Into Another Garden with Chanel

There’s talking about Chanel haute couture.   There’s seeing it from afar on Style.com (rest in peace…).  There’s going to the shows, and being swept away by the set, the music and the magic of it up close in the showroom.  Then there’s the ateliers, seeing the custom made forms of the couture clients and the work of the petite mains, who are not just mere hands at work but craftsmen and women characters alive and passionate about their task, be it in the workrooms of flou or tailleur.  Then there’s the on-the-brink of demise, but eventually rescued and revived métiers d’art ateliers where you really feast your eyes at the surfaces of haute couture – the stuff that is bursting with statistics.  The hours a piece of embroidery.  The numbers of pailettes, crystals or feathers.  The weight of a piece of cloth once embellished with sequins and bugle beads.  The volume of a dress once engorged with ostrich fronds.    I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be privy all of the above. 

How to top all of that?  Hmmmm…  oh I don’t know.  A conversation that went something like this.  Or at least that’s how I played it in my head when the idea was first being gestated.

Chanel peeps: Would you like to wear pieces from the collection for some photos?

Me: Errrrrrr…… yes?  By wear, do you mean put on?  Me?  Non-sample sized me and my post partum mini-me?

Chanel peeps: Yes you and your mini-me.  Choose your looks!

Me: Any look with a skirt that juts out sideways and takes up the width of a very wide double salon door with its awesome tulle gorgeness please.

Chanel peeps: Done!

In all seriousness, there’s talking about couture and then there’s wearing it.  And it’s the wearing that takes my interaction with the at once intimate and intimidating world of Chanel haute couture to another level of familiarity.  Of course it has to be said that the pieces I wore were samples.  Prototypes if you will, that will then take on a further-refined, custom-fit and perhaps much-altered state once it reaches the body of a couture client.  But the biggest takeaway from even just a brief encounter (an hour to be precise…) with these pieces was the instant headrush giddiness of being in such close proximity with this level of craft and effort.  Like “Wheeeeeeeee!  There’s THIS many sequins on me?”  Or  “How much volume of fabric am I swathed in right now?!”

But also the complete switch of context, from simply viewing an haute couture piece be it in a show or on a mannequin in a museum to seeing it as a living and breathing piece.  For this specific Chanel Haute Couture S/S 18 collection, which originally promenaded in a very very French jardin, with its perpendicular hedges, ornate fountains and well-manicured lawns, I was keen on taking it into a very different sort of garden.  A free-flowing one that’s a little on the wild side and overgrown in areas.  Step in the wonderful Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanical garden with its 5,000 species of medicinal plants and an accompanying English drizzle as our backdrop to roughen up that French polish.

And whilst the original garden setting might have been a formal one, the weight of the dresses were own fact light.  Even the seemingly “big” dropped waisted tiered tulle skirt number with its beaded elongated bodice and pannier-esque sideways skirt.  It didn’t weigh heavy on the body and in fact, it had an aerated bounce to it – an whiff of 18th century court dress lightened for the present day.  The flou of the collection had a lot of frou, exemplified by the ostrich feathered lace dress.  This is surely the casual number to throw on when trudging through the muddy plant banks of a February day in London.  There’s a reverse perception too of pieces that seem simple on the surface.  The easier “day look” off-shoulder poppy printed chiffon in fact comprises of a lot of intricate Maison Lognon pleating (on my Métiers d’Art hit list fo sho) and layering of patterns o achieve an almost kaleidoscopic floral effect.  And then how do you resist a bijoux minidress, wrapped and tied with a gathering of empire line tulle and pink satin bow.  This is chocolate box Chanel, complete with a matching pair of embroidered Massaro ankle boots.  They all traipsed and trailed through the Chelsea Physic Garden.

The next step of course is ,if I ever suddenly come into an enooooormous amount of wealth, a phone call to a Chanel vendeuse and lo, my very own Susie-shaped dress form in the atelier, would complete this slightly implausible haute couture journey.  Of course that won’t be happening anytime soon.  This little garden adventure with the smell of wet grass in the air might well be the zenith.  Well, that’s just super fine by me.  The fleeting encounter only emphasises the sheer height of all that haute.

