clive martin's journey to the heart, soul and after-party of lfw
The fashion industry is a strange place, hard to understand and make sense of, even for those who spend seven days a week immersed in it, learning it and observing it. It can appear inaccessible, yet its primary objective is for people to access it. We...
You're in a club, somewhere near Hyde Park or Green Park or Park Lane, somewhere you wouldn't usually be. Somewhere that wouldn't usually let people like you in. Somewhere that definitely wouldn't let somebody like the guy in the leather cowboy hat who's playing a Jersey Club remix of No Scrubs in. You're drinking vodka, you've never heard of the brand, but you got it for free. It's disgusting, but it's full of cranberry juice and you've had eight of them already. Still, you worry that you haven't drunk enough yet and that they might run out. You worry that somebody's going to make the call that says you shouldn't be here. The girl with the list didn't seem to believe you when you told her your own name. You give the man in the toilets a fiver because surely this can't all be free. Surely this can't be alright.
A woman is being escorted through the club. "She's getting kicked out", you assume.
Hold on… nope, it's Lindsay Lohan. She's staying. Actually she's DJ'ing. It must be fashion week again.
In its essence, London Fashion Week is a trade showcase. If it was any other industry, it'd probably involve a trip to the Birmingham NEC, a couple of powerpoint presentations, a sexual harassment case and the announcement of a potentially lucrative deal with a Swiss plastic manufacturer. But fashion isn't like any other industry, its excesses are encouraged, its controversies are courted. Everything goes when it comes to fashion, and a bit of chaos is more than welcome.
And whilst London's catwalk shows, presentations and parties might not have the cache of their Milanese, Parisian or New York counterparts, it makes up for it with a sense of dynamism, youth, vitality and outrageousness that a lot of fashion commentators would say is lacking at the slicker showcases. It's true that the front row is more likely to be taken up with ex-T4 presenters than Oscar winners, and that most of the designers showcasing still live in shared warehouse spaces and go to Vogue Fabrics, but London's fashion scene is an undeniably exciting place, and always has been.
So when Fashion Week comes to town, you can feel its ripples everywhere around you, as if some kind of huge Fellini-esque circus has rolled into the city and let the animals loose. You'll feel its presence in the terrified faces of the long girls trying to navigate the Northern Line back to their shared AirBnBs, portfolios in hand. You'll feel it in the hoards of bloggers in their wide-brimmed hats, in the clobbered-up hopefuls trying to catch Tommy Ton's eye by the fire exits, in the gossip pages of the free rags splayed across the city's bus seats, in the snatch squads of a bit merry stylists in unsuitable footwear trying to catch Ubers back to Hackney Wick.
Give it a few years, and the ripples of a Fashion Week past will eventually be felt in what people are wearing and watching and listening to, such is its insidious journey into the wider culture.
Right now, fashion seems to be as interesting, and as impactful on everything around it as it's ever been, with a big hand in that coming from a raft of London-formed designers like Christopher Kane, Andersen and Anderson's Astrid and JW, Simone Rocha, Ashley Williams and Marques'Almeida, who've seen their work picked up by everyone from swagged out suburban kids to underground music stars like Arca, proper famous people like Rihanna, Daniel Sturridge and a Kardashian or two, a few Grime MC's and basically anyone else who's ever been in The Fader. Fashion seems to exist in both the mainstream and the underground these days, on both footballers and club kids, in a way that it hasn't really before. It isn't just Victoria Beckham and Anna Wintour anymore. It moves much, much further than that and London Fashion Week is the perfect place to see it being incubated.
Intrigued to see what this year brought about, I picked up a fist full of invites (including a House Of Holland one that doubles up as a fetching cardboard baseball cap) and set out to try and understand our enduring (and perhaps increasing) fascination with not just Fashion Week, but fashion itself. And to hopefully snatch a fleeting glimpse of Rosie Fortescue and nab myself a few vodka cocktails in the process, because from what I see, fashion is as much about famous people and free drinks as it is about clothes.
My journey into LFW began in typically fashionable fashion: late.
It's Sunday, and I'm off to the Institute Of Contemporary Arts to see young designer Claire Barrow's spring/summer 16 collection. We might be deep in the land of the British establishment, in the shadow of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street, but Barrow's latest presentation pulses and crackles with a kind of outsider heat. Themed around a breakdown in technology and a generation's gravest fears about a lack of mobile reception, the collection conjures up images that feel post-apocalyptic, without falling into sub-Mad Max clichés.
