Sending out an S.o.S.

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If you think about our world nowadays and how we’re living and how we’re acting and if you think about our history and how it is repeating itself in the most obvious and horrible manner, it is something to really take seriously and talk about.  I know this sounds very dramatic but I find fashion especially a place where we need to talk about these things because fashion is a global language.  We all speak it more and more.  Less and less people read the news, less and less people are taking alarming news seriously.  In this language and this culture we are all so global and globalised and we’re all so well educated we need to start talking about these things in our time where we actually are and not just see it through a video screen and that’s something I want to do in my way.

Wali Mohammed Barrech, a designer with a mouthful of a name also talked up a mouthful after his tension-strung S/S 15 show held in a car park during Copenhagen Fashion Week two days ago.  It wasn’t just backstage post-show waffle though.  Barrech’s Facebook page is dotted with current affairs concerns – namely the crisis in Gaza – events that are shocking in the extreme, but for most of us, our participation is merely restricted to watching it on the news, reading stories online and retweeting/FB-ing links accompanied by a sad-faced emoji.  Barrech wants to use his collections as a form of dialogue to reflect the world we live in and S/S 15 was an S.O.S. cry for caution on all fronts.  We’re being watched everywhere and our privacy is constantly at risk, hence the surveillance printed imagery on unitards, where cars are seen from an aerial view just as Google street view will one day probably be a 24 hour live camera stream.  We need to be rescued from ourselves and the actions of others, hence the primary hued jackets equipped with elements derived from rescue and survival gear.  The majority of the models were deliberately blonde and tanned.  Barrech, as a Pakistani-born, Croatian-raised designer living in Denmark perhaps was probing into matters of racial supremacy, which ignore as we might, still lingers in strands all over the world.  The words S.S. emblazoned on nylon packaway jackets sends a shiver down your spine at first glance but look again and there’s a tiny “o” in the middle.  It’s an S.o.S. call that is meant to instill fear.  Barrech wanted to establish a sense of alarm at the show and so mid-way through, the lights in the already dim  city car park went out as we watched shadow-y figures stomping about, catching flashes of those S.o.S. and not much more.  Then a Toyota Yaris suddenly swerved in and parked itself in the middle of the runway.  An overhead sprinkler came on and smoky gas tore through.  For different people that danger-filled environment will evoke different things.  I was taken back to 7/7 in London when not too far behind me, the number 30 bus had exploded near Tavistock Square and the air was thick with smoke and an acrid smell.   Most of us are cocooned and safe in our living rooms and on our laptops consuming news from afar.  We can’t even begin to imagine what a bombed-out war scene could even be like.  Barrech’s show pulsed through a difficult subject matter to make us think but moreover maintains a strand of fashion that increasingly, more and more people shy away from – fashion as a medium that can probe and disturb.

Barrech is seeking to join an impressive pantheon of designers who have done this in the past – Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood to name but a few.  And there’s no getting away from the shades of Raf that can be seen in Barrech’s work.  But what was commendable was the fact that he tried and suceeded, for the most part to combine the aesthetically pleasing with pertinent messaging.  At the end of the day, the main takeaway for most people, who didn’t get to hear Barrech speak about the collection after the show, will be “Wow, cool show.” or “I want those shoes.”  Is that the ideal end conclusion?  Perhaps not.  But what Barrech is critiquing can’t be remedied with one singular fashion show.  We will still be in our safe and comforting shells, passively retweeting and observing.  Engaging in this way and being aware is the most we can do for now.  Barrech’s S.o.S. at the very least is trying to thrust the conversation in your face.

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Let it Rock: The Look of Music The Sound of Fashion

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A fashion trade show that is as enormous as CIFF in Copenhagen might seem like an odd place to house a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to one of Britain’s most well-known, multi-talented and culture zeitgeist informing provocateurs.  As you enter Crystal Hall, Virgil Abloh is pitted next to Malcolm McLaren – past and present colliding.  The exhibition Let it Rock: The Look of Music The Sound of Fashion, is really a first and proper look at McLaren’s fashion output and how it interwove with the various musical epochs that McLaren championed.  Structured as a journey through the various guises and guerilla changes 430 Kings Road underwent, we got to see unseen and rare original clothing, photographs, films and audio soundtrack and experience a concise yet simultaneously comprehensive look at how McLaren figured into this ultimately groundbreaking partnership between himself and Vivienne Westwood.