Photographs by Roisin Murphy

Films by Joseph Wilson

Make-up by Victoria Bond

All dresses and shoes Chanel Haute Couture spring summer 2018 except for the lonesome pair of Shrimps x Converse.  Because Chanel couture and Cons go together liiiiiiike…

Spring Snow Sprung

>> The cherry blossoms are trying to pop out but snow still fell.  Perfect opportunity then to break out with one of the key “long-life” pieces from Coach’s SS18 show, which was the weirdly weather appropriate shearling jacket inlaid with that iconic square face on the back as part of the wider Keith Haring collaboration that landed in stores a month ago.  I say “long-life” because as per the cannon of Coach’s outerwear in the Stuart Vevers era, they stand the test of time.  And not for the dull reason of “oh it’s a classic” but rather because the balance between quirk and quality makes the piece feel like it’s “worth-it”.

The collection of course runs the gamut from these weighty pieces like the jacket and the heavily sequinned dress where you can just about make out Haring’s livewire dog being beamed up by a spaceship, but also segues nicely into pleated skirts and dresses featuring the recognisable dancing man and of course the all important tees and sweatshirts.  On the double-ended – Mailbox bag, reissued based on a Bonnie Cashin 1970s design, Haring’s artwork is used more sparingly, befitting of the utilitarian onus on Coach as an American leather goods house.

After the SS18 show, Vevers spoke of the respect required in a collaboration with a figure like Haring.  “I spend a lot of time talking to people who knew [Haring] – people who knew him socially or who worked with him—so that I could try and understand how I could do a true homage to his legacy.”  Haring’s own hand painted and customised leather jackets was one particular jump-off point for Vevers to ensure that the artwork doesn’t look overly precious or high-falutin, when placed in the context of the collection.  Moreover it’s a collab that is similar in vein to Coach’s tie-ups with Disney or Gary Baseman – it’s all a dosage of poptastic Americana.

Coach x Keith Haring sequinned dress and Coach x Keith Haring Mailbox bag

Coach x Keith Haring shearling jacket and slip dress with Coach x Keith Haring Mailbox bag

Coach x Keith Moto Bootie

Coach x Keith Haring t-shirt and pleated skirt worn with Coach x Keith Haring Moto booties

Coach x Keith Haring sweatshirt, layered crochet skirt and Coach x Keith Haring Rogue bag

This post is part of an ongoing partnership with Coach

Valentino’s Grandeur and Levity

There are few instances at fashion shows, where you get to clasp your hand at your breast, audibly sigh and murmur noises of satisfaction without looking like a complete lunatic.  Thankfully at Valentino’s latest S/S 18 haute couture show, I wasn’t the only one.  To my right were a group of American clients, ready to splash their cash.  “I’ll take one of everything please,” said one.  I couldn’t tell whether she was being serious or not.  In any case, I was of course seething with jealousy.  Because of all the couture shows I’ve seen in recent memory, this was the one I could actually see myself wearing in the stark reality of day-to-day humdrum.  I’m off to pick up Nico’s formula… just need to shrug on my purple maxi ruffled wrap dress.  I’m going to go to the post office to collect my often-returned mail… in my parma violet taffeta ruffled skirt.  And I might just do trim the out-of-control wall creeper plant in a Philip Treacy ostrich plumed hat, feathers trailing in the N15 wind.  How did Pierpaolo Piccioli convince so many of us that these silhouettes suggesting a faded grandeur of mid-20th-century couture has its place in 2018?

In movement, the clothes floated past us.  Nothing felt heavy or overdecorated.  It was partially down to the fabric choices but mainly it was the brilliantly off-kilter colour palette, something Piccioli has been latched onto in his vision at Valentino.  Anytime a colour would appear to be too saccharine or saturated – deepest of violet, bright fuschia, mint green – a shot of gritty brown or olive green would appear.  Or you often had pastels colliding with bright.  You picked up on memories of seminal couture moments – Charles James’ gown photographed by Cecil Beaton, the fantastical palette of Roberto Capucci or vintage Valentino itself (all of which were pinned on Piccioli’s moodboard backstage.