Without the buffer of a runway, it feels confrontational, with the models propped up against a backdrop of black silk, glaring at everything and nothing, like the crowd at the least inviting school disco you've ever been to. The clothes are inherently feminine, yet twisted and warped and battered into something much stranger, something much more haunting. Silk evening gowns and suits are adorned with images of distorted faces, the denim looks beaten and cut and painted. A young man who looks like somebody who might have woken up on David Bowie's Berlin sofa circa 1978 occasionally bangs a cymbal. The whole thing is quite unnerving and Barrow's claims of making "wearable art" seem to have been more than justified.
The next day I find myself in the backstreets of Marylebone, a part of the world previously known for its cheap hotels, obscure tourist-traps and Greek cafes, and which has become a paparazzi powerhouse in recent years due to its proximity to the Chiltern Firehouse, AKA: The Chelsea Hotel for people with Verified Instagram accounts.
I'm here for something that couldn't be much further from Claire Barrow's young, weird and London showcase: a presentation of Belstaff's new womenswear collection. At the door to the grand old Hellenic centre, a PR girl with an iPad asks me my name and I tell her, she believes me more than I thought she might do, pulls back the velvet rope and directs me into a tiny room where a crew of middle-aged Japanese men in Savile Row suits, who kind of remind me of the guys from the beginning of Die Hard, are drinking bouillabaisse from tiny teacups.
I don't have a phone so I try to look busy by repeatedly reading the menu and siding up to people to try and hear what they're talking about. I wonder if they might think I'm a Lee Nelson character here to pull some kind of prank, or perhaps a PETA protestor. A woman with expensive hair introduces someone called Chelsea to someone called Alessandria and says "so we're all PR girls here?" to much agreement, a man with a conical flat-top is trying to get through, somebody who used to be in a band with Florence Welch is playing the piano. This is certainly the more establishment side of Fashion Week, and I'm quite enjoying it. Outside on the street some models are sitting on some motorbikes and pretending to rev them up whilst a photographer documents this. A waitress offers me a piece of cuttlefish with black squid ink. I wonder if the brand ambassador David Beckham is going to turn up. I wonder if Rosie Fortescue will turn up.
Eventually the doors to the presentation are opened, and the growing crowd, now armed with an SLR and a champagne flute in each hand storm the main room. A dozen or so girls with delicate bones and wet hair are modelling the clothes, positioning themselves around plastic sand-dunes that loop through the room. They look much healthier but only marginally happier than the other models I've seen so far.
The press release describes it a "unique meditation on femininity" and I see no reason to argue with that. I have another glass of champagne and try to look like I might be able to afford something.
A few hours later and I'm in a grand old banqueting hall that reminds me of the place where they have the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. I'm somewhere near the back of Giles Deacon's show. I can just about make out Abbey Clancy from where I am, alongside someone who I think might be either Katie B or Kate Nash, I can't quite tell. Daisy Lowe is there. So is Jerry Hall. There's no champagne or bouillabaisse, but this is very evidently the real deal. There's a palpable kind of buzz in the air and I swear that's Rooney Mara, a feverish chatter hanging low beneath the high ceilings.
The show starts and it becomes clear that whilst the front row might be just a little bit on the Strictly Come Dancing side (I start to doubt that that is Rooney Mara after all), it doesn't need to be anything else, because here the models bring the star power. For his collection, which presents a colonial clash of lace Victoriana and tribal patterning, Giles has brought a cast of models guaranteed to make it onto Instagram feeds and the fashion pages in the press tomorrow; Georgia Jagger, Irina Shayk, Edie Campbell, Binx, Natalie Westling and the veterans Erin O'Connor, Karen Elson and Eva Herzigova are cantering down the winding channels of Giles's catwalk with little fanfare.
I realise that I'm currently surrounded by the great beauties of our time, looking on at people who have certain facial muscles that are more recognisable than anyone I've ever met. Yet in person they seem strangely normal, knowable, just girls with slightly better bones and better surnames than the rest of us. I wonder about their interior lives and forget to pick up my goody bag. I scour the emptying room to see if any errant Beckhams have sneaked in, but there are none. No sign of Rosie Fortescue either.
At Christopher Raeburn's lunchtime show in an Art Deco Soho car park that's doubling as LFW 2015's main hub of action, I'm ushered straight to the front row, where I'm seated next to two dapper looking gentleman in double breasted suits, Church's loafers and tortoiseshell glasses, who turn out to be a pair of old cockneys and engage me in a brief discussion about the terrible traffic.
