Adventures in fashion film (1)

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Most of us put more thought into how we look than this chap but does it matter? There’s a moment in the documentary, “The September Issue” when Anna Wintour adopts an uncharacteristically defensive tone in describing why caring about fashion doesn’t make someone a “bad person”. You get the sense it’s a defence she’s delivered more than once. Somerset House hosted an eloquent defence last week as part of the “Frame by Frame” Fashion Film Festival in London with a debate featuring artists (Jessica Mitrani and Anat Ben-David), a film director (Kathryn Ferguson), academic (Pamela Church Gibson), online video editor (Jennifer Byrne) and chaired by an academic (Nathalie Khan).

Most interesting of all was hearing the filmmakers talking about their work. Despite her appointment as Selfridges Filmmaker-in-Residence, Ferguson has freedom to follow her artistic instincts. The resulting work is refreshing, funny and thoughtful. “The Beauty Project” includes a film of mature ladies musing on the meaning of beauty: “You have to be in love with change and change is a beautiful thing”.  Fashion itself is defined perhaps most of all by constant change.

Mitrani’s work uses fashion and humour to explore serious topics that go right to an individual’s sense of identity. Her prize-winning “Headpieces for Peace” film is a highly entertaining defence of tolerance and the expression of individuality and should be compulsory watching at the UN (not least because it is so funny).

Fashion choices identify us within society, whether we are a pearl-encrusted absolute monarch or a Harujuku student. In some ways, how we choose to define our image is less important than the facts that we are free to do so and choose to do so. In a timely coincidence, a recent BBC documentary* explored the phenomenon of royal dress and quoted a remark made by Diana, Princess of Wales to a designer. When choosing what to wear, she always asked herself, “What am I communicating if I wear this?” These thoughtful film-makers and artists confront us with this question, whilst reminding us to lighten up.

*The wonderful Lucy Worsley in “Tales from the Royal Wardrobe”, (BBC, 2014)

Comme des Garcons: feeling the love

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A Comme des Garcons catwalk show is usually pretty uncompromising and often at first encounter appears to be unwearable. Then when the clothes actually appear in the shop, you finally get to see what sent the fashion editors into raptures at the show.

20150320_175506CDG’s love-themed SS15 collection is currently adorning the window of their Dover Street shop. What had looked theatrical on the runway, now in close up, was just stunningly beautiful: a coat covered in roses; a dress, pumped up and ventricled like a heart; a suit spattered in a print that was half hammer horror and half ikat.

It was love at first sight, so powerful that I nearly got myself run down by a bicycle as I stared at it – almost literally love-struck.

Pom pom mania

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On a visit to Delhi a few years ago, a friend introduced me to Fabindia and, I suspect, almost immediately regretted it for fear that I might never leave the shop. There were piles and piles of tunics, shirts, scarves in what seemed like millions of different fabrics and styles. I remember being overwhelmed by colour on a daily basis, just watching the ladies in their saris in the street.  Last weekend, the hot spice of Asian colour came to Marylebone to bring some welcome pizzazz to a dreary spring weekend. Asia House’s Craft Fair was a wonderful showcase for artisan crafts, especially textiles, jewellery and paper from India.

20150321_114641It was pom-pom mania at Sweetlime that really got to me.  There is just something about a pom-pom.  As an object, it doesn’t really serve any kind of purpose.  It exists purely for exuberant decoration and there’s something really joyful about that.  I made them as a child and seeing them again made me want to start adding them to bags, jackets, everything.  I suspect this is tapping memories of a Carine Roitfeld shoot earlier this year that made lavish use of Peruvian textiles, numerous Manolo Blahnik advertisements of pom-pommed stilettos, and seeing, at London Fashion Week, Cleo B’s kawaii-cute pom pom shoe clips.

Sweetlime’s designer Elspeth J. Walker, draws inspiration from travel and ethnic artisanship but then fuses this with some serious urban glamour in her London studio.  As well as gorgeous clutch bags and jewellery, there were genius denim and military-style jackets bearing neon-bright embroidery and tote bags covered in mirror sequins, pom-poms, brooches and tassels.  Best of all, a proportion of Sweetlime’s sales are donated annually to a shelter home for street children in India.  So it makes buying that pom pom an even more joyful experience.  Go on: you know you want one.

