THERE’S a small group of artists coming out of London who are making clothing their go-to medium. One of them is Hong Kong-born Valerie Kong who’s gathered together 40 (and counting) of her closest friends and friends-of-friends to take part in Exquisite Corpse. Taking its name and premise from the surrealist parlour game in which words or images are added to and assembled by a group, passed from one person to the other until it is decidedly finished, Kong’s Exquisite Corpse is made not on a piece of paper but into tops, trousers or skirts.


The idea is simple: the aim is to form bonds through clothing like a giant but silent sewing circle so that eventually you get to know someone not necessarily through their words but through their handiwork. Since its inception in November 2018 it’s quickly gained in momentum and size much to Kong’s surprise. Everyone, it seems, is excited about a new approach not just to making clothes but making things in general. Exquisite Corpse bypasses the individual’s ego and places emphasis on the magic which can unfold when collaboration is left to run totally awry.


Some of the clothes are intricate and beautiful, others wonderfully hideous. All are clearly worked on for hours more than one individual might put into making them. A pair of delicate silk slippers with wooden soles are offset by a garish pink sparkly padded jacket complete with pleated arm wings (not a technical term but, being so unique, you kind of have to make some things up). Ahead of a potential show in June when these pieces will make their collective debut to the world we’re lucky enough to rummage through some finished pieces and speak to Kong at her studio in Canada Water about her relationship to clothing and the project at large just as she is sending out a new batch of pieces to make the rounds.

BOG: So, why did you decide start Exquisite Corpse?


VALERIE KONG: It’s a good way of getting people who have similar interests together. I totally don’t mind if anyone wants to wear anything out as part of the process too, it’s part of it – little things that the garment experiences.


B: So kind of like imbuing these bits of fabric with the presence of other people.


VK: Yeah, the presence of other people and a lot of care and love. People aren’t necessarily aware of who added to things before so it’s like little marks, recurring marks that [participants] notice in the ways that they make things. It’s sort of like leaving a mark on each other. I think of clothes as a pretty talismanic thing.


B: How so?


VK: Well, I get a lot of my clothes from my mum so I find that for her it’s sort of like “oh I’ve got this thing, it’s very precious, I don’t want to give it to someone else and it fits you so you can have it” which is great! It’s that a part of her is in it. When she was my age she was wearing it. It’s a form of sequence. And I think clothes in charity shops – although we don’t go in with the same mindset – it is the same thing, you’re buying someone else’s clothes. It’s rare that another art form has that level of intimacy and there’s stories that you can tell from them. There’s also a Sadie Plant book I was reading which related a lot to technology and how computers, when they were first invented, were based on the kind of code punching system that looms have.


B: Really?


VK: Yeah. A lot of the things we think are really high tech are actually rooted in very craft based, basic things. I mean even the word technology doesn’t really mean anything computer-based, making a fire is a kind of technology.


B: Yeah and making a loom.


VK: It’s really hands-on stuff, like how the keyboard was based on piano keys because most typists were women who would usually have had piano lessons. I’ve got really into how stone carving is making a shape out of something from actually carving in to it. When you make clothes it’s also like that. You cut a pattern out in order to make the whole, full garment. And something John Berger wrote which I really like because it’s super romantic is how telling a story is sort of like making a garment. Especially telling a story about a person because you know someone so well but you can’t tell everyone every little detail about them so you’ve got to pick out the best bits. So you make this shape that fits them. When you try to describe something you often try to shape it into some kind of format just to make it concrete and I guess that’s sort of what clothes do.


B: That’s very romantic. Clothing as little stories.


VK: I think for a while I was really into t-shirts with words on them. I think it says a lot about someone to have the courage to wear something that they believe in. It’s speaking through just wearing something. There’s something cool about clothes, you can transform into a different person according to what you’re doing, feeling, the temperature…


B: So with Exquisite Corpse are you seeing this as something with an end in sight or are you seeing it as a bit freer than that?


VK: I don’t see the end at the moment. I’ve done the beginning. It’s not only people who are making the clothes who want to be a part of it now but other people who are into film and photography.


B: I find it’s a very fluid way of doing something. There’s no theme, just a piece of clothing which you react to.


VK: That’s true. I don’t really give instructions or anything, it’s quite nice setting the piece free each time it goes to the next person.


B: The process is almost ritualistic.


VK: Maybe in 2,000 years time someone will find it and be like this is a whole lot of clothes that 40 people made together!


B: Yeah it’s almost as though these objects aren’t really the purpose of this. The story behind them is.


VK: A big part of it for me is just to get people to meet. You feel like you’ve met the person in some way. I think a lot of people who are in it aren’t people who are very sociable and it’s nice getting to know people in an intimate way. I thought it would be nice to do a skill swap session. There are a few people who know how to do one thing really well and it’s another way it would be nice for people to meet. It goes beyond the physical garment.


B: How do you choose who to ask to be involved?


VK: I don’t really have many requirements. I think it falls in between art and fashion and I don’t think you always need to draw a venn diagram and be in the overlapped bit because you can be in the gap bit. Anyone who falls into the gap is welcome to join – or is in it already! So most people don’t really have a fashion design practise or anything like that it’s more of a hobby.


B: A lot of people who are involved come from a fine art background. What is it about textiles and clothing which is so interesting to people from a non-fashion background?


VK: It feels more alive. Not that the sculptures aren’t or paintings aren’t but it feels really different that you can have it with you a lot of the time and it becomes a part of you. They’re much more shareable or transferable. Just the fact that you can fold it up and give it away is quite different from anything else.


B: The approach to clothes making in this project has been quite sculptural. A lot of the stuff can’t really be washed as it’s so delicate or the materials are so different to what clothing tends to be made from. The paint or resin, for example.


VK: I would agree. I have an idea of what it looks like flat when I’m making it but then when I actually see it worn on a person they’re creating it in a different way. They show you how it changes so much on different body sizes and structures. They’re showing another side of the garment, completing it.


B: I love the idea that it’s not complete until it’s on a body. That also brings in the idea of shared ownership which is quite core to Exquisite Corpse. People respond to that.


VK: It’s completely shared ownership. It’s so different from fast fashion.


B: It’s really slowing things down.


VK: I think that is what happens when you accelerate too much. It’s time we slowed down a bit.

words: Eilidh Nuala Duffy

WE talk to Valerie Kong who’s project Exquisite Corpse pioneers a new approach to making clothes

Watch our Exquisite Corpse film here!