Saturday, 25 January 2014

Herringbone Hellenism: Tweed in S/S 2014 

Along with gothic cathedrals, misty mornings in the highlands and the smell of coal fire, I have always found there to be something enduringly romantic about tweed. This does at first seem ironic, considering that it rose to popularity as a durable, distinctly un-romantic solution for damp Edwardian shooting parties however, when you recognise that contemporary fashion's love affair with the fabric stems itself from a romance, all becomes clear. 

Hugh Grosvenor, second Duke of Westminster, met Gabrielle Chanel in Monaco in 1924. Their relationship would go on to last several years, and a great deal of this time was to be spent in and around the Scottish Highlands. Presumably as a result of her exposure to the Duke's Scottish wardrobe, Chanel began to incorporate Scottish materials into her work and, as the fashion house's history shows, went on to fall as deeply in love with the intricate irregularities of tweed as she had with the Duke.

The couple separated in 1930, but Chanel's affair with tweed enjoyed far greater longevity, leaving behind a legacy that included, amongst others, the iconic bouclé jacket. Even after her death in 1971, the Scottish influence endured, with Karl Lagerfeld regularly paying tribute from 1983 onwards.

My love of Chanel, coupled with my own love of tweed and their interwoven (pun definitely intended) history, meant the Paris Fashion Week: Chanel Ready To Wear S/S 2014 show in early October was particularly thrilling for me. 

Tweed was everywhere! Magnificent and abundant in neon pink, black and white, and in a plethora of gorgeous shapes. Faithful classics (like the good old bouclĂ© jacket) were craftily re-executed and rendered both modern and delicately erogenous with exposed midriffs, shoulders and backs. 

The show took place in the midst of 75 Chanel-inspired artworks, all designed by Lagerfeld himself. Of the exhibition, he said 'Today there has to be a certain lightness and no pretension, and if you ask me, this is what it's all about', and the same could well be said for the action on the catwalk. Everything Lagerfeld offered us was light in a deft, playful manner, effortlessly cool as always and certainly lacking in pretension.

With feathery hems, oversized perspex pearl accessories and spacious silhouettes - everything just eccentric enough to be interesting but also intensely wearable (ironically something of a novelty in a ready-to-wear collection) - the whole event was an epic demonstration of Chanel and Lagerfeld's artistic ability, with more than a hundred looks gracing the 340 metre concrete catwalk. 

How far things have come since Coco Chanel first began to experiment with tweed all the way back in 1924. But supposing she and the Duke had never met at the party in Monte Carlo, would Lagerfeld now be designing with completely different aesthetics and materials in mind? Quite possibly. Because even though there was tweed both before and after Chanel, which could quite possibly have been adopted as a medium by other equally competent designers, it takes a special sort of person to create an international something from a niche, national nothing. 

As Chanel herself is famously supposed to have said, 

'Everyone marries the Duke of Westminster. There are a lot of duchesses, but only one Coco Chanel.'

Just as now, there is only one Karl Lagerfeld. To whom we rightly say 'Bravo, sir.'

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Dolce & Gabbana s/s 2013 - Sicilian Sunshine on the Milanese Runway

I recently finished reading this book, The Leopard, by Tomasi Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and it turned out to be one of the most worthwhile things I have read for months. It chronicles the life of a Sicilian nobleman during the steady decline of the aristocracy in the late 19th century, and is a beautifully written historical novel. But although this book is attractive for its elegant prose and clever characterisation, it was a more prosaic quality which appealed to me...

 It made me feel warm.

As you can probably appreciate, feeling warm is a primary concern, at all times, for anyone living in Edinburgh. Complete strangers can happily bond over shared disgust at the climate, and 'Ooh, it's cold out' is a widely accepted substitute for 'Hello', all year round.

The author, Lampedusa.

But this book, somehow, did the impossible and made me feel as though, just outside my door, there would be rolling waves of dusty Southern Italian heat waiting to greet me instead of rain. Lampedusa manages this with fantastically vivid descriptions of Sicilian fields and gardens, and I will always be grateful to him for lending some sunshine to my Scottish autumn.

But despite the pervasive warmth of of Lampedusa's prose, when I got to the bottom of the final page, Scotland began to feel chilly again. So it was with much glee that I came across another Sicilian export only a few days later, that once again brought sunshine in its wake.

This came in the form of Dolce and Gabbana's s/s 2013 runway show for Milan Fashion Week. For this collection, the duo went back to Domenico Dolce's Sicilian roots to create something inspired by Sicily's cultural heritage and 50's-style beach holidays. This all came together in a brightly playful and, more importantly, warm expression of what the designers have been sacrificing in place of blunt sex-appeal for the past few seasons.

Instead of tiny-yet-bland bikinis, here we saw vintage-pin-up style beachwear in candy stripes and tropical patterns. Cute, but still elegant and sexy, which is a genuine achievement.

Some of my favourite looks from the show, here worn by Cara Delevingne, were the Sicilian folkloric costumes reproduced in stiff cotton and silks. The semi-puffed sleeves with the wide fringed belt give a great silhouette and the whole thing is finished off with a demure little headscarf. Also, your attention needs to be drawn to the fantastic, five-inch creations hanging from Delevingne's ears. They are colourful and eccentric, and they please me enormously.