McQueen: Backstage – the early shows

20150314_103233Last week, the fashion press was full of praise for the V&A’s new blockbuster retrospective of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Quietly opening at the same time, at The Proud Gallery on London’s Kings road, was a small but fascinating show of photographs by Gary Wallis documenting backstage activity at McQueen’s early shows*.

The pair met at Central Saint Martin’s and Wallis covered McQueen’s 1992 MA Graduate Collection: Jack the Ripper stalks his Victims. The photographs cover the period leading to McQueen’s breakthrough collection, Highland Rape (AW 1995) and Dante (AW 1996), after which he was recruited to design for Givenchy.

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They have an intimate feel, suggesting an atmosphere of creativity and fun in between lulls and frenetic activity – a contrast to the macabre presentations on the catwalk. McQueen looks young, feisty but above all, as if he’s enjoying himself.

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It’s a wonderful complement to the V&A’s Savage Beauty. See it before 5 April in the gallery or on the Proud Gallery website.

*Nihilism SS94; Banshee AW94; The Birds SS95; Highland Rape AW95; The Hunger SS96; and Dante AW96

Fashion Weeks AW15/16 – reviewing the reviews

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Over the last month I’ve been reading reviews of the four main Fashion Weeks as each has come and gone. Fashion editors will be distilling the main trends for the September issues of the magazines but here, in the meantime, is a little summary of the things they picked up in each fashion capital. Each is distinct in its own way, from the freezing snow and cool commercialism of New York to the spring sunshine and high styling of Paris.

The NYC winter is unforgiving, so polo necks and big fur collars abounded. The 70s disco vibe at DVF got mixed reviews but it looked easy-to-wear, just like the preppy luxury at Michael Kors. There was (as always) a good dose of luxury minimalism from Calvin Klein and The Row. There were plaudits from the FT for the technique and tailoring on show from Jason Wu, Proenza Schouler and Rodarte. The one that stood out for me was the Victoria Beckham show. Suzy Menkes, writing for Vogue pronounced that “Victoria Beckham has made it as a designer”. The looks seemed to combine the best of New York’s commercial instincts (easy-to-wear black), with some European flair (a curvy, body-hugging shape) and a little British eccentricity (asymmetric knitwear).

London style is famously eclectic and eccentric so there’s usually something for everyone. Stylist loved JW Anderson’s leather and Jonathan Saunders’s knee-high boots. For the FT the story was in the textiles, highlighting the innovative use of PVC (Emilia Wickstead, JW Anderson, Sibling); shearling (Ashley Williams, Roksanda Ilincic, Margaret Howell); outsize checks (Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, House of Holland, Paul Smith); and brocade (Erdem, Marques’Almeida, Simone Rocha). The Daily Telegraph highlighted the contrasting textures in the Joseph show: cashmere, silk, boiled wool, sheepskin – Lisa Armstrong dubbed it “contemporary elegance” and that seemed to express perfectly its balance between modernist design and graceful shape.

Italy is Europe’s textile innovation hub and so its not surprising that many editors highlighted the fabulous fabrics on show in Milan. The FT picked up intarsias at Etro, Tod’s, Salvatore Ferragamo and Jil Sander; quilting at Maxmara and Emporio Armani; and lurex at Blumarine, Missoni and Just Cavalli. Stylist celebrated “womanhood” from Marni’s amazonians to Maxmara’s homage to George Barris’s poignant beach portraits of Marilyn Monroe. The Daily Telegraph found a different kind of womanhood, reporting on “granny chic” – not surprising in perhaps Europe’s most matriarchal society – which is a frequent theme at Prada, this season showing jersey/neoprene trousers (apparently a match made in heaven) in pretty pastel colours. All eyes were on Alessandro Michele’s debut at Gucci, making his mark with a romantic collection described by Vogue’s Suzy Menkes as “attic chic”.

The problem for anyone trying to sum up Paris Fashion Week is how on earth to encompass the range and extraordinary mix on offer from the conceptual to the blockbuster? The FT and Vogue both loved Lanvin – a Moroccan-inspired collection that was romantic, beautiful and wearable (with tassels on). Lisa Armstrong at the Daily Telegraph had praise for Sacai’s cable knit leather biker jacket which did look truly gorgeous. Suzy Menkes liked Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski’s debut collection for Hermès: “one of those quietly beautiful moments” (see it here – I was mesmerised). Business of Fashion however, picked up an underlying trend: the growing emphasis on styling over design concept in a thoughtful and interesting article.

