London has had a difficult year. Brexit looms over a city facing the repercussions of austerity and privatisation. The prospect of environmental catastrophe hangs heavy, and political polarisation has never been more severe. After an explosion on the Tube in Parsons Green on the first day of London Fashion Week, the security level was raised to critical.
The big question going in to London Fashion Week was if this turbulence would ripple into the shows. I found an answer hand-painted on a clutch bag in the hands of fashion illustrator Kit Skellington. It showed a naked Donald Trump, along with the words “BIG BUSTY BIGOT”. When asked whether designers should respond to politics, Skellington was certain. “They have an obligation to. I think if fashion is trying to escape the political climate instead of reacting to it, and if they’re not standing up for people who need it right now, then they’re not very good designers.” Today’s progressive young people demand social commentary from the art they consume, and it seems some fashion designers are picking up on this. This season saw tutus in angry colours and mournful black eyeliner, with belts and buckles which give the sense that we’re all strapping ourselves in for a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque world of survival. But much more prevalent was the idea of fashion as escape, and collections intent on retreating into a desperate, romantic musing.
The design world at large has been locked in an affair with the living world all year. Pantone named “Greenery” its colour of 2017, calling it a symbol of “new beginnings” and “the lushness of the great outdoors”. They suggest its use in architecture and design offers “the reassurance we yearn for amid a tumultuous social and political environment”. Come January, Dior transformed the interior of Museé Rodin into a garden where celebrities came and went like moths. In July, Alessandro Michele’s garden-themed capsule collection “Gucci Garden” showed a Garden of Eden in which models frolic with the snake, and unapologetically bite the apple. In a time where it seems Mother Earth is punishing us for our greed, designers haven’t resisted the temptation to paint everything the colours of paradise and make believe.
As well as natural motifs, an almost cartoonish fantasy of youth reigns over London Fashion Week. Tulle is omnipresent in frocks like giant flowers. Wave of frothy ruffles and sherbet hues crest in the SS18 collections. High waistbands and puffy sleeves evoke children’s fashion in the same way Balenciaga’s 1958 “Baby Doll” dress did. A sense of abundance has been key across all of the major fashion weeks. A picture has emerged of an industry in the grips of nostalgia about a past we can’t remember, before we began to use up the earth. Facing uncertainty, we are desperately grasping for a sinless past.
Emma Charles: Fashion’s Obsession With Nature Comes to Redcar, Teesside
Young designer Emma Charles’ SS18 brought the idealist fantasy of the season to a town hollowed by the loss of its industry. At the presentation, models wore tailored gowns in a wood-panelled room as a projected video played. In it, Rachel Livingstone, a street-cast from Middlesborough, stands amidst an abandoned blast furnace which nature has begun to reclaim.
An interview with the model echoes off the high ceiling of the room, cut with facts about the blast furnace: “it reminds everyone of what used to be here and what everyone’s life used to be like” she says, “nobody’s here in Redcar anymore… I’m not sure if I’ll stick around here much longer… Maybe I’ll just move to London and fall in love”. The northern “brain drain,” most pronounced in the arts industries, results from the feeling that everything happens in London. As they lose their function, the ghost towns and their inhabitants transform into decorative relics of the past. The problematics of wistfulness are distilled in Emma Charles’ SS18.
“[Fashion] lets you see the romantic side of it… through wanting, and aspiring to luxury” — Emma Charles
Charles hails from Redcar, calling it “a beautiful town that people find quite ugly”. She told me she only began to appreciate Redcar’s beauty after she moved away. This speaks of an industry-wide impulse to beautify poverty, viewing it from a romantic distance. The north’s influence on fashion has been well-documented (see Gucci’s SS18 logoed tracksuits), as has the questionable nature of this romanticisation.
As Charles’s collection showed, this idealisation does nothing to improve the situation of the idealised. The video showed Livingstone mouthing a silent scream in the centre of an overgrown grassy plain in her ghost-hometown. The image is poignant in our post-Brexit political landscape, where we feel disempowered, and must face the very real threat of becoming an isolated ghost-nation.
Alistair James: Sleeping Beauties and Scripted Futures
Catastrophes of excessive luxury have inspired designs based on yet more excess. This is an irony designers seem all too aware of. But for design duo Alistair James, escapism can be a hopeful response to the present. “Love Conquers All” was the title and message of their SS18 collection. The presentation was held in a dimly-lit chapel filled with harp music and flowers. The models stood under four-poster frames entwined with white flowers and leafy vines. This idyllic retreat felt like a romantic medieval moment from the quasi-historical land of a fairytale past. The pair were inspired by Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and the animators’ references to medieval European and Persian tapestries. Sheer fabrics and garters gesture to lingerie and preternatural slumber. Elaborate folds are set in sleeves that bloom out from the elbow; the curves in a flared jumpsuit recall Maleficent.