I managed to find this backstage shot of the accessories table from the show and I love how mad everything looks (particularly the head band in the top left corner) when put out next to each other. The trend for big, fun accessories isn't unique to D&G, similarly exciting earrings have been appearing everywhere, including the s/s 2013 collection by Indian designer Rajdeep Ranawat, but I think this photo confirms that D&G do it best.

Burlap shift dresses picked out in coloured brocades also featured, and I like the contrast between the provincial hessian sack look and the luxurious lace work.

Unfortunately, there aren't any close up pictures of the design on these dresses, and although the flower mesh shirt is very beautiful in its own right, the key bit of this outfit which I want to point out is the photo-print skirt. Essentially it is a very detailed print of a historical cavalry scene on silk, but it catches my eye because it is so similar to Sicilian ceramics, like this tile inlay, below. 

This, for me, embodies the attraction of the collection: it works closely with the visual elements of Sicily's heritage but manages to stay as polished and refined as you would expect from the designers.

I'm going to finish with the shoes, mostly because I like shoes, but also because these particular shoes symbolise something important. 

Firstly, I have had a lot of discussions with people about why I like fashion, and couture in particular. The criticism which I field the most is that that high fashion is, at best, impractical, and at worst, ridiculous, even if it is mostly 'very pretty'. I reckon that the above pair of shoes illustrates the other side's argument perfectly: they are beautiful but would clash with almost everything you own, would be  nightmarish to walk in and are likely to cost in excess of £800. 

However, these shoes, and in fact this whole collection, also embody everything that draws me to the world of fashion. Everything is aesthetically lovely, but looking at the pieces doesn't make me want to buy them and wear them to school, it makes me want to imitate the feeling of the collection, and inject some colour and eccentricity into my wardrobe.

This, to me, is the whole point of fashion. It inspires you to try new things and explore how what you wear can make you feel, and, to all those who think this is a shallow sentiment - 

it's quite easy to feel warm on the inside when there is colour and warmth on the outside. 

Even in Scotland. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Inside the Birdcage: another angle on women in society

The suppression of women in society is not a new topic; it has been stalking the media since women's suffrage really got going in late-18th century France. However, there remains a definite reluctance to publicly discuss it, even today, for fear of sounding like that feminist with the persecution mania and the bad haircut. But restriction by society, discussed by anyone, provides food for thought. 

A few days ago, I read an article in the New York Times' web archive ( for those who are interested), explaining the situation of inequality in the workplace for women in modern-day Japan. To me, the most interesting statistic was that in 2005, only 10.1 percent of management jobs in Japan were held by women, compared to the 42.5 percent held in America. There is no denying that this is shamefully poor effort when Japan has been ranked one of the most developed countries in the world. 

The predicament was neatly summed up by Ms. Yukako Kurose (pictured above), whose story of a professional career perishing after having a baby introduces the article. In her words, “Japanese work customs make it almost impossible for women to have both a family and a career.” Women are left to choose between the two and in fact, in most cases, the choice is made for them by society or by their superiors. The trapped housewife has become far too common a specimen in Japanese culture.

This theme of the 'trapped housewife' has had its fair share of artistic coverage over the years, in books such as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) or in films like The Happy Housewife (DutchDe Gelukkige Huisvrouw)(2010). But the most recent portrayal of domestic dissatisfaction to come to my attention was the Young Vic's production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. I was in the audience about a fortnight ago and it was one of the most intense and claustrophobic plays I have ever seen. Aside from the impressive depiction of a marriage crumbling, what I found most chilling was the moment when you suddenly become aware that the husband's affectionate allusions to his wife as a 'little lark' are in fact of far deeper significance, implying that she is as much a diminutive little bird in a birdcage as she is a helpless doll in a doll's house.

Birdcage Dress by Kasey McMahon Copyright 2009

The 'trapped housewife' or, more melodramatically, the 'caged feminine', has also had a certain influence in the world of fashion, and it would be difficult for me to discuss a topic this big without considering it from an aesthetic angle. The Birdcage Dress by Kasey McMahon (above), is one of my favourite examples of cage couture - I love how it flows around the model, and how delicate it looks, despite being made from brass rods. I also quite like the dual personality of the dress i.e. how it's a trap for the stuffed birds perched within it, but is half trap, half pulpit for the woman who wears it.

There is also this futuristic creation of the French designer Georgia Hardinge, for L'Oreal's AW2010 Colour Trophy. Possibly because only the shoulders and hips are covered, whilst the torso remains exposed, this dress has less blatant associations with entrapment. But since it is clearly structured along the lines of 19th century crinolines, there remains a distinct sense of restriction and containment. 

This third dress is also by Georgia Hardinge, and is also from 2010. Since it is so similar to the L'Oreal dress above, there is little to add about it, but I wanted to include it here because its just so... cool. Agreed? It would look at home with the most austere of 1800s underwear, but worn on its own on a catwalk, with those leather shoulder pads, it hints more towards S&M and the circus than Victoriana, and I think its beautiful.

