One man's quest to deconstruct the catwalk during London Fashion Weekby Edward Docx / March 21, 2012 / Leave a comment
The show by British-French design duo Meadham Kirchoff at London Fashion Week, February 2012
Day four. London Fashion Week. I’m heading backstage half an hour before yet another show. I pass a neo-Ottoman grouse-beater, a man with rabbit ears, a slouch of camp rockabilly-punks, DH Lawrence and a six-foot female Day-Glo clown-witch. I’m a grizzled veteran of the scene by now, but even so, I double back. Someone has to have the definitive answer. Maybe it’s her.
“Can you tell me what this is all about?” I ask.
“London. Fashion. London Fashion Week?”
“It’s about…” She considers. “It’s about dramatic but joyful.”
One of the best answers so far. Her name is Sadie Clayton. She is a fashion student. She seems confident. And at least it’s an answer that she embodies. She’s a witch-clown, I realise, not the other way round. I reassess my life—so much to learn—and I look to her friend. “Anything else?” I ask.
“Neoprene,” she says.
“Got it. Thanks.” I nod. “Dramatic but joyful. Neoprene.”
I’m getting closer, I think. I press on.
Security here is intense. I need separate passes to breathe, walk, speak, see and micturate. Indeed, faced with the demeanour of the various press officers, most non-fashion writers would assume that they had inadvertently stumbled upon some kind of top-secret peace summit between Israel and Palestine that was being personally brokered by President Obama and Angelina Jolie in the nude.
“I’m with the hair team,” I say, when I reach the VVVIP security door. This is also code. It means: “you must admit me because I am critical to the continuation of Life on Earth. Without me—no oxygen, no sunlight—humanity will become extinct and the universe will return to silence.”
I’m ushered in—backstage, the inner sanctum. I seek a corner from which to observe. But already a man is coming towards me. He looks… what? Crusty, but camp; the young Antonín Dvorák, perhaps. Is this his intention? Am I alone in recognising this? What is going on in men’s fashion? More questions. Just when I thought I was getting closer, I find I am further away.
“Leather, leather, but loose leather,” he says emphatically, in answer to my enquiry. “And sparkles.”
“Sparkles, yes.” I nod, nervously. In fashion, nothing must be allowed to stand still; even a week-long consensus would be globally catastrophic. “But I’m also hearing fox fur,” I add. “And spicy colours. Fuchsia explosions.”
“Who said that?”
I take an anxious swig of my Vitamin water. (We all drink it.) I dare not say. Two people I interviewed for no reason told me that. One of them was called Gentiana Gjevukaj. Her card said: “Stimulate it. Eye. Heart. Ear. Mouth.” She seemed convincing at the time but she was only in VVIP and now, backstage, I feel ashamed.
I find myself gabbling: “Shearling seems to be back. Matriarchal strength. Floral prints. Bling is lingering a bit as well… I’m just glad neon is over.”
Sharp eyes. “What are you doing here?”
A slight change of tack is necessary. “I’m interviewing the hair team.”
Dvorák is suspicious. “You better speak to Panos.”
I retreat to the catering area. I recognise Luca from Italian Grazia. He’s half dead. We commune. It’s grim work—thankless, dogged, bleak—Leveson would weep for us if only he knew. “They are artists,” Luca says. “There is no point. That’s the point.” Who is an artist, though? Which of them? Luca shrugs. He talks of ennui, the return of moody purples. I block my ears. This is despair. Not yet, not yet.
Without sound, I start to look around me with fresh eyes. Maybe LFW is actually just a cover for some kind of alien rendezvous, I begin thinking. Square, squat, squidgy beings from Planet Tattoo (posing as make-up artists) come here to exact obscure reprisals on their intergalactic nemeses from Planet Anorexia—the willow-thin, fragile-boned, lollipop-heads who sit clutching smart phones, reading messages, listening to their headphones and staring into the super-lighted mirrors. (And who is sending the models all these messages?) Luca and I may be the only Earthlings left. After the show, we’ll have to mate. It’s a shame because we’re the only two straight guys in here.