“It’s about escape. I love anything that makes me feel happy” — Nick Alistair Walsh
A certain Wordsworthian impulse drives these designers. Like the Romantic poets, they succumb to the pre-Raphaelites and John Ruskin’s famous commandment: “go to nature”. I asked Nick Alistair Walsh why they were drawn toward the natural world, and the colour green, inkeeping with the wider fashion world. “Green makes us think of rebirth and renewal… it’s a forever colour.” “In a time when we feel we might not be around forever?” I asked, and we shared that familiar look of resignation and understated panic. “Exactly.”
The Alistair James girl poses with open books and flowers, projecting an innocent immersion in fiction. But a fatalism threatens her, as Walsh explained. “Sleeping Beauty has her fate decided for her the day she is born, the same as a lot of young people today”. These same contradictions are present in the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, a key source of inspiration for the pair. Known for her celebrity portraits, Cameron would transform “ordinary” women like scullery maids into Arthurian heroines. We see her influence in the minimal makeup, halo-like brushed out curls, and the hands clutching flowers.
Sixties fashion icon Ossie Clark was also a major inspiration for Alistair James SS18. The psychedelic era is in vogue— House of Holland and Richard Malone showed us trippy stripes, Markus Lupfer presented a nowhere-world where free-wheeling colour palettes dominated. Certainly, it’s not just the clothes that hearken back to this era. Political polarisation and threat of collapse also typified the age of psychedelia. It seems natural that we’re drawn back to the colourful “free love” counter-culture that emerged in response. We relate to the experimental, anything-goes spirit, and disregard for society’s expectations. But if history is anything to go by, this rarely goes beyond aesthetics. How long can we conceivably stay in this idealistic dream of unity and hedonism before the fantasy dies? As history can attest, this movement leads nowhere but disillusionment.
Dilara Findikoglu: Punk, Emo, and Futurism
Whilst some designers have retreated in frothy fantasies of innocence past, others prefer to face our current situation kicking and screaming. One such designer is Dilara Findikoglu, whose “Seven Sisters of Inherited Sun” collection embodied her usual spirit of anarchism. Punk is reborn in her signature commie-red and black palette. Accessories are made of nails and bolts, fluorescent mohawks abound. Punk music screams from the speakers as the models stomp to dystopian lyrics like “Too many humans. You breed like rats! And you’re no fucking better.” In gothic lettering on red paper, she offers poetic prose:
The TV is playing war, we hope for peaceful sunlight… The philosopher is counting the slow candles of the icebergs… The president has retreated to the golf club, he rules in half sentences. Coughing up the 1950s… God is bored of us now. She sides with the animals and the weather and they watch our digital alien rampage, with cool sad eves.
Findikoglu’s gowns, tailored suits and separates were modelled by a cast of misfit-royalty: Brooke Candy, Jazzelle “Ugly Worldwide,” and drag performers Violet Chachki and Sussi Sussman. The DIY halloween aesthetic pays homage to a certain rock-n-roll, defiant adolescent energy. She is the sort of designer youth like Kit Skellington can identify with.
The ostracised emo and goth kids of yesterday are the new cool kids. The current visual divide between dark glamour and twee romanticism visually replicates the kind of high school politics many of us are familiar with. Outsiders pride themselves on rejecting the “normies”. It’s hard not to be slightly cynical about this message in the digital age, where subcultures are tumblr aesthetics and devices for accessing niche markets. In this labyrinth of meta-references, authentic rebellion can only exist for a second before being swallowed by the mainstream. Cliché driven marketing turns identities into costumes. In “The Rebel,” Albert Camus writes “Human rebellion ends in metaphysical revolution. It progresses from appearances to acts, from the dandy to the revolutionary.” But the fast fashion cycle has us stuck at appearances. In its need to create demand it forges an ever shifting fashion siberia under the banner of doing away with it.
Capitalism degrades, but does not destroy the value of representation. We need the futurist impulse of designers like Dilara Findikoglu in a homogenous industry. If nature nostalgia is Romantic poetry, these futurist concoctions are sci-fi. Their fantasies try to envision a more diverse future, rejecting nostalgia, which in times of crisis amounts to little more than the self-soothing fantasies of a child. When the fashion industry is professing its innocence in florals and princess fantasies, we need more designers who treat their art like a battle cry.