This final dress comes from Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli's fourth collection (A/W 2010) for Valentino. I thought this was a good piece to finish on because it is just about the best example of cages in couture that I could find. There is something sweetly pretty about it, and it almost entirely lacks a dark side, although her arms are trapped...


So on reflection, in the world of contemporary couture, has the birdcage evolved from being a symbol of restriction into merely statement body-armour? 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Ron Mueck at Hauser & Wirth

If you had happened to wander through the StatuePhilia exhibition at the British Museum in late 2008, you would probably have come across the above sculpture. Its name is Mask II and, standing nearly 1.5m high, it is a self-portrait of the sculptor Ron Mueck, asleep. Mueck began his professional career in 1996 when his mother-in-law, Paula Rego, introduced him to the Saatchi Gallery after the pair collaborated on one of Rego's pieces for the Hayward Gallery. This resulted in several successful commissions for Mueck, and from there his work has flourished.

This morning I had the pleasure of seeing some of Mueck's recent work in the flesh, so to speak, at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in London's Savile Row, and it was incredible. The beauty apparent in this exhibition, through Mueck's hyper-realistic sculptures of the human body, was fascinating. 

Drift, 2009. Mixed media
118 x 96 x 21 cm / 46 1/2 x 37 3/4 x 8 1/4 in
Drift is a sculpture of a middle aged lothario lying as though crucified on a lilo, floating against a swimming-pool-coloured wall. From almost all angles he appears to be sleeping, lending a serene feeling to the piece. But if you stand close, right beside him, his eyes are open and looking expressionlessly down at you. There is something immensely disturbing about this, especially since the piece is apparently intended to ponder the fragility of human life. He is supported by nothing more than plastic and air, and yet can only lie paralyzed upon it, and I think this works well as a metaphor for the helplessness of humans. His open eyes imply an awareness of his fate, and his lack of action implies acceptance. This could easily be a comment on how, if we took the time to consider our postition, we might all choose to spend our days in the pursuit of pleasure: drifting aimlessly on lilos, inactive and seemingly content.

Woman with sticks, 2008, Mixed media
187 x 230 x 86 cm / 73 5/8 x 90 1/2 x 33 7/8 in (overall)
This piece, the Woman with sticks, was for me the most interesting sculpture in the exhibition. Her heavy, middle-aged body represents the classical figure of woman, as painted by Rubens and Titian, for example. Her struggle to control an 'unwieldy bundle of sticks nearly twice her size, suggests a woman tackling the tasks set in fairytales and legends'. I love that Mueck chose to portray the nigh-impossible ideals which women today are expected to conform to, and the tasks they are expected to perform, as a bundle of sticks, since it echoes the old idiom of 'creating a rod for your own back'. The woman is small and in danger of being overcome by her burden, her hair is greying, and all over her perfectly rendered northern skin are inch long scratches from the where the sticks have grazed her. The message that by struggling to over-achieve, we harm ourselves, is poignantly conveyed in this piece and is in keeping with the 'consideration of the human condition' theme which we are driven towards by all the sculptures in this exhibition.

If you get the chance, before May 26th, this exhibition  is really worth it. Promise.

Hauser & Wirth London,
Savile Row, South Gallery
23 Savile Row
London W1S 2ET
Gallery hours:
Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


Channelling Chanel: Crystallizing in A/W 2012

We really should have spotted this one miles off. Considering the slick geometry seen gracing the runways of LAMB and Balenciaga last Spring, it's almost surprising that nobody managed the transition to crystalline couture sooner. But it is no surprise at all that when somebody finally did make the move, it was Chanel. In a beautiful evolution from the ice and pearls so recently favoured by Karl Lagerfield, when their A/W 2012 collection hit the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week last month, it was crystal clear (oh yes I did...) that they had hit upon something special. Taking a marked detour from the more familiar high fashion backdrop of a private jet (S/S 2012), this show (for that is what Chanel World is - a spectacle!) saw its models weaving through an ethereal landscape of 30ft blocks of uncut amethyst, rock crystal and opaque quartz.

These chunky bangles and an amethyst-like clutch, festooned (lovely word, had to use it) with rose quartz, combined to set my own special version of Spidey-sense - we shall call it Magpie-radar - into red alert, and it made me happy.

Jagged blocks of crystal in pale, watery shades were incorporated into many a collar, studded the 5-inch heels (below) and were heavily encrusted to lapels and cuffs. They also, in a surprisingly charming style, graced several eyebrows of Chanel's beautiful, nymph-like models.

The mineral theme was also translated into fabric metaphors, with combinations of wool and leather sculpted into suggestively angular forms. Flushes of sulphur, lapis-lazuli, emerald and amethyst are here brought to life in juxtaposition with more gentle shades of azurite and obsidian. Pure prismic joy. 

As Lagerfield modestly said to, "Nature is the greatest designer", and I am totally in accord. However, it is thrilling to see how versatile a designer Lagerfield himself is, even managing to incorporate Chanel classics like the feminine white-skirt-suit and thick woollen jumpsuit into even this most original of collections.

(cue applause)