For me? I loved the Anrealage show, combining geometric shapes with military and Edwardian influence, while placing a literal spotlight on the wearer – the customer.

Modern minimalism’s unlikely debt to wooden suspenders

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The coats and jackets in the picture are 1940s originals on show at London’s Imperial War Museum but could easily be contemporary items. The “Utility” clothing produced and sold under wartime rationing and on show here demonstrates that resource restrictions need not limit good design. The shape of these jackets echo the real minks and sables worn by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford across the Atlantic in (non-rationed) Hollywood.

The exhibition includes a video of commentary from clothing historians putting the era into context. One of the most interesting points was the idea that the wartime utility clothing ushered in modern informal dress. This was certainly true in America where designers like Claire McCardell were producing garments that combined the elegance of Vionnet with soft fabrics and loose draping that made them easy to wear as well as efficient in their use of cloth. With the industrialisation of the US economy that had been advancing since the 1930s and the marketing platform offered by Hollywood, the scene was set for the US clothing industry to perfect this concept, making it the defining feature of American fashion.

Back in Britain, by the end of the war rationing fatigue was setting in. In February 1944 Nancy Mitford wrote to her mother from London: “I spent the morning looking at clothes – the most utter horrors (dresses) you ever saw for £23, cheap & dreadful looking, what is one to do? Then I tried to get a suspender belt – they have wooden suspenders….”*

The hard-pressed (and presumably splinter-blighted) Brits had to endure another five years of rationing until it was eventually phased out by 1949. They were encouraged to be resourceful: patching, lending, recycling or re-styling men’s suits.

They were even encouraged to use furnishing fabrics for clothes. Just in case we were in any doubt about the enduring influence of “make do and mend” on fashion today, we’ve recently seen SS15 and AW15-16 collections in which Prada and others made use of fabrics and brocades highly reminiscent of furnishing fabrics. We’re also about to be treated to a wonderful exhibition at Paris’s Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent is about to begin an exhibition of Yves Saint Laurent’s scandalous 1971 collection evoking the era of Paris’s Occupation. A fitting tribute to a modern clothing movement by a French couturier who pioneered the rise of pret-a-porter.

*The Letters of Nancy Mitford, ed Charlotte Mosley (Sceptre, 1994)

Beauty in utility

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The Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration exhibition includes some enviable uniforms (see The enduring appeal of uniform).  Outshone but not outdone, the beauty of the utilitarian also comes through in this exhibition.

Utility clothing was regulated by the government during the war and it commissioned standard garment designs to be used for their efficiency of resources. These clothes were intended for heavy use, for sharing and for occasional re-purposing. Looking at some of the dresses, suits and pinafores, many are strikingly reminiscent of the simplicity we associate today with modern labels like Celine or Yohji Yamamoto.  The latter in particular has acknowledged the influence of working clothes of the twentieth century on his work in Wim Wenders’s fabulous documentary “Notebook on Cities and Clothes” as well as the distinctly Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi in which the patina of age increases the beauty and authenticity of things.

This sentiment seems to be emerging more and more today. Perhaps it is a reaction to the cheap, fast fashion produced under questionable labour conditions. Perhaps it is a desire to pare back and buy only the truly exceptional. The discernment and appreciation of the value of an aging garment that becomes more fully part of one the more it is worn brings us right back to this era. It also brings us right back to the rugged elegance of the flying jacket: the true accessory of a Leading Lady.

The enduring appeal of uniform

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On my way to the gallery showing Fashion on the Ration at London’s Imperial War Museum, my eye was immediately caught by this fantastic flying jacket bearing the insignia of a B17 Flying Fortress, named Leading Lady. Though not part of the exhibition, it’s a perfect demonstration of two main themes of the show: the enduring influence of uniforms on fashion and the beauty innate in the highly utilitarian.

