I was going to be longwinded about recapping my brief trip to Tokyo for Dior and do it all in one big hella long post.  Despite having only spent two days in the city, it warrants more.  We experienced Dior’s history and Japan’s tradition by day and then Raf Simons’s vision of the future for the house and a look at Tokyo’s in-flux present by night.  I therefore want to be extra careful to separate the “experience” from the “show.  The former ran the course of how these “far-flung” maison shows normally operate – the experience was about giving us a flavour of the locale we’re in – in other words, Japanese culture of our collective imagining.  The latter though ran far, far away from cultural cliche.  For the show, officially called “Esprit Dior Tokyo”, Raf Simons presented a collection filled with nuanced observations and layers (literal ones too) connected with his own personal experiences of Tokyo.

That had nothing to do with irresistible details like Dior grey taxi seat covers inside specially branded Japanese taxis or the beautifully decorated restaurant where we had a lengthy kaiseki lunch complete with New Look printed lanterns and origami table pieces.  The collection also throttled away from the gowns and occasion wear that made up the majority of the Esprit Dior Tokyo exhibition in Ginza that is open to the public (for free!) until 4th January.  It felt like a familiar book, immersing oneself into Dior’s history.  The facts and the images and many of the silhouettes felt textbook.

What was newly emphasised in this particular exhibition was Monsieur Dior and the house’s specific connection with Japan.  He was enamoured with Japanese culture and art, and once likened Japonaiserie heroes Hokusai and Utamaru to his Sistine Chapel, hence why he’d give dresses name like “Jardin Japonais” and feature cherry tree motifs.  The Dior-Japan connotations don’t stop there as we’re treated to photos of Margot Fonteyn in a Dior costume for Madame Butterfly and Princess Michiko wearing Dior for her wedding in 1959.  In Dior’s successors of course Japan came alive most notably in John Galliano’s stupendously lavish spring summer 2007 haute couture collection as well as in Raf Simons’ autumn winter 2013 haute couture collection.  The contrast couldn’t be more stark when you see the silhouettes in situ as Hokusai waves flourish over voluminous opera coat with pleated bodice and collar by Galliano next to Simons’ pared back interpretation of kimono and obi folds and shibori techniques.

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The rest of the exhibition ran the gamut of Dior 101.  The bar jacket and its architecture was exposed with digital skeletal analysis.  A showcase of the petites mains that work behind the scenes in Dior’s atelier demonstrating pattern cutting.  From a commercial perspective of course, Miss Dior and J’Adore Dior took centre stage too to add a more tangible aspect to the exhibition.  Cue Dior workers busy tying up ribbons and gold thread around perfume bottles.

Running throughout the entire exhibition were new and unseen photographs by Patrick Demarchelier, who has created a second volume of portraits of iconic Dior haute couture looks from Christian Dior to Raf Simons, out now on Rizzoli.  They breathed life into the space when used as the backdrops to mannequins and display cases but also much credence to Raf Simons’ tenure at Dior.  His work for the house isn’t so much a straightforward continuation on from his predecessors but a fresh chapter that returns to the qualities, which underlined Dior right from the start – the new and the modern. That’s what I’ll be talking about when I get on to part two of this Tokyo sojourn.

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“You never quite know what you’re doing until you get there.”

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Post haute couture and pre ready to wear weeks, I’m indulging in some much-needed down/me time.  I’m off to Los Angeles tomorrow for over a week where star-gazing, looking at the sea for long periods of time and driving through empty stretches of roads are on the agenda.  Then I’m going down to Port Eliot festival, which is back after a one year hiatus, where haphazard happiness can be found in spades as my previous experiences in 2011 and 2012 can attest to.

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unnamed (1)Luella and Zoë working on The Girl Who Fell to Earth at Port Eliot in 2012

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To get into the right frame of mind for what promises to be four days of gentle debauchery, bacchanalian feasting and drinking and nourishment for the brain set on the beautiful grounds of a beautiful Grade I listed house in St Germans, Cornwall, I spoke to Luella Bartley, who is an avid supporter of the festival and aptly sums up the experience with the opening quote to this post.  She returns to Port Eliot this year to launch her labour of love collaborative book called The Girl Who Fell to Earth – a story written on-site at Port Eliot in 2012, accompanied by the illustrations of Zoë Taylor, who also worked with Luella on her English Style book.  Over the course of four days she dipped in and out of the festival to get inspiration and went back to her writing tent to work with Zoe on the illustrations and text.

