I’m just about emerging out of a hallucinatory haze, comprising the tail end of what seemed like a never ending pregnancy, a shockingly speedy labour that then segued into a shocking amount of blood loss and then two solid months (feeling like two years) of falling in love with this new being in my life and having my heart stabbed every time she cries.  And then all the while, the fashions have been going on in New York, London, Milan and Paris and I wasn’t there for the first time in about seven years.  Colleagues and cohorts have said I haven’t missed much but I think they’re just trying to make me feel better.

It’s not however necessarily the fashion that I have missed but the feeling of doing something with my brain, unclouded by feeding times, nap times, more feeding times and the occasional time when her eyes are awake, looking at you in that way that makes you feel like an awful human being for even thinking about wanting to do anything BUT look after her.  I’ve barely written a thing.  I’ve not read anything longer than a five hundred word online article (or more precisely a few panicked sentences in a baby forum that never seems to answer the question that I’m asking at 4am in the morning).  Venturing outside and breathing physical fresh air has mostly ended with my rushing back inside the house, clutching an Amazon Prime parcel or a bouquet of flowers (thanks friends, family and fashion peeps for filling our house with all that flora).

That haze is slowly clearing up though and with Nico Hiu Nei (pronounced Lei if you speak Cantonese) Salter-Lau registered and writ real into the world, I’m also beginning to think about integrating my daughter (I’m still trying that word on for size… ) into life, rather than making life revolve around her.  That could also be fighting talk that decrescendos into me staying in a nursing bra and bobbly overwashed leggings for the next week.

Still, the haze did produce something to kickstart the blog with, after the looooong hiatus.  Namely, a variety of shades of a colour that automatically accompanies and heralds the birth of a baby girl.  Thankfully, the range of pinks I’ve been receiving have been of the nuanced kind.  And they’re also things that don’t just revolve around saccharine baby gifts.  I’ve also been feeding my sleep addled brain  – online and in person – with images that are incidentally along that colour register.  On film Natalie Portman standing in the White House in a blood-splattered pink Chanel suit in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, Naomie Harris staring down the camera with a menacing neon pink light behind her and Matty Bovan’s pink hued fashion film Girlness have been on my mind.  Wolfgang Tillmans’ skyscapes and crustacea and Ren Hang’s visceral poeticism and Maisie Cousins’ sexually charged fruits and flowers are also floating around in the noggin somewhere.  There’s little coherence below other than the shared colour palette but that’s par for course when you’re going through the postpartum pink haze.

Molly Goddard S/S 17 dress worn with Chanel t-shirt, Waven jeans and Shrimps x Converse hi-tops

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Lina Scheynius image from “09”

Sandy Liang dress with Yolke sleep mask and J.W. Anderson pink Pierce bag

Patty Carroll “Anonymous Women” series

Nico in Stella McCartney bunny knitted romper and bonnet, Soft Gallery onesie from Scandi Mini, La Coqueta booties, Studio Arhoj moneybanks and Loewe blanket

Wolfgang Tillmans, Astro Crusto, 2012 

Wolfgang Tillmans, From the Skies, 2015

Nico in Fendi Baby romper and pram blanket with Melanie Johnsson prints

Anna Barlow ceramic ice-cream tiles

Holly Hendry installation at “Wrot” Baltic Mill, 2017

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Karen Walker “Transformers” sunglasses and Sophie Hulme S/S 17 Albion tote worn with Prada jumper

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Naomie Harris in Moonlight

Natalie Portman in Jackie

Still from Matty Bovan’s film Girlness for Barbie’s 58th Birthday

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India Mahdavi interior for Red Valentino store in London

Milo Baughman sofa from Coming Soon NY

Plys knitwear and Christopher Kane safety buckle Devine bag 

James Springall collage

Jo Brocklehurst drawing from Nobodies and Somebodies at House of Illustration

Fendi S/S 17 “Rokoko” trainer boots and Prada lace-up socks

Christian Lacroix homage editorial photographed by Roe Ethridge and styled by Katie Shillingford from AnOther Magazine S/S 17

There are some press trips that you just don’t say no to.  Try as I have done to limit my travel schedule this year, opportunities that involve the following…  Rome, Valentino – both the founder of the house Valentino Garavani and his successorsMaria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli (who Garavani repeatedly refers to as his “guardian angels”), the opera La Traviata and Sofia Coppola… are somewhat irresistible.

And so I found myself in Rome for the fourth time again within the last year, to witness the premiere of La Traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, directed by Coppola, featuring costumes by Garavani for the lead character Violetta, with Flora and the Chorus outfitted by Chiuri and Piccioli, all constructed in the Valentino atelier and also financially supported by the Fondazione Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti.  That’s a lot of dreamy cross-field collaboration going on there.

During the press conference before the premiere, Garavani and the director of Rome’s opera house Carlo Fuortes described the project as “a dream come true”.  “When I met Mr Valentino and Mr Giammetti and we talked about La Traviata, I saw their eyes light up,” said Fuortes.  “In our business you have to catch this type of light.”  With Garavani’s help, the directing services of Coppola were secured, another coup for the opera house.  “I didn’t really know what to expect but when Mr Valentino approached me, I couldn’t really say no,” said Coppola.  “It really motivated me to take a chance and do something that was scary and unfamiliar for me.”

