Whilst everyone was poring over whose dress lit up (literally) the red carpet or who out sci-fied each other with their latex limbs, cut-away hemlines and metallic arm guards at the Met Gala on Monday, I was eager to see what the consensus was of the Manus x Machina exhibition, the latest headline exhibition at the Costume Institute – you know the thing that supposedly is the primary reason why everyone devotes a good three months on nailing that dress code.

I had to chortle a little at the clever titling manouvre Andrew Bolton and his curating team made with Manus x Machina, leading everyone down a merry garden path of “Oooh, let’s see what funky hyped-up wearable tech I can get on my body!”, when in actual fact, the exhibition is really about the intimate and subtle ways that fashion has been co-opting technology for well over a century, integratingboth the hand and machine. It’s the sort of technology that is hidden in seams, apprenticed in quiet ateliers and ingrained with subtle know-how, as opposed to circuit boards, LED lights. I look forward to seeing the exhibition in person to delve deeper, when I’m in New York next week. From afar, it looks to be a triumphant and pertinent feat of fashion curation.

This week, I’m trying to see as much of London Craft Week, now in its second year of running. In fact in the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to get my content mojo back, by working on blog stories that are centred around the maker and their hands. If I’m accused of the act of fetishisation of craft, then so be it. This is what I’m interested in and amidst ongoing discussions of a shifting fashion industry, a season less calendar, and a businesses based on product-product-product, I’m retreating into worlds that you wouldn’t technically call ‘fashion’ but offer insight into how fashion as we know it could change for the better.

I will be rounding up LCW in a broader overview but I had to focus in on one designer, whose work pretty much sums up the dichotomies between machine and hand made, exposed at the Manus x Machina exhibition.  On Tuesday evening, Alice Archer, who is a new wave embroidery specialist hailing from the Royal College of Art, opened up her studio and presented her work at The Place on Connaught Street, a showcase retail space operated and backed by Simon Burstein, the former CEO of Browns and son of the legendary Joan Burstein.  In fact, it was Archer’s work which galvanised Burstein into finding a work and retail space to help start her business.

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0E5A7779Samples from Archer’s graduate collection 

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After seeing Archer’s work up-close, it’s easy to see why Burstein has so wholeheartedly invested in her talent. In her own words through her op-ed piece for Business of Fashion, “It is my ambition to push the potential of traditional embroidery techniques and make embroidery relevant and desirable today by combining new technologies with that spirit of traditional handcraft.”

And so every single stitch that you see on her pieces are the result of a computer programme file that she creates through synthesising a JPG file, which is then sent to a digital embroidery machine. It’s why she can reel off the exact number of stitches and length of thread that has gone into individual pieces. The versatile nature of the machine is such that depth of shading and tension of stitches can be varied up. When you look at the range of techniques that Archer has created, from her graduate work and capsule pieces for Browns, through to her current standalone collections, there’s no way you could accuse the embroidery of being uniform-like.

Archer makes a great case for coming up with the right combination of a manual process and a machine-operated one. The designs and programming still need to be done by hand, often taking up to two days to get the file right. And then completing the piece on the machine can also take a couple of days too and has to be overseen in person. What’s significant though is that the embroidery can be replicated in quantity, it doesn’t have to be heavy and ultimately reduces the cost of what is considered to be an expensive craft – without sacrificing the quality.

The precise nature of Archer’s work is especially apparent when she combines a base of white porcelain-polyester thread embroidery with digital printing. Her graduate collection and work for Browns featured classical master paintings of rosy cheeks – specifically from Claude Marie-Dubufe’s painting The Surprise – positioned and played around with in Photoshop and printed digitally over the embroidery. The resulting effect is like a distressed canvas of painterly strokes that is wearable. The often glossy or flat appearance of digital printing is given added depth and texture.

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In her latest A/W 16 collection presented during London Fashion Week, Archer exploits this technique to great effect with the manipulation and abstraction of Degas’ ballet dancer paintings, printed over embroidery of birds of paradise on a kimono. On top of that are the finishing touches of hand-embroidered scalloped of tools. This is Manus x Machina at its best. Photoshop also informs designs where black and white and coloured roses contrast against each other. Or when the digital pattern of floral embroidery is rendered as a woven jacquard, made in a historic English mill. Her references of botanical drawings of Kew Garden flowers are tried and tested, but the final interpretations of those drawings are innovative in process and in appearance.

