Catching up on BBC4 on iPlayer is always a joy. Their documentary showcase Storyville in particular makes me beam and the latest film ‘The Golden Age Circus: The Show of Shows’ directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, almost made me want to double up on my TV licence fee. The hour and fifteen minute long film cleverly edits archive clips of circus acts, fairground scenes and moribund freak shows from their early 20th century heyday. With zero voiceover and a mesmerising Sigur Ros soundtrack, watching displaced footage of middle-aged clowns, sad stripteases, the gross maltreatment of wild animals and one particularly disconcerting scene where children are boxing for entertainment, made me think of a different circus altogether.
No, not the one that Suzy Menkes so famously wrote about in 2013 for the NYTimes, which subsequently got cited in every thesis/talk/lecture/dissertation/debate about the rise of digital media, blogging and the evolution of street style in the fashion industry. I, of course wrote my own reply, which I still largely stand by.
Today though the clowns I think of aren’t the ones standing outside a show hoping to get photographed. It’s the accumulation of stunts, sets, social media celebrities and spectacles that have been collectively building up to a clowning crescendo, with the hope of catching our attention, our likes and follows and ultimately, our cash. Even as the clothes – supposedly the main protagonist – get lost in this weird din.
The circus is far more sprawling and convoluted than a few outlandishly dressed chancers. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the confusion that the fashion industry is feeling as we bid adieu to 2015 and say hello to 2016 – the former ending with the shock announcements of Raf Simons departing from Dior and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin, and the latter beginning with a fresh investigation into the state of fashion week as the CFDA is currently beginning its seven week study on NYFW, conducted by Boston Consulting Group. They will be probing industry insiders on how a “broken system” can change. I’ll be one of the many contributing to this study. Where to begin, eh?
What or who is a fashion show for? Customers, press or buyers? Oh but wait, add influencers and their super fans to that category as Vine stars and K-pop singers bring their own impressionable audience to the fashion party. When should a fashion show be shown? There’s talk of shifting spring/summer shows to February and autumn/winter shows to September so that they are shown at the same time as they hit stores. Or even aligning them with January and June to coincide with pre-collections. What sort of format should a show take or should there be shows or pre-ambling press attention full stop? Thomas Tait doesn’t seem to think he’ll benefit from a show as he’ll only be showing his collection on a private appointment basis and Proenza Schouler has adopted the Céline approach of not allowing any imagery or press about their pre-collection until it drops into stores in April.
All of this compounding with the fact that the role of the journalist, tirelessly reviewing every single show is fast changing. Word on the inside from a few editors is that that show reviews and in-depth coverage don’t drive a huge amount of traffic on websites, and so editors have opted for a deluge of Buzzfeed-esque lists and a decreasing word count – easily generated to prop up the stats. And so we have the fashion week circus monitored, dictated and in my opinion, restricted by numbers. Numbers in traffic stats, that rely on numbers of buzz-worthy moments in fashion week that will get you those spikes. Numbers of followers, likes and tagged posts. Numbers of eyeballs on a livestream. The numbers in the profits that follow the number of £££’s spent on a show.
Except to reduce fashion to a numbers games leaves you jaded and cynical. When you see designers parroting cliches in interviews backstage after a show. Or when brands make sweeping digital-driven gestures, that feel more like jumping on the bandwagon rather than genuine motivation for fashion’s democratisation. Like the caged up animals forced to dance or do silly tricks in the Erlingsson film. .
Furthermore, the main question for me is can the influence of a content creator – be it magazine, Instagram IT person or website and the aesthetic/artistic merit of a collection or a show be measured purely by numbers? Are we omitting the more intangible and emotive-driven forces that made us fall for fashion in the first place? How is it that the faff that makes up the numbers-driven fashion week circus, don’t really figure into the routinely moving, independent and stand out shows of the season (Dries van Noten, Comme des Garçons, Rick Owens etc…)? How do we place the emphasis back on the sole reason why all of those aforementioned numbers even exist – what should be the driving force in the conversation, which are the clothes and behind them, the creativity that spawned them.
I therefore have to thank BBC4 for that hour and fifteen minutes spent pondering fashion’s own circus. But enough about the industry’s existential problems, because roll up, roll up… S/S 16 has some stellar showwomen (and men), freaks and out-there performers that shares similar vibes with the golden age of the circus. Thankfully, despite my own preponderance to overanalyse the noise of the big top, in my head, the main attraction that draws the crowds in, are still the clothes.
From top to bottom: Marc Jacobs S/S 16, Gareth Pugh S/S 16, illustrated magazine covers by Ana Strumpf, RuPaul’s Drag Race GIF, Moschino S/S 16, Gypsy Sport S/S 16, Givenchy S/S 16