It might be unfamiliar territory in terms of directing for Coppola, the culture of opera is within her family with great uncle Anton Coppola being a noted conductor and composer.  “She was able to adapt to the typical Italian way of doing opera and in a way it’s like she was coming back to her origins as an Italian director,” said Fuortes, in reference to Coppola’s Italian heritage.  For Garavani, the obsession with La Traviata began when he was a young boy.  He was so enamoured with the project, that he managed to sketch out the four lavish costumes for Violetta (one for each scene in the opera), in just four hours.  “You will see that I gave the dresses a touch that reminds us of the time of the opera, but also a high fashion touch.”

From the perspective of Gavarani’s ‘angels’ – Chiuri and Piccioli, their approach to opera comes from the vantage point of an outsider, with both only really getting to grips with the art three years ago through working on their S/S 14 haute couture collection, which was inspired by famous operas and used the Rome opera house to paint the backdrops to the set.  “As an outsider, you can approach La Traviata with all its traditions and history, with fresh eyes and a new perspective,” said Piccioli.

Indeed, the injection of fresh energy, from having Maison Valentino behind the costumes as well as Coppola taking a character like Violetta and in her words, “finding a part of myself in her”, suddenly makes the idea of going to the opera – an art that still by and large struggles to connect with a younger audience – infinitely more appealing.  “Opera can be seen as something contemporary,” said Giammetti.  “The freshness and fragility of this woman is evoked through the dresses.  It’s not redundant or stuffy in any way.”  Chiuri and Piccoli also believe that this version of La Traviata can incite a fresh sort of excitement for those whoa are new to opera.  “We want to encourage curiosity,” said Chiuri.  “If you put a fashion house and a director like Sofia with La Traviata, that makes people curious.  Curiosity is what will bring the younger generation to the opera.”  The non digital nature (no waving of the mobile phone allowed during an opera) of the event could also be an added boon according to Piccioli.  “There’s something special about it being live.  In our digital world, there’s a bit of a distance and here you are so close to what you’re seeing.”  Clearly the lure of Valentino and Coppola behind the project has proved to be successful as they have already recouped EUR1.2 million in ticket sales against the EUR1.5 million cost of production, where opera productions are often loss-making ventures.

It’s an impressive culmination of creative entities that falls in line with Maison Valentino’s position as a Roman fashion house, whose output in recent seasons has of course taken direct inspiration from the opera and the performing arts.  It’s also a cultural exercise that adds a different dimension to Valentino’s haute couture, as it was emphasised that every costume was in effect, a piece of couture, fitted to a “real” performer’s body and made not out of fabrics that mimic luxury but ones that actually are the real deal.  Piccioli and Chiuri had the responsibility of fitting over 120 costumes for the cast.  “In a way, it was like real haute couture where you’re attuned to their needs,” said Piccioli.  “They’re chosen for their voices, not for the way they look and so it’s more intense in a way to fashion.”  Furthermore, it’s one of the few opportunities for us to see Garavani’s aesthetic blueprint sitting alongside with what Piccioli and Chiuri have created at the house.  His dresses for Violetta are unsurprisingly more grandiose and extravagant when contrasted next to the softly tiered tulle frocks and pastel Grecian gowns created by Piccioli and Chiuri.

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_MG_6686The train of Violetta’s opening act gown by Valentino Garavani

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_MG_6950The back of the red cape worn by Violetta at Flora’s party, where she is denounced by Alfredo

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_MG_7031The white dress worn by Violetta at her country house where she is happily in love with Alfredo

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_MG_7093Valentino Garavani adjusing sleeve of the nightgown ensemble, worn by Violetta in the final act of the opera

_MG_7143Dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the opening act

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_MG_7151The second dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the party scene

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On a tour around a largely empty atelier (in comparison the my last visit in July), some larger-than-model dress forms, padded out with strips of fabric and marked by black ribbons for measurements were dotted around, both to illustrate the demand that Valentino experiences for its haute couture (as it is currently finishing off its SS16 pieces for clients) as well as the extra work taken on for La Traviata.  The house’s connection with the opera were further stressed in a temporary exhibition of Valentino’s S/S 14 opera-inspired haute couture collection in the windows and shop floor of their Rome flagship store.  Resurrecting pieces like the on-theme La Traviata gown, made up of an embroidered tulle skirt that bears the score of the opera, or the lavishly embroidered Adam and Eve dress, only contributed to the connection between the house and this production.

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As a mild enthusiast of ballet and opera with a specific interest in the music (I’m a product of a very stereotypical Chinese upbringing, with my not so very virtuoso grade 8 piano skills), my knowledge of La Traviata was pretty elementary, having only seen the filmed Franco Zeffirelli version.  The story of course will be universally known by most (if you’ve watched Moulin Rouge for instance) and the Giuseppe Verdi score – particularly Violetta’s waltz – will also resonate, but for me, the primary point of difference with this version of La Traviata would lie in the costumes.  Coppola enthusiasts might have been expecting some sort of a twist but even before the premiere, it was asserted that this version of La Traviata would largely be a classical interpretation with some contemporary touches.  “I wanted to keep the focus on the beautiful music and beautiful costumes and bring the spirit of this young woman and make an opera that people can relate to and enjoy,” said Coppola.