First the military, and the show includes male and female uniforms from the three services and the womens’ Land Army. Seeing them together it’s impossible not to conclude as women did at the time, that it was the Navy that got the best uniforms. The WRNS (Womens’ Royal Navy Service) uniform was the pinnacle of 1940s chic, with its square shoulders, broad lapels topping off a double-breasted jacket and serried ranks of brass buttons: for my money the single most desirable item in the whole show.

What is interesting about this exhibition is to see this flamboyant uniform alongside the much more utilitarian dress of the land army and civilians. The uniform’s sharp cut, braid and brass manages to be both masculine and flamboyant and clearly intended to confer rank on the wearer. Perhaps this is what goes with joining the “Senior Service” as the navy styled itself. It utterly outshines the army khakis alongside it and perfectly illustrates the plaintive comment reported by a contemporary journalist that British soldiers were “fed up because American soldiers, owing to their wearing a collar and tie, get the best girls.”

So much for the desirability of military styles, what of utility modernism?  More to come.

Invitation strictly personal (2)

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Somerset House’s Invitation Strictly Personal exhibition of Iain R Webb’s fashion memorabilia is more than a collection of fashion show invitations from the 1980s and 90s. I clearly remember falling eagerly upon the newspaper on the days Webb was published in it, absorbing every word of his reviews and analysis. Now I can see the manuscript notes and sketches he was making as those shows took place, right alongside the copy he filed.

20150228_094343Here we see Thierry Mugler’s Robocop woman, dominating the sketchbook and the published article. Cyborg woman has a far stronger pictorial presence than in the text of the article which mentions Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier only at the end of a review of Paris Fashion Week S/S 91.

In fact the review decries the dearth of really wearable clothes on show, amongst too many conceptual collections. Mugler and Gaultier stood out to Webb, not for the sprinkling of designs of eye-catching eccentricity, but for the more wearable clothes featured alongside them.

What makes this such a fascinating exhibition is the chain of ideas on show here. From the invitations showcasing the designers’ statement of intent, to the sketches and notes in the heat of the moment (clearly showing the blockbuster outfits hit their mark) and the fully digested copy filed with the publication. Like a baton relay, the concept is passed from designer to the fashion media who in turn pass it to their readership. Blockbuster outfits communicate the pure essence of the idea but the wearable stars of the collection garner the gold stars.

As the biggest brands start increasingly to use social media to create a direct relationship with their customers and fans, its an interesting question as to whether we lose something of the critical eye, the overall context and the interpretation that comes through the filter of specialist journalism.

If you’re in London, do see this show before 22 March; more at www.somersethouse.org.uk

Invitation strictly personal (1)

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What makes a person cherish an invitation long after the event has taken place? The answer isn’t hard to divine viewing Iain R Webb’s collection of fashion show invitations and gifts built over his decades as a fashion journalist, currently on show at Somerset House. It’s a small but highly interesting insight into a rarefied world before the days of internet streaming and cinematic presentation.

One invitation above all caught my eye: the rusty key and handwritten label from John Galliano’s A/W 94-5 show. Its slightly haunting aspect belies the fact that it represented, quite literally, a make-or-break moment in the designer’s career. Deserted by his financial backer and only retaining a small but loyal team around him, he lacked resources even to create a collection let alone stage a show.

Galliano was saved by Anna Wintour, who found him a new backer and a location for the show. The location was an empty Paris mansion owned by Sao Schlumberger. Limited cash meant a collection of only 17 outfits, all made of the same black satin. As so often though, necessity proved to be the mother not only of invention but pure genius. Galliano’s own words tell the story best.

“We opened windows, brought in tons of dead leaves to scatter around, filled fallen chandeliers with rose petals, created unmade beds and carefully placed upturned chairs at various points. We filled the house with dry ice so that the whole place had a desolate, poetic look, like a Sarah Moon photograph. We lit the house from outside to give it an early morning dew feel. The girls worked the whole house from the top floor down. It was like an old salon presentation. Gorgeous creatures with heavenly, heady make-up wandering through this deserted house, bending down and looking for abandoned love letters in the dust…it was magic.” *

And it proved to be commercial magic too. Weeks later he had a new atelier and a list of highly prestigious clients. Two years later he was appointed designer at Givenchy and a year after that at Dior. The metaphor of the key had proved even more apposite that he could have imagined.

* From “Galliano” by Colin McDowell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997)