From seventeen paying punters at Port Eliot’s first ever edition back in 2003, the festival has grown exponentially. You felt that growth at this year’s festival, which returned after a one year hiatus to give the grounds of Port Eliot in St Germans, Cornwall a rest. There seemed to be “more” of everything – more tents, more bustle, more words to hear, more drinks a-flowing, more things to eat, more vintage stalls to rummage through. Or perhaps the “more” was extra exacerbated with the weekend coinciding with an ultra hot heatwave wafting through this part of the world.
Still, that “moreness” didn’t diminish the feeling that you can still find somewhere to escape to in the extensive grounds, depending on your interest. On top of the big spiky tents like The Bowling Green, Park Stage and Caught by the River where the “big” acts were on, the bustling Wardrobe Department where there were queues aplenty to get your face/hair did, I love that there are smaller pockets that are more tucked away – The Badger’s Sett for kidult crafting, Ways with Weird and Dovegrey Reader for more intimate talks and then if you don’t want to hear anyone speak, feel free to lie on the lush lands/woods, watching the trains go past on the viaduct and take the a restorative nap or two.
Actually, for the most part of the weekend, I wished I could be in more than two places at once as the timetable had quite a few clashes of talks/words/demonstrations that I wanted to see. The last thing you want to feel though is stress at a festival that is supposed to be something of a restorative experience for the mind and body. So I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to… I’ve still taken away an extensive to see/read/do list to ensure the Port Eliot spirit carries on beyond the weekend.
The Orangery was “poshed” up with Fortnum and Mason’s coming onboard as a sponsor and Mark Hix doing a feasting menu. Renowned set designer Michael Howells as always has given it his magic touch…
It was good to once again be ensconced in the Wardrobe Department within the walled gardens as Sarah Mower had once again put together a stellar line-up to entertain, entice and charm even the hardiest of fashion naysayers.
Louise Gray may have put her own label on hold for the time being but she was certainly welcomed with open arms at Port Eliot as she and her ex-assistant current Central Saint Martins MA student James Theseus Buck lit up the MAC make-up tent with prints, pigment and freehand body painting that made most people clap/smile with glee. Abstract trickles, dots, Haring-like strokes – Gray and Bovan did it all. I went from van Gogh-esque strokes on my left arm to Yayoi Kusama-type dots on my left leg in one weekend. It was a real shame to wet-wipe the lot of it off…
For the face, MAC and a few of their core make-up artists tentatively felt their way into the festival for the first time this year. Their work was more meticulous and precise with delicate dots and fine brushstrokes around the eyes.
The lovely Rachel did a colourful Penelope Tree-inspired bottom lash and dotty thing on my eyes this year…
For all matters of the head, Stephen Jones teamed up with Bumble & Bumble to hat/hair the more than-willing ladies of Port Eliot. No wonder people left chuffed. Jones literally bought boxes of his hats, veils and headdresses to place on people’s heads, according to their personality/look… and they get to keep them. Erm… I hope people treasure the millinery magic that they experienced with Stephen.
I didn’t need an extensive consultation with Stephen. He just instinctively clipped a sparkly black veil on my head and I was done. Later he revealed that the veil was in fact a first toile/prototype for Raf Simons’ first ever haute couture show for Dior (they went with coloured veils sans sparkles in the actual show). I had to run away and do a mini-scream. That’s how chuffed I was.
Bumble and Bumble peeps were on hand to plait, style and stencil people’s hair with pastel powders. Here’s blogger Zoe London and her dip-dyed hair plaited up.
In a rainbow hair-extension festooned teepee, the girls from Bleach London were back, bigger with their own line of extensive products to demo on festival-goers and an anything-goes hair spirit that resonated with most of the tweens/teens present at the festival. They’ve just recently launched a line of hair crayons which – HUZZAH – do work on my stubbornly temporary dye-resistant dark dark hair (still not plucked up the courage to errr… bleach my hair). The lovely Bleach girls were on hand to demonstrate how to apply the semi-permanent crayon colours, which I kind of want to talk-up separately once I’ve done a bit of experimentation on my own.
Bleach co-founder and all-round hair maestro-mistress Alex Brownsell was feeling a bit under the weather but still showed up at Port Eliot to trial her new hair tapestry. Now I don’t want to inaccurately call it “first” without knowing for sure but it’s definitely the first time I’ve ever seen this done. Alex developed this especially for Port Eliot to fuse the crafting fads of yesteryear’s friendship bracelets and current craze loom bands with hair. She made a loom out of a picture frame, carving up notches to separate strands of hair to create the “warp” as it were. Then she would use a special needle to thread cotton through the hair as the “weft”, creating sections of hair tapestry that she could then embroider over to extra embellishment. It was a fascinating process to watch as Alex trialled it on fellow hair stylist Lou Teasdale. The end result is pretty ace, especially in the fading summer sunlight, and you could definitely see girls cementing their friendships and sisterhoods with this hair craft.