Panos is the hair team lead. Or he might be. Such hierarchies must be intuited. Here he comes.
“Masculine strips,” he says, when I ask. “Volume architecture. We still brush it. But we work it.”
“Expensive but lived in?” I venture. I got this backstage from Adam-for-Sebastian a few days earlier.
“Exactly.” Panos reappraises me. “The gold pieces are to reflect the light because of the sequins. Otherwise…” he draws a meditative breath, “…nobody will notice.”
“Nobody will notice what?” I ask, apprehensive. But he’s no longer listening. A blue punk is passing between us. There’s some kind of nail-piercing crisis. Or it could be a nail-painting crisis. There’s pushing. Panic. A Scottish man is shouting women’s names—“Trin,” “Gillelle,” “Marta,” “Zicky.” I stumble backwards into a floaty wraparound world of gold sequins. I can’t see. This is crazy, I think, because backstage with Adam-from-Sebastian a few days earlier, I’d been told that (hair-wise) London 2012 was all about the side parting: “The side parting is really important this year,” he had said to me, conviction in his eyes. “Really important.” And I had believed him. I had told others.
Shaken, I take stock. Another thing I have learned: in fashion, the apogee of existence is to be known only by your first name. The more common your name, the greater the achievement. It is for this reason and this reason only that Kate, Naomi, and Agyness are the most successful people of all time. In that order. One day, they’ll call me Edward. I return from behind the clothes rail.
“It’s about ghosts and witches,” says the man nearest to me. “But with a far-eastern take.” He tells me his name—Paul. He seems as though he might be from somewhere nearer to our solar system. I force him to speak to me.
“The thing about London is that all the designers work in the east end. It’s not like living in Paris or Milan. It’s dark. Horrible. There’s way more spike about it.”
“About the hair?”
“No about everything—about London Fashion Week.”
One of the models seems to have finished being abused by make-up. Uniquely among those I can see, she is beautiful in three dimensions rather than two. But too thin, of course, too thin. It occurs to me that I might have to start writing fourth-rate Scandinavian mysteries in order to fund a life with her in which we might both get happily fat by dining on cassoulet and Monbazillac in the Périgord. But this is not the task I’m charged with today.
“So what’s different about London?” I ask.
“It’s so fresh,” she says, “there’s a really original mentality.”
“Yes, London is the coolest. Really cool.”
Her name is Juanita. She is Peruvian. She won the 2007 Elite Model Look contest in Lima. She is engaging and intelligent. This is more like it. I want to know why London? Does it really count? What is it about London?
“Keep going,” I say, making a microphone with my hand—again, for no reason. In fashion, reason is the enemy.
“Other places are a little bit boring,” she says. “But London is very open-minded. It’s a city where everyone is very free in themselves. They can accept anything. There are so many different styles. You can have street or you can have crazy. You see it in the shows. So different. So many energies.”
A film crew squeeze by. Fashion TV. The presenter is Jessica. Or she might not be the presenter. She’s from Germany. She covers all the big four shows—London, Paris, Milan, New York. Juanita has to put some clothes on so I press my line of enquiry with Jessica. We Londoners don’t feel it—is London really the coolest? Reassure me.
“Yes. It’s crazy here. Everything is much more relaxed.”
“What does that actually mean?”
“That there are no boundaries. In terms of the clothes, they mix sportswear with hoodies or Turkish trousers or tartan or trench coats or whatever.”
“But is it really that different?”
“Yes. Backstage anywhere else, you might forget where you are. But here—you always know it’s London. The tone is a little bit lighter. It doesn’t take itself seriously. But on the other hand, it is darker, too. It’s funnier. Basically, it’s more creative and less commercial.”
A photographer—Miguel from Spain—is listening in. “London is London,” he says, definitively. “Because of the city. Because of what it is. It’s a crazy mess. Look at us all tripping over back here. Nothing is working. Everything goes. You don’t get that in Paris. Or Milan. The city makes the show.”