The exhibition is co-curated by Young Kim, McLaren’s partner who lived with him for the last twelve years of his life and the creator of my go-to resource about all things sub-culture, British and London, Paul Gorman.  After a slow process of organising an archive of sorts, gathering up information and ephemera, they’re now ready to pipe up and let it be known what McLaren treated.  In mainstream consciousness, Westwood’s fame has far outstripped her former partner, as her solo career in fashion took flight beyond 1984, when her and McLaren officially dissolved their partnership.  Those formative years between 1970 and 1984 though is easily one of the most fascinating time in British fashion history where political climate, music, youth culture and a do-it-yourself, grassroots level creative expression all came together, centred on that infamous shop on Kings Road.  That’s what this exhibition is focused on and that’s where McLaren can be discussed, not just as a svengali/manager type figure, but as an artistic/creative director with a hand on everything from the collaborators to the clothes to the store design to the show soundtracks and even on what was written on the programme notes.  Much like a modern day creative director at a house, tasked with overseeing all aspects.  Only McLaren got to have the final say in every matter.

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The daily rags are quick to pick up on the more tawdry aspects of the less-than-acromonious fallout between McLaren and Westwood, exacerbated by McLaren’s death four years ago and ensuing dispute about his will.  With Westwood still alive and kicking and with Young Kim fighting for a lasting legacy for McLaren, it can be a deeply touchy subject to dissect the work of the two.

But let’s put down the nit picking “who did what” and just get our heads round the fact it was an equal partnership.  There were two names on those clothing labels – from the Seditionaries period onwards through to the more formal collections they showed under the label World’s End up – and that’s a good enough reason to celebrate and highlight the fact that Malcolm McLaren wasn’t just a “shop manager” as Gorman puts it.  “For some people, as Vivienne continued in fashion they dismiss Malcolm’s design role,” says Kim.  “I want people to understand everything from Malcolm’s point of view.  Everything came from the mind of an artist, there was a reason for it, it was entrenched in pop culture and in terms of the clothes themselves, he had real knowledge.”  

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IMG_4664Clothing and pieces from the Let it Rock period

The first surprising fact to stake claim to McLaren’s fashion nous.  His grandfather was a Savile Row tailor and his mother had a dress factory.  He carried a knowledge of how clothes should be made.  At the age of twenty-five, wearing his bright blue lame suit, which he designed, he happened to hap upon a shop called Paradise Garage.  He was offered the backspace to sell his stash of rock ‘n’ roll records.  Later the front shop was deserted and that became Let it Rock, a retrogazing haven for rock ‘n’ roll aficionados, but more importantly this was McLaren’s expression of recontextualising the past as something “cool” and relevant.  Together with Westwood they sold rock ‘n’ gear, such as some ace ties that could slot right into Prada today, but selling wasn’t the point.  “We agreed that it was our intention to fail in business and to fail as flamboyantly as possible, and only if we failed in a truly fabulous fashion, would we ever have a chance of succeeding.”* 

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Just as publications like the Sunday Times Style were picking up on this rockabilly/teddy boy vibe, McLaren and Westwood volte faced and opened in 1972-4 as Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, where printed slogan and graphic t-shirts were deliberately trampled on and messed up as much as possible.  In the context of early 70s fashion mainstream mod/hippie hybrids, happing upon this Kings Road spot must have felt like a discombobulated trip.  “I created something new by destroying the old,” said McLaren.

“It’s collaging, and combining different influences to create something new,” asserts Kim.  Gorman then adds, “It’s postmodern. Today, we can place him as an artist within the narrative. There’s certain principles that define postmodernism and Malcolm ticks all of them. It was revolutionary at the time.”

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IMG_4658A SEX ensemble from Kim Jones’ private collection 

Then came SEX in 1974, probably one of most monumental shake-ups to the store and one that would coincide with of course, McLaren’s management and creation of the Sex Pistols as SEX customers like John Lydon, Paul Cook and Steve Jones and shop assistant Glen Matlock would come together in this uneasy, sleaze-filled store, fronted by giant pink rubber letters spelling out SEX.  The motto underneath was “Craft Must have Clothes – But the Truth Loves to Go Naked.”  Westwood’s adapted lingerie, fetish and bondage wear were presented on climbing wall bars, adorned with nipple clamps and whips.  “You didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” remembers Gorman about the store.  There was reason behind the provocation though.  “Black expressed the denouncement of the frill.  Nihilism.  Boredom.  Emptiness.  How do you dress an array of disaffected youth?,” said McLaren.  The things we take for granted today as standard “trend” items like a pair of spike-backed black shoes or a printed graphic t-shirt displaying nudity were ground breaking then.  They did shake up the system.  That street fashion of boredom would of course accompany probably McLaren’s biggest claim to fame – the birth of punk – although Kim and Gorman were keen to stress they didn’t want to focus on punk, around which there are so many misconceptions anyway.