0E5A7715Digitally printed embroidery samples featuring artists like Monet and Gauguin

aarcher1Alice Archer A/W 16 collection

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0E5A7753Archer does all the sampling in the basement of The Place before initiating production in Italy

0E5A7757Tradition lingers through hand embroidered embellishment worked on top of the digital embroidery

Downstairs, Archer laid out a number of samples and tests for us to see, which are almost as fascinating as the final garments. They get the mind thinking about the possibilities that Archer can achieve with different printed imagery, different base materials (so far she has used anything from evening-derived chiffon and silk satin to more casual denim and gingham cotton), different stitch settings and thread thickness. Archer is fixated on florals at the moment, trying to introduce rare species in her embroidery, but she might well move on to more unconventional subject matter. After all she has seven years of experience of doing embroidery work for the artist Tracy Emin to draw upon. Archer is equally effusive though of devotees to hand crafted embroidery such as Dries van Noten, where she worked for a short period of time.

For Archer, it’s a harmony between the machine and the hand, rather than a dichotomy. It’s how craft can move progress and evolve – something that is something of an emerging theme at London Craft Week. One thing Archer could do with delving into digitally though, is a fully functioning website. With embroidered shirts starting at £270, this is the sort of intricate craftwork that – with the right images and information – can sell itself online. For now, you can see and buy Archer’s body of work at The Place on 27 Connaught Sreet or on Browns.

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Resee is a word that is part of the working vocabulary of fashion weeks, referring to the less glamorous portion in-between shows, when you go and literally “resee” a collection in a showroom. If you were late for the show or couldn’t make it for some reason, then it’s often a see-see rather a resee. The word is therefore automatically associated with work.

During Paris Fashion Week though, I discovered a different side to the word through a new-ish vintage site Resee.com.  Do we need another you might ask?  On their About page, Resee.com describes itself as a “new concept website that fuses rare vintage and the best in second-hand clothing with unparalleled, high fashion editorial style.”  Resee.com is a collaborative effort founded by Sofia Bernardin and Sabrina Marshall, who previously worked at Vogue and Self Service and are able to amass a selection of designer pieces that pick up on key moments of fashion post 1960 from their network of industry “sources”.

For better or for worse, it’s “curated” designer vintage, which has become something of a weak spot for me over the years.  It’s an obsession that has progressed from trawling eBay, to scouring vintage and consignment stores all over the world (with particular attention to Tokyo) and now to persistently browsing sites like sites like TheRealReal, Vestiaire Collective (and a whole host of others).  Or if I’m really looking for something special, Kerry Taylor Auctions and 1st Dibs comes calling too (although I do think the prices for the latter are grossly exorbitant).  It’s the process of the unpredictable hunt in this kind of shopping, that I find the most rewarding, when you emerge with a garment that feels significant and doesn’t necessarily run concurrently with what’s on-trend and in-stores at the moment.

_u6a9428_jpg_7598_north_626x_whiteWearing Chloe S/S 14 dress with vintage Chanel tights (both from Resee.com) and Maison Margiela boots at the Chanel x AnOther 15th Anniversary Birthday party 

Resee.com follows the curated/edited path that many of the boutique vintage stores have gone online with editorial contextualisation, curated picks from industry folk and themed selections.

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Their strength though is really in the selection and presentation of their pieces.  Where possible, everything is dated by season, accompanied by a runway or editorial image and they come with descriptions that also place the pieces in a fashion historical context.   You’re not just buying a Yves Saint Laurent piece but one that’s from the iconic Russian collection of 1976.  The selection pre 2000 is tight, mainly focusing on Yves Saint Laurent, with some stand out pieces by Paco Rabanne and some hard-to-find Gucci by Tom Ford pieces.

resee_pacorabannePaco Rabanne haute couture hat

resee_ysllesmokingSaint Laurent early 80s smoking jacket

resee_ysl1974Saint Laurent 1976 peasant ensemble

resee_ysltfTom Ford for YSL A/W 04 jacket 

resee_guccitfTom Ford for Gucci A/W 96 suit

resee_christianlacroixChristian Lacroix 1989 choker

resee_commeComme des Garçons 80s embroidered shirt

Resee.com is not by any means comprehensive in its overview of fashion history of the latter half of the 20th century but it comes into its own post 2000.  This is the period when my own interest in fashion, fuelled by obsessive message threads on The Fashion Spot and the rise of Style.com, really ramped up.  In the early period of my blogging days when I wasn’t able to physically go to shows, obsessing about the images that emerged on the internet was something of a pastime.  Its selection of Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquiére pieces is particularly broad, with pieces spanning from the beginning of his tenure to his last few collections for the house.  Scrolling through Resee.com’s selection makes me think about the days when I used to click refresh on my browser button on Style.come, waiting for the catwalk images to come through (normally about a 24-36 hour post-show turnaround).

resee_helmutlangHelmut Lang S/S 04 top

resee_rochasotRochas by Olivier Theyskens A/W 04 suit

resee_balenciagang1Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière A/W 02 trousers

resee_balenciagang2Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière A/W 07 collegiate jacket

resee_balenciagang3Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière A/W 10 jumper

