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On Chess: Fashion and chess are a natural match

Five of the designers selected to participate in the Pinned! competition for the World Chess Hall of Fame. The project manager and author of this article, Rikki Byrd, is second from the left. July 2017
Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Five of the designers selected to participate in the Pinned! competition for the World Chess Hall of Fame. The project manager and author of this article, Rikki Byrd, is second from the left.

From New York Fashion Week to museum exhibits and global advertising campaigns, the intersection of fashion and chess has long been a source of inspiration.

In 2005, Alexander McQueen chose to use the game of chess to present his spring/summer 2005 collection, titled “It’s Only a Game.” At the show, 36 models walked out individually taking their place in line. After they were each in place, the lights dimmed and a chessboard was projected on the floor and each model, imitating a chess piece, moved along and off the board. However, the clothes in the collection did not specifically reference chess. Rather, McQueen found the game to be an excellent tool to show revised looks of silhouettes he had introduced in his previous collections.  

Five years later, at New York Fashion Week, fashion company G-Star organized a chess match ahead of its runway show. The game included grand master Magnus Carlsen playing against the world on the internet. The same year, the company built an advertising campaign around Carlsen, and today the chess champion continues to be associated with the brand.

In 2013, World Chess Hall of Fame debuted the world-class exhibit, “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, Fashion and Chess,” which included dresses from McQueen, Gucci, Maison Martin Margiela, Viktor & Rolf and others. The exhibition explored nine sides of the queen — The Sage, Mother Figure, Magician, Enchantress, Explorer, Ruler, Mother Earth, Heroine, Thespian — and had the fashion world abuzz.  

Yet despite the advertising campaigns, chess-inspired fashion shows and exhibitions, there has never been a recognized uniform — or look — for playing the game of chess. Enter the World Chess Hall of Fame, who recently partnered with the Saint Louis Fashion Fund to explore this opportunity. The partnership, Pinned! A Designer Chess Challenge, is the first-of-its-kind collaboration in which the inaugural class of the St. Louis Fashion Incubator — which arrived in St. Louis in January and will stay here for two years — was challenged to create two pieces: one that can be worn by a chess player during competition and another avant-garde piece inspired by the game of chess.

A design by Audra Noyes, one of the designers participating in the Pinned! challenge. July 2017
Credit Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
A design by Audra Noyes, one of the designers participating in the Pinned! challenge.

The challenge includes six talented designers: Audra Noyes, Charles Smith II, Allison Mitchell, Agnes Hamerlik, Emily Brady Koplar and Reuben Reuel. The designers were each paired with a chess grand master: Maurice Ashley, Cristian Chirila, Fabiano Caruana, Alejandro Ramirez Alvarez, Jennifer Shahade, and Nazi Paikidze. Each grand master and designer have been consulting with each other since February. They discussed everything from what chess players normally wear, to what discomfort players experience while sitting long hours for a game. And they explored what an ideal chess uniform would look like for them.

It was a difficult challenge, considering that chess players each have their own style and preferences. However, these six designers are certainly equipped with the skill set to take it on with commendable feats already under their belts. In January, Allison Mitchell won the Fashion Group International’s Rising Star Award for her accessories line. And, just recently, Reuben Reuel was commissioned to design a skirt for Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s Push Party.

Complementing the accolades of the six designers is an esteemed jury that will judge the competition. The judges include professor of Design Studies and research chair of fashion at Parsons School of Design, Hazel Clark; global fashion director of Macy’s, Abbey Samet; creative director of his namesake brand and deejay Timo Weiland; business reporter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Debra Bass; and grand master, Eric Hansen.

On Aug. 1, the jurors will be joined by the local and national fashion and chess community at Windows on Washington in downtown St. Louis to announce the winning designer, who will be awarded a $10,000 scholarship. The event will coincide with the opening ceremony of the 2017 Sinquefield Cup, and will be followed by an after party that includes a deejay set by juror Timo Weiland.

Both the World Chess Hall of Fame and Saint Louis Fashion Fund hope that Pinned! will inspire an official chess uniform that can be manufactured and worn by chess players far and wide. The two organizations join the emerging list of designers, museums, fashion companies and more that are garnering innovative ideas at the intersection of fashion and chess. 

Rikki Byrd is a writer, scholar and educator and is a faculty member at Washington University. She is also the project manager for Pinned! A Designer Chess Challenge — a collaboration between the World Chess Hall of Fame and St. Louis Fashion Fund. 

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