London Fashion Week: “What’s it all about?”

20150222_130838 “I’ve just seen a man wearing a pink bowler hat; what’s all this about?”. As a volunteer at Somerset House during Fashion Week, I’m there to help visitors navigate around the venue but this was the first question that faced me, from a slightly perplexed gentleman who had come to visit one of the art exhibitions.

My answer to him was that its all about exports: £26bn to be precise (2013 annual value) but though that number is impressive – it’s a higher value than that delivered by the automotive sector – its not the full story. As a fashion fan, the truly impressive thing for me was to witness the extraordinary range of creativity around me. From the big names showing on the catwalks or the young designers in the showcases to the mind blowing array of street style on show in the Somerset House courtyard, LFW stands as beacon of creativity, design and passion.

First the street-style. Instagram will be buzzing with the images but for me, two things really stood out. One was seeing a succession of young, super-stylish Japanese gents leading the charge back into sleek formalwear for day as a welcome reaction to the normcore trend that seems to have run its course. The other was a hyper-chic French lady wearing head-to-toe black leather: a skinny, funnel-necked fencing jacket (Rick Owens?) topped off with a fur snood and paired with skin-tight bell bottoms. She looked like the incarnation of a Giacometti sculpture.

Thanks to internet live streaming we can all watch the catwalk shows, but more exciting for me was to see the designs and young designers up close in the showcases, spread throughout the East and West Wings. The Rock Vault is an impressive jewellery exhibit, taking up one-third of the show space, and there’s a diverse range on show. Two stands particularly drew my eye: Imogen Belfield’s highly tactile, larva-esque designs and Phoebe Coleman’s delicate egg-yolk yellow gold stacking rings in granulated or filigree designs, highly reminiscent of ancient Minoan and Mycenaean styles. Both designers hand-make their pieces in London.

Perhaps it was the freezing weather but millinery was also catching my eye, especially that of Lisa Tan. Her designs are highly wearable, taking familiar styles like boaters and pillboxes but elevating them above the ordinary with colour or flourishes of net.   My favourite was a bowler hat, subtly feminised by sculpting the sides of the brim higher to echo high cheek bones and draw the eye down the wearer’s face. It was just begging to be perched at a jaunty angle over one eye.

And perhaps that is really what its all about: the passion, creativity and design talent that enables London designers to draw inspiration from centuries of heritage to continue creating the new, the fresh and the highly desirable. If you are lucky enough to be attending London Fashion Weekend don’t miss these designers.

Style in a suitcase

the one to use

You know that the round of Fashion weeks has begun when you see articles written about what the fashionistas will be packing for the shows.  In the days when my job required a steady stream of travel, I couldn’t get enough of these articles, scrutinising them for every nugget of advice but I quickly discovered that it didn’t quite match up to the reality of working travel. So in the spirit of the Fashion Week What to Pack, here are some of the things I read, alongside some of the harsh realities I had to find out for myself, with tongue firmly in cheek….