The most popular area in the Wardrobe Department was Haughty Culture where Piers Atkinson was once again on hand to collect up flowers and foliage from the grounds of Port Eliot to turn into festival appropriate head wreaths. I did fear for flower headband making exhaustion on behalf of Piers and his tireless team and was shocked to hear that people were being a bit pushy and rude when queuing up to have their head kitted out. Not cool and not very Port Eliot.
I loved the addition of the seed paper logos which Piers added to the wreaths this year. Apparently you can plant the paper and the embedded seeds will flower eventually. I’m very sloooooowly turning green-fingered as my patch of garden at home is now fully planted up and so I took extra interest in Port Eliot’s abundance of greenery and flowers this year.
By the end of Saturday, my head had been triple decorated with Piers Atkinson’s blooms, Stephen Jones’ veil and Alex Brownsell of Bleach’s multi-coloured hair tapestry. More is always more at Port Eliot.
Port Eliot is really a lovely place to encourage young ones to get their creative juices pumping and Port Eliot long-timer Barbara Hulanicki was on hand to teach little peeps a spot of fashion illustration, hanging out Tweeny Fashionista Uni badges and awards in the process to the most promising artists. I learnt that Hulanicki has just started a new illustrated clothing line Icon Club.
Scarf designer Emma J Shipley, who designed the poster of Port Eliot was a newcomer to the Wardrobe Department with her bandana print making workshop.
Jewellery designer Vicki Sarge also returned to create pretty things out of tin foil and once again turn trash into treasure.
Jenny Dyson aka Mrs Rubbish and her Pencil Agency crew are pretty much a permanent Wardrobe Department fixture with their Pencil Atelier, teaching kids to do neon potato prints and sew up simple dresses for the culminating Pencil Fashion Show. Cath Kidston also teamed up with Jenny to lend a hand in crafting these ensembles.
In other crafting areas, you could create head dresses and do beginner’s crochet in Ros Badger and Christine Leach’s Badger’s Sett.
The ever-popular workshops in Anthropologie’s tent included mask decoration with illustrator Florence Balducci, jewellery making with Catherine Zoraida and fabric taxidermy with Mister Finch. Once again, as branded activities go at Port Eliot, the approach is always gently does it. When they lull you with impressive interior styling and Buddy Holly tunes on the record player, it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to ram Anthropologie down your throat.
The Flower show got a new location inside the basement of the house near the kitchen and there was an added Fodder (food) category too for judges to peruse. The categories are as ever wildly imaginative – my favourite was “He can take it, but can’t dish it” where flowers, vomit and over-indulgent meals came together and Mrs Peacock in the Library where one entrant created an amazing homage to Great Expectation’s Miss Havisham.
The Wardrobe Department talks were hefty this year, with Sarah Mower conducting her “If Clothes Could Speak” series. I’ve already talked up the one with Suzy Menkes, where I learnt a life lesson or two. The next day, Mower spoke to legendary model Penelope Tree about the Betsey Johnson double-slit dress she wore to Truman Capote’s Black and White ball in 1966. Tree really entertained the crowd with the minutiae about this incredible night as well as imparting nuggets about her own extraordinary upbringing and life as a model. There’s an autobiography in the making here.
I loved that fashion seeped its way out of the walled gardens and on to the larger stages. At The Bowling Green, fashion historian NJ Stevenson and Mark Butterfield, owner of the infamous C20 Vintage Fashion resource in Devon paired up talk about groovy 1970s knitwear. Or not so groovy, depending on when you were born. In lieu of the forthcoming exhibition about fashion knitwear at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, Stevenson and Butterfield focused on 70s knitwear, modelled by teensy tinsy Port Eliot goers. It was comprehensive for fashion enthusiasts and at the same time and engaging for non-fashion-y people. More please!
Back at Five Dials on Sunday, Sarah Mower interviewed Simone Rocha about her rise as a designer in London Fashion Week. Rocha was endearing and candid when talking about growing up with fashion in her family, her Chirish roots (she’s half Irish, half Chinese) and going from art school in Ireland to studying fashion at Central Saint Martins with the late Louise Wilson. I loved that Mower got across the special way in which Rocha has created a highly personal “universe” in her brand – in the attitude of her girls and in the types of references which Rocha looks at. The Warren Sisters – the unofficial go-tomodels of Port Eliot – looked incredible in their various seasons and shades of Rocha.
