Alexander McQueen and Ffasiwn Stiwdio’s community project celebrates creativity in South Wales
Ffasiwn Stiwdio, the project founded by creative director and filmmaker Charlotte James and French documentary photographer Clémentine Schneidermann, was born out of their shared resistance to passive teaching, limp modelling and objectifying photography. For the past six years, the duo have been working with young people growing up in James’ Welsh hometown of Merthyr Tydfil and the nearby town of Brynmawr, co-producing fashion shoots with them in a “long-term creative relationship embedded in the community.”
South Wales – its verdant landscape, literature and craft – was the wellspring of inspiration for Alexander McQueen’s creative director, Sarah Burton, for her ‘heroic’ AW20 collection. When she encountered the work of James and Schneidermann, conversations quickly matured into an active educational community project, beginning in June 2020, when the UK was lurching into an uncomfortable, momentary freedom after its severe lockdown.
For several months (when it was safe to do so), the renowned fashion house sent members of their embroidery, studio and education teams to Blaenau Gwent, holding a series of fashion, embroidery and photography workshops for local young people. The tangible, hands-on experience in making images and clothes culminated in a stellar four-day shoot by James and Schneidermann, with participants, as well as their friends and family, photographed everywhere from Blaina to Ogmore-by-Sea, Brynmawr to Blaenavon.
A year later, the project has been published as a book with additional sketches, writing, research and embroidery by those involved inside, alongside a short fashion film and documentary. Altogether, it is a joyful celebration of the promise of youth, what real creativity and collaboration with a community looks like, and marks Burton’s continued commitment to extending fashion education to school-age, college and university students across the UK.
“We’ve all been inspired by the experience of being able to make a practical connection with this collaboration with young people in Wales,” reflects Burton. “Community values and the belief in offering creative opportunities to young people are at the heart of what we believe at Alexander McQueen, and this record of what we all learned together last year is a testament to what transformative things can happen everywhere when empowering equal access to creative ideas.”
What role does fashion play in society? A new exhibition at Antwerp’s ModeMuseum explores
Fashion is a mirror of society, often reflecting the shifts in attitudes, ideas, tastes and preferences that evolve throughout the years; it’s a Zeitgeist. An early example harks back to the hemline, with skirt lengths shortening along with the fight for women’s rights and equality. While in more recent times, the influx of globalisation and the internet – and thus the immediacy of information and access to goods – has also altered our perceptions and ideals of identity, meaning that, on the one hand, fashion choices have become more liberal, conscious and sustainable, while the other is quite the opposite (taking fast fashion into account). Then there’s health crises, a pandemic, economic inequality and social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo signalling to a change in a global society. But what is fashion’s role amongst it all, and where does it sit in the recent world?
Posing this very question is a new exhibition titled E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition. Presented as part of the reopening of ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp – which opened its doors on 4 September – the exhibition is curated by Elisa De Wyngaert and features works from Helmut Lang, Walter Van Bierendonck, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano, Raf Simons, Versace and more. A time capsule of sorts, E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition, looks at how fashion has “served as a visual signifier of contemporary instabilities, concerns and emotions since the 1990s,” explains Kaat Debo, MoMu’s director and chief curator. Below, I chat to Kaat about the role of fashion and how it can evoke real change.
What does emotion mean in the context of this exhibition and in the wider sense of fashion?
The choice for the title E/MOTION was motivated by a need for genuine emotion. Over the past 18 months, we’ve all had to work, live and create from home and a large part of our lives took place online. Also, designers have been forced to work digitally because of the pandemic. We wanted to research whether there’s place for genuine emotion in a digital world. We felt the need for real human interaction and the wish to integrate a live aspect in the exhibition, which is difficult within the static context of a (fashion) exhibition. We invited director, performer and countertenor Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe, in collaboration with the opera house in Antwerp (Opera/Ballet Vlaanderen) and the exhibition designers (Jan Versweyveld & HuismanVanmerode) to create a live performance for the exhibition. A challenging but also very exciting experiment.
In order to reflect on the future of fashion, as well as on the recent past, we conducted numerous interviews with fashion students and established designers during the pandemic. The designers gave their personal views on a wide range of subjects: what impact does the digital (r)evolution have on their creativity? Are fashion shows important? Can fashion evoke genuine emotions? What is the importance of craftsmanship, local production and sustainability? And what do you hope for the future? Fragments of these interviews formed the basis for this performance, that will be the closing installation in the exhibition. The performance will be brought 20 times during the entire exhibition period (September – January).
Fashion has long mirrored certain shifts in society. Can you tell me a bit more about this, and how fashion responds to particular events?