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SEX closed and reopened in 1976 as Seditionaries – Clothes for Heroes.  It was to be the store’s most menacing manifestation yet designed by Ben Kelly of Hacienda fame, with a caged-up stark shop front, bombed-out ceiling and walls depicting the Dresden ruins.  This was war.  Jamie Reid’s graphics came into their own and the bondage trouser was born.  From disorder and chaos came commercial cohesion though.  Gorman observed that Seditionaries was a real “commercial” and on the back of Sex Pistols blowing up and media attention, those t-shirts and trousers were commodities.  Sure, the label read “For Soldiers, prostitutes, dykes and punks” but at £30 a tee, these clothes weren’t cheap.  From anti-establishment, Westwood and McLaren were slowly coming into the fold of the establishment, even as people from Vogue were being chase out of the store, as Kim recalled.

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IMG_46661981 Pirate Shirt 

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In 1981, McLaren and Westwood volte-faced again, buoyed by Westwood’s own desire to destroy punk and to sail away from the Kings Road.  The store floated on waves and time went backwards on a thirteen-hour giant clock on the store front.  This was also the beginning of the end for McLaren and Westwood’s partnership even though they arguably created their most cohesive and stirring fashion moments through showed like the Pirate, Savage and Buffalo collections – their originality still looking utterly captivating today as you look at the pieces in glass vitrines or hung up flat in-between perspex.  This wild with abandon, layered and multi-ethnic collaged look was the product of Westwood’s buoyant creativity as well as McLaren’s own interest in influences from the third world.  He connected 18th century men’s shirts to pirates and then to modern day piracy in music, where McLaren was having his own explosion of creation with records like Duck Rock.

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IMG_4687 IMG_4689A top made out of dish rags from the Hobo-Punkature collection

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IMG_4745A knit dress from the 1983 Nostalgia of Mud collection

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McLaren’s final expression in retail and fashion resulted in Nostalgia of Mud, a short-lived store in town that pushed the idea that the roots of our culture lay in primitive societies.  It sounds like an extraordinary interiors feat with a formal Regency-style foyer and then a collapsed floor so that you descend into a basement as if on an archaeological dig.  Collections like Nostalgia of Mud, Hobo-Punkature and Witches were to be housed here.

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The final vitrine showcasing the hat dubbed the buffalo hat, now so intrinsically attached to Pharrell’s image is a pertinent ending.  Whilst Pharrell did credit McLaren at the Grammys, it’s Westwood who has profited from the association.  As an idea, it was born out of McLaren’s research of traditional Peruvian dress but it was also a combined realisation, as so much of Westwood and McLaren’s work from 1970 until 1984 was.  As a final item in the exhibition, it leaves us to ponder how do we move forward with this discussion of about this partnership as it can so easily descend into a “Who designed what?” quagmire.

IMG_4648The agreement between Westwood and McLaren to dissolve their partnership in 1984

That discussion wasn’t fully resolved in this exhibition but it did present a somewhat revisionist perspective to the tale, one that not many people will know about.  Is there an absolute and categoric truth to be found in all of this?  Probably not.  But that the conversation about it is carried on by Gorman and Kim’s work is definitely encouraging.  The exhibition will travel to Grenoble in France later this year and to other countries beyond that, hopefully with a book in the pipeline too.  The historian in me says that it will take probably decades after this to uncover an even deeper understanding of this explosive and ultimately game-changing partnership.  For now we can just fully appreciate the importance of their collective output at a time before fashion became product.

I thought I’d end this post beautifully not with a probing question but with McLaren’s 1984 masterpiece Madame Butterfly collaging opera with electro, deftly mixing and recontextualising styles and genres, just as he did with Westwood previously.

*All Malcolm McLaren quotes in the exhibition were said to Gorman in 2006 for his seminal book The Look: Adventures in Rock & Pop Fashion.

Moving Still

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Say what you want.  Like it or hate it.  Call it hyped up bullshit.  But if you’re ignoring what a collective wave of designers like Shayne Oliver at Hood by Air, Marcelo Burlon’s County of Milan and now Virgil Abloh’s Off-White is, as a cultural comment on the state of fashion today, then you’re sort of missing the point.  Business of Fashion recently called these trio of designers “Streetwear’s New Guard” much to the predictable umbrage of “for real” streetcar aficionados, who felt that these brands hadn’t been around long enough to earn the label of the much-vaulted name of streetwear.  Rather than referring to it as a new guard, it might be better to give this off-shoot a new term of categorisation.  People wagging their fingers at these designers who apparently don’t yet have the “gravitas” of heavyweights like Supreme of Stussy, perhaps don’t remember that those brands also had their own beginnings.

