“Are you okay?”  That’s not a question that’s not likely to appear on a garment, much less encased in resin-moulded buttons.  In a twee-filled, jolly-ridden, ultra-polite Selvedge Fair, held at Bath’s American Museum, these buttons stood out.  In fact, Minus Sun’s entire stall stood out.  Then coincidences of coincidences, turns out designer Yuka Maeda worked for a little while for my cousin Elizabeth Lau, when she was still based in London.

Minus Sun is character-driven label, where clothes are there to further a narrative rather than be the sole focal point.  That’s not to say they’re not lovely.  Maeda injects the daintiest of handcrafted details – so minute – that pictures almost certainly don’t do them justice.  But at the centre of Minus Sun is the “girl”.  She hates the sun.  She seduces onlookers with her innocence as beneath all that crochet, cross-stitching and kawaii cute detailing, there’s something darker and more fetishistic. lurking.  Facets of Minus Sun remind me of Japanese cult label Keisuke Kanda with his proccupation with Japanese adolescence and the sartorial accoutrements, which go with Japanese teendom.

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Here is Maeda’s assistan wearing a Minus Sun tabard uniform.

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It started with Maeda’s MA project for her fashion degree at Kingston where she handmade a story book which told the tale of ten girls.  One is controlling.  Another is suicidal.  Then one appears to be passive, self-conscious or sensuous.  They’re of course all facets of one girl.  But Maeda picks out outfits for each characteristic, dressing them up with a uniform of sorts.  The clothes themselves are storied too playing off something innocent against something decidedly sexy.  For ever peter pan collar, A-line shift shape, there are open-back dresses revealing frilled knickers or pleated skirts that are meant to be hiked up.  The overall message though is to seduce, not by overpowering you with silhouette, print or colour but to ask viewers to see something up close and fall that little bit in love.

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Maeda carried on her Minus Sun project as she plunged her next book into the dark.  It’s a prequel as it were with the same characters embroiled in a sun-fearing episode where they all get up to no good at night.  The clothes are similarly dark as Maeda plunges her linens and cottons in black, adding details like lunar eclipse embroideries and yellow stitches that resemble stars.

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Maeda is currently showcasing her work by regularly taking Minus Sun on the craft fair circuit and you can contact her through her website for custom orders of her pieces (she will take measurements and adjust colours to your liking).  It’s true that her work fits into that world with her penchant for handcrafted detailing but at the same time, there’s something intriguing about her work as an art form.  She’s using clothing and craft as a dialogue to draw out a fantasy world inhabited by these “girls” of her dreams.  She’s also investigating the relationship between clothing and personality traits and a more nuanced side to what it means to be seductive.  There’s a lot to be read into but for most onlookers, they’re also likely to fall hard for a crochet-trimmed matching bra and panty set or indeed the buttons that read “Are you okay?”  Actually come to think of it, in a self-centred society, that question in itself is a calling card for Minus Sun’s thoughtful and thought-provoking work. 

Click on Aries Fashion.com and you’ll find yourself in web 1.0 with an array of erm… ‘funky’ fashions.  Click on AriesArise.com and you’re not quite sure whether you’ve happed on to a fashion label site or not as you’re met with an assemblage of Google Images randomness.  Those in the know – and that number is on the rise – will recognise this as Aries designers Sofia Maria Prantera and Fergus Purcell (aka Fergadelic)’s stream of awesome image consciousness.

Prantera takes charge of most of the design work whereas Purcell, in between his many freelance graphic gigs that have included the latest Marc by Marc Jacobs (*sob sob*) collection, comes in to provide both the prints and a sounding board on the looks.  “In a weird backwards sort of a way, I’m sort of like the muse.” said Fergus.  Not one that wafts around the studio listlessly but instead has given the brand a strong visual identity and an embedded attitude.  Prantera and Purcell met when they were working at Slam City Skates, with the former having had a wealth of experience in streetwear, specifically in cult brand Silas.