Ditto goes for Prada and Miu Miu…

resee_prada1Prada S/S 08 dress

resee_prada2Prada S/S 10 photo suit

resee_miumiu1Miu Miu A/W 02 jacket

resee_miumiu2Miu Miu S/S 09 top

Resee.com also seems to also give you a refresher course on certain epochs that have emerged in the last fifteen years of fashion.  Remember when Stella McCartney, Hannah McGibbon and Phoebe Philo were grouped up as arbiters of female-architected British minimalism?

resee_stellaStella McCartney S/S 12 jumpsuit

resee_chloehmChloe by Hannah MacGibbon A/W 09 boots

resee_celineCéline by Phoebe Philo A/W 11 jumper

The theatrical moments of Marc Jacobs, buttressing a season with both his own shows in New York and his collections for Louis Vuitton in Paris, also live on.

resee_lvmjLouis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs A/W 11 jodhpurs

resee_mjMarc Jacobs A/W 12 skirt

So often when hunting out vintage Chanel, you find a repetition of classic suits and non-descript blouses so it’s nice to see some of the more key catwalk moments on Resee.com.

resee_chanelChanel A/W 12 crystal-heeled shoes

Resee.com’s selection of Alexander Wang and Rodarte for instance buck the trend for proliferation of commercial pieces flooding online consignment stores.  Together, these pieces crystallise that moment in time when Wang made his “downtown cool” stamp and when Rodarte became left-of-field fashion visionaries.

resee_awangAlexander Wang A/W 10 corseted sweatshirt

resee_rodarteRodarte A/W 09 patchwork dress

The most recent pieces on Resee.com are also future collectibles in their own right as seen in this Simone Rocha dress and Loewe t-shirt from Jonathan Anderson’s debut collection for the Spanish house.  They’re moments that are still fresh on my memory having been to the show but look to stand the test of time further down the line.

resee_simonerochaSimone Rocha S/S 12 floral dress

resee_loeweLoewe by Jonathan Anderson S/S 15 t-shirt

>> My blogging game has gone a bit haywire of late due to personal reasons (sadly no Style Bubble bot has emerged to spout off in my place) and will imminently resume normal service.  One cheeky Bank Holiday weekend beforehand though is drawing this fallow period out.  I’ll be venturing up to Lake District for the first time, which according to Weather.com might be experiencing a cold blast of snow blizzards.  Spring is being set on pause and I’ll be digging out chunky jumpers and anything with a hood to roam through the fells and peaks.

One useful garment came duly to mind. The puffer (or “puffa” if you’re wearing it in London and intoning old Biggie lyrics in your head) jacket is the relatively light, waterproof outerwear option that gained significant stead for A/W 16-7 thanks to Demna Gvasalia’s debut collection for Balenciaga.  Like Junya Watanabe and Martin Margiela before him, Gvasalia recognised the shape-shifting properties of a down-filled jacket and its ability to create extreme volumes under a utilitarian and recognisable guise.  The off-the-shoulder versions of the puffer were of course sculpted to echo Cristobal Balenciaga’s own 360 degree vantage point of fitting couture garments on women.

They’re the cropped and oddly sensual counterpart puffer to Marques Almeida’s enlarged collar sleeping bag specimens, seen in their latest show as well as LCF MA menswear graduate Chen Peng’s collection.  Peng’s bubble gum pink puffer was worn by Julia Sarr-Jamois during the March round of shows and the rest of his collection together with its Quaker-meets-deerstalker millinery has been looping around in my head (and of course the giant puffers would be ideal Lake District apparel).  Peng’s collection entitled “Normal-in-Normal” was inspired by the idea of garments, where one size fits all.  Ranging in lengths and deliciously deep tones and pastel shades, the jackets aren’t panelled in linear formation and instead are pieced together with geometric panels.  The shorter ones are pleasingly bubble-like and the longer ones are basically portable duvets.  Either way, they’re begging to be cosied up in.  Peng’s similarly bulbous and volume-heavy hats will be featured in an AW16 project with Liberty in London.  Let’s hope his weather-proof yet striking outerwear goes down a similar path.

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You could already hear the green/eco/sustainable hardcore semanticists baying for blood when Karl Lagerfeld uttered the words “a high fashion ecology” and made statements such as “sustainability is part of our expression of the times”.  Back off you green washing evil high fashion corporation!  You can’t hood wink us into thinking that Chanel’s haute couture S/S 16 collection was for real sustainable.