What does a fashion show need? Lots of gin, 6pm summer sunshine and Damian Lewis as a guest host. The Pencil Atelier fashion show had all those things as all those aforementioned neon-printed frocks were paraded along a haybale catwalk in the Wardrobe Department. Christopher Kane has nothing to worry about yet but those neon gradiated gingham dresses did look mighty fetching.
The fashion show was followed by the inaugural Port Eliot Prom, organised by Sarah Mower. No left out nerds and jock n’ cheerleader couples here. Just whoever turned up in their glad rags and wanted to be entered in the prom parade to be in with a chance of being crowned with three beautiful resin crowns, made by Fashion East’s latest addition to their line-up Ed Marler.
My favourite outfit was number 26. Just saying.
There are no winners or losers of course in the spirit of Port Eliot but three lucky girls got to wear and keep these elaborate crowns. Not that I’m errr… jealous of a six year old or anything…
I’ve got to say a big thumbs up to my first “glamping” experience thanks to the kind folks at Yurtel. Electrical plugs inside the yurt, a lockable wooden door (still had the laptop with me…) and a heart-embedded skylight were the touches I loved.
It was great to discover a new vintage source in Dolly Blue, owned by Lily Walford, who happens to be the wife of catwalk show production expert John Walford. Lily has a love of Victorian/Edwardian cotton undies and petticoats and she also turns French linen into dresses and jackets. I bought a sweet Hungarian-embroidered blouse from Lily and hope to see her soon for all my Victorian whites needs.
On the picture front, I had to end with a trio of rainbow goodness. Port Eliot really is bursting with colour and it seems to create an environment where people feel it’s safe to express themselves with colour, whether it’s dressing up in silly wigs and hippy dippy clothes or going all out in the Wardrobe Department. You wonder why that sense of inhibited freedom can’t be felt outside of the grounds of Port Eliot in day to day life. Apparently real life, normal jobs and judgemental peers all get in the way.
So we come back to reality. And back in real land, I’ll be ploughing through a list inspired by Port Eliot’s non-fashion events, which I’ve rounded up here.
– I was tempted by Cloud Nine’s marshmallows because I kept hearing people raving about them every time I passed their stall at Port Eliot. One bite into their strawberry/champagne marshies and I was smitten. Even veggies who didn’t realise they were eating gelatine were swooning. Must buy more.
– Port Eliot definitely upped its food game this year with even more choices to indulge in. My personal faves were The Cornish Fishmonger‘s samphire and seabass, Rum and Crab Shack‘s soft shelled crab burger and everything from The Bowler’s Meatball. Food trucks/entities that are worth waiting for.
– I missed quite a few of the food talks but now have a foodie book list to get into including the Hemsley sisters’ first tome on The Art of Eating Well and Seb Emina’s Breakfast Bible.
– As I mentioned, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously sounds like a riot as he recounts his experience of reading fifty great books. Sounds odd to read a book about reading but since I have gradually lost the time to read to “real life stuff”, I think I need this to kickstart my habits.
– Christopher Simon Sykes was incredibly entertaining when reading excerpts from his definitive biography of David Hockney, focusing on his early career at the RCA. Sykes’ accurate accents and expressive way of reading brought the book to life but this biography looks like a good kindle on-the-tube read.
– I finally got to see my hero Martin Parr, who is a Port Eliot regular, who along with his authoress wife Susie, talked about their book The Non-Conformists. In the 1970s they had photographed and observed the close-knit methodist community in Hebden Bridge and it’s a chance to see Parr’s lesser known and altogether “quieter” black and white work published in this book. I will also have to try and catch Parr’s first ever documentary Tinsel and Turkey, which follows a group of coach holidaymakers in the Black Country, as I missed BOTH screenings of it at Port Eliot. Boo.
– Louise Gray and James Buck emerged from Viv Albertine’s talk at Caught by the River with tears in their eyes. A sure sign that Albertine’s memoir Clothes…Music… Boys… must be read.
– I watched Paul Kelly and Saint Etienne’s wonderful film collaged out of BFI archive footage of London, How We Used to Live in rapture. I hope it gets released online somewhere as it’s really a trip and a half, traversing through the 50s through to the 70s in London and yet feeling like nothing really has changed in modern city life.
– Give me a book about the Russian Romanovs and I’ll devour it rapidly. Helena Rappaport has written a new one – Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Grand Duchess Romanov – one to add to my extensive historical biography collection.
– I’ll take any excuse to re-read Elizabeth Jane Howard but Port Eliot celebrated the celebrated novelist’s life and work with an appreciative talk this year at The Bowling Green and now I’ll be out buying up old EJH paperbacks where possible.