There were the aerated volumes, so beautifully crafted.  Go big or go home, as often you’d look up and see the model’s face obscured by a high-necked gathering of fabric.  Whether it’s a ruffled collar, a leg o mutton sleeve, a bow on the back of gowns or up on the shoulder, the proportion was blown up to avoid looking prim or miserly.  Then there was the appearance of counterfoil pieces like a pair of brown slacks.  I’ve opted for that Americanised word because of the casual vibe slacks impart.  They brought the opening look of the amber silk faille opera cape firmly down to earth.  So too did the oversized double faced cashmere jumpers used to temper the ruffles and frou-frou.

But the thing that really sealed the deal and sky-rocketed the swoon factor, was when you learnt that each silhouette had been named after a seamstress working in the Rome-based ateliers of Valentino .  Backstage there was a wall of notes in envelope, each one written by a seamstress talking about what couture means to them.  How I wish I understood what they said.  Their names were also written on a board to form a Valentino “V” shape.  The relationship between Piccioli and his atelier staff is palpably heartfelt.  Mr Valentino was seen backstage embracing some of the women.  They’re not craftspeople merely tasked to cut and sew on brief.  They take immense pride in their work.  Piccioli reportedly dislikes the term “petites mains”.  I’m a guilty party in the fetishisation of these skilled hands.  This show perhaps taught me that when you can feel a beating heart in a collection, it’s because invariably there’s an impassioned group effort of people pouring soul into the seams.

“It’s just a bit of fun!”

It has been bubbling up to a boil in industry circles for a while now.  When will a Weinstein-gate equivalent for the fashion industry burst forward, implicating photography greats Bruce Weber and Mario Testino in allegations of sexual abuse on shoots towards male models.   It was in the pipeline for so long that at one point, Steve, (my partner who works at i-D) and I would ask each other casually at dinnertime, when this NY Times story was going to break, along with when the council tax bill was going to arrive.  It’s finally out there and the darker underbelly of this in-depth exposé is, I’m afraid to say, a discernible lack of surprise within the industry over what they’re reading.  More robes, more hotel rooms, more awkward and harrowing exchanges.  And what?

The story broke earlier today and Condé Nast responded with a pre-prepped release of their editorial Code of Conduct to defend the tidal waves of a would-be backlash.  Except maybe not.  A quick search on Twitter and the response is thus far, no where near as incensed or inflamed as when the Weinstein story broke.  The consensus on my WhatsApp group convos with friends in the industry is a “Meh” or an apologetic defence of the accused (the allegations against Weber and Testino have been fiercely denied).

But let’s not kid ourselves.  We – and I use a collective “we” here – may not have known the particulars and specifics of how Weber or Testino supposedly treated their photographic subjects but the rumours and gossip of this sort of behaviour does the rounds regularly, and often gets treated with a lack of gravity.  And despite the persistent (and consistent) accusations against Terry Richardson and the combative voices of industry greats like Caryn Franklin and the outpourings of abused models, spurred by Cameron Russell, the attitude towards sexual abuse in fashion hasn’t engulfed the industry in the same way that Weinstein and his merry band of bathrobed men has in Hollywood.  Yet like Hollywood’s casting couch culture, there are too many that are involved in the complicity of guilty parties, tied to a career ladder power struggle, where people lower down on the fashion food chain are pressurised into keeping it all hush-hush, lest they lose a gig in a highly competitive environment.

Mario Testino’s ad campaign for Gucci S/S 2003 under the direction of Tom Ford

There is a machination of keeping the status quo that goes deeper than what’s in the story.  The “sex sells” operating benchmark is so ingrained within fashion that it ties itself into all kinds of knots with the general modus operandi of the industry.  For want of a better word, it pays to be “on” in this business.  By “on”, I mean out there, on the scene, having a jolly.  Can you down a bottle of champagne at a party and still have the ability to make it to a 6am shoot call-time the next day or a 9am show at fashion week, looking nonchalantly fabulous?  As I have spent the year making a half-assed return to life B.B. (before baby), I’ve felt that pressure to switch back “on”.  Going out, getting shit faced, filing copy early next morning and taking a Nurofen/Berocca cocktail at an early show as proof.  Of course, I’m a consenting adult in these decisions.  As ridiculous as it sounds, being “on” subtly gives people the impression that you’re free spirited and most importantly, FUN!  And fun along with sex, are important cogs in fashion.   They’re the aspects that the fashion world has sold through imagery and branding in the last century to fuel this multi-billion dollar industry.

