The quiet.  The minute.  The hidden.  The unsung.  These are the surprising elements of fashion that have come together in ‘Manus X Machina Fashion in an Age of Technology’, which is perhaps the most contemplative exhibition of all the “blockbuster” openings, I’ve seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.  Quiet doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful though.  In the Robert Lehman Wing galleries, reconfigured and designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA New York, to the celestial soundtrack of Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)”,  the fabrics, the hours, the skills of both hand (manus) and machine (machine) and the creative thinking that has gone into over 170 ensembles are laid out before you in a deliberately matter-of-fact and almost taxonomically detailed manner. 

The labelling and descriptions alone in Manus x Machina deserve recognition, as the sheer amount of information defies the general currency of social media, mainstream media at large and pop culture – as in, hazy on details, decreasing depth, and short and snappy Insta-worthy moments accompanied by razz-ma-razz.   It is perhaps head curator Andrew Bolton’s way of reacting to the state of an industry, that has undergone vast post-Internet changes and is still questioning its present modus operandi.  Manus x Machina therefore opens at a particularly pertinent time, with the capability to showcase fashion, not with fancy projections, props and special effects as has been the case in previous Costume Institute exhibitions, but instead, with functional dress dummies, zero glass separating the viewer and garment, and plenty of weighty information for you to take in and marvel at. 

Descriptions such as the following paragraph, which accompanies the bulbous-skirted Chanel wedding dress, opening the exhibition in the central atrium…

This ensemble, which Lagerfeld has described as “haute couture without the couture,” exemplifies the confluence of the hand (manus) and the machine (machina). Made from scuba knit, a synthetic material, the dress is hand molded, machine sewn, and hand finished. Maison Desrues (founded 1929) hand embroidered the buttons with gold, glass, and crystals, and Atelier Montex (founded 1939) hand embroidered the medallion with glass, crystals, paillettes, anthracite cannetilles, and gold leather leaf motifs. The train of scuba knit and silk satin is machine sewn and hand finished. Lagerfeld’s hand-drawn design was digitally manipulated to give it the appearance of a randomized, pixelated baroque pattern and then realized through a complex amalgam of hand and machine techniques. Atelier Lunas (founded 1993) used a heat press to transfer the rhinestones; Atelier Anne Gelbard (founded 1997) painted the gold metallic pigment by hand; and the pearls and gemstones were hand embroidered by Cécile Henri Atelier (founded 1982).”

This is the kind of detail that you barely find in brand press notes these days, let alone journalists’ write-ups on collections.  One might argue that the average person doesn’t need to know which metier house made the buttons or why a scuba knit has been hand-moulded.  It’s the sort of insight that perhaps isn’t particularly celebrated in wider media or perhaps doesn’t really matter to the end customer but for me, all of this detailed minutiae on the creation process of a garment, is an idealistically and gratifyingly archaic way of thinking of fashion.  It’s an approach that I feel will shift an industry from its frenetic breakneck speed to a slower and more thoughtful one.

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0E5A8532Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld wedding ensemble from Autumn/winter haute couture 2014–15

 As the title indicates, the point of the exhibition is to have hand and machine working seamlessly in collaboration together, creating synergy that has been present even in the earliest of haute couture dresses from when Singer sewing machines appeared.  It’s a tired cliche to look at hands and equate them to superior craftsmanship and technique and look at machines and see mass production and soulless factories.  Structured around the métiers or trades as outlined in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s famed Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, 1751–72), embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, leatherwork as well as toilet and pattern making each get their own dedicated sections.  And each métier in turn is examined in the progression of its respective technologies.  Bird of paradise and ostrich feathers become feather-esque fronds created out of silicone plastic and household straws.  Traditionally shaped flowers as seen at Lemarié are pitted next to toy-esque acrylic flowers and laser cut shapes.  Hand-formed Fortuny pleats evolve into Issey Miyake’s machine created Pleats Please.  You come away questioning how one technique stands up to the other aesthetically and also the general conclusion that the standalone capacity of the hand and machine, is nothing without the right creative minds behind them.

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0E5A8536Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, 1758–71, vol. 1 by Denis Diderot

In the embroidery section, the great works of houses like Lesage, and the lesser known Hurel, Lanel and Montex.  Haute couture blurs into ready to wear with the pervasive presence of Sarah Burton’s pieces for Alexander McQueen (alas, consistently mistaken as Lee McQueen’s work by the general visitors that I overheard) and her metallic hand-shredded petals,embroidered with silver beads, clear crystals and feather palettes.  Ensembles and dresses are often grouped by colour and appearance to then contrast their period of origin as well as the techniques that have gone into the pieces.  Proenza Schouler’s dense astrakhan embroidery couldn’t be more different from Iris van Herpen’s alien-like rubber texture, hand sculpted with magnets.  Progress and advancement in technique over time is also a prevalent theme as sequin embroidery ranges from flat laid-out circular shapes on the Norman Norell mid-20th-century dresses to the iridescent coils of Nicolas Ghesquière’s bubble dresses from the Louis Vuitton S/S 16 collection.