But now we’re overwhelmed. And I fall exhausted and lost beneath a phalanx of nine-foot Bedouin banshees dressed in messagey-prints. And sparkles. I need to get out of the bubble.
The offices of the Royal School of Needlework are at Hampton Court. Spring is tuning up when I go down there. The sky is cloudless, the river air is fresh and people have two names again. I am to meet with Helen McCook, a straight-talking tutor in her mid-thirties. Over the phone, I have explained to one of her colleagues that my sense is that the fashion world is completely potty—some kind of crazy international circus peopled solely by narcissi hell-bent on generating sonic booms of wider social anxiety at the turn of every season. But maybe I can’t see what is going on, I’ve said, maybe because I’ve been in the middle of it. I need another perspective. I need to speak to a human being who can actually sew.
Helen McCook has the easy confidence of someone who is excellent at her chosen occupation. She has done work for Burberry, Pringle, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren and—recently, interestingly—Sarah Burton on Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress. Sarah Burton is the designer who took over as head of brand at Alexander McQueen (owned by Gucci) after the eponymous designer’s suicide in 2010.
I begin by articulating my darkest suspicion: that one of the reasons McQueen made such an impact was not his iconoclasm but that he trained on Savile Row before he went to Central St Martins College of Art and Design. In other words, that he could cut cloth, and that this is what marked him out because a lot of the other designers could not; neither could they sew, create a pattern, print, stitch, embroider, embellish or even draw.
“Look,” she says, not quite smiling, “the designers aren’t interested in how it is done. Very few of them can make garments. For most, it is more about the effect. They don’t worry if it is going to function properly. They want a look.”
I ask her to give me an example of this gap—chasm—between conceptual idea and craft skill. She won’t name names but cites the hypothetical case of a designer coming to her with an idea involving a light fabric with lots of embroidery.
“All this weight the designer wants to incorporate is going to affect the way the garment falls,” she says. “We would point this out at the sampling stage. Because, obviously, the airy and billowy way that the fabric moves is the reason the designer chose it in the first place. So if you weigh it down…”
I ask her how the designers present their ideas.
“They come to us to problem solve,” she continues. “We get everything—sometimes little more than sketches. But there are several ways to interpret a drawing. And in the end, you need pattern cutters and machinists and stitchers who can actually make the thing. There is embellishment, embroidery, printing, construction—these are real hand skills.”
I am feeling greatly refreshed. But I am starting to wonder why the stitchers bother with the designers. This is feeding into my misgivings about fashion. (Maybe Luca is right, after all). It seems to me—though nobody is saying it—that the wedding dress owed at least as much to the Royal School of Needlework as it did to Sarah Burton. But here McCook surprises me.
“No, we’re not interested in all of that.” She means the fame, the circles of flattery and fawning. “We need them. They need us. This is a two-way relationship. How many famous textile artists can you name? None. So you hope these people have their fingers on the pulse.”
McCook is unclear whether the designers are the creators or merely the first curators of the zeitgeist. (Nobody seems to know this. Not even the designers themselves.) But she is genuine in her admiration for Burton at McQueen: “All of the team here—when we saw the dress, when we saw the concept coming to life—we were amazed. We didn’t come up with that idea. We made parts of it but—wow—it was astonishing to see it as a complete work of art.”
This brings us on to another point—a direct echo of what I had been hearing back at the actual shows.
“That dress was a huge deal,” McCook explains, “the biggest showcase item in the industry for an entire generation. There won’t be another single garment that receives such attention anywhere in the world until the next royal wedding. It was our chance to show the world what British design could do.”
And, hearing it from her, I finally believe it. Fashion is important because it spotlights brand Britain. This is the first half of the answer I have been looking for.
Yes, mystifying as it may be to those of us who live here—scurrying back and forth beneath skies of sodden sugar—there is a vast global appetite for brand Britain. Specifically, Britain as represented by London. Which is why the single most common theme that I heard—from Paul, Adam-for-Sebastian, Juanita, Panos, Luca, Jessica, Miguel and dozens more at London Fashion Week—was that British fashion was different. Edgier. More eclectic. More interesting. More diverse.
