CHRISTA de Carouge, “the lady in black”, left a lasting impression on Swiss fashion and made the Geneva suburb of Carouge, whose name she adopted, famous well beyond its borders. Her multifunctional clothes made with graphic designs in luxurious and innovative fabrics bestowed upon those who wore them elegance, freedom and comfort.
Celebrated for her professional skills and loved for her personal warmth and humanity, after her sudden death last January the Musée de Carouge decided to recognize her creativity and generosity and to express the gratitude of the city she loved so much with a comprehensive new exhibition.
I met with Klara Tuszynski, the museum’s scientific collaborator and co-curator of the new exhibition to learn more about Christa — the designer and the person — and how the museum went about honouring her legacy.
Klara, there have been many talented artisans who lived and worked in Carouge. Why has the Musée de Carouge decided to honor Christa de Carouge in particular with this retrospective?
Christa de Carouge is a personality who very much marked the city of Carouge. Many people knew and became friends with her. She had her boutique here for over 20 years and even though she officially left Carouge in 2004, she came back regularly for different exhibitions at our museum. She’s also known as the fashion designer of Carouge because she took the name of the city.
We thought it important, after her recent death, to concentrate on her work and to present her creativity and her biography to people who might know her name, but not her creations, her philosophy and her uniqueness.
What was her social and cultural impact on the city?
She was one of the main figures of Carouge who immediately stood out because of her outfit and her look. Each time she came back people would recognize her in the street, so definitely her creativity is linked to the personality of the city of Carouge, which is so original and different to that of Geneva just across the river. So there must have been a love story between Christa de Carouge and this city where she chose to start her activity and whose name she took.
She obviously felt a great affinity for Carouge.
She must have been really attracted by the original character of the city. The fact that the old town of Carouge is very recognizable by the small, two-level houses, that it’s inhabited by a certain type of population who like to be outside and drink some wine on the terraces. The openness of the people was, I think, something that connected with her own personality and with the fact that she liked to have people around her, to invite people to her boutique for parties and for apéros that were always very generous and during which people mingled and felt good together.
“When I create a garment, I feel like I am constructing it according to an architect’s plan.” Christa de Carouge
Although her clothing — very structured and usually dark – might have seemed austere and off-putting, she was quite warm and welcoming, wasn’t she?
Maybe because she always dressed in black, with a short haircut, and these big dark glasses, she gave the impression that she was a strong and closed person, but it was the opposite. She was very open and very generous and she had friends here for more than 40 years, so she had a very loving relationship with people in general. It’s true that when I met her here at the Musée a couple of times, she always came dressed in black, but she was very sunny. There was something emanating from her, a special aura.
Where do you think that aura came from?
It’s difficult to define, but from something very human — she had humanity. She was a full person with a real philosophy of work and life. These two things were very connected. She created her clothes in a certain way and she also lived in this way. For example, her boutique in Carouge was arranged with clean lines, concrete walls and wooden furniture, and at the back of her boutique her personal apartment was exactly the same, like a monk’s cell, you could say.
“There really is light in black.” Christa de Carouge
How did her travels to Paris, the Far East, and Arab countries — and her resulting embrace of existentialism, Zen, and nomadism — influence her fashion designs?
Maybe her love of black comes from her love of Paris and existentialism. She found a lot of things in black: elegance, purity, sobriety. She was also influenced by the French painter Pierre Soulages* [known for his series of outrenoir, “beyond black”, paintings] and had a real fascination for him.
She was inspired by the Japanese designers who went to Paris in the ’70s, bringing something new to fashion — minimalist colors and unstructured shapes that gave the body more space and greater comfort. She had a special love for Japan, where she also found something in its Zen philosophy that corresponded to her own searches.
In Arabic countries the idea of nomadism inspired her — that clothes you wear can also protect you from the sun and wind and serve as cover for the night.
She regularly went to Tibet and Nepal, where she was fascinated by the colors she could find there. And the textiles: some of her weavers were based in Nepal. She was also connected to the earth here in Switzerland. She regularly went on vacation in the Appenzell, where she found something very pure and authentic.
She took in all the essentialness, the authenticity of what these cultures offered. This inspired her work and also her own life. She was an authentic person.