Over the last three decades, we have borne witness to unprecedented globalisation, which has had its impact on the creation, production, dissemination, communication and consumption of fashion. More than ever before, it has pushed fashion into the barriers of its own complex system and made it a stage for international political crises, from the Gulf War in the 1990s to terrorist attacks at the start of the new millennium, as well as for financial crises and recessions, the ecological crisis, and such health crises as the AIDS or the current Covid-19 pandemic. Fashion always reflects the prevailing zeitgeist, from social and economic inequality to global social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. How have these evolutions impacted the way we see and perceive emotion, success, beauty, creativity, authorship and collaboration? And how has the role of the fashion designer changed in all this upheaval? Some examples…
90s recession: Against a backdrop of recession, a deflated job market and pessimism about the future among the younger generation in the 1990s, the Heroin Chic look became popular in fashion imagery. Fragile-looking models with messy make-up and drugged expressions appeared not only in photography, but also in fashion shows. The emergence of the look was linked to the Junk Culture of contemporary movies about addiction, such as Trainspotting (1996). The embrace of heroin and unhealthy body images in fashion drew vitriol. After the turn of the millennium, the Heroin Chic look was replaced by a tanned, toned and – in contrast to its predecessor – ‘healthy’ looking body.
Health crises: Our fear of death and disease during the past three decades has been further fuelled by various epidemics and pandemics, including HIV, swine flu and Covid-19. These health crises also affected the fashion industry. In the early 1990s, Benetton, the Italian fashion brand, ran controversial advertising campaigns referring to the AIDS crisis; while Martin Margiela created t-shirts for charity to encourage open conversations about AIDS; and Walter Van Beirendonck included rubber pieces as protective shields and printed messages about safe sex in his activist collections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the face mask has emerged as a symbol of the crisis.
Terrorist attacks: The euphoria of entering the new millennium ended abruptly in September 2001. The repercussions of the terrorist attacks in the USA were complex, violent and disruptive, changing the course of world politics. The attacks occurred on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week, making fashion journalists the first to report them. Though incomparable to the tragic loss of life, the financial impact of 9/11 forced many independent designers to file for bankruptcy or to look for outside investment. Another challenge occurred when, against the sudden trauma of 9/11, some of the Spring-Summer 2002 collections were reinterpreted by the press and buyers as inappropriate and insensitive. Some fashion photographers faced the same issues when a few editorials had to be cut at the last minute. In these, models were depicted falling from buildings or looked like survivors covered in dirt; they suddenly seemed too close to reality.
Military references in fashion were often in direct response to pervasive images in the news about war and terror. In the last two decades, a series of terrorist attacks in European cities led to increased military presence. The surreal experience of encountering soldiers in camouflage uniforms – previously out of context in cities – heightened a sense of unease and fear. Directly or indirectly, these ongoing emotions of anxiety and terror prompted fashion designers to investigate the dichotomies between feeling protected and feeling threatened, between soldiers and female warriors.
Can you give an example of what’s involved in the exhibition and how this relates to the theme?
One of the exhibition themes is dedicated to the digital evolution and the internet. In this theme, we present a chiffon Versace dress, that was worn by Jennifer Lopez in 2000 during the Grammy Awards. People all around the world Googled her photo. This sudden peak in the search for a specific image was the reason Google Images was invented. The look became a metaphor of the ever more powerful symbiosis between fashion and celebrity culture. Twenty years later, Jennifer Lopez appeared on the Versace runway in this very dress.
What can the audience learn from this exhibition?
I hope the exhibition will inspire and move our visitors, as well as provoke conversation about fashion culture and its impact on society.
E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition is on show at MoMu from 4 September 2021 – 23 January 2022
The latest AW19 menswear collection from Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton pays homage to her home, the optimism of the 1950s and the “resourcefulness, libertarianism and creative freedom” of the 1980s
Pride permeates throughout the newly released nostalgic collection, with a focus on nobility, dignity and authenticity, as well as glamour – exemplified by elaborate crystal chandelier charms, necklaces and earrings. Scale and proportion have been playfully exaggerated: an oversized overcoat is contrasted with mini-Parkas and bomber jackets, and a deconstructed dogtooth check mohair sweater is coupled with skinny leather speedway trousers.
‘Old man’ tailoring and work suits – cropped, single-breasted jackets and double-pleat peg trousers – feature in pieced and patched Savile Row wools, as well as metallic floral wool silk jacquards. Channelling both the New Wave and English Romanticism, pinstripe suits are woven with English roses and sharp wool overcoats are pieced with houndstooth and Prince of Wales check.
Using a full spectrum of hybrid fabric – from wool silk jacquard to cotton trench coating, the collection utilises a beautiful range of colour; powder pink, ballroom blue, dahlia, stone and deep red.
The inimitable fashion designer on innovation, representing a diverse vision of modern Britain and pushing the boundaries of design
In the history of style there are a handful of fashion designers whose work goes far beyond the parameters of attire and moves into the realm of high art; McQueen, Galliano and Gaultier being perhaps the most obvious of the avant-garde vanguard. However, it is worth noting that what those names share in common is the fact that their groundbreaking aesthetic provocations punctuated a very narrow and clearly delineated mainstream – theirs was a time that existed before the information avalanche and tortuous art directed hashtag distractions of the social media landscape. In the current paradigm, punctuating the dizzying multiplicity of cultural streams to genuinely stand apart and be noticed is no easy feat, which is why the British designer Sadie Clayton is a genuinely inspiring 21st century figure.
