The Paradise

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I no longer have to feel all guilty and faddy duddy about posting about period dramas now that shows like Downton Abbey have left a veritable cultural sweep of success around the world.  Did I mention that during NYFW in September, the question that I got asked about the most was how does season two of Downton end?  Me, the bumbling Brit is of course duty-bound to love period dramas.  Dutifully, I conform to all cliches.   

That said, Downton Abbey shouldn't be the successful exception in its genre.  Alright, it's got the dramatic twists ("Oh my god, I can WALK again!").  It's got the upstairs, downstairs posh vs. poor element.  And yes, sumptuous cinematography and costumes are a given.  That said for a series that is a touch closer to the subject of fashion and retail, I give you The Paradise, which has just finished airing its first season on BBC 2 on the unusual Tuesday night slot.  What gives credence to the series is its loose basis on the √âmile Zola novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Delight), which I once mused about.  Instead of Paris though, the series is set in a city in Northern England.  

The premise is pretty much the same though.  The Paradise is a bustling department store, the first of its kind in the city and it's crushing the small businesses around it.  A new shopgirl Denise Lovett (played by Joanna Vanderham) comes in and inspires the ambitious owner John Moray (Emun Elliott) with her innovative ideas.  This is the kind of fluffy easy-on-the-brain period drama that most people can digest even if it isn't the loftiest acting or scripting. 

Moreover, a whooping ¬£8 million has been spent on the production and in aesthetics, it shows.  The sets are lavish and the costumes are quite memorable, more so than Downton in my opnion.  Screencapping madness takes over.  The store itself is a work of powder puff eye candy – pastel boxes, ribbons, taffeta, silks etc.  Then you have the sumptuous costuming, which is largely centred on the character Miss Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), the rich heiress who is out to marry Moray.  She isn't the central heroine nor is she a likeable character but she does have a costume designer who has pretty much gone all out on her wardrobe.  Her mostly cream or pale dresses are always adorned with eye-catching trimmings.  Her hats sit just so.  She fluffs and huffs about with a spoilt demeanour.  She's all packaging and presentation – a beautiful husk of a woman to consume.

For substance though, it's the central plot, which points to parallels between the rise of competitive open-market capitalism in late Victorian England and today, when small independent shops fight against large corporate chains.  The birth of this seduction process of walking into a department store tells us much about how consumerism sways us today.    

Reading Zola's novel would be a good accompaniment to watching The Paradise.  Take this passage for instance‚Ķ

"First of all, a spring of light satins and soft silks: royal satins, renaissance satins, with pearly shades of spring water; and featherweight silks, crystal clear, Nile green, sky blue, blush pink, Danube blue.  Then came the heavier fabrics, the duchess silks, the wonderful satins, with warm colours, tumbling in swollen waves.  And down below the heaviest stuffs reposed as though in a basin:  the thick weaves, the damasks, the brocades and the silks decorated with pearls or gold and silver threads, in the midst of a deep velvet bed – ever sort of velvet, black, white and coloured, embossed on silk or satin, its shimmering patches forming a motionless lake in which reflections of landscapes and skies seem to dance.  Women, pale with longing, leaned over as though to see their own reflections in it.  All, confronted by this bursting cataract, stopped in their tracks, seized by a vague fear that they might be swept up in the torrent of such luxury and by an irresistible desire to leap and to lose themselves in it."

Yup, a whole paragraph just on the description of the silk department.   

I hear ITV is also producing a drama based on the life of Harry Selfridge (the founder of Selfridges) and The Paradise has been recommissioned for a second series.  Bring on the cosy nights in when watching period dramas could almost be classified as *ahem* "research" for the blog.    

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Bernstock Speirs Turns 30

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The big 3 0 has been hitting a few people in the fashion business this week and now it's the turn of hat duo Bernstock Speirs aka Paul Bernstock and Thelma Speirs to look back and go all misty-eyed over their retrospective, which is currently at the Fred Gallery until the 24th November.  The thirty years that Paul and Thelma experienced together from their beginnings as fashion students at Middlesex University also happen to coincide with the tumultuous times in London's fashion timeline.  They started at a time when there wasn't really an "industry" to speak of.  It was also a time when people who were creative just made things, got on with it and hoped for the best.  Whilst neither Paul or Thelma came from a millinery background, they wound up fashioning some rag-adorned trilby hats and cobbling some hoods by moulding them over kettles, which were spotted by Jeff Banks, who wanted them for his Warehouse shops.  Along the way, they've been on the dole, done cleaning, ran club nights and also designed clothing lines.  Read Charlie Porter's lengthy interview with the pair for all the ups and downs and anecdotes of their colourful career, that really illustrate why there are so vibrant as London creatives who through a series of happy accidents have ended up with an established business.    

