how do we protect the integrity of our designers?
It’s now a year since the praised London designers Meadham Kirchhoff were forced to draw their curtains. This season he made his comeback, designing for Sophia Webster's London Fashion Week show. Here Edward Meadham reflects on the ever-changing face...
Edward Meadham for Sophia Webster fall/winter 16
Appearances can be deceiving. To an onlooker who sees a runway image on the internet, or a tag stitched into an expensive garment in a fancy shop, it's difficult to imagine the intensive and exhausting creative and technical processes behind it: what it has taken the designer and their teams to conjure up these garments and images, to imagine a concise, desirable and forward-thinking vision comprising hundreds of individual items from apparel to accessories. It's not an easy or simple task. Collections do not appear out of nowhere spun by magical fairies. They take months of research, thinking, technical exploration, fittings, re-thinking, re-fitting, and battling with suppliers, factories and show producers.
I used to design a label called Meadham Kirchhoff. The collections I made and the shows I presented them in were met with equal adoration and derision, for their somewhat challenging aesthetic, extreme styling and the often-theatrical nature of the shows themselves. The collections were intended to be all encompassing immersive experiences. I dictated everything from hair and make-up to the music that was played before, during and after the show. I refused to compromise on any level, from the clothes themselves to the painstaking techniques they were made with. I refused to dress celebrities or do trunk shows in department stores. I made and presented two collections a year, which were all-consuming mentally, and physically exhausting labours of love and hate.
What I did and how I did it was entirely at odds with an ever-changing industry to some, myself included. This was part of the strength of it — to others (and with this I would disagree) perhaps the logical explanation of the demise of Meadham Kirchhoff. When looking around me now, I see the same fate happen upon my peers. The designers who started at the same time as me have all stopped working, either by choice or by circumstance. Designers, who - unlike me - played the game of fashion, whose collections were applauded for their commerciality and their red carpet worthiness, and who made pre-collections and altered their clothes upon the requests and demands of the stores that sold them.
When I began working in 2002, fashion and its industry were very different. In those days designers worked biannually, for six months on cultivating ideas and creating collections presented twice a year. It was still acceptable for a designer to play the role of the shy, sensitive, reclusive creative. We had Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang and Raf Simons, all relatively unseen creative minds making clothes and collections that were imbued with ideas, codes and meaning. Designers' collections meant something to the designers, and to the audience who admired and sometimes wore them. Collections were memorable statements of the individual designer's point of view, each distinct and identifiable in aesthetics that foretold a future and showed us ideas of what clothes could be - how they could be made and worn - that we hadn't imagined before.
There was a markable difference between high fashion, and what was available on the high street, the cheaply made and quickly delivered mass-produced homogenised, ephemeral clothes that were usually a watered-down interpretation of what designers had shown the previous season. Somewhere down the line, wires in the industry seemed to get crossed—a sort of fashion identity crisis occurred: the high street brands now show runway collections during fashion week and hire designers to collaborate on exclusive co-branded collections, and 'high fashion' or 'luxury fashion' (terms too loosely and mostly inaccurately bandied around) churn out a never-ending procession of disposable, meaningless product, made cheaply, delivered at the speed of light, aiming to please everybody, but seemingly pleasing none.
At one point or other during the 2000s, the phenomenon known as the pre-collection began: designer capsule collections aimed at and shown to stores to provide mid-season delivery, which ensured a rotation of stock and supposedly longer sale windows offering less expensive, apparently more commercial options for customers. Stores responded to this by allocating 70 percent of their budgets per designer to pre-collections, marginalising ready-to-wear show collections. Now we have entered a new phase in fashion, like in the 1950s when the biannual ready-to-wear presentations overtook and eclipsed couture. Pre-collections, which were once small showroom affairs for invited store buyers, have turned into full-blown runway shows, or at least elaborately styled and photographed visual presentations for internet consumption.
Fashion houses fly the world's fashion press to enormous show venues in exotic locations. The line between what was once ready-to-wear and now pre-collections appears to have blurred. The old formula of spring/summer and autumn/winter collections seems to have become irrelevant, not least because none of it seems to be available, anyway, and what is available to buy in stores seems to be all the same. Every brand or designer offers the same product, ticking the same product category boxes. Everyone has a driving moccasin and a pleated metallic leather three-quarter-length skirt, shown with a nondescript oversized v-neck sweater.
Designers are now expected to be superstars flying all over the world to hang out with their celebrity friends, and appear to be crumbling under the pressure to keep up with the creative demands of producing four to eight collections a year, with stores demanding to have exclusive items, styles and colour-ways. The fashion press seems equally exhausted and bored by the relentless schedule of presentations and meaningless, uninspired clothes. And all for what? The stores don't seem to be able to sell all of this product that nobody seems to be able to keep up with, or afford, or care about. Is it for houses to sell as many overpriced handbags as possible? Made in China but finished in France or Italy so that they can still claim to be made there.
Customers are led to believe that they are buying into a higher world of luxury and exclusivity, but in reality they are being deceived into believing this myth. Once the reason for the high price of high fashion was that it was made well, in good fabrics—that you were buying something of beauty, quality and integrity, when all too often today few of those things seem evident. Is it to feed brand awareness and social media feeds? Over the last fifteen years, the internet has had an enormous impact on who fashion is targeted towards and how we see it. At first we were reluctant to engage with it, banning the release of show images onto the internet in its infancy. Now, fashion seems to have not only embraced it, but given itself wholly over to the internet's fast visual consumption and sales methods.
Change is inevitable—healthy even. After all, fashion was always a good reflection of culture: a visual and wearable social barometer reacting to and sometimes predicting social change. But to me it feels as though it has changed too far, too quickly, and in the wrong direction. I would love for fashion to re-evaluate its place in culture and the context in which it creates. To realise the necessity for creativity as well as - and not in spite of - commerce. To re-define the concept of commerciality so it is not opposed to progressive desirability, but is instead harmonious with it.
Text Edward Meadham
Image courtesy of Sophia Webster