  1. They say: “I travel wearing my favourite cashmere with loose-fitting jeans and my on-board beauty essentials in my Hermes Birkin handbag.”  I found that, far from the yogic serenity this seems to imply, grim airport reality was hiking, undressing, cargo-toting and checkpoints at every turn. This meant: flat, slip-on shoes; a coat or jacket with high pocket capacity; a big scarf for cabin warmth; and a light, zippable cabin carry-on in case it had to be stowed in the overhead lockers. I always managed to wear socks with holes on the occasions when I had to remove my shoes. I never forgot to go beltless after I once made the mistake of wearing jeans with a ‘dog collar’ belt. The flight was close to closing and I was holding up the queue, security staff glaring at me. The belt was stuck in the belt loops and I even briefly considered removing the jeans for greater speed.  Never again.  So in short, all my best intentions to be elegant were subverted by the obstacle course at the airport. If you can be serene and yogic as you travel, I salute you.
  2. They say: “I pack the season’s essentials including some exciting new items to jazz up my look”. Hmmmmm. In reality, I found that there is nothing worse than opening your bag at the other end and wondering what possessed you to use the trip to try out this randomly selected set of things you’ve never got around to wearing before. What worked better was multifunctional items that I could mix and layer: jacket, dress, trousers, shirt, skirt, scarf.
  3. They say: “Take a capsule wardrobe of minimal, perfect essentials”. Yes, but you can take this too far (and I have). Pack too light and you’re wearing the same thing every day and people, even the less observant, do eventually notice. So how to balance keeping some variety with packing light? I found if I kept to one or two toning neutrals like black, white, grey, navy, etc, I could get a lot of different combinations from just a few items. The more complicated the packing list, the greater risk that I’d forget something essential or end up taking things I never wore. Which brings me to….
  4. They say: “Add interest to your outfits with eye-catching accessories” Eye-catching is good except when it isn’t. I confess I was the perpetrator (but not the victim) of an accessory packing horror when I packed a black tie dress shirt without any shirt studs. Its quite hard to improvise for this, so yes, accessories are great and do make sure they are all present.
  5. They say: “I always take a couple of pairs of heels and some flats”. For me, the consequence of this was teetering dangerously while struggling to lift my shoe-filled cabin baggage into the locker above my head, to the consternation of all around me. I really wanted to be one of those elegant women floating around the airport in high heels but ultimately my goal became trying to get away with one pair of shoes for a whole trip. It was easier than building the muscle to carry any more.
  6. They say: “Decant your favourite beauty products to take with you”. Or even easier, save sample sizes of products or take almost-finished tubes that you can use up and discard to lighten your load. Even today I still find it hard to resist the urge to stockpile almost-finished toothpaste tubes. Each to his own.
  7. cino necklace 2 croppedThey say: “I take my ‘happy pieces’ with me”. When you travel for work, protestations of how tiring or lonely it can be never get much sympathy. It is true that work travel can be fascinating and great fun but sometimes when you’re tired, lonely and lost, its just hard. That’s when you need a small touchstone to remind you of home comfort. Just don’t bring anything that might be quarantined or confiscated at customs.
  8. They say: “Make sure you take high factor sunscreen”. Much of my travel was in Europe, where the weather risk tends more to rain than excessive sun. I checked the weather forecast assiduously and repeatedly and even if it showed the most benign and lovely conditions, I still packed assuming the worst. This meant that, faced with a hurricane bearing down on me on a trip to the US, I was ready with my micro brolly….well, there’s only so much you can prepare for.
  9. They say: “Pack for the city or area you’re going to”. This is definitely good advice, especially if its a location where dress codes might be required or enforced. I also discovered that styles of dress can vary greatly from place to place, even within Europe. As a Londoner, having an “interesting” look is a great compliment. This is not necessarily true in other places, though of course the true fashionista doesn’t really care about this. Own it, rock it and tout va bien.
  10. They say: “Dress for the boardroom in a sharp suit”. I tried this a few times and just felt uncomfortable, especially on the occasions when I had to do something a bit challenging. I found it a much better approach to wear what I felt comfortable in. This motivated me better than wearing a suit like armour. When you’re faced with doing something you find risky, its not the time to be taking unnecessary wardrobe risks. Wear something you know you’ll feel strong and comfortable in and you’ll be in the right frame of mind to power through.cino crowned

Haute denim

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Just lately denim seems to be appearing more and more often in fashion shoots and editorial, but this is not Marlboro Man denim. Ever since Miu Miu’s SS2013 sleek back-slit denim pencil skirts and short flared tunics and jackets, there has been a shift towards haute denim, tailored and treated like suiting fabric.

20150212_163257This brings an interesting new angle to artisan denim, which has been with us for a while. Back in the distressed Levis age (late 80s), I remember making the pilgrimage to American Classics in London’s Endell street. It was a treasure trove of second hand, distressed and customised Levis. Customisation could take many forms but ringpull chain mail was one of my favourites.

I had forgotten all this until last spring when a story in April’s Paris Vogue featured Ashish’s distressed sequinned jeans. It was immediate, like an arrow through the heart: I had to have them. Luckily for my bank balance, they proved to be unavailable. For a moment I considered customising my own until I remembered the 80s, spending long evenings sewing patches and fabric inserts into distressed jeans, going to bed crossed-eyed and with perforated fingers. Then last winter I saw Junya Watanabe’s patchwork jeans in the shops and it felt like a long lost friend had returned.

20150212_163425But now we have dark denim, luxe denim, sophisticated denim and I’m smitten again. The best shoot I’ve seen appeared in the Financial Times’s How to Spend it Magazine, styled with pure genius by Damian Foxe. He paired a spectrum of blues with co-respondent brogues, lace, white organza and tailoring on super-groomed models. Every look was an absolute winner. Gorgeous, fresh to the eye and with such a glamorous feel.

So now I’m inspired and overwhelmingly grateful that this time I don’t have to get the needle and thread out myself.

‘The anklebone of a gypsy always shows’*

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London’s Fashion and Textile Museum has just opened an exhibition of the work of Thea Porter, a designer known mainly for her gypsy dresses and caftans, produced between the 1960s and early 80s.  I went expecting Persian carpet-inspired textiles. Porter was brought up in Syria and began her professional life selling rugs and other imports from Syria. 20150210_111133

While there was certainly a strong influence from traditional styles of Arabic dress, I was surprised to see a broader range of influences, including Renaissance velvet and brocades as well as some rather beautiful YSL-style monochrome black lace and gold (from 1977-79 Porter had a shop on the rue de Tournon in Paris’s 6e arrondissement).