This illustration of some of their biggest "hat hits" include the famous topless hat which Kylie Minogue wore on her first album cover, as well as numerous quirky takes on conventional hat shapes – the trilby, the bowler, the cycle cap.  Their veiled beanie is currently garnering a waiting list (yes they did in fact design it before Raf Simons) and their bunny cap has of course taken off with a life of its own, hopping around the world in a plethora of colours.  The common denominator is that they're all functional and entirely wearable without sacrificing design quirks that are immediately appealing.  By combining something like the sporty cap with a pair of rabbit hears, they have created a product that has legs to endure.  The exhibition sees several styles such as the bunny cap, veiled beanie and glitter cycle caps arranged in colour co-ordinated rows on the walls.  It's as if the duo revel in their capacity to create a sellable and commercial product and at the same time, have lost none of their own integrity and belief in their designs.   

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Downstairs we get to see a moodboard homage to Thelma and Paul's past – thirty years of fun that have included the infamous Kylie cover, designing hats for Jean Paul Gaultier's show, making films with Issac Julien and in general benefiting from a cameraderie of designers, creatives, editors, buyers and stylists at a period of time when spontaneity and lack of commercial awareness was rife.  

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You might recognise some of the collaborations that they have done with Peter Jensen.  

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Their linesheets for doing sales are endearingly hand drawn by Thelma.  No Illustrator drawings here.  Still, they do the job and Bernstock Speirs have always done it this way.  

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An example of the relaxed nature of the period when Bernstock Speirs first started out are these lookbooks produced in the 1980s when actors, buyers, editors and pop stars were featured wearing their hats.  Paul and Thelma approached people such as Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, the group Bananarama, Colin McDowell and Caryn Franklin and they all casually participated in these shoots without too much to-ing and fro-ing.  A far cry from the agents, third parties and endorsement fees of today.    

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To this day, it feels like the duo just get on with what they do without the need for fanfare, marketing or strategy.  They've been based in their studio and shop at the top of Brick Lane for twelve years without wanting to open another.  They happed upon a hat factory in Luton by looking them up in the Yellow Pages and they still work with them today.  They tried out clothing design for a while and decided that it wasn't right for them.  Their collaborations have been born out of friendships and chance meetings.  There's something very warming and reassuring about the way Bernstock Speirs just amble along quite nicely.  

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Museum Muse

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Dries Van Noten seems to be a designer that I somehow take for granted; someone whose collections I always assume I'll like and certainly when you see it on the rails in stores, any lukewarm feelings that you previously had almost certainly become impassioned ones.  On the surface, one might have thought that A/W 12-3 would prove challenging.  References to Qing dynasty robes reminiscent of the Chinese costume dramas that were my teenage guilty pleasure, heavy doses of Japanoiserie/Chinoiserie and gilding the cultural lily for all it's worth – these don't sound like things that might make for a Susie-friendly collection given my previous thoughts on cultural appropriation in fashion.  

All doubts were dispelled though as soon as I scrambled backstage after the show to ask Van Noten a few questions.  It turns out he took a trip to the V&A and its East Asia department, studying physical pieces as well as being assisted with books and photographs.  Such a scholarly approach might have resulted in a straight forward costume rehash/replica but in actual fact, what Van Noten did that was extremely clever was to revel in the flatness of the way these historical textiles are displayed and abstract those planes into prints that ensure that no dragon, phoenix or lotus flower look straightforward.  

The V&A is another institution I take for granted, perhaps not realising what a national cultural gem it is until you visit other museums.  Its presence as a resource for designers has resulted in a fair number of collections and items inspired by objects in the museum but this Dries Van Noten collection strikes me as one of the most intelligent ways of using the museum's artefacts, from source to process to finished product.  The V&A is in the process of moving its collection of textiles and fashion pieces over to Blythe House in Kensington Olympia which will become the new Clothworker's Centre, a facility to study, conserve and store these pieces so I was lucky enough to catch a few of the pieces that the Dries Van Noten team looked at when gathering source material for their A/W 12-3 collection.  Helen Persson, curator and manager of V&A's Chinese textiles and dress collections was kind enough to show me these pieces as well as talk a little about this new Clothworker's Centre which sounds like any fashion enthusiast's dream haven.   

In particular I looked at a 18th-19th century Chinese Qing dynasty robe that may have been made for a female member of the imperial royal family but Persson concedes that it was probably not worn by anyone as the robe was assembled at a much later date.  What's interesting is that in the collection, instead of the obvious dragons and imperial yellow that leaps out at you from the original robe, it is the striped wave motif at the hem of the robe that is predominantly used as the base pattern, spliced with khaki and black in the tailored coats and trousers.  In the silk shirt and skirt pieces it's the the way the pattern is cut up, repeated and blanked out in unexpected areas which means that the original context of the robe is pleasingly misplaced.  Weirdly, it was a good thing that the Dries team didn't see these garments on a mannequin or a dummy (as you would in say a traditional fashion exhibition) because when they are laid flat or seen in aerial view photographs, they take on a completely different appearance and it's precisely that flatness that gives Van Noten the license and encouragement to arrange the prints on his garments in this abstracted way.