“I believe that, even when they are not being worn, we can place them in a corner, like a sculpture, like a painting.” Christa de Carouge
Christa never stood still, she embraced the new. How did she evolve in terms of the fabrics and techniques she used to create her clothes?
Fabrics were an essential part of her designs, which are quite simple and geometric. She paid a lot of attention to fabrics that created the personality of the clothes. In the beginning she worked with natural fabrics, silk, wool, cashmere, linen, but she was also interested by what modern technology could bring. So that’s why she also created clothes in synthetic materials that were simple to live with: you could easily wash and dry them. She thought about what comfort and facility they could bring. She also created collars using 3D printing techniques and she applied laser-cut decorative elements on coats. She was always open to new inventions and to progressing.
It shows great open-mindedness.
Yes, I think “open minded” defines her well because she was open to other countries and cultures, but also here in Switzerland to new technologies. She was always moving forward but her designs were always based on this geometrical structure. Through the years it evolved so that her collections from different seasons and years could work together, so you could easily wear trousers from the 1990s with a coat from the 2000s. She was against fast fashion and ahead of her time in the idea of recycling and repairing instead of throwing out.
“You have to travel a lot, to look a lot, to work a lot and especially to create a lot.” Christa de Carouge
How did you design the exhibition to best capture Christa the designer and Christa the person?
For us it was important not only to present her clothes but also her biography: her family background, what she studied, how she arrived in Carouge, how she evolved in her career. We had access to her personal archives and documents in order to build this history and learn more about her.
This is the first exhibition made without Christa’s participation. She had a special way of presenting her clothes, but we didn’t want to copy her universe, her way of seeing, but to present what we understood of her work and her life.
In terms of the exhibition’s visual aesthetic, what were you trying to reflect about Christa’s life?
We wanted to be close to her aesthetic even if we didn’t want to copy exactly the way she presented and staged her exhibitions. So we looked into her background and particularly the fact that she studied graphic arts and early on worked as a graphic designer. So clarity of lines [was important] as it was when she studied in Zurich at the school of decorative arts, where one of her teachers, Johannes Itten, was associated with Bauhaus. Also, she loved Le Corbusier’s aesthetics. So we were inspired by these different influences and also by the colors of Christa’s collections — the primal colors of red, blue and yellow, as well as the strict lines and wooden frames that recall a Japanese presentation.
“I don’t want anything to do with traditional fashion shows which only display the garment. I need theatre, I need a party.” Christa de Carouge
You include wonderful photographs as well.
All through her career she worked with talented photographers and we have archives of photos from her time in Carouge, but more recently of her fashion shows in Zurich, so it gives another view of her work and career and how she created fashion shows. With Christa you didn’t get classical fashion photographs, it was always a mise en scene, staged with special scenery.
Yes, you mentioned she had a flare for drama and that her personal and professional spaces looked like art installations.
Yes, she had a very aesthetic view of her work so that’s why her boutiques and her private apartment were very minimalistic with certain accents on one or two pieces, be it a tea pot or one single sculpture. So it was very pure. She always had this pure environment.
So you could say that her private life and her art nourished each other.
Exactly. And I think that when you look at her she’s so special in her clothes and how she cut her hair. There’s a unity of things.
Finally, what was she trying to offer people with her clothes? To liberate them, perhaps?
Maybe to liberate them from the hold of fashion and having to run after what’s new, the new brands and styles. She wanted to create something friendly and comfortable, clothes that offered a little more than just what they represent on the surface. That’s why some of her clothes can be transformed. For example, her famous suitcase that contained drawers in which you could find clothes for different kinds of weather and seasons but that could also become a cushion or a cover, something for necessities.
She made clothes that could offer the liberty of creation and sometimes fun, too. She let her clients be free with the clothes — some are reversible, some can be worn upside down and some can be combined with other pieces of clothes that she created. It was constant play with her creations. Playful, practical and very modern. ♥
*FYI: a retrospective of the artist Pierre Soulages continues at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny until 13th January 2019.
Christa de Carouge – Free Entry
4 October to 16 December 2018
Open Tuesday to Sunday – 14h to 18h
Ville de Carouge – Musée de Carouge
Place de Sardaigne 2, 1227 Carouge
T +41 22 307 93 80 / F +41 22 307 93 88