They came together to dream up Aries, a streetwear meets fashion label that would be like no other.  “When we first decided to do the project – I want it to make it really branded – a bit like Versace,” said Purcell.  “I like that they have that phony take on classicism.  It gives it amazing sense of heritage of like, 2000 years which seems absurd.  That’s why we have the temple in the logo.  Meanwhile of course it’s not just a luxury brand.  Some graphics show the temple being destroyed.  To me, it’s what modern culture is like.  It’s like what life is like that exists in the ruins.  It’s not like a bleak dark thing.  It’s an exciting thing.  I guess it’s my way of aesthetically combining something anarchic and punk and then something quite classical.”

Sofia’s half Italian heritage is rooted in Rome where classicism is also abound.  “In Rome, you’ll have amazing sculptures that are graffitied with arms torn up,” said Prantera.  “I think that extends to the way I see fashion.  I like things that are authentically destroyed.”  Incidentally, the first time I wore these beautiful hand painted Aries jeans, that roar and rage from the ripped knees was in Bath, where its Georgian backdrop is begging to be contrasted with a garment of epic destroyed proportions.

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Occupying a specific medium between streetwear and fashion means that for both Prantera and Purcell, there isn’t necessarily a distinction between the two.  Having grown up with the fashion culture of the 80s and 90s, the two were often one and the same.  |The fashion we liked from our era were the likes of John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Bodymap, which all had a streetwear sensibility because they came from the clubs,” said Purcell.  “Obviously in the early 2000’s, big businesses made streetwear mass produced,” added Prantera.  “But for me, it’s always been in my blood.  I grew up being inspired by Fiorucci.  I remember going in there with my dad.  It wasn’t that dissimilar to a colette store, where there’s a culture attached to the fashion.  It had all these magazines and fluorescent objects.  it was so different from everything that was around in Italy.  That’s really formed my basis of fashion.”

For an artist like Purcell, fashion holds fascination as a fluid medium – which is why he has chosen clothes as his main canvas.  “I love fashion as an art form because it’s so whorish – it’s really open and porous,” said Purcell.  “That’s why it moves so fast.  The depressing side of if is that you have to conform to certain aspects season to season.  I like something to work on a commercial level.  But I’ve found that the best way to connect is to go out on a limb and hopefully it will click rather than trying to water it down to please people.”

Prantera is there to ensure that Aries isn’t just some “weird art project”.  It’s there to be worn even if it does have something more to say than just the mere surface of clothes.  Hence the image stream of consciousness on the website and on their Instagram as well as the composite lookbooks where found imagery that Purcell has “fucked around with” are contrasted with a girl that looks like she lives and breathes the Aries lifestyle.  And when it comes to the clothes, Prantera is adamant that she wants to create some kind of forever language.  “You know when you buy Westwood, and no matter what era that piece of Westwood is from, you know what it is.”  And so Purcell’s tumbling temple graphics carry on from season to season exemplified by a Flintstones-esque Bam Bam character welding a club with a primitive spirit.  Prantera and her team lovingly augments denim with either hand painted graphics or foiling – a key feature of the current S/S 15 collection, which is also partly inspired by a artist Lynda Benglis and her poured latex rainbow sculptures.  Without sticking to a specific theme, the rest of the collection drifts in and out in between doses of rave motifs, hippy dippy free love and an ongoing obsession with youth cultures of the early 90s.

Likewise their “girl” isn’t fixed.  “I’m thinking about the garment and about who’s in it.  Whoever, whatever they’re like –  that’s awesome.  I like have it to have its own life,” said Purcell.  With that said, Prantera concedes that a certain type of girl will be attracted to Aries clothes.  “She’s a bit tomboyish.  She’s not scared to mix things up.”  And trying to categorise Aries has been half the battle for Prantera.  “When our sales agent in Italy saw the first collection of t-shirts, she said ‘ Nobody’s going to buy that’”  That person might be eating her words now as Aries segues nicely into a niche of fashion which isn’t so high-end it’s intangible nor is it soul-less contemporary, as so much of fashion is.  MatchesFashion.com, Goodhood and Other in London are just some of the stockists who get Aries.

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Their A/W 15-6 collection sees the Aries language broadening out just that bit more.  It’s warmer because of its grungy rose prints and teddy bear furriness.  Less reliant on a graphic tee, the Aries girl varies it up whilst still tapping into those aforementioned sources of inspiration.  And that foiled denim is still there, albeit with the pattern applied in abstract stripes.  Still, that properly lived-in quality prevails.  It’s not something that can be mass-produced or churned out.  Prantera and Purcell both collectively know a thing or two about authenticity.  And Aries has it in spades.