It of course wasn’t.  The collection utilised some technically recyclable elements such as paper fibres and wooden components, elevating such materials to the highest of aesthetic levels they could possibly go, as well as some use of organic cotton, most notable in the finale wedding gown ensemble.  The wabi sabi wooden house that was central to the zen-like set, apparently will be recycled in some capacity.  But it’s the media rather than the house that grasped at these vaguely eco straws.  “Chanel goes eco”, said Tim Blanks on Business of Fashion.  SMCP describes the collection as “eco-luxe”. As Chanel have not yet put forth a formalised CSR agenda, it’s wise that the there’s been no preachy communication from the house that sets out any sustainable fashion credentials in regards to the collection.

I am revisiting this collection though on the occasion of Fashion Revolution Week (expanded from being just a day), which commenced yesterday with a special Fashion Question Time at the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, hosted and chaired by the MP Mary Creagh and will continue on with people hashtaging #WhoMadeYourClothes as well as up-cycling workshops in London, which I will document.  Because what’s important is that a house like Chanel even mildly touched on a subject that is only gaining pace and momentum within our consciousness – not just high falutin fashion types but consumers at large, who are eager to get involved, even if it’s with the “half-arsed” approach that the likes of me adopt.  The amount of awareness that a Chanel haute couture collection brings to the words “eco” and “recycling” is indicative of the power of the house, even if the technicalities of the collection and the set are cloaked in a wishy-washy standpoint.

Place Chanel’s haute couture in isolation and particularly in tandem with the Paraffection companies, that come under their ownership, and the buzz words “sustainable” and “slow fashion” do apply.  I say this having finally made the pilgrimage to Lesage and Lemarié as well as seeing the Chanel haute couture flou and tailleur ateliers at work.  At all these establishments, you’ll find men and women of all ages in full-time employment, paid decent wages and working in good conditions, creating clothes and working at crafts that are definitely not going to be disposable, given that a singular piece of haute couture costs upwards of hundreds of thousands of euros.  You’ll find people meticulously sorting and filing away threads, scraps of fabrics and loose beads, feathers and sequins because every bit of material is precious.  You’ll see people making every sewn stitch and every cut of a fabric count because what they are making is a source of pride for them.

It’s a luxurious extremity of slow fashion and of course a bit of a lopsided utopia.  Still, the significance of this particular Chanel haute couture collection with its wooden shavings and beads (can you spot some are even covered with newspaper), made-from-scratch naturalistic textiles and the elevation of eco-fashion stylistic “tropes” as it were, should be applauded on an aesthetic level but also for inadvertently sprinkling the vernacular of sustainable fashion on the consciousness of a mainstream fashion and luxury industry, that is still largely ignoring the real movements of tireless campaigners and creatives that are making the likes of Fashion Revolution Week a reality or propelling positive messaging through entirely sound entities such as People Tree or Patagonia.  Chanel haven’t officially taken on the mantle of sustainable fashion through this collection, but when Lagerfeld speaks, evidently the media listens.  You’d hope that his uttering of the words “eco” and “sustainable” ringing around don’t fall on deaf ears.

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0E5A2615Just some stats on this curved-sleeved jacket and skirt –  2,500 hours spent embroidering 435,000 elements comprising oval wooden beads and three colours of glass beads and a trim of wooden baguettes, raffia and crystal beads

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0E5A2592Made-from-scratch wooden sequins created to mimic the two-tone effect of tweed

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0E5A2618A gilet of wooden textures made out of 1,700 square panels

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0E5A2620Granite effect sequins embroidered by the Paraffection umbrella’s lesser-known embroidery house Montex

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0E5A2610Concertina pleated organza created by pleat specialist Lognon

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0E5A2595The most incredible wooden shavings, each individually hand-cut and hand painted on the edges with pastel hues and arranged on the neckline and the hem of the dress in a fish scale formation

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0E5A2576Feathers cut to resemble bees – an animal that Coco Chanel herself related to as exemplified by this quote: “I am a bee, that is part of my sign, the Lion, the Sun. Women of this sign are hard-working, courageous, faithful, undaunted. That is my character. I am a bee born under the sign of the Lion.”

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0E5A2608Floral embroidery contrasted with garlands of wooden disc pailettes

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0E5A2639A dress featuring a lattice of white lace ribbon, cotton and jersey with wood chip embroidery with a hem of ribbon fringe and embroidered tweed strands

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0E5A2633The tones of ecru, ivory, sand, dove, putty, taupe and mocha in the collection echo Coco Chanel’s fixation with beige.  “I go back to beige because it’s natural.”

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This series of photographs were taken in-house by Chanel and focus on the finale wedding gown ensemble of a hooded jacket and strapless dress with a long removeable train, made out of a geometric lace, decorated with crystal rhinestones, leather pieces, pearls, wooden and baguette beads. 

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