0E5A8572Dior by Yves Saint Laurent “L’Eléphant Blanc” evening dress, Spring/summer haute couture 1958 

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0E5A8568Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton evening dress, Spring/summer 2012

0E5A8567Dior by Christian Dior dresses, Autumn/winter haute couture 1949-50 

0E5A8577Givenchy by Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, 1963 haute couture // Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton dress, Spring/summer 2012

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0E5A8589Proenza Schouler dress, Autumn/winter 2015-6 // Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter haute coutuer 2013-4

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0E5A8601Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent ‘Sardine’ dress, Spring/summer haute couture 1983

0E5A8596Norman Norrell dresses from 1953/1965 

0E5A8604Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière dresses, Spring/summer 2016

0E5A8609cHalston evening dress, 1970 // Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2011-2

0E5A8612Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela ensemble, Spring/summer 1996 // Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière dress, Autumn/winter 2016-7

A shift from the natural to the synthetic can be seen in the leatherwork section.  Once upon a time, there were many maisons that specialised in the art of plumasserie – the treating, shaping and gathering of feathers to adorn hats and frocks.  The delicate soft strands of ostrich features lifting off of a 1960s Balenciaga dress become more rigid and sculptural when contrasted with Iris van Herpen’s laser cut silicone paired with a real silicone-coated bird-head skeleton on the sleeve or RCA graduate Maiko Takeda’s halo-esque acetate fringing. 

0E5A8621Gareth Pugh dresses, Autumn/winter 2015-6

0E5A8627Givenchy by Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, 1966-7 haute couture

0E5A8637cBalenciaga by Cristobal Balenciaga evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 1965-6 // Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2013–14

0E5A8631Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 1969–70

0E5A8639Dior by Raf Simons dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2015–16

0E5A8641Maiko Takeda “Atmospheric Reentry” ensemble, 2013

Like feathers, flowers have always been a significant part of haute couture embellishment.  The permutations of artificial flowers in fashion are probably even more varied, as designers have shifted from a flower’s organic and natural form to abstract interpretations.  The Chanel wedding dress from the A/W 05-6 haute couture collection covered in hand-shaped camellias, crafted in Lemarié, with each one taking up to ninety minutes to complete.  Taking longer to craft a flower though does not necessarily yield a superior result as Prada’s machine embroidery and and sponge-like dresses with floral appliqué demonstrates.  “For me, mixing the hand and the machine gives the best results,” says Miuccia Prada in the accompanying quote. “I don’t think the hand and the machine have any use or value on their own. What matters is the form in relationship with the idea.”

The idea of flowers takes on an extreme form in Hussein Chalayan’s “Kaikoku” floating dress from his A/W 11-2 collection where a cast fibreglass structure is painted with pearled paper and crystal “pollens”.  Via remote control, the “pollens” are released into the air through spring and swirl around the wearer.  On video, it’s a mesmerising feat of engineering.  With the presence of Chalayan and van Herpen’s work at the exhibition, we get to see the possibilities of pushing a metier to new limits, with unconventional materials and the use of circuit board technology (what come to mind for most people when they think of wearable tech).  

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0E5A8663Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld wedding ensemble, Autumn/winter haute couture 2005–6

0E5A8654Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2015-6

0E5A8656cDior by Raf Simons evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2012-3, Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs dress, Spring/summer 2012

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0E5A8674Boué Soeurs court presentation ensemble, 1928 haute couture

0E5A8677Hussein Chalayan “Duck” Dress, Spring/summer 2000

0E5A8685cAlexander McQueen dresses, Spring/summer 2009 // Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent wedding ensemble, Spring/summer RTW 1999

21.MxM,ArtificialFlowersCaseStudy,Dress,RafSimonsforChristianDior,Spring2014Dior by Raf Simons dress, Spring/summer haute couture 2014

0E5A8686Hussein Chalayan “Kaikoku” floating dress, Autumn/winter 2011–12

0E5A8696cPrada dresses, Autumn/winter 2016-7 // Christopher Kane ensemble, Spring/summer 2014

0E5A8698Dior by Christian Dior dresses, Spring/summer haute couture 1952 and 1953 

On the lower level of the exhibition, we’re taken on a very in-depth exploration of pleating, so vast, it requires two parts.  It shows the advances made by pleating that takes it from something that was an exclusively haute couture technique, as seen in Mariano Fortuny’s gowns that had to be sent back to the workshops to have the pleats reset if they got wet or flat, progressing to American designer Mary McFadden’s patented “Marii” method of pleating synthetic charmeuse and finally arriving at Issey Miyake’s pioneering Pleats Please garments that aren’t just ready-to-wear, but ready-to-go with its heat-pressed wrinkle-free construction.  It also takes us back to the hand in one of the most notable examples of pleating, done by the house of Lognon (one subsidiary of the Paraffection group that I’m dying to visit!) for that sublime Dior S/S 15 collection by Raf Simons. 

0E5A8705Madame Grès dresses, 1968/1935 haute couture // Iris van Herpen ensemble, Spring/summer haute couture 2010

0E5A8709Mariano Fortuny dress, ca. 1920 haute couture 

0E5A8712cMary McFadden 1980s dresses 

0E5A8729Issey Miyake “Flying Saucer” Dress,  Spring/summer 1994

0E5A8721Issey Miyake “Rhythm Pleats”, Spring/summer 1990

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0E5A8731Dior by Raf Simons dresses, Spring/summer haute couture 2015

Pleating gets further exploration when the technique of folding fabric, is placed under a classical umbrella, from Madame Grès and Nicolas Ghesquière’s Grecian column-like pleats that mould onto the body to mathematic techniques in Junya Watanabe’s 3D geometric pieces and Nao Raviv’s distorted grid line constructions.

