“In this section you will find silhouettes, which consist of a hand-tufted pair of jeans and a hand-tufted denim skirt. Tufting is a technique widely used in the making of rugs and other upholstery. To hand tuft enough material big enough to make a pair of jeans, can take a team of two people, almost four days to complete.” This was Faustine Steinmetz’s voice speaking on her audio guide, which you could access through a specially created web-based e-ticket. Steinmetz’s presentations have been bucking the way we view garments on models ever since she made her LFW debut in 2014. With her latest A/W 16-7 presentation, she has quite possibly bested her previous ones, as she creates an experience that is worth taking the time to look, look harder and look again. It’s why Steinmetz, along with two other young designers are rising above the industry’s chit-chat about fast speeds and broken systems, precisely because they’re doing things their own way.
Steinmetz once again collaborated with set designer Thomas Petherick to create giant enclosed white boxes, with the only view into them created by cut-outs on the front that wouldn’t reveal everything all at once. Sometimes you’d have to crouch down to look inside the box. Sometimes you’d have to go on your tip-toes to get a proper view. The sight of editors stooping low and jumping to look into Steinmetz’s white boxes was fascinating. Depending on what angle you looked and what height you’re at, you’d get a somewhat different view, with every glance filtered through these concealed white boxes. With a glut of people trying to look at the exhibition simultaneously, there wasn’t enough space/time to experience it properly. But clicking back on the e-ticket, the presentation lived on through Steinmetz’s French-accented voice explaining about the origins and techniques of each piece.
Each box was given a monochromatic colour scheme – blue, orange, salmon pink, yellow and white, inspired by the German artist Franz Erhard Walther and his sculptures of wearable textiles. Likewise, Steinmetz’s pieces have a similarly sculptural quality with undulating waves of hand-tufted cotton in a pair of jeans that took almost a week to weave. Adding organic cotton, metallic yarns and mohair into the mix, Steinmetz’s creations took on an even more tactile quality to them, especially when tied with tubular sponge-like belts that look like swim float aids. There was also a more wearable quality to many of the pieces, particularly the ribbed cotton dresses, that shift in shape with threaded through rivets.
Even as we were peering in and eyeing each model as part of Steinmetz’s museum-esque installation environment, there was still that desire to wear what we were seeing. It’s also an instance where the connection between fashion and art isn’t merely decorative but also conceptually sound. Steinmetz made us stop, wait and look – and by look, I mean REALLY look. That felt like an accomplishment in the context of a season in flux.
Claire Barrow was also on a similar path except there was more of a mocking tone in her own version of a museum. She called her collection the “Retro-Spective” in reference to the way we regurgitate and recycle the past, be it through Tumblr blogs or fashion collections. And so Barrow directly took on the task of cycling through decades – from Medieval robes to Edwardian blouses to 1980s anarchy. These periods are all hinted at but wind up looking uniquely like Barrow’s work because of her paintings and illustrations. It was another strong show of the hand, that isn’t going to get lost in the sea of banal rehashing of past decades.
Barrow also presented both models and mannequins like that of a theoretical museum which she called a “form of blatant narcissism” so that she pushes her own work to become “historical” in some way. The set-up even came with a merch shop selling canvas totes, postcards and tees. But nestled in amongst the dramatic painted canvas dresses given names like “The Woman I am Not”, there was also a knitwear collaboration with John Smedley as well as Victoriana shirts scrawled with Barrow’s emotive figure. These were the pieces that give credence to what could have been some painted frocks not meant for sale. There’s a brilliance to the way Barrow has been confronting the things that niggle at her about the industry and beyond that, the world at large – be it our digitally consumer lives or the way that nothing is truly original. Here, her museum served made us a) look at the past differently and b) think about the conversation between fashion and history and whether the comfort of nostalgia will ever truly be rejected.
Phoebe English made us play a strange but thoughtful waiting game too. To mark her 10th collection, she presented ten looks reflecting the processes of her finely-tuned aesthetic. Each model takes a ticket from a number dispensing machine and then await their turn to be measured up, prodded at and ultimately scrutinized. It’s a crystallised summation of the amount of pointless waiting around there is in the fashion week show system be it waiting for the shows to start or waiting for casting directors to see you. But even as they wear bored and listless expressions on their faces, it becomes easier to see English’s signature hand-made textiles such as shredded sequins, knitted elastic and other disheveled silks. With ten edited and ultimately stronger looks, you found you had the time to wait around.
Transport during London Fashion Week has been kindly provided by Mercedes-Benz.