So part one of what London Fashion Week is really all about is… well, Britishness. Or, to put it another way: the London fashion shows are no more and no less than a series of visual tweets that go out to the world showcasing and reaffirming the things we are already famous for: our cultural diversity and our creativity. Our coolness.
Of course, London has been through lean times when the fashion weeks of other cities have overshadowed our efforts. When Tom Ford was at Gucci in Milan or Galliano at his height for Dior in Paris. But the cycle seems to have come round again. We are it.
This is partly to do with the excellence of our art schools and partly to do with the youth and verve and imagination of young designers coming out of London—such as Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou and Erdem. But (for the rest of the world) it is mostly to do with—as Juanita might put it—London’s energy; the great resource of so many different communities, each with their own heritage and style, that the designers live amid and feed upon. Sure, Paris and Milan have beautiful houses—Chanel, Armani—but their most celebrated designers are old men in stale cities. Sure New York is cool, too, but it doesn’t have the European heritage. We have both. Elegant with attitude. Cute but edgy. (Think: Alexa Chung.) And right now nowhere else in the world seems to have nailed it with the same gusto as we have: there are at least a dozen designers that everyone wants to see and they are all under 35 and they are all out of London.
In this macro sense then, London Fashion Week is nothing to do with the clothes—whether the Puritan collar is back or the peplum trim. (Yes and yes.) It is to do with advertising and promoting Britain. A serviceable analogy might be the Premier League. Down in among it, the press and the TV and the fans at the games might be obsessed with an offside decision or a penalty not given or who is moving to which club. But beyond these shores, the importance of the product is Britain itself, host to the best league in the world. Except, here’s the difference: fashion is worth far more to us than the Premier League.
Which bring us to part two of what London Fashion Week is really all about: money and the economy.
A catwalk show is worth millions of pounds in publicity. At its most simple, that’s why the designers do it. In most cases, they also sell there and then to buyers from all over the world—to Colette in Paris, Harvey Nichols in London, Barneys in New York, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and so on.
But the wider economic story is what counts. This is the reason that fashion is worth so much—and must be taken seriously.
A recent report by the British Fashion Council estimated that, even in a recession, the British fashion industry directly “contributed £20.9bn to the UK economy, or 1.7 per cent of total UK GDP,” and that “therefore, the UK fashion industry’s direct contribution to UK GDP is around twice the size of the publishing (£9.9bn), car manufacturing (£10.1bn) and chemical manufacturing industries (£10.6bn), and only slightly smaller than both telecommunications (£28.7bn) and real estate (£26.4bn).” The report further estimates that the “direct contributions” from taxes to the Exchequer amounted to £13.2bn.
Even allowing for possible bias, the numbers are still very substantial. Meanwhile, the British fashion industry workforce is both younger and more female than average. Over 70 per cent of all employees are female, whilst almost half of all workers are under the age of 30, compared to less than 25 per cent of those currently employed in Britain.
The economic benefits of employing a generally youthful workforce are obvious. But then there are the unseen benefits to all the ancillary businesses—the creative industries, marketing, transport and so on. Not to mention tourism—brand Britain again. All of this feeds off what the report calls a fashion industry “characterised by a dynamic demand cycle, with designer fashion driving industry-wide activity.”
And here we come to the heart of it all: “the demand cycle” as created by the designers. In simple terms, fashion weeks are the most efficient way to create desire. Desire is what drives demand. Demand drives growth and so on… These are not technological goods, remember. We throw away an old computer because the new one has much improved functionality. There’s a reason. But a coat is a coat and it works just fine as a coat until it wears out. We only throw it away before its time… well, because it has become unfashionable.
But at this juncture we must hand over to the economists and you must choose your political stance. Because, as a writer with a keen interest in anthropology, it is hard not to start seeing… well, madness again: the great collective human madness that seemingly we cannot live without—capitalism. Of which the fashion industry is surely the purest and most perfect incarnation.