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It’s a short but sweet tale about a celestial Princess, who feels confined and trapped by her home planet and family, as they are ruled by science and reason.  She falls through space and lands on Earth, right into Port Eliot festival where she goes through a magical process of enlightenment and self-discovery.  It’s basically a love letter to Port Eliot and reading it, makes those that have been, yearn for it again and those that haven’t, want to give it a try.  “Port Eliot feels like a nicest side of life and humanity – it’s books, music, drinking, food – and in some hippy way, it’s how life should be but isn’t,” explains Luella.  “I wanted this girl to land on Earth in Port Eliot and experience the poetry, the readings, the music – it’s this innocent and romantic view of what life on Earth could be.”

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Whilst the Princess character isn’t necessarily based on anyone in particular, she represents the sort of girl that Luella references time and time again, in both her former own label and now currently at Marc by Marc Jacobs with Katie Hillier.  “I’m always interested in that moment of a girl’s life – when she’s coming of age and there’s this rebellious moment in her life,” says Luella.  “It’s a simple setting about a girl who fell to earth but behind it there’s this slightly feminist rite of passage where you’re rebelling against the patriarch.”  Is Luella herself this entirely free-thinking risk-taker?  She pauses.  “I’m more of a preacher of risk-taking,” she says measuredly.  “I would like to be that person.  When I’m designing, I’m designing for the girl or women I want to be.”

Luella and I are on the same page when it comes to Port Eliot.  It is an idyllic and slowed down respite, from the daily grind that is deeply enriching for the mind.  This short illustrated book about A Girl Who Fell to Earth is an entirely creative endeavour that has barely any relation to Luella’s “real job” and likewise Port Eliot itself is also an escape from that reality.  “Everything these days has to be done for a reason, so it’s quite nice to do something personal and sweet,” says Luella.  “It’s important to do stuff like this because it fuels the real job.  I would love to do more and work with Zoë again – her hand is very dreamy and ethereal and she unlocks that side of my personality.  Away from the machine that is Marc by Marc Jacobs, which of course I love, it’s nice to exercise other muscles.”

Zoë’s spaced-out dreamscapes can also be seen in Marc by Marc Jacobs’ latest resort collection so you can physically  channel that girl who fell to earth.

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On one of the pages, where the Princess comes across Stephen Frears and Geoff Dyer’s talk about the topic of failure, one of the quotes stuck with me: “Failure gives you freedom.”  And obviously with Luella too.  “‘I’ve certainly failed a few times,” admits Luella.  “That was a really inspiring talk.  It’s a really really important thing to remember.  If you succeed at everything, then you don’t have any perspective and to be able to embrace your failure, that’s great.  I quite like that it relates back to the story.  That the Princess is learning all of this on the way.”

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Luella’s gushing about Port Eliot is free flowing and speaking to her, I’m itching to get back there.  Still not convinced.  Heed the words of Sarah Mower then, who has once again come up with an amazing schedule for The Wardrobe Department.  We have four walls, a garden and only one rule: that everything we do could only happen here,” says Mower.  “This is where transformation scenes happen and magical ideas are planted to spring up all over the wide world of fashion.”  Barbara Hulanicki is back to teach little peeps (and big ones) how to draw.  Louise Gray and Alex Brownsell of Bleach are back to transform face and hair.    Stephen Jones and Piers Atkinson will hat you up on the spot.  Dominic Jones is teaching you how to grow in terrariums.  Mower will be in conversation with Simone Rocha.  Penelope Tree and Suzy Menkes will be talking about the clothes that changed their life.  And of course Luella will be present to launch her fairy-tale.  On top of all of that, there’s the music, food and literary line-up as well.

Tickets are still available if you fancy it.  I’ll be there with flowers, twigs and strokes of neon on my eyes.

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porteliotheadPhotographs taken at Port Eliot 2011

It was difficult not to get a bit carried away with my weekend trip to Antwerp.  This is the city where after all I had made a number of fashion-specific pilgrimages to in my late teens/twenties because of the Antwerp Six, the reputation of the Royal Academy School and the fact that it’s still a bit of a tucked away fashion destination.  Due to the fact that the jury schedule for the Antwerp Royal Academy’s fashion deparment was quite tight, it left me with precisely two hours before my train back to London to cram in a visit to all of my usual haunts – Labels Inc, Dries van Noten and the brilliant fashion museum MOMU.  I was gutted not to see the Happy Birthday Academie exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the fashion department at the Academy.  By all accounts and if the catalogue is anything to go by, that was a epic exhibition.