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There is certainly more to this show than oriental or bohemian styles, though it does speak eloquently of the strong nostalgic sentiment in the early 70s. Looking back to the Victorian age or the early twentieth century, it may have been tempting to regard these times as a ‘golden age’ away from the reality of oil price shocks, inflation and other economic troubles. It seems a strange irony that today’s European designers, faced with economic challenges of their own (at least in Europe) are referencing styles from the 1970s, but perhaps that’s the fickle nature of fashion.

The other thing that struck me, walking around this rather fascinating show, was that these garments are so distinctive and often so literal in expressing their source of influence that styling them effectively would require contrast with something entirely different – a military jacket, track pants etc, etc. Without the contrast item, the look risks becoming like theatre costume.

This may be a relatively modern perspective though. Many of the original pictures of the looks taken in the 60s and 70s show them were worn without styling, like costume. They would not be presented or worn in such a literal way today. What changed in the interim? As the patchouli-infused hippy gave way to the subverted and shredded punk and that in turn gave way to the New Romantic, perhaps we learnt how to respectfully disrespect codes of style.

*Diana Vreeland,  internal memo to Vogue staff, January 13, 1969 (from “Memos: the Vogue Years” ed. Alexander Vreeland)

Full circle

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There’s a strong connection between ancient and modern Greek jewellery design. Ancient traditions of design got a major boost in the nineteenth century thanks to a wave of archaeological discoveries across Greece and the Caucasus. One of the most famous was Heinrich Schliemann’s 1876 discovery of the “Mask of Agamemnon” and the site of Homer’s Troy. Finds like this ignited a craze for classical design and culture that in Europe became aligned with a growing sense of nationalism in some countries. Jewellery became just one of the visual arts that expressed a growing sense of national identity.

Almost a century later in Greece, Ilias Lalaounis found himself in control of his family’s jewellery business in a country that was recovering from both World War II and a subsequent civil war. His first collection, shown in 1957, celebrated Classical, Hellenistic and Minoan/Mycenaean designs but in ways that echoed the Modernist zeitgeist. 20150204_101457

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Lalaounis became synonymous with classic (in both senses) Greek gold jewellery but also drew on similar inspiration from nature to develop entirely new designs. He revived ancient techniques like granulation in his workrooms and founded a museum in Athens to celebrate the Greek jeweller’s art and inspire future generations.

Today he continues to inspire craftsmen, especially on the islands.  Hydra is described in the March issue of Vogue (UK) as “Greece’s artiest island” and visiting Blue Dolphin in the island’s picturesque harbour, is possibly as close as a modern day tourist will ever get to discovering treasure trove.

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The shop’s owners, Antony and Isabelle, continue to produce exceptionally beautiful jewellery in the Greek and Byzantine traditions, some inspired by Lalaounis’s own example. But almost more powerful than this, is their own passion for what they do and what they produce.  This is not art to hang in a museum or keep in a safe. Its art to wear and love on a daily basis (and I do).

Hydra is just one example, but there are many islands and many similar artisans with passion to create and pride in ancient heritage. What started on the islands five thousand years ago, lives on in the islands today.

A slumbering lion

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Greece and its debt has been leading the news since last month’s elections but there has been less discussion of the debt Europe owes to Greece in terms of ideas, design and culture.  Since the Bronze Age, Greece’s position between Europe, Africa and Asia together with its maritime heritage, has made it a centre of trade in ideas, goods and culture.  A glance at the jewellery produced displays the sophistication of ancient Greek technology and society and the role ancient Greek communities played in adopting, developing and spreading advanced manufacturing techniques across the Mediterranean.

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Metalworkers in Bronze Age Crete were producing extraordinarily detailed designs in gold, drawing in part on skills and techniques they had imported from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq).

Left: sheet gold pendants and ornaments of, from top, a bee; two lions; a ram, Crete 1700-1550BC, British Museum

When they conquered Crete, the Mycenaeans gained access to these skills and as their trading empire grew, developed new styles importing lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, ivory from North Africa and amber from the Celts in the north. Later generations traded in ideas, taking the alphabet from the Phoenicians, sculpture styles from Egypt and architecture from the Levant. Immigration also played its part: Phoenician craftsmen may well have driven significant advances in jewellery design in the post-Mycenaean period around the seventh century BC.

One of these advanced techniques was granulation: minute spherical grains of gold soldered to a background.  Sumerian craftsmen were experimenting with the technique possibly as early as 2500BC, it spread to Crete, Mycenae, Athens and from there to Italy where the technique was developed by the Etruscans.

20150130_112459_1 The ancients’ skills were so advanced that when Victorian jewellers tried to copy these designs they failed to reproduce the invisible soldering the ancient craftsmen had achieved. Only in the last century was the ancient method rediscovered.

Left: a pair of very modern-looking ear reels displaying granulation, gold, possibly from Rhodes, 420-400BC, British Museum

Is this a world that is dead and gone?  Beautiful design is timeless and these traditions of artisanship and artistry have as much currency today as ever thanks to nineteenth century archaeology, a twentieth century business visionary and a host of twenty-first century artisans.  More to come on this one.