0E5A8847Comme des Garçons by Junya Watanabe dress, Autumn/winter 2015-6 // Pierre Cardin dress, 1968 haute couture

0E5A8848Comme des Garçons by Junya Watanabe ruff, Autumn/winter 2000–01

0E5A8850Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière dress, Spring/summer 2003

0E5A8854Noa Raviv ensembles, 2014 RTW

0E5A8856Thierry Mugler “Neon dans la Nuit” suit, Autumn/winter 1990–91

The one section that isn’t informed by a categorised metier is the section of Tailleur & Flou, the way most haute couture ateliers are organised into tailoring and dressmaking.  This is where the foundations of a garment are revealed and perhaps is the least “visible” of all the sections in the exhibition.  It’s where toiles are exposed – either deliberately as a design feature as in a John Galliano for Dior gown, where layers of construction and draping are revealed, or in Martin Margiela’s stockman jackets that were of course later revived by Galliano at Maison Margiela.  Canvas, the fabric of patternmaking and toileing explodes in a Comme des Garcons ensemble.  Quieter pattern cutting prowess can be seen in both hand-finished dresses like Courrèges’ sleek A-line dress as well as Prada’s nylon dress from the 90s.  Form and shape can cycle through very different guises as seen in the central display of Dior’s New Look “Bar Jacket” pitted next to a Paco Rabanne dress and the combination of the two, Hussein Chalyan’s S/S 07 mechanical dress.  

0E5A8737cChristian Dior “Bar Suit” jacket, Spring/summer haute couture 1947 // Hussein Chalayan “One Hundred and Eleven” mechanical dress, Spring/summer 2007 // Paco Rabanne dress, 1967 haute couture

0E5A8741Hussein Chalayan dress, Spring/summer 2009

0E5A8742Dior by John Galliano ensemble, Autumn/winter haute couture 2005–6

0E5A8750Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière ensemble, Autumn/winter 2010-11

Where wooly press releases fail, the exhibition excels as I could finally see the intricate layering of 3-D printed (done by Materialise, the lab responsible for most of the examples of 3D printing in the show) “quilted” polyamide that is then hand-stitched with beads by Lesage

0E5A8753cChanel by Karl Lagerfeld suits, Autumn/winter haute couture 2015–16 

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0E5A8759Vionnet by Hussein Chalayan dress, Spring/summer demi-couture 2014 // Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela coat, Autumn/winter demi-couture 1997–98

0E5A8762Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela “Drapery Study” Waistcoat, Spring/summer demi-couture 1997 // Maison Margiela by John Galliano jackets, Spring/summer haute couture 2015

0E5A8765Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo ensemble, Spring/summer 2013 // Viktor & Rolf ensemble, Spring/summer haute couture 1998

In lace and leather work, the levels of intricacy which can be achieved by hand and more traditional jacquard patterns versus that which can be achieved by 3D printing is immediately apparent, when you compare a Victorian Irish wedding dress dripping with hand crocheted cream and Proenza Schouler’s “stone lace” created by ceramic yarn embroidery that is then dipped into acid.  The close-up details reveal a mind-boggling uniformity.  The same goes for leatherwork where hand-cutting replaced by laser cutting has yielded more precise work. 

0E5A8817Irish wedding dress, ca. 1870

0E5A8813cChanel by Karl Lagerfeld dress, Spring/summer haute couture 2013 // Callot Soeurs evening dress, ca. 1920 haute couture

0E5A8811Simone Rocha “Wet Lace Frill Dress”, Spring/summer 2014 // Balenciaga by Cristobal Balenciaga cocktail dress, Autumn/winterhaute couture 1963–64

0E5A8820Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn haute couture 2012 

0E5A8815Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2008–9

0E5A8807cChristopher Kane ensemble, Spring/summer 2013 // Iris van Herpen dress, Spring/summer RTW 2015

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0E5A8802Yves Saint Laurent suit, Spring/summer haute couture 1963

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0E5A8790threeASFOUR “Interdimensional” Dress, Spring/summer 2016 // Proenza Schouler dress, Autumn/winter 2013–14

0E5A8799cIris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter RTW 2011–12 // Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2010–11

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0E5A8779threeASFOUR “Bahai” Dress, Spring/summer 2014

0E5A8822Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton dress, Spring/summer 2012

0E5A8827Paul Poiret coat, ca. 1919 haute couture

0E5A8834Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs dress, Spring/summer 2012

0E5A8839Dior by Raf Simons dress, Autumn/winter RTW 2013–14

0E5A8837Comme des Garçons Noir Kei Ninomiya dresses, Spring/summer 2014 and 2015

I didn’t have the time to do so but if I did, I would have gone around the exhibition again in reverse order, revisiting the garments that sparked interest.  There’s something comforting in the level of detail and as some other reviewers have noted, the “geekery” involved in this exhibition.  It’s what you crave at a time when more unsavoury aspects of the fashion industry are constantly being levied and discussed and for that, you have to congratulate Bolton for reminding you of what happens when the mind creates magic with both manus and machine. 