Born in Yorkshire to mixed race parents, Sadie is earmarked to become the Westwood of her generation. It is testament to her unique aesthetic that she was chosen by the Department of International Trade to represent Britain at this year’s AltaRoma festival in Rome, a distinctive niche in the fashion calendar presided over by the legendary Sylvia Venturini Fendi. It’s a hopeful sign in an era in which right-wing ideologies seem to be on the rise across Europe that the chosen representative of the UK is a plain-speaking, no-nonsense northern woman unafraid of challenging fashion industry clichés.
Suffice to say, her show at Villa Wolkonsky, the residence of the British Ambassador in Rome, celebrated profound diversity on the runway. A beautiful, striking black woman rolling down the runway in a wheelchair provided stark opposition to the more common albino-skinned waifs in the fashion firmament. Given her penchant for provocation and punk positivism, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that fashion is just one spark of Clayton’s fiery creative vision, and that her ambition is nothing short of boundless. We caught up with her after the show at Villa Wolkonsky to discuss her enthusiasm for conceptual innovation and to find out why fashion should be leading the charge for equality.
Was there any particular thing as a child that inspired you to want to create?
I grew up in a society where I was very much in a minority being mixed race. I looked very different to my friends, so had the choice to either follow cultural stereotypes or embrace who I was, have fun with it and take advantage of my cultural fusion. The decision to take the route of individuation began at a young age – I’d buy fabric from Ikea and make a dress by draping fabric on a mannequin, jazzing it up by adding buttons from my very large vintage buttons collection. Back then, as now, everybody wore the same clothes, and followed the same trends, but I wanted to wear avant-garde interesting clothing and create my own trends, so studying fashion and moving to London and creating my own label was a way to actualise this. I am a creative who is inspired by bringing vision to life first and foremost.
Why did you choose to work in copper and metals?
I always knew that I wanted to work with lots of different materials, not just fabrics, and metal was one of them – I was naturally drawn to the depth and richness of copper, and I love the way that copper can transform into a range of colours, oxidising into blues and greens, and as it ages it mellows. The core essence of my copper work is the creation of a beautiful piece of armour in a sense – something to protect and shield, and how I work the copper comes, for me, to reflect the texture of life. I have a very holistic approach to life, and copper is the element which brings not only health and good luck, but is symbolic of speed and technology and change, all concepts that inspire me.
Who has been your greatest inspiration from the world of art?
That’s hard to answer because I have some many favorite pieces – one of my favorite artists is Ron Arad, I tend to love whatever he produces, whether it be a chair, a hat or a structure in Kings Cross Station. I am also very inspired by sculptural genius of Rachel Whiteread, Barbara Hepworth and Anish Kapoor – artists who challenge the system and fight for change through creating beautiful thought provoking exhibitions and installations.
Talk to us about your teaching – what do you most enjoy about mentoring?
I believe in giving back, whether it is in the field of fashion or beyond, that’s why I teach and also why I participate in events such as those held at Tate Britain where we show hundreds of young people how to sculpt and create for themselves. It is a big way to unlock creativity and stimulate vision. When I speak, I speak openly about the challenges and realities of building a brand, especially in the fashion industry. For too long students have been focused just on the design and creative side but it’s a tough world out there and you need to be prepared and taught how to improve your likelihood to succeed.
What has been the most fulfilling moment for you so far?
I just presented my AW/18 collection at AltaRoma, which was my first solo catwalk since my commercial launch in-front of the international media, supported by the UKDIT with the intention of drawing attention to diversity in fashion and hopefully the world. It was an amazing moment and privilege at so many levels.It’s very different to the kinds of brands often prevalent at AltaRoma. My brand is strong and feminine, but it’s not all about fashion for me. I don’t want to be defined as one thing, I hate boundaries and want the women who wear my clothes, or people who buy my accessories, or eventually drive my boats, even, to personalise and interpret my work so that they feel energised and complete wearing or living with a big or little piece of Sadie Clayton in their lives.
What are the key principles you stick to when designing?
From a fashion perspective, I would say Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Alexander McQueen, JPG and Comme des Garcons, as they epitomise a similar aesthetic purity, and, in their own way, stand for similar aspirational objectives for women. From a personal perspective, it was my mother who was instrumental in creating a woman who was hardworking, professional and tenacious. The key design principles I stick to are a strong silhouette, power and elegance. I love power, I love strength, I love ‘wow’, so if I can capture that in my major pieces then the job is done.
Why do feel you want to expand the brand beyond the horizon of fashion?
I just strongly believe that my vision of the world is not just one with a fashion focus. I would love to design the interiors of hotels, or super yachts or furniture, for example. I am passionate about the role of younger creatives in innovation, and I think my brand shows this in the way I have worked with, and continue to explore technology, whether in holographic form, through AI or 3D. Up until now, that has all been focused on fashion but we can always push the boundaries of design through technology and creativity, and I want to champion this.
What is your personal definition of beauty?
I was asked this recently by the Edinburgh Museum of Art. Beauty, for me, is the act of expression of one’s authentic identity – seeing somebody look a certain way, any particular way, that is really expressing their personality is beautiful. We are in a world now where you can wear what you want, and more and more people are taking advantage of that, whether it be in terms of cross dressing or the trend for gender neutral attire, or being wildly eccentric – it’s all a way of expressing who you are.