And so, what played out was a faithful but strikingly stylish La Traviata, with perhaps the vulnerability of Violetta (played by Francesca Dotto), enhanced and brought out by Coppola’s direction and sensitivity towards young female characters, who are judged by society.  There were moments in the interaction between the staging and lighting that seemed to be solely focused on highlighting the costumes, particularly Garavani’s creations.  Violetta’s layered peacock-esque teal train as part of a black gown, that made dramatic movements as she walked, Nathan Crowley’s surreal white marble staircase in the opening act.  Her high-collared cape and gathered taffeta dress in Valentino red stood out against a sea of black at the Spanish-inflected party scene.  And finally as day broke just as Violetta’s consumption would claim her life, sunlight shone through the sleeves of her nightgown with roses embedded into the leg of mutton sleeves.  Chiuri and Piccioli’s contributions made their mark too, as even in a throng of female chorus singers, you could see that every tulle dress had a different detail or construction about them, be it in pastel shades in the opening act or entirely in noir at Flora’s party.  These weren’t identikit cast costumes and certainly helped to lighten the time period, from what is supposed to be a late Victorian-set opera.

Like their Mirabilia Romae show, this staging of La Traviata adds yet another Rome-rooted chapter to the history of Valentino.  The sincerity from all collaborators concerned made the occasion perhaps more about a gesture of goodwill and passion, rather than aiming for artistic subversion.  If you are lucky enough to see it, you’re in for a visual feast, one that tells you more about Valentino’s positioning and its prowess in haute couture, than the re-examination of an operatic masterpiece.

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STE_2676Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, looking resplendent in a SS16 haute couture opera coat

L1250649Giancarlo Giammetti with Pieraolo Piccoli and their buddy opera binoculars

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http---prod.static9.netEschewing an opera gown… Valentino pre-fall 2016 pyjama set worn with J.W. Anderson “Pierce” bag and Maison Margiela boots

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Most of the photographs courtesy of Valentino

So I’m back to the velvet underground
Back to the floor that I love
To a room with some lace and paper flowers
Back to the gypsy that I was, to the gypsy that I was

It wasn’t a reference cited by Kate and Laura Mulleavy but as their gossamer-thin shimmying and shining frocks (and yes, these really are frocks as opposed to merely dresses…) walked amongst their neon tube jungle, all I could hear in my head were these words of Stevie Nicks.  And Nicks’ particular mix of Victoriana-tinged folksy sultriness could be seen throughout, what I think is one of my favourite Rodarte shows in recent years.

Mentioning poets like Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning already partially immerse you into the Mulleavy’s hypnotic cosmos.  But it’s all about that final evocative rendering that really slays you.  That Victorian and Edwardian buttoned-up and corset-tied poetry ended up colliding with coquettish glamourama of the 1970s, from repeated listening of ELO.  It’s how all that lace, bugle beading and embroidery remained light and unapologetically frivolous.  It’s why in my own head, I thought of the vibes of American giallo classic The Eyes of Laura Mars, touches of Studio 54 and all its fur chubby-wearing revellers, and of course Nicks, who you could certainly see sashaying about in these frocks.  And so it wound up being a potent mix – one that affirms Rodarte as one of those labels that you appreciate for its very existence, as it occupies its own unique magical bolthole, away from the sea of ‘brands’ and ‘product’.  You’ll be hearing those two two words frequently of course, as New York Fashion Week will be kicking off on Wednesday.  Hurrah?

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steviec2Stevie Nicks

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Mary WardEnglish novelist Mary Ward

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emilydickensonEmily Dickinson

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lauramars1Stills from The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

fighting-vampire-layingPhotographs of the character Laura Mars by Rebecca Blake

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corset2Still from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

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biancajBianca Jagger in British Vogue 1974 photographed by Eric Boman

deborahtYves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche photographed by Deborah Turbeville 

Vogue-September-1977-Gold-Surprises-Photo-Deborah-Turbeville-Models-Sunny-Redmond_-Jerry-Hall-_-Unknown-Hair-Garren-Makeup-Ariella_4Vogue 1977 photographed by Deborah Turbeville

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picnicStill from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

nova-magazine-1970-04Nova magazine 1970

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rrPhotography by Rebecca Blake

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mode2Callot Sisters Salon in Paris photographed in 1910 – they were known for using antique laces and metallic lamé on their couture dresses

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discoHalston dresses in action in the 1970s

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victoriana1French singer and entertainer Marcelle Lender

victoriana2Photography of the May Queen Festival in 1892

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Stevie-Nicks-White-Top-Skirt-StageStevie Nicks

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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.

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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.

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circusf2From 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

Image sources: Christopher Lee SauveRebekah Campbell, Getty Images, Vogue.com, NYTimes, TMagazine, Schon Magazine, i-D, BFC