Currently, MOMU is playing host to feathers.  Well, specifically Birds of Paradise: Plumes and Feathers in Fashion, and despite the seemingly specialised nature of that title, the exhibition is anything but feather-light.  I’m not sure other physical embellishments in fashion design could warrant its own exhibition like a feather does.  That’s down to the history of the feather, worn with symbolic gesture through the ages, the  physical varieties of feathers (ostrich, swan, pheasant, duck and surprisingly, chicken seem to be the dominant types on display) but also the number of ways fashion designers have used feathers in their work in the 20th-21st century.  That’s how the exhibition is partially split up as it looks at the feather used as a trimming, as a trompe l’oeil print or as an overall texture.  These parts of the exhibition showcase the intricate and work of premiere plumassiers such as Maison Lemarié in Paris (who contributed to MOMU for the exhibition) for haute couture houses and there are stellar examples on display.  Chanel of course features heavily as does Cristóbal Balenciaga, who employed feathers to create some of his most striking silhouettes in the sixties and Yves Saint Laurent, who emancipated the feather (and arguably women) from being merely ornamental.  

There are parochial points of categorisations such as examples of feathers used in footwear and hats.  They feel like filler cabinets, although the collection of feather-adorned Roger Viviers are a delight to see in terms of colour and what was once directional experimentation.  Where the exhibition does excel though is when it explores the more emotive and ethereal moments where feathers are explored for their symbolic and poetic qualities.  Thierry Mugler’s fantastical bird, butterly and woman hybrid dress from his 1997 haute couture collection opens the exhibition with an impressive feathered wingspan that depicts woman as flighty and mysterious.  Ann Demulemeester is given a section to herself as she has turned to the feather (particularly the feather of a dove) time and time again as a personal talisman, believing in its natural beauty.  “We cannot perfect nature,” she says in the programme notes.  The duality of the White and Black Swan play out in two sections, led bu two Alexander McQueen feathered gowns pitted against each other (incidentally the one white dress is designed by Sarah Burton and the black by Lee McQueen).

It’s here where feathers go far and beyond simply decorating a dress but imbuing it with a special aura, playing into mythical bird women imagery.  That mysterious feeling surrounding a bird feather are further emphasised with installations by British artist Kate MccGwire dotted around the exhibition.  Their scale startles you and makes you stop for a moment to respond to their strangeness.  Ditto for Sølve Sundsbø’s famous Perroquet video series for SHOWStudio.com.  You leave wondering how all this strange beauty can be derived from supposedly lightweight feathers.  

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0E5A0012Thierry Mugler haute couture S/S 1997

0E5A0010Louis Vuitton A/W 2013-4

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0E5A0015Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture A/W 2006-7

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0E5A0019Kate MccGwire – Vex (2008)

0E5A0022Yves Saint Laurent 1969

0E5A0027Prada S/S 2005

0E5A0028Hermès printed dress 1970-80

0E5A0031Thierry Mugler haute couture A/W 1997-8

0E5A0032Prada S/S 2005, Giambattista Valli A/W 2009-10, Louis Vuitton headdress S/S 2014, peacock feathered muff 1860-1870, Christian Dior haute couture A/W 1997-8 fur-trimmed shoes

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0E5A0039House pyjamas in silk satin with an abstract pattern 1926-27

0E5A0040Dries van Noten A/W 2013-4

0E5A0042PJ Harvey in Ann Demeulemeester photographed by Patrick Robyn

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0E5A0047Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton S/S 2011

0E5A0048Nina Ricci by Olivier Theyskens haute couture A/W 2007-8

0E5A0051Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci haute couture A/W 2011-2

0E5A0055Chanel haute couture S/S 1994

0E5A0053Gucci A/W 2012-3

0E5A0057Alexander McQueen A/W 2009-10

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0E5A0075Roger Vivier shoes

0E5A0062Chanel haute couture A/W 2004-5

0E5A0073Giambattista Valli haute couture S/S 2013

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0E5A0066Rochas by Olivier Theyskens A/W 2004-5

0E5A0076Works by Kate MccGwire – Stifle (2009), Preen (2013)

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0E5A0082Chanel Métiers d’Art 2013 ‘Paris-Edimbourg’

0E5A0087Yves Saint Laurent haute couture A/W 1968-69

0E5A0088Yves Saint Laurent haute couture A/W 2000-1

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When I first started going to China for work a few years ago, I got into the whole Weibo thing for a while, updating in my pidgin Chinese and generally being very “Yay China!” about everything.  Then the few comments (and I don’t have a sizeable following on Weibo at all…) I got tended to be quite negative – why are you dressed like that, you’re fat, blah blah blah.  You get the same sort of thing on Instagram these days.  No biggie of course because eight years of blogging has thickened the skin somewhat, but in my head to go with what is a national stereotype anyway, conforming in China seems to be everything.  Go slightly out of line – be it through your choice of slightly voluminous trousers, your shade of lipstick or worse yet, your natural body type (yes, I have puffy cheeks – AND WHAT?) – and you put it out there and you can be sure to face a negative barrage of feedback.