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Last year due to a conflict of travel schedules, I wasn’t able to make it down to Bath in Fashion, which is currently in its sixth year of incarnation.  A solid (and vaguely gruelling) fashion week from menswear to couture to womenswear has meant though that some sort of a respite was long overdue.  Like the London-dwelling gentlefolk of the 18th century, who would take to Bath to enjoy its health-beneficial waters and a vaguely gentler pace of life, I too decided to flee town for a few days in what is undeniably one of my favourite places outside of London in the UK.  I was there to a) be in conversation with Lulu Kennedy and Ed Marler about being a young designer as well as do a career panel talk and b) revisit some of my favourite spots.

This time I was ensconced at the Royal Crescent, a beautiful feat of Georgian architecture built by John Wood the Younger in 1767-74, in the Royal Crescent Hotel.  It’s a surreal address to stay in as you walk out to see the immaculate lawns of Royal Victoria Park and beyond.

0E5A8719Wearing a distinctly un-Georgian combo of Wood Wood bomber jacket, Bliss & Mischief army jacket, Phiney Pet t-shirt, Meadham Kirchhoff slip dress, Aries jeans, Vans x & Other Stories shoes

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Round the corner from the hotel, is No. 1 Royal Crescent, a historic house where viewers can immerse themselves in a Georgian lifestyle.  The natural aesthete in me was of course loving all the lovingly reproduction interior features like the wallpaper of a gentleman’s bedroom, a nightshirt on the bed or botanical prints on the wall.

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Being in the heart of Bath meant being within walking distance of my beloved Fashion Museum, which is currently in bloom with a new round of exhibitions like the Great Names of Fashion and Georgians – Dressing for Polite Society.  I loved the way the exhibition pitted 18th century frock coats, mantuas and pannier skirts against more contemporary iterations of these fashions as seen in pieces by Meadham Kirchhoff, Vivienne Westwood and Anna Sui.  Sadly I didn’t have Iain R. Webb, esteemed journalist, consultant on the Fashion Museum and Bath’s most fashionable residence to guide me around the exhibits.  Still, that meant I could shamelessly do things like… try on a replica Victorian dress.

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Not gonna lie… would totally wear this out and about in the here and now…

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I also got to come and the new Dress of the Year of 2014 – a Gareth Pugh plastic kimono coat and calico trousers ensemble – as picked out by Katie Grand.  That tops off what has been a pretty special homecoming year for Pugh.  I was honoured to choose Dress of the Year for 2013 and this was the first time I saw the me-esque mannequin in the flesh dressed in Christopher Kane.

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In town I was eager to go back to Bath favourites like vintage and antique textiles haven Susannah.  I was on the hunt for vintage lace but obviously got side-tracked by the delectable selection of Victorian/Edwardian petticoats and nightdresses.  What Holly Golightly said about nothing bad ever happening to you in Tiffany’s is precisely how I feel about Susannah.

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Down by the Ponte Vecchio-esque Pulteney Bridge, I went back to the contrasting foil to Susannah, the decidedly contemporary and extremely-well curated Found.  Olivia Brewer and Nick Blake’s store is approaching its five year anniversary and as yet, still has no equal in Bath and beyond as their continue to find interesting labels to sell in their store and on their successful e-commerce site.  For instance, Found is still the only solid place in the UK where you can find Karen Walker ready to wear (odd, right?).

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I indulged and got myself an A-line shift dress from Walker’s Garden People collection,  stiffened from a unique bonded cotton fabric, as seen here in front of the grandiose gothic doorway to the Bath Abbey and also incidentally chiming in with the daffodils coming up all over the place.

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The best thing about Bath is its walkability and the way all shop facades are presented in a state that is fitting to its World Heritage Site status.  Even the most normal of corner shops and chain shops look a whole lot more inviting when housed in Bath stone-constructed Georgian architecture.  The emphasis on independent retail here though is pretty irresistible.  I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where there there’s almost a 50:50 ratio of speciality stores in relation to chains, which is pretty rare in big towns in the Uk these days.