To be clear, I’m obviously not conflating going hard on the champers and partying hard at Le Bain with the sort of abuse that is being alleged in this report, but I do think it can be difficult to compartmentalise and separate the blurred lines that occur on a “fun” shoot littered with drinks and recreational drugs, producing images that reflect far-fetched fantasies, that then leads on to the specific point where someone is having their penis touched against their will.  There’s a vague link somewhere along that very VERY broad spectrum of what’s considered to be “a bit of fun”, all in the name of “fashion”.  Somewhere along that creative process of image creation, subjects will find it difficult to differentiate between what’s above board bordering on the unorthodox and what is clearly past the acceptable line.  When David Hemmings’ fashion photographer character (inspired by David Bailey and the like) commands the model Verushka to “Give it up!” and “Make it come!” in a shoot in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, we chortle at the supposed stereotype.  But if you were realistically in Verushka’s position, feeling scared and a pressure to be “on” and go along with the wishes of a powerful person who can make or break your career, is it really a laughing matter?

We laud and consume provocative subject matter that have become standard fashion fodder – bared breasts under a submerged wet gown, performing fellatio on a handbag or a shoe, accessories artfully placed on genitalia –  but mostly ignore what may or may not have gone on behind the scenes in the making of these images.    There’s almost a so-what shoulder shrug tone in Tom Ford’s comments in the NY Times article: “We sell sex” he says, and in defence of Testino, purportedly locking a male model inside a hotel room on a shoot and climbing on top of him, he says there are only a few ways you can get the right shot of a model’s face on a bed.  Well DUH!  That’s FASH-UN!

So, should we just shrug, accept this “sex sells” standard, and carry on as before?  There will be murmurings for sure, coursing through the industry that mirror Catherine Deneuve’s open letter defence of flirtation and sexual advances in Le Monde – those that decry a “puritanism” washing over our woke-on-the-surface industry.  This NY Times story may not be a watershed moment.  We may not even raise our eyebrows enough to try and out other offenders (suffice to say, Weber and Testino AREN’T exceptions).  And of course, it’s not a case of erasing a culture that has given us so many potent moments of creative artistry in fashion and provocateurs, whose images aren’t tainted with wrongdoing.  Guy Bourdin.  Helmut Newton.  Corrine Day.  You could go on…

Bruce Weber for Calvin Klein

Just as the film industry needs a significant amount of time to enact real concerted change, so too does the fashion world.   Change also depends on legions of editors, photographers, stylists, designers and those in charge of brand image and marketing collectively changing attitudes that don’t treat these sorts of allegations and rumours as light fodder.  The question is, is it the sort of change that might be asking too much of an industry predicated on provocation and boundary pushing?  Isn’t it all too seductive, deliciously decadent and yes, just a bit of fun?  Furthermore, it’s still difficult to untie all those knots of a hierarchical industry, where getting ahead is ranked ahead of acknowledgement of any possibility of foul play.  And even if the industry adopts Condé Nast’s Code of Conduct as standard working practise, how will it realistically be enforced in a transparent manner?  Are all parties involved willing enough to play by the rules and whistle blow where necessary?  It’s been less than a day and these are just some thoughts that have been percolating in a mind reacting to a story that was sadly so inevitable, it became part of day-to-day chitter chatter in our house.

N.B. I know the blog has been so dormant, it’s hard to remember the last time I even posted.  I’m not sure why I felt so compelled to take my mind off mopping up baby vom/phlegm/food to sit down and properly write.  But…in other news, I’m relaunching/redesigning the blog so that I don’t just pop up once in a blue blue moon to bang out 1,000 words.  New year, new me, new yadda yadda… I’m just sorry I had to begin 2018 with thoughts as muddied and murky as these.