“Manus x Machina” runs through August 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I finally got a chance to watch the sequel that was always going to be car-crash, strictly-for-plane-viewing, fodder of ridicule – Zoolander 2.  Not even the number of A-list cameos could save it.  But one line did stick out as the sort of truth, that made the original film so spot on in its spoofing.  Just as Mugatu is about to launch his explosive device to kill the upper echelons of the fashion industry, he yells, “Fashion has killed itself already.”  It’s a sentiment that has been ricocheting around the industry, but it is through the lens of sustainability, where you can see concrete evidence of this self-destruction.

Last month saw Fashion Revolution roll out from just being a singular day into a week, with more brands being taken to task over who made their clothes, and last week, Copenhagen played host to  what has been described as the “Davos of sustainability” as the fourth Copenhagen Fashion Summit took place, preceded by the gatherings of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Planet Textiles.  For the first time, Copenhagen Fashion Summit managed to pre-sell out their tickets for attendance.  “For the first time, I sense that people are here to get ‘shit’ done”, said Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator of Nike, who is finally making action happen. 

Over the last few weeks, I have myself, been thinking about the alternatives, the altruistic and the fundamental changes that the fashion industry can action, to not only… and I’m throwing a reference to the HBO show Silicon Valley here… “make the world a better place” but to really SHIFT an industry that in my mind has been resting on its creative laurels for far too long, and yes, to some extent slowly killing its core values.  

At Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the framing of the conversation has changed.  The call to action is stronger, even if there’s still huge swathes of the industry that haven’t efficiently dealt with the problems at hand or even acknowledge that transparency is an issue (in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, the average score for 40 brands surveyed was just 42% on their scale of transparency).   I’m glad that throughout Copenhagen Fashion Summit, there seemed to be a shirking away from the word “sustainable”.  Livia Firth, in her speech said that the word was in danger of becoming “meaningless”.  On the panel about the media’s role in communicating to consumers about sustainable fashion, Imran Amed of Business of Fashion said, “Our responsibility in the media to educate people that good design is sustainable design.”  Last year, Orsola de Castro also gave an interview with 1Granary, where she implored people to stop tagging what is essentially the true essence of fashion with the onerous and heavy-handed label of “sustainable”: “‘New fashion’? ‘Alternative fashion’? Anything but sustainable fashion.  Call it ‘Anything-but-sustainable fashion’.”

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De Castro further hits nail on the head with her delineation of sustainable fashion from what should be fashion at large.  The reality is that the industry completely lost touch with its main values ever since it’s only been about rapid growth, mass production, fast fashion, and disposable luxury. It so detached from its origin that it then had to go and create a shit name so that people could be stigmatised. The reality is that sustainable fashion really is fashion. It’s everything else that isn’t sustainable that should be called as such.” 

As such, the beginning of the summit had speakers that laid out more tangible ways of combating the status quo – or “everything else that isn’t sustainable”.  Statements such as outdoor wear company Patagonia’s attention-grabbing advert placed in The New York Times on Black Friday in 2013 that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket” got rousing applause.  According to vice president of public engagement Rick Ridgeway, it’s not enough just to repair, resell and recycle, but to also encourage customers to ultimately reduce consumption.  This was a strand of conversation that I would loved to have seen more of at the summit.  Fixing the processes and product in order to retain or grow existing levels of consumption is one way of looking at what we’re facing, but is there a deeper-rooted issue within our culture that can somehow be tackled?  

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At Nike, the word “sustainable” has been put aside in favour of innovation.  Jones was applauded throughout her speech because her words got to the heart of the matter, even if you don’t necessarily agree with the thinking behind the need for growth as Nike aims to halve their environmental/human impact, whilst doubling their business.  Whichever way you do the math, incrementalism and efficiency measures won’t get you there,” said Jones in her speech.  “Less bad is not good enough.  The difference between what we can do and what we must do is innovation on an unprecedented scale.”  For Jones, the innovation starts in the materials as 60% of the environmental impact of a pair of shoes is found in the materials and so Nike now currently have a palette of more than twenty materials made of recycled waste such as the plastic bottle polyester used in their football kits.  This shift from sustainable to innovating is an exciting one, and something that can be adopted by fashion brands at all levels to really kick this industry’s arse into finally seeing significant change in the 21st century – something that will be remembered as monumentally as Mary Quant’s mini skirt or Coco Chanel’s use of black jersey.

One of the other themes of the summit was collaboration.  Together, this movement is stronger when companies work together, co-operate with each other and share information.  Jones also pointed to the possibility of an industry uniting in their code of conduct and pooling resources to assess and audit supply chains.  This to me felt like sound, but idealistic, targets to combat the issue of transparency, which currently companies get involved in, as much, or as little as they wish.  We need to get to a place where we have one code, common assessment tools and common protocols on monitoring and we all disclose our supply chain locations to enable us to work together more effectively.  Some of these factories have 200 audits, to comply with so many different buyers and we could all be sharing audits and help the factories move forward.  Right now, it’s too fragmented.  At the end of the day, we’re all sharing the same suppliers so it makes sense.”