Therefore it was heartening to find some sort of alternative haven.  A few days ago, I went up to Shenzhen to visit the designers ffiXXed for the book and they very kindly took me to OCT Loft – a creative assembly of studio and shops – where I met Timmy and Jason from Little Thing.  The Chinese name quite literally translates into “Fetish” but that would give people the wrong idea about this magazine and shop.  Timmy and Jason started their publication back in 2008 and has since built up a sizeable readership and cult following worldwide, and now they have added a shop to support all the sort of Little Things they like such as Indie Chinese and Asian labels, crafty bits and pieces from all around the world as well as their own clothing line Unilogical Poem.  It’s sort of like an Etsy vintage explosion inside the space as labels like patchwork pieces by Lu Flux from London and vintage-inspired Ms. Min mash up with cutesy patterned tights, handmade jewellery,  patchwork furniture (obsessed with the Brutcake chairs they had) and numerous kitschy knick knacks.  It can be twee overload but it’s nonetheless interesting to see Little Thing foster a like-minded community.  Little Thing regularly host events like flea markets and for the first time staged their own group indie fashion show last month, where their readers come together and suddenly, just when you think Chinese style seems so very carbon-copied and cookie-cutter-esque, out come a select group of eclectic mavens.

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The magazine was especially interesting to delve into and I took away a few issues to find a very thoroughly executed formula that makes Little Thing something of a unique entity.  I don’t *think* anything quite like it exists in other languages.  It’s kind of like a strange hybrid of Lula, Oh Comely, So-En, and Frankie mixed up with any number of those super specialist Japanese magazines about cookery, gardening and crafting.

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They have a love of labouring over the art of print, which has resulting in an opening page of paper cut pop-outs to go with the theme of every issue.

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Every issue has a set theme, such as Paper, Necklace, Candy or Porcelain.  They’re themes that feel thuddingly obvious and literal but in the magazine they manage to spin off in unexpected ways.  The theme is anchored with a central editorial where they really let their imaginations run wild.

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They don’t run a great number of fashion stories in the magazine but there’s still enough to show some breadth.  Fortunately not everything is as OTT or kitschy themey as the central editorial.

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The theme then gets put into a educational and historical context.  The history of paper dolls, 18th century porcelain or Elizabethan jewels might be discussed.  It’s a pleasant surprise of a tangent filled with depth and detail, that you can’t quite imagine popping up in style titles in the West.  It’s well-researched (by my basic Chinese comprehension) and engaging and makes you wish other magazines would geek out on this level.

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The themes also get put into a contemporary cultural context so they give examples of cloud/space inspirations in fashion (for their Air issue) or jewellery appearing prominently in film (for their Necklace issue).

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Then every theme is explored through interviews and profiles with artists, artisans, tradesmen, craftspeople and designers working today.  This is where Little Thing really excels as they seek to find names that aren’t necessarily household and then go quite indepth with their line of questioning.  It’s not a pithy one/two line mention with a pic or two but a real exploration of their portfolio and way of working.

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The obligatory street style element here is represented by a style diary of would-be Little Thing dream girls…

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To round-off the lifestyle component of Little Thing, much is devoted to interiors with people like Emily Chalmers of interiors store Caravan, regularly contributing a column about decoration and thrifting.

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Page space is also devoted to other lovely Insta/Pinterest friendly activities such as creating bouquets, eating healthily (but without the faddy diets) and other crafting techniques.

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The point isn’t that I’m necessarily a Little Thing devotee.  Flicked at speed, the magazine can like I said, be too twee for my own taste.  But at the same time, in the context of a country that doesn’t necessarily have counter culture and rebellion against the mainstream ingrained into their mindset, Little Thing definitely is a breath of fresh air.  Judging by the number of advertorials it does run and the healthy print run it has, it also seems to be paying to be as niche as it is.  Cornering a specific aesthetic and mastering it is definitely one way of print media to weathering the great shift to digital.  I believe you can buy issues overseas through their Facebook page here if you think you might be slayed by the world of Little Thing.