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No wonder then that Danish interiors giant Hay decided to open their first ever UK standalone store, not in London, but in Bath.  In typical London-centric fashion, I did squawk in surprise when I heard that Hay had opened up in Bath.  Turns out the owner of Hay was obsessed with the Georgian architecture of the city and so chose a former bank on Milsom Street to open up this generously proportioned store with its original 18th century panelling and double height ceilings.  Steve and I are Hay aficionados and we do often go a bit bezerk when we see a large amount of Hay goods in concentration.  Yes, we can go to the source in Copenhagen or to the shop-in-stores in Liberty or Selfridges in London but it’s nice to know that there’s also a UK-specific Hay address, which can also order pieces directly from Denmark for customers.  We lugged home some new bedsheets and a paper weave rug.

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For other Scandi home delights, we also loved Shannon on Walcot Street where there’s the biggest selection of Marimekko soft furnishings and homewares and Moomin merchandise that I’ve ever seen in the UK.  Mooooooooomin galore!

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Oh yes, the fashion!  David Simon Contemporary gallery is hosting a fashion illustration exhibition at the moment to coincide with Bath in Fashion.  Erin Petson‘s drawing of Christian Lacroix in the window caught my eye and inside,  I particularly loved the energetic work of Sarah Tanat-Jones and the abstracted depictions of familiar collections by Helen Bullock.

IMG_8551The Trench Coat illustrated by Sarah Tanat-Jones

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It was these Jude Jelfs ceramics though, which we really fell hard for.  The black one came home with us.

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Speaking of Helen Bullock, this established textiles designer and illustrator was also down in Bath, sketching out the proceedings of Bath in Fashion, which can be seen on her Instagram account.  She had a busy schedule bouncing from talk to talk.  The ones which I attended included Roksanda Ilincic speaking to Claudia Croft of The Sunday Times Style about stepping up and becoming a designer with a store on Mount Street and fans like Michelle Obama and an extremely candid and frank conversation between Susannah Frankel and Tim Blanks about Lee (as opposed to Alexander) McQueen.  Their talk added a much more storied context to the Savage Beauty exhibition, as they described many of McQueen’s memorable early shows and their personal interactions with Lee, as do their essays in the accompanying book.  Other highlights included Jessica Bumpus of Vogue.co.uk in conversation with Holly Fulton, Central Saint Martins’ Hywel Davies speaking to Anna Sui.  I also chaired a conversation with Fashion East‘s Lulu Kennedy and Ed Marler.  It feels odd to recap my own talk but hopefully those in attendance gleaned a little insight about the process of going through a scheme like Fashion East, what it’s like to be a young designer, and the changing face of London Fashion Week.

untitled-folderIllustrations of Bath in Fashion talks by Helen Bullock

The one part of my Bath visit that had to be undertaken by a car was a trip to the American Museum in Claverton, which is the only American folk and decorative art museum outside of the USA.  I was there primarily to see the Hatched, Matched and Dispatched exhibition (no photographs allowed alas) which explores the rituals of birth, marriage and death through textiles.  But what I loved the most actually was their super impressive quilts collection.  Hung in giant plastic folders, you could flip through quilts dating from the early 19th century through to the mid-20th century.  It was striking how modern and contemporary the designs looked whether they were from 1865 or 1965.  As with much of what you see in Bath, it’s all brilliant visual fodder to feed the brain.

IMG_4822In front of a 19th century millinery shop housed in a Dutch summer hut on the grounds of the American Museum wearing Comme des Garcons zip-up top, Louis Vuitton skirt and boots

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Somewhere in the beginning of the year, Christopher Kane quietly got himself a website.  There’s a bio and a contact page – yesss, you go Kane, with your crazy web antics.  Ok so it’s a bit sparse but it’s certainly a step up from being one of the most un-Google-able designers of our generation.   The website is primarily a showcase and a nudge to go to the store which opened its doors on Mount Street just before London Fashion Week.