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Perhaps the most powerful call to action came, not from established companies or people with fancy titles.  Led by Dilys Williams, director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion, 100 fashion students from 40 countries gathered at the Youth Fashion Summit, to set out a vision for the future that comes from their position as the “first generation of people who really understand climate change, and the last ones who can really do anything about it.”  The full manifesto can be read here.  One of the points that really resonated with me was the one that I think sets the industry back from truly innovating and creating as it should be in a responsible way.  “We demand you all to collaborate as active investors in a fashion industry where capital, profit and success are redefined and measured in more than monetary value.”

In other words, success should not be measured purely by financial gain.  Success should be to judge the wellbeing of their workers and the ability to implement circular systems (another buzz word of the summit meaning, resources and energy being recycled/reused in the process of production).  Making this full manifesto come true, is a “moonshot” target, to borrow vocabulary from Jones’ Nike speech, but still achievable.  Especially if these young minds somehow come to the fore of the industry.  

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The role of the media is something that I was also interested in probing into and Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times gave a short and sharp speech on the power of sex in communicating about “responsible” fashion.  Factories, supply chains and the overuse of water in the making of garments, aren’t “sexy” subjects.  Well, at least for most people.  Me?  I love a good laser cutting jigsaw mechanism.  Or a CAD programme that does pattern piece placement efficiency.  Friedman’s point is a salient one though.  Using Michael Burry’s film The Big Short as a reference, Friedman suggests that sustainability needs the equivalent of Margot Robbie in a bath tub explaining about sub-prime mortgages.  Is that the equivalent of dumbing things down, in order to reach the masses?  Perhaps, but for mainstream media, the need for culturally-relevant hooks and potential traffic-drivers, means that what has been discussed at the summit is in danger of slipping into a niche ravine.  It will be interesting to see how that conversation swerves for instance, when hopefully the tables start to flip and it’s the advertisers that make responsible fashion their main agenda.

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A video posted by Susie Lau (@susiebubble) on

Those positives aside, there was still a lot of needless self-congratulating going around at the summit.  Brands trumpeting their mini victories of doing “less bad” and using philanthropy to detract attention away from their other less savoury practises.  H&M, who have been involved with the summit from the very beginning, had Anna Gedda, their head of sustainability, come and speak about their own ways of closing the loop with schemes such as their garment collecting programme, but perhaps failed to address the fundamental problem with the basic model of fast fashion, that impacts on labour and resources.  Is there a way of slowing down the drops of collections and still be a source of affordable fashion for consumers?  Are we exploring alternative ways of on-demand production with the help of smarter use of technology?  And are the changes really dramatic or innovative enough as opposed to just being small ‘make-good’ gestures?

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I had meant to post these images earlier to time in with Fashion Revolution Week but they’re pertinent all the same.  These photos were taken at a workshop at Edmonton’s Building Bloqs, conducted by de Castro to encourage fashion students to partake in upcycling, with the expertise of Dr Noki and Alex Noble, who know what to do with a surplus of clothing labels and old t-shirts.  I’ve been thinking about the words: “Get Angry”, “High Cost, Low Price”.  On this scale, perhaps these appliqued forms of protest, are certainly more vocal than the resulting actions.  If my biggest takeaway from the summit was that the overall vision was still perhaps grander than the actual actions, then it’s also because the protest from the public isn’t really loud or pressured enough.  And whilst I’m not the right person to galvanise people to “get angry”, I will carry on being curious and finding out the why’s and the how’s.  Sustainable, alternative, responsible… call it what you want.  What I’m after is what’s good.  I mean, really good.  The people, their hands and their clothes, that got me excited about this industry in the first place.

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Fashion-Revolution12771DONEImage courtesy of Fashion Revolution and Novel Beings

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Fashion-Revolution12832DONEImage courtesy of Fashion Revolution and Novel Beings

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Credits for the workshop photos – Photographer: Montana Lowery, Photo Assistant: Anna Michell 
Stylist: Alice Wilby, Hair: Khandiz Joni, Make-Up: Lauren Kay, Models: Sienna and Nancy at Profile

London Craft Week was an opportunity for me to get my backpack on, go to parts of London unbeknownst to me and learn about things outside of, but not wholly disconnected from the fashion realm.  Eschewing press days and product launches, where I’m given a well-rehearsed press spiel, I decided to go probe around an array of skilled hands and singular makers instead.  As Guy Salter, founder of LCW put it in his op-ed piece for The Business of Fashion, “Consumers need to experience “craft” not just as static objects or as brand-led ‘fashion,’ ‘luxury design’ or ‘art,’ but must also understand the full context in which they were made, why they are special, and meet the creators and see their remarkable skills up close.”

In its second year of running, LCW is a week of talks, demonstrations, open studios and workshops, where you’re exposed to craftsmen (and women) in both secret nooks and established quarters of London.  The crafts on show, range from bookbinding to ceramics to basket weaving to the more fashion relevant processes such as hand-bag construction, millinery and jewellery making.  LCW also highlights establishments like Angels Costumiers or the Royal Opera House, where skilled hands are essential to their day-to-day running.  Numbers of attendees are limited and you have to pre-book tickets in advance, but I wholeheartedly recommend taking the time out for a dose of LCW, as a slowed-down act of indulgence in listening, observing and ultimately, learning.  Do I learn and explore enough as a fashion blogger/professional?  Or have I become complacent and lazy?  LCW was in effect, my way of atoning.