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We should look at these brands and think about what they’re contributing to the present rather than their value in the future.  And at present, the bottom line is, people are drawn to them in a big way – in numbers, in levels of interaction and in a showing of appreciation and loyalty when supposedly we’re in a fashion landscape where people are fickle about their choices, mixing and matching and well… being a bit blasé about everything.  I think of the way a whole posse of people turn up wearing Hood by Air t-shirts and sweatshirts at their shows, united as thought they were diehard followers of a football team.  As a physical entity they looked like a proper style tribe – as solid as the groups of visual-kei fans in Tokyo.  I look at Abloh’s and you have people pleading with him to make bigger sizes because..”I was barely able to get Pyrex and this vision is so much more focused. So defined. BREAKING THROUGH SHIT. Don’t deny me a consumer the opportunity to be apart of the movement because I don’t wear a small or medium.  Movement.  Break-through.  Those are big words to be throwing around in the age of a the fair-weather fashion consumer.

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At Copenhagen International Fashion Fair, otherwise known as CIFF, there’s an intriguing pairing of exhibitions on until tomorrow (if you’re in town please try and make it over to see this!).  On one side of Crystal Hall (open to the public) at the Bella Center, Malcolm McLaren looms large in an incredibly detailed and well-put together overview about specifically his fusion of music and fashion – Let it Rock: The Look of Music, The Sound of Fashion is the exhibition title name, coined by curators Paul Gorman, the expert of all things Brit-sub-culture and McLaren’s partner Young Kim.  This deserves a separate and detailed post.

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_n97zbgDFgT1rf4nooo1_1280Off-White S/S 15 menswear collection

Then on the other side in a darkened corner, Abloh’s wave is presented as a physical video projection with loud crashing audio and a handy metaphor for what Abloh’s label Off White is about.  It’s an installation that goes hand in hand with Abloh’s S/S 15 collection entitled “Moving Still” made up of blacked-out graphics, sewn on badges used like clusters of icons on a desktop and a Baja-inspired floral print.  Here in this industrial space, you do feel a wave crashing over you but it’s not salty or wet.  It’s the feeling of the unknown.

When I spoke to Abloh, he used Tumblr as a reference over and over again – it almost became like an adjective to define a generation of people he feels are likely to understand what he is doing with Off-White.  “If you squint your eyes at it, it might just look like streetwear,” said Abloh. “Clothes with graphics on it.  But if you can see the layers underneath, there is a high level of design.  I’m making current culture clothes for Tumblr kids that can mix high and low.  I’m from that generation.  They know about Raf and Balmain but they also know about the kid down the road printing their own t-shirts.  It’s Supreme and Celine.  That juxtaposition is what Off-White is based upon – it’s being a young designer who is in tune with reality as well as being able to extract reality and create an artistic statement.”

Juxtaposition is another word Abloh uses a lot.  The installation is about that “crash” or “clash”, if you will.  “High, low.  Cheap, chic,” said Abloh. ” I love it when those things crash.  Even the name Off-White is a juxtaposition.  Or like here.  I’m honoured to even be here paired next to Malcolm McLaren – it’s a trip!”

When Abloh speaks, it can often sound lofty and imbued with a slight hint of arrogance even.  But it’s the heightened ambition that is intriguing about this self-confessed fashion consumer turned creative.  Abloh came from a background of having trained as an architect and then of course became Kanye West’s creative/art director but his own path into fashion is a familiar one that most of us can relate to.  It was seeing a Kris van Assche collection in 2003 that sent Abloh spiralling down the rabbit hole of Style.com and then on to collecting Raf Simons.  From observer to hardcore consumer and collector to creator.  You could say that path has been well-trodden by many a person in the industry and certainly by the “interlopers” of this industry (ahem ahem) that have stirred up so much debate in recent years.

“This is a crazy time in fashion.  Editors have to compete with popular opinion.  Before, it was like you’re either on the page or not.  Now you have a genre like streetwear, which literally means “from the people” colliding with fashion.”  When asked whether he thought the current vogue for streetwear within high fashion was a passing thing, Abloh was lucid.  “It’s only going to be relevant for so long – but is it going to be remembered or forgotten about?  Is it credible or is it like Canal Street?”