If ever you needed physical affirmation that Christopher Kane had stepped it up with the help of Kering to get to that holy grail stage of becoming a bone fide BRAND, look no further than this lush bit of bricks and mortar feted by a dinner and party on Tuesday (even with a dinner table setting, Kane manages to somehow elevate the ordinary as he projected the table with digital pixels).  There are only a few of his London peers that have reached this stage – and thankfully the likes of Roksanda Ilincic and Nicholas Kirkwood happen to be neighbours – but then again in terms of aesthetic, Kane has always been admittedly peerless as he ricochets from one idea to another, making you want something you didn’t think you even know you wanted.

Over the past few seasons though, Kane has been maybe more exacting and focused with his haphazard ideas and that has translated to the store, designed by minimalist designer John Pawson’s store fit out, with a warmth exuding from the expanses of off-white surfaces, with pops of colour highlighted in the neon-tinted acrylic blocks.  These are physical reminders of Kane’s explosive beginnings in fashion, synthesised into the store.  Knowing Kane’s oeuvre, you might think he would have gone all out – NEON, Loud, BRIGHT!  Mayfair isn’t the appropriate retail postcode to go wild though and instead Pawson has cleverly created a subtly contrasting backdrop for Kane’s clothes to pop.  From the outside of this Edwardian storefront, you can glimpse in and currently see Kane’s burgandy and periwinkle blue hues popping out from the long rail running down the side of the store.  Downstairs, his resort collection, full of delectable neon florals is hanging pretty, framed by a circular mirror fixture as well as a spectacular cylindrical light sabre-esque chandelier that connects the basement with the ground floor.  When you first head in, you’re hit by a wall of bags, showcased on those neon acrylic plinths – they’re a solid reminder of how far Kane has come as he approaches hitting ten years in the business – and also another sign that Christopher Kane as a brand has has hit new heights.  Those buckled bags have already inspired a host of high street copies, which perhaps Kane can take as something of a compliment.

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It was easy to see the parallels between the precise nature of the store and Kane’s latest A/W 15-6 collection.  Like the neon plinths catching your eye every so often, Kane’s design DNA also runs through the collection as little electric reminders of Kane’s past hits – the velvet, the lace, the zig-zagging, the ruffles, the buckles, the bandaging.  And “DNA” and “electric” happen to be pertinent words for a collection inspired by the rules of attraction between two people.  Kane funnelled his CK-isms through a more sensual eye.  The intention wasn’t to be overtly sexy but instead, a slow game of the art of seduction played out in the textures and details.  There was the two-tone velvet hint and glinting at you with come-hither looks.  Rounded silhouettes of women give you sideways glances on skirts.  Ruffles were deliberately exaggerated to look like directional peignoirs.  The safety buckles carried over from the bags are ready to be unclasped on dresses and Le Smoking-esque jackets.   Chevron zig zags were representative of the electric jolts felt between two people.  Hard croc is softened up as a pattern on printed velvet.  Kane’s collections often cry to be touched because of their unusual textures but this one tapped into a more direct primal consumption desire – “I want that dress!”  “I have to have that bag!”  – the sort of desire that his store will be fuelling.  Speaking of which, the bags also grew in repertoire as they came festooned with ruffles and rounded spherical corners, inspired by molecular structures that spark off sexual attraction.  Incidentally, because the models were walking so that the bags faced me, the accessories seemed to grab me more.

The most memorable motif of the collection of course was Kane’s ‘Lover’s Lace’ – created by a group life drawing session undertaken by his design team.  It was one of those stellar Only-Kane-Could-Have-Done-It kind of design feature, as he cleverly combined menage a trois interlocking lace cut-out bodies and moulded them around the real body.  They’re crying for a reprisal in future Kane resort collections much like the trickle downs of his now-recognisable design language.

I know I’ve called this post “Love to Love you Baby”.  Donna Summer’s track didn’t play on the soundtrack (Kane opted for a more unknown rework of Gloria Ann Taylor’s Deep Inside You  and Andrea True Connection’s More More More just to leave the audience bouncing) but the title of her song is certainly a sentiment that I feel about Kane’s work.  Now that it hangs on physical rails within a proper store, it’s all properly offish that Kane has elevated to another level.  In a Dezeen article, Pawson hinted that he might be working on other stores for Kane.  Other stores?  Guess this is just the very beginning…

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