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Japanese jacket from the early 20th century is similarly given the same treatment and even though the print is reproduced like for like as per the original, its placement on a sleek white blazer or wide legged trousers isolate the pattern from its roots.  Without even seeing the curator you can already glean a ton of information from the online database, an incredible resource for those not in London.  The pattern on the jacket was created with a "tsutsugaki" technique where the pattern is drawn out using a special paste made of rice flour, lime and water, squeezed from a paper tube treated with persimmon juice, creating a protective coating on the patte

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 The pattern on these Chinoiserie phoenix and lotus pieces are taken from this Kesi tapestry woven paneland from a huge blanket made in the 18th century, meant for export to the West.  The original piece was already a mish mash of cultures as Chinese motifs mixed with Indian ones as it was meant for a Western taste palate and so when reproduced in the Dries pieces, it takes on another layer of orientalist affirmation.  In the end, whilst Dries Van Noten openly credit the sources of the collection's inspiration, it's almost not important to cite the exact source of every pattern as they have shifted the context so far and away from simplistic replica or pastiche.   

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Persson is pictured here on the right with Anna Jackson, keeper of Japanese textiles and dress on the left, endearingly showing her support and love of the collection by wearing a printed shirt.  Apparently they both spent a long time picking out pieces from the Dries Van Noten concession in Selfridges.  

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I too haven't escaped from the collection's clutches as the Dries Van Noten store in Paris (one of the loveliest spaces of a mono-brand store EVER) lured me in during the shows and I bought these printed wool trousers, that emphasise the striped wave motif of those Qing robes.  LN-CC, Far Fetch and Browns seem to have the best Dries selection online at the moment if you too are seized by this excellent example of museum-to-garment mastery.  

Going back to pending opening of V&A's The Clothworker's Centre at Blythe House, it feels like an exciting prospect to have a facility like this at the disposal of designers, students or enthusiasts in or visiting London.  It's due to open in late 2013 and is definitely a must-see for anyone planning a trip to London anytime soon.  Even the name is appealing.  Clothworker's.  Not fashion.  Not textiles.  Not design.  It sounds a place worthy of studying garments that have had a lot of graft, craft and thought put into them.  Blythe House itself is a beautiful Grade II listed building and with V&A intending to offer extended and increased access to the collections, it sounds like I'll be wiling many an hour here when it opens.  

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Phil Oh for Vogue.com

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Le 21ème | Adam Katz Sinding

Dinosaurs, Cats and Pizza

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>> This should have been more of a weekend post, especially one that involves mindless gazing at the screen, jumping from one blog to another and potentially eating away at whatever productivity you have but for loafters like myself, it seems everyday is a weekend.  Fashion GIF taskmasters Reed and Rader have just opened up their first exhibition in London at 18 Hewett Street in Shoreditch.  It seems high time that their JPG/GIF based work came to life in a physical space and so they were given free rein to create "Cretaceous Returns" riffing off of what they love – dinosaurs.  Plain and simple dino-loving and a chance for Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader to get their hands dirty with paint when constructing their cardboard T-rex as opposed to their usual routine of fiddling around with Photoshop and Illustrator.  Dino-lovin' aside, they're also going to be discussing the more lofty subject of "Digital Disruption: How the internet is shaking up the art world" tonight in an event hosted by Protein and Crane.tv.  Hopefully Crane.tv will record and upload the talk.  

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One quick look at Reed & Rader's online output and you're wondering how much time exactly they spend staring at the big ol' screen.  I'd class myself as an excessive user but Pamela and Matthew must be bordering on overexposure to the internetz.  In an feature on Mashable, charting the history of the animated GIF, Pamela says "We started to think about, ‚ÄòWhy aren‚Äôt we making work for this community [the Internet] that we love and get inspired by all of the time?'"  Somehow they seem more prolific than most still photographers and in recent months, they've collaborated with W Magazine, bringing current season McQueen, Prada and Balenciaga to life, made animated odes to their love/hate of kittens and pizza (joy oh joy, they've used the always-brilliant Olsen Twin pizza song!) and made disturbing cartoon characters do unspeakable things to bees and bushes.  In addition, they seem to be able to keep up blogs for their cats and a certain Mister Wubba, who I'm personally itching to get a Polaroid with.  I'd be hard pressed to find two people more immersed in the internet and fruitfully creating work inspired and engaged with this ever-expanding world wide web than Reed and Rader.  Who knew that end of the tunnel of site-to-site browsing and screen-staring that tangible work could come out of it.