It becomes tricky when you try and define what Abloh and the likes of Oliver and Burlon are doing but Abloh is adamant that he wants to do is to push a multi-layered and faceted notion of streetwear.  Which to hardcore streetwear enthusiasts might seem ludicrous because to them, it is already at the highest level it can be.  But from a fashion aesthetic perspective, stripping back the attachment of an attitude or lifestyle, streetwear is often reduced to a visual 2D flat planed graphic t-shirt.    “Within fashion, the idea of streetwear is still up for debate of whether it’s credible because it’s generally one-note,” said Abloh.  “I want to still be within streetwear but not be one-note, to have layers of reason and concept.  I want it upgraded on every level from concept to make.  As a designer, you don’t pore over just the ‘look of it’ but the fit and the quality.”

When I poked around Selfridges earlier this year, I touched up Off-White’s inaugural collection and was definitely taken aback by the “upgrade” in quality and also in stylistic detailing in comparison to say Abloh’s previous Pyrex line (which was basically a line of printed t-shirts and tops).  The debut womenswear for AW14 is similarly souped-up.  Entitled “I only smoke when I drink” (how many times have we heard that old chestnut before…?) is again full of contrasts and yes, juxtapositions.  “Chic, Air Force 1’s” is how Abloh summed it up to Style.com.  That in itself is a summary of how many women I know dress because they don’t want to be boxed into a cliche or a style trope.  Similarly, Abloh is not keen on just trussing up women in Off-White’s menswear that has been sized down.  “It isn’t a girl dressing as a guy,” said Abloh.  “It’s steeped in the same water but not the same thing.”  Ultimately it’s pieces you’d want to take out Off-White’s equation and into your own.  Like so much of fashion today.  Cut and paste.  Mix and match.  It might feel like it’s all surface for some but at the very least, it’s a jagged and unpredictable surface.  And it’s changing all the time.  That’s the now.

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Virgil-Abloh-Unveils-His-OFF-WHITE-FW-2014-Womens-Collection-1-960x640Off-White A/W 14-5 womenswear   

Crayon Happy

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This isn’t a tutorial – I’m ill-equipped to tutor anybody in matters of hair as you may know.  This isn’t a product review either – I’m not a beauty blogger adept at assessing qualities of pigmentation or usability.  This is just me messing around with five of Bleach London’s newish temporary hair crayons because my hair still hasn’t lost its bleach virginity and I like most beauty things in pencil/pen form.  I know what to do with a pencil or a pen.  It’s when brushes, “applicators” or “three-step-processes” come in and I start snoozing…

My love and frustrated relationship with temporary colour fun stems back to a time when hair mascaras were all the rage as 13 year old me tried in futile fashion to brush wet sloppy streaks of red and blue into my black closely cropped hair.  Then came the semi-permanent dye attempts where I’d hold up black strands to the sunlight, straining to see if a mahogany hue had crept in.  Everything to avoid actually bleaching my hair and risk breaking what I thought was my one vaguely commendable physical asset.  Since then I’ve been resigned that I’m not likely to get colour happy, dabbling in wigs a few times and a few blast of colour sprays every now and again.   My hair has turned on rigid Lego-head mode – and has become an immovable, impenetrable heavy-fringed default style that either goes down or up into a top knot.  And in truth, deep down, I do actually love my hair colour as it is.  It is dependable, monotone and provides the assured stable foil for all the colour/print/pattern aberration that goes on below my neckline.

Therefore, Bleach London crayons are one working solution to whenever I’m feeling like I want to reach back to those “Oooh, I fancy some colour for a day or two!” hair mascara days.  Except they work.  And the result isn’t disappointment and a shampoo session to get rid of the failed attempts.  I lightly tried the pale Rose pink shade at Port Eliot festival last week and this morning, I streaked and etched my hair with a mix of The Big Pink, Washed Up Mermaid, Bruised Violet, I saw Red, with a few strokes of Rose pink to lighten things up.  The best thing about them is that on dark hair, the colour comes up quite strong when you first apply – hurrah for instantly visible results – and then later, you actually want to tone it down a bit by brushing it out to ensure the colour is better distributed.  When the crayons run down, you can sharpen them with the provide sharpener so that you get mileage out of your £4 pop of pencil.  Ten minutes in the sun – not even a whole segment of a Radio 4 show later – and the fringe was throwing some mad colours, vaguely matching up with my vintage Issey Miyake Pleats Please skirt I had on and I finally got the the instant wash in ‘n’ out colour thrill that my thirteen year old self yearned for.

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P.S. I propped the mirror outside so that Steve could easily get a few shots.  Plus I’m enjoying sitting in my garden to intently watch if the newly planted lavender and hydrangeas have grown at all… even though they were only planted a few weeks ago.  I haven’t quite got the hang of this gardening thang…