Venturing to Patey Hats for instance, hidden on an anonymous industrial estate near Peckham, was perhaps the week’s biggest revelation.  You might know their sister company Hand and Lock (which I visited a while back), famed for their fine embroidery, but Patey’s history goes back even further to the 17th century when the French Huguenot came to England and bought their skills of Parisian hat making.  The most important thing I learn at Patey, was the difference between a hatter and a milliner.  Patey’s studio director Ian Harding, was brutally honest in his assessment of milliners, whose skills he considered to be inferior to that of a hatter, who essentially makes hats that are heavily structured and built-up.  Patey specialises in making goss-bodied hats like top hats, riding hats and ceremonial tricornes and bycorne, that you might see in mayoral ceremonies as well as hats for the military, Beefeater guards and the Queen’s guard.  Basically, hats that you associate with events like Trooping of the Guard or official Royal Family ceremonies, have probably passed through Patey.  Top hats – which you might think of as obsolete – are in demand because of the riding season in the UK as well as worn as part of uniform at establishments like banks and hotels.  They undergo a process where the shape of the hat is built up with strips of calico dipped in a shellac-based paste called “coodle”, that are ironed on in layers.  It’s an intense working environment where the smell of this pungent paste and the heat of the irons, are much the same as the processes dating back centuries.  “Why change a process that worked 400 years ago,” said Harding, who is also a stickler for making sure all the fabrics, trimmings and embroideries that grace Patey’s hats are also made in Britain.

It’s a made-to-measure and specific-for-wearer business that doesn’t stray from tradition.  It’s also a business and craft that thrives on rank and file, pomp and ceremony and the constructs of hunting, military and Palace seasons – facets of which might seem outdated and unnecessary to some.  And yet you have the humblest of craftsmen and women, honing away on these supremely made objects, in this South East London enclave.  “If we didn’t have these establishments and strands of British culture, we wouldn’t be able to support ourselves,” said Harding.  There’s also an emphasis on sustainability and fixing and repair, especially when it comes to Buckingham Palace bearskins, which Harding categorically doesn’t make from scratch, preferring to recycle and restore, because of the unethical nature of the skins.  “Our whole principle is about retaining the integrity of the hat, so we’re as much about restoring the hat as well as making new ones.  If somebody has a hat, I would rather restore and repair it despite the fact that it takes three times as long.”  Patey’s hats are the opposite of disposable garments and instead live on with wearers’ experiences embedded in the inside of these hardwearing shells.  You left, hoping that traditions are somehow retained and maintained, just so that businesses like Patey could thrive.

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0E5A7813A curious device used to measure the size of your head

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0E5A7887Patey also makes the heavily ornate epaulettes that will adorn military uniforms


I got to discover the hidden beauty of the Chelsea Physic Garden, where the excellent textiles publication Selvedge, had organised an immersive Indigo Day, that was probably the most in-depth LCW event on the programme.  It began with an entertaining presentation by indigo expert and writer Jenny Balfour-Paul, who happed upon the diaries and drawings of 19th century intrepid explorer Thomas Machell, who at one point was also an indigo planter in Bengal.  This led Balfour-Paul to take a journey that mirrored Machell’s travels, documenting every step in her book Deeper Than Indigo.  Then shibori textiles artist Jane Callender spoke about the science behind indigo during and led a workshop for people to create a deep blue tote bag, adorned with those distinctive resist patterns,.  I have been obsessed with shibori since discovering the work of Hiroyuki Murase of Suzuman and even in its simplest form, achieved by a line of running stitches and knotted beads, the effects are quite stunning, especially when paired with the deep shades of indigo blue.  Looking at Callender’s complex geometry-based shibori patterns, you can see why it’s so exciting to see what end result emerges, when the dye dries and you unravel the stitches.  Both the emotive and technical facets of indigo dyeing were revealed on the day.  Even my blue jeans dyeing disaster from when I was 14 (the blue-stained bath at my mum and dad’s house never quite recovered) isn’t going to deter me from giving indigo dyeing a go at home.

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0E5A7974Callender demonstrating how to start off a shibori pattern

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I got tiny glimpses in the world of ceramics and weaving thanks to a demonstration by a Wedgwood maker at the V&A and a weaving demo by apprentice weaver Ben Hymers of Dovecot Studios at the Ace Hotel.  They were more like little tasters that definitely make me want to go up to see the real thing, therefore visits to the World of Wedgwood in Staffordshire and the leading international tapestry studio Dovecot up in Edinburgh are definitely in order.

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In addition to physical craft on show, LCW also gave me another excuse to visit the wonderful William Morris Gallery, where the exhibition Social Fabric, exposes the politicised nature of African textiles like kanga fabric from Kenya and Tanzania.  Using fabric to communicate news and political statements of course chimes in with Morris’ own stance on social betterment through craft.  I loved the examples on show such as the kangas printed with figures like President Obama and Michael Jackson as well as South African artist Lawrence Lemaoana’s powerful hanging pieces.