In the corner of my eye I spot my first MIC cast member, none other than Oliver 'Proudlock' Proudlock, wearing a tight suit the colour of the foil in an Aero wrapper. It was inevitable really. He's with a girl who I think might also be in the show after I stopped watching it. Somebody who isn't Rosie Fortescue. Proudlock does a quick interview with an obnoxious reporter in a blue jumpsuit and a group of people whose laminates reveal them to be top dogs at Sunglass Hut appear. I worry that I'm going to be moved to accommodate these people who clearly have put a lot more money into this than I have, but they're put behind me. I feel quite smug about it. Maybe this is how it begins.
Raeburn is one of the most admired, and most worn young designers out in London. His last menswear collection involved jackets made out of life-rafts, and his latest womenswear collection follows suit in this tradition of salvaging utilitarian materials, bringing in nylon netting and parachute materials, forming a collection that's inspired by the spirit of exploration, all army surplus and Jungle sound effects. The clothes are severe, but breathable, functional yet outrageous. The crowd seem to like it, Proudlock seems to like it, the cockneys seem to like it. It's all over quite quickly.
Next up is Delhi-Born, London-taught designer Ashish, so everyone is kicked out onto the street and made to reconvene outside, creating a scene somewhat akin to a fire drill at Dover Street Market, with Proudlock as the fire marshal. I bump into a friend, she tells me that apparently Westminster Council are livid with the chaos that's engulfing the building outside, what with all the bloggers and street style snappers milling about.
I don't make the front row for Ashish's show, which can only be a good thing because sure enough the celeb quota seems to have been upped for this one. The person who I'm now quite sure is Katie B is here. There's a lot of guys who could be Andre Leon Talley, but aren't. There's a lot of girls who could be Rachel Zoe, but aren't. The hype seems to be on. Suzy Menkes arrives, is seated front row but not with the celebs, eminently professional. From the other side of the room enters a girl who looks a bit like MIA, flanked by three scurrying girls with earpieces and clipboards. Turns out it is MIA, everyone moves for her. Everyone notices her.
The lights come on, some lackeys sprint down the catwalk to tell a few blogger-types to get off the fucking runway. There's a clattering sound, and two models roll down the catwalk on skateboards, to much dismay, wearing baseball caps, confetti, denim and Disney princess style tulle netting.
I notice the models have tattoos, flesh tunnels and don't seem to adhere to the conventions of what a model should be doing. They look like girls who might have pierced their own ears in a D.T. lesson. They make eye contact with the iPads that are furiously capturing them, as if to taunt them for being so lame. These high-fashion Suicide Girls don't seem to give too much of a shit, it's incredibly, naturally cool. Following them are two lithe young men in belly tops and skirts, they're blowing kisses, holding hands and blowing confetti about. One of them has gold hoop earrings on and a Dennis Rodman-esque dyed blonde hair-do. A couple of DeBretts girls and James Bay at Burberry, it ain't.
The whole thing is an undeniably impressive spectacle. I realise that you don't necessarily have to have a degree from CSM to get it. Because for all fashion week's establishment follies, there's the occasional moment that can make you feel like you're at the coalface of live culture. This is culture as theatre, and the crowd are roaring with approval. When the man himself comes out, the crowd start to roar even louder. This strange mix of society insiders and social outsiders coming together to celebrate this strange take on the world we live in and the way we present ourselves to it.
London Fashion week might be an inherently self-congratulatory affair, but it's congratulating something that deserves to be congratulated, and in its perceived ridiculousness there is something quite endearing. Because in a culture that more than ever seems to be aiming for the lowest common denominator, shooting for the easiest, most digestible ways of presenting itself, repeating its own successes and resorting to the ugliest forms of expression and the ugliest opinions, fashion has started to stand out more than ever. LFW is a showcase for a kind of creativity that's unbridled by focus groups, a kind of creativity that doesn't even have to sell really. And as we become ever-reliant on racking up numbers, it's incredibly refreshing to see something that's actually quite hard to understand a lot of the time, something that's often a bit weird, or something which is actually just quite beautiful.
That night at a magazine afterparty I finally see Rosie Fortescue and she looks like an angel. And having spent the last few days trying to get into a party with a Beckham, I find out the next morning through the mist of a four-Anadin migraine that Brooklyn Beckham had actually been denied entry to the very same party.
Fashion really doesn't make any sense, and thank god for that.
Text Clive Martin
Backstage photography Jason Lloyd Evans
Catwalk photography Mitchell Sams