Priska Morger is a rare breed. Being the creative lead of the Institute of Fashion Design HGK/FHNW in Basel from 2009-2021, the designer- turned -fashion -educator is a pioneer of embodied learning in the fashion teaching process -with excellent results. From her six years of collaboration with Raf Simons to her work with Haider Ackerman and her innovative teaching methods, Priska is always in search of the unique, the unexpected, and the human. We caught up with her to discuss the relationship between the skin and the material as well as fashion as the ultimate language of the clothed bodies.
You have really extended experience in the industry before going into education. What interested you in working in fashion?
Raf Simons was the first one that showed his fascination for my leopard vitiligo skin and I was so happy that he understood my strength and beauty without needing to see my portfolio at first. I was intrigued by his sensitive view on fashion and humans and I got the opportunity to be his first intern in 1996. After one working season, I ended up assisting him for nearly six years and became part of his team for his first show in Paris.
Moving to Belgium with my former partner, the photographer Bert Houbrechts gave me the opportunity to meet Raf and through him, I realized the need to be surrounded by people who have a strong vision and understand aesthetic self-care as a socio-political tool just as I do.
Being the same age it was easy for me from the beginning to understand Raf´s focus on youth culture and music. It was very exciting to experience the total circle, from designing to the actual show, starting by dreaming and creating with him how a show could get real. This shows energy was the highest natural drug that I experienced in fashion at that time. Our inspiration for each other was mutual.
What else did you learn from Raf Simons?
Developing a vision, trusting my intuition, and using it in my own work, observing the social zeitgeist, street casting, and designing: He embodied the perfect relationship between tailoring and street culture. By developing work with him I also understood that fashion is so much more than making a collection each season. It is all about relationships, team building, and connecting the right people that are able to go into unknown territories and clear up blurry visions. He also fought for my stay in Belgium as a Swiss citizen and supportively generated endless opportunities for me to manifest my creativity as a vitiligo lioness.
You have a successful career. How did you get into education?
Because I am a mother earth person, and I like to inspire people and my courage is a strong characteristic of one’s own transfer of knowledge. I have an amazing ability to recognize talented creative human beings, so while assisting Raf I got to meet and help many students in my free time in the evenings building social and mental friendship rituals. Haider Ackermann got interested in me, seeing how I helped students, and immediately was inspired by my taste. He cared about my opinions concerning his designs and at some point asked me to consult him on a regular basis, which also led him to win the Swiss Textiles Award in 2004. Seeing my passion for layering garments we shared a work relationship until he moved to Paris. It was another important time of learning about different aesthetics and especially the understanding of the relationship between fabric(the material) and skin(the body), which is something that is at the core of Haider´s work.
So you start in education because you want to communicate those things.
My manifesto: “don’t belt up – unstrap yourself” is my catalyst because I want to look for different ways of expression, away from the normcore. With a holistic approach, I focus on staging different bodies with my own embodied knowledge teaching method. There isn’t just one way of making fashion. I like to challenge or shake up this norm as a kind of soul strip to support topics such as body positivity, and provoke identity questions with all the make-up we got to strip off from the outside data carrier because the inside has its own truth. Going into education felt like the natural way to support other designers in that way, and to give love and trust to fashion as a culture. I want to become a force in changing the behaviors of society.
I like to challenge or shake up this norm as a kind of soul strip to support topics such as body positivity, and provoke identity questions with all the make-up we got to strip off from the outside data carrier because the inside has its own truth.
I’ve been reading about how you teach and I think it’s really unique. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
When I came to the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel (2009) I felt a lack of physical emotionality in design. Everything was quite abstract to me as a fashion soul lover. I didn’t feel enough creativity to build up a playground esprit for an art and design institution. I thought the students need an identity core. Basel is a quiet provincial city except during Art Basel so I felt the need to change the spirit and go into new fields. Fashion can be magical. Fashion can free you to unlearn behaviors. Believing in a holistic approach on how to do fashion I include bodywork and the staging of bodies. In fashion, you really need a community- and an audience.
So what is your approach?
I include embodied learning in the educational process. I want the students to experience how materials stimulate the skin through bodywork, how the tension of your muscles changes through body experience, and how you can influence this process. The tension is created by wearing the design and expressing your very own movements. It is a strong communicational process. We often receive violent ‘communication’ from outside and eventually this tension can get internalized, if we are not taking care enough. Same with the fashion industry, if they only publicize normativity, the audience will understand it as the only existing reality. Take for example the standard of beauty promoted as the only one. I want to change this experience and create bodily knowledge through my teaching. I coach in groups and do one on ones. This way I can personally touch people to really work on those tensions.
How do you feel about the metaverse trend? Everyone says fashion needs to invest in the virtual world and you work very much with the body with very much with senses, very much with the physical.
Looking at a design I always question if it has an aesthetic sense. We are inevitably connected to our own bodies so all this distance can also get dangerous. Designers can become very unattached to the body at some point. Fashion in the virtual world can be desirable but the haptic feeling is gone whereas, in real life, we still dress as an everyday ritual. I think people do not understand that there is an energy between humans, you know, and we communicate this energy. Everyone has a daily dressing ritual which means we already communicate before talking at an astonishing 55% minimum- that is a lot! Many people are not aware of this physical communication between humans. We constantly send signals to each other. Fashion is responsible for a big part of this language. So as long as there is so much to research into that ability of fashion as a communicative tool beyond language, I don´t feel the need to turn to the Metaverse.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I am busy with the research question “HOW MIGHT FASHION HEAL?” and based on that question I am working on a new course in the ARENA, a platform for experimental educational formats that I developed over the last years. The course will implement all the topics mentioned before and focus on decoding conventional structures, looking deliberately, understanding holistic concepts, taking doubts into creative processes, and through all of this creating the potential to influence the future of Design, Fashion, and Art.