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It was also an opportunity to rediscover names like shoe designer Georgina Goodman, who specifically chose LFW to showcase her first project in the basement of Black’s club in Soho, after her label shuttered two years ago.  Goodman is rebooting her label, albeit at a slower pace, and as such is concentrating on more freeing and creative ways of working, such as this series of sketches, artwork and ornate shoes that were originally intended for a film by Steven Shainberg (director of cult classic Secretary).  The film is still in-progress but some of the shoes for the main character, who is a shoe designer that falls obsessively in love, have been made – with love – by Goodman.  They feature remnants of delicate lace, gatherings of rare feathers and iridescent clusters of beetle wings.  They’re the ornate counterpart to an accessible line of slippers dubbed “GG’s” that are streaked with Goodman’s trademark brushstroke stripes and copper splatters.

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I was on surer ground with Chanel’s umbrella group of LCW events at Burlington Arcade, including learning about lace making at swimwear and lingerie brand Eres (which has been owned by Chanel since 1996), a glimpse at how Barrie knitwear and Maison Michel operate as well as an olfactory journey of Chanel No. 5.  There’s something reassuring about going to hear about Calais leaver’s lace, seeing Maison Michel’s wooden hat moulds and going over the main components of Chanel’s best-selling perfume (citrus, ylang ylang, jasmine, sandalwood and vanilla) because these talks were inflected with the ethos and narrative of Coco Chanel.  There’s a magical familiarity when it comes to the story of No. 5’s creation and there were also echoes in these intimate presentations of the way I previously experienced Chanel’s Paraffection houses.

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0E5A7664Stretchability applied to the lace used at Eres, echoing the ethos of their swimwear

0E5A8093Barrie’s S/S 16 collection

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0E5A8080Maison Michel’s blocks and felt hoods

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0E5A8104Sophie, Chanel’s fragrance expert explaining the scent make-up of No.5


Finally, perhaps the luxury brand that was the most genuinely invested in craft was Loewe, who had a significant presence at LCW this year, thanks to Jonathan Anderson’s initiation of the Loewe Craft Prize, awarded by the Loewe Foundation.  In the Loewe store on Mount Street, the work of Spanish artist/jeweller Ramón Puig Cuyás is being showcases, with a series of special brooches displayed next to his abstract sketches.  Cuyás aims to make jewellery that would “appeal to people who do not like jewellery” by deliberately using non precious materials.  As an infrequent jewellery wearer, Cuyás has certainly achieved his mission.

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For two days of LCW, a Loewe craftsman was also present in store to show how the 40-piece Puzzle bag, Anderson’s veritable bag ‘hit’ for the Spanish house, is put together.  I remember my visit to the Loewe factory in Madrid, before Anderson had taken on the creative reins and I’ve often wondered how the leather craftspeople there have reacted to his left field approach towards accessories design.  Once the unusual jigsaw pieces are cut and sewn together though, the construction of the bag follows the same principles that have applied at Loewe for decades.  In-store, the process was simplified and sped up for the sake of demonstrating to customers, but even then, the video that I posted on Instagram was by far the most popular of all my LCW posts.  Such is the lure of the Puzzle.

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“As a house, we are about craft in the purest sense of the word.  This is where our modernity lies, and it will always be relevant.”  In one quote, Anderson sums up why for-consumer participatory events like LCW matter.  Showing hands, revealing processes and engaging people with production processes give meaning to the accumulation of “stuff”, that shows no signs of slowing down.

Blog posts will be falling into a theme for a while as I continue to be intrigued by alternative methodologies and more altruistic ways of looking at the fashion world, that is undergoing what I think is a bit of an existential bout of self-doubt.  These are the specific facets of fashion and creation, which I’ve always been concerned with, but as Style Bubble just hit the ten year mark – and no, I’m not making a big deal out of it – it’s made me want to go back to the things that got me mega excited about blogging in the first place.  

I’m not the only one, who has been piqued by the unique innovative start-up UNMADE, which has been dubbed as a “disruptor” of knitwear.  I first came across their work, when they were known as Knyttan and had worked with Christopher Raeburn a few seasons ago.  Renamed as Unmade, they were then part of Selfridgess’ sustainable line-up of Bright New Things earlier this year, and I have been meaning to go visit their set-up in Somerset House ever since.  

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A few weeks ago, I ventured down into the hidden rabbit warren of studios and offices that lie beneath this historical palace to see Unmade at work.  The first question I had for Ben Alun-Jones, one of the founders of Unmade, was how to define this business.  Is it a brand?  Is it a technology?  Is it a manufacturer?  “A platform or a catalyst is a better way of explaining it.  When you go on the site, we’re not the designers so we invite external designers to come and enable them with a technology that we have developed.  And then we give the customer way more power in the creation of their clothes.  We don’t make anything until you’re happy with it.”

A visit to Unmade’s beautifully designed website (best viewed and used on an iPad), and you’re presented with a collection of knitwear designs featuring motifs and patterns by a curated array of designers (spanning fields of interactive design and graphics as well as fashion).  You can customise the placement of the pattern and print as demonstrated in the GIFs at the bottom of this post in addition to picking out a colour combination.  Once you click ‘Buy’, Unmade generates a file from their specially designed software that is then sent directly to their industrial knitting machines.  Every piece of knitwear is made-to-order, with a five to ten day window between the customer ordering it and receiving it.  All pieces are hand finished and packaged at Somerset House and then sent out to the end customer.  Unmade hold zero stock.  In effect, Unmade has hacked into a methodology of mass manufacture and changed the production process so that it can involve the customer as well as solve the problem of overproduction and waste.  Unmade doesn’t fit into any pre-existing fashion mounds because it’s creating its own box.

