work. And if you aren’t into the topic, you probably still have come across her work. And that is because Stark’s images are by all means unusual, unapologetic, extravagant, yet ethereal. Stark’s work is very simple and very challenging at the same time. Her garments are meant to highlight the beauty that we’ve been taught to hide: our very own flesh. Suddenly, the flesh is squeezed and fractioned into asymmetrical folds, unveiling what in our imaginary has been deemed grotesque.

With Stark, flesh and fat are anything but grotesque. They’re a celebration of emancipation. Why force our bodies to look like the standard when we can accentuate those margins that give us the possibility to adopt different shapes, even if they aren’t organic? Clearly, her designs are about creating an alternative reality, where bodies aren’t a subject of judgment but of appreciation, no matter their shape. “I put an obscene amount of time into making lingerie that makes fat desirable,” said Stark to the New York Times upon the launch of her new brand Panty during Milan Fashion Week last week.

Making room for other than her eponymous couture label, barely accessible to anyone, Stark’s Panty aims to make the fantastic world of morphing bodies available to other audiences. The launch of the brand, which was revealed in a five-day exhibition along with a performance at Fondazione Sozzani, features different lingerie pieces that can be worn too as outerwear — offering a holistic approach to revealing all tissues hidden from the public eye — with an entry-level price at 70eu.

The exhibition, which intended to mirror the artistic and personal environment of the designer, by simulating the looks of her atelier and bedroom in a combined effort, ran from February 20th until the 25th, and displayed images by the photographer Charlotte Rutherford. Likewise, the venue hosted the performance “Michaela Stark’s Panty Show,” which featured Yasmin El Yassini wearing Stark’s garments among the works of German artist Hans Bellmer, known for the life-size dolls he produced in the mid-1930s.

Bringing these subversive ideas to the Milan Fashion Week isn’t just ‘provocative’ as many have called it. It’s shapeshifting, literally, as it asks the public to step out of their buttoned-up box and think, at least for a short moment, that what’s in front of their eyes is worth all their attention and admiration. The tension that Stark creates between the organic state of the body and a manufactured body architecture that bends and distorts itself sparks conversations that go beyond beauty standards. In fact, this visual proposition is not only reinforming beauty aesthetics whilst expanding the purpose of fashion, but it more so questions who are these aesthetics meant to please — and there’s no doubt that to answer this question, the male gaze needs to be out of the equation.

“Society has the perception we have progressed past where women were bound up in corsets,” said Stark. “We haven’t. The ideals we strive for today are harder to achieve. Instead of forcing women to mould their bodies into desired shapes using garments, what they’re now asked to do is to have that body without them. So now we get these impossible silhouettes through surgery or working out. To have this without the use of undergarments is a huge ask.”

Let the flirtation with our bodies and the hidden and unhidden begin.

*Header: Charlotte Rutherford