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Unmade began its journey in 2013 when Alun-Jones, along with Kirsty Emery and Hal Watts, who had met at London’s Royal College of Art, collectively happed upon an industrial knitting machine and spotted an opportunity for innovation.  “When we saw these industrial knitting machines, we were really inspired by the fact that they could make a different thing every time,” said Alun-Jones.  “The way that people were approaching these machines was super old-fashioned.  Once the capability of these machines was established, the next step was to think, what do you do with a machine that can do anything?  The customer shouldn’t take on the responsibility of having to design an entire garment.  Designers are super relevant but how can we update the design process and involve the customer.”

With a grant from UK Innovate, Alun-Jones, Emery and Watts were able to quit their day jobs and put their experience of design, engineering and fashion together to create what was called Knyttan, that has now evolved into Unmade.  In their Somerset House plant-filled basement HQ, with its huddles of developers, designers and engineers, you don’t feel like you’re in a fashion environment.  Unmade staff are probing, investigating and solving rather than toile-ing, sewing and sketching.  Alun-Jones draws a comparison between the lack of innovation within the fashion industry with the dramatic changes of the music business. “Beatles were the sole creators of their music and people would go out and buy their vinyls and that would be the best thing you could get.  Now in the digital age, you can distribute music for free and there are so many more artists available out there.  In fashion, you still have a model where the big brands dominate and you go to the shops and it’s the same sort of product hanging there, and so the way we make clothes haven’t caught up with this world that wants something unique and different.  Why can’t we use these machines that already mass produce things but use them in a different way?”

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It’s important to emphasise that whilst Unmade are enabling customers to customise certain elements of the design, the main thrust of every piece of knitwear still belongs to the designers, who have collaborated with Unmade, be it Studio Moross with their Memphis-esque squiggles, Paris Essex’s splat pattern or Kitty Joseph‘s pixelated gradients.  “It’s like in computer games where you have a lot of different scenarios and parameters that you can choose from, but it’s still controlled,” said Alun-Jones.  “When you land on the site, you know it has an Unmade quality, and you don’t have to spend lots of time picking out the tiny details and for the vast majority of people, they want a simpler customisation process.”  They also delineate quite clearly, the boundaries between Unmade as a platform, the designer and the customer, when it comes to ownership of design.  “The designer that we’ve partnered with gives us the license to use the design.  You’re creating within parameters of the original design so the customer doesn’t own that design.”

Still, the possibilities of design outcomes are endless.  Unmade has never produced a jumper to the exact specification twice.  With just the drag of a mouse, a click of a colour combination, a unique interpretation of a designer’s pattern is created.  One of the most satisfying consequences of this process though is the reduction of waste that Unmade achieves, after an initial period of trouble shooting their software.   “When we first started, we were having a lot of problems with sizes of things coming out.  We had to come up some advanced algorithms to solve them to make sure what you see on screen is what comes out of the machine.  Now, we have a very low wastage of what we manufacture.  We use very high quality Italian merino and cashmere and everything is fully fashioned.”

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Their on-site production facility is indeed very neat and compact, Behind glass doors scribbled with order status charts and instructions are three Stoll machines humming along, fulfilling anything up to thirty pieces a day.  Then there are hand finishers using the linking machines to finish off a piece of knitwear.  There aren’t any trolleys with an excess of product piled up.  There’s a modest amount of yarn.  And the leftover scraps from the machine are contained within a single plastic bag.

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When they popped up at Selfridges, I did wonder how the average shopper would react to the idea of not getting that immediate shopping gratification.  How do you shift the customer perception from getting something to take home straight away, to having to wait for a jumper to emerge from a machine.  Could seeing the process on the spot entice the customer?  I asked whether in the future, Unmade could produce knits within a shorter period of time than the one week time lag.  “At our Floral Street pop-up, if you came in the morning and started the process, by the end of the day you could come and pick it up.  We’re still a very young business so we’re still solving those problems but that’s definitely the dream.”

The really exciting thing about Unmade, hence why they’ve had several rounds of investment with the likes of José Neves of FarFetch backing them, is the overall potential on the horizon.  The ultimate end goal for Unmade isn’t necessarily to build up a massive customer base for their own e-commerce site.  They repeatedly assert that they aren’t a brand.  “We want to be like an Intel,” said Alun-Jones. “Unmade becomes this technology layer that enables small designers or big brands to produce knitwear in this way.”  They’re currently talking to established historic brands to see how they can collaborate together, whereby Unmade becomes this trustworthy enabler of on-demand and customisable knits.  Imagine for instance a Gucci piece of knitwear made using Unmade’s platform, where you can specify colourways or where exactly a pretty bird or flower motif sits.  Or looking at the bigger picture, could Unmade change the way we buy our clothes, where we’re not buying off the rack but co-creating with brands to create clothes that are made there and then, and thus feel more special.  Alun-Jones says they’re concentrating on knitwear for now but unravelling the yarns of Unmade makes you think about the future of an industry, that soon may not be predicated on seasons, production in quantity and the full autonomy of the designer.  And it may not be the traditional fashion power players that drags this industry kicking and screaming into the 21st century. 

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