I’m loathe to use buzzwords.  Especially ones preceded by a hash sign #.  “Woke” is one of those dreaded words, not so much because of its meaning and intentions but more to do with the general implications of its usage.  Its very grammatical structure implies that somehow the people that aren’t crowing about their “wokeness” online are asleep, drugged by political and social lethargy.  And where it is used as a hashtag, one’s very acknowledgement of “wokeness” seems to dent the noble cause they purport to protest and fight for.

However, it is a useful bit of vernacular when looking at a new generation of designers, graduating from their embattled MA courses, from which they emerge into the world, saddled with an increased amount of debt and most probably riddled with uncertainty as to whether they can make it in an ever-tough industry.  Being “woke” is what will differentiate these designers from the ones that simply want to make pretty clothes.  In fact, aesthetically pleasing things may not be enough to entice a younger generation of consumers who prioritise experiences over stuff.

And so on the day the extraordinary election in the UK played out, 48 MA students from the Royal College of Art under the tutelage of Zowie Broach made their debut through a combination of performance, choreography and installation, in a stand-out graduate show that utilised both a traditional catwalk show structure as well as that of an art gallery.  “It is fitting that the show takes place at the very moment when the UK decides on its future Government,” said Broach in the introductory notes.  “Since the UK voted to leave the EU last June, students have been asking urgent questions about owning their own culture that haven’t been asked for generations.  They have been pushed to ask deeper questions about fashion within the current political climate and its power to effect change in this unsettling landscape.”

From the overtly political to personal identity issues to the questioning of gender archetypes and materials, this cohort of students had idealised ideas in spades.  And they ranged in their final resolution of commercial viability, from clothes you could see making their way onto a shop rail to more visually surreal results.  That’s how the show seemed to oscillate from the down-to-earth to the fantastical.  Zahra Hosseini kicked proceedings off with a sobering display of the Muslim call to prayer.  A leather-trimmed black chador robe, unfolded to form a prayer mat, like an origami fortune teller.  Downstairs in the basement Hosseini’s Iranian compatriot Maryam Navasaz also drew from her Islamic identity, with her exaggerated head pieces sitting zen in a verdant courtyard garden.  At a time when feelings of fear and anxiety have sadly once again been stoked up around extreme Islam, both Hosseini and Navasaz felt pertinent in their objectives.

Zahra Hosseini, Womenswear


Maryam Navasaz, Womenswear Millinery


More topical moments came when Bianca Saunders’ black men wandered out in clothes that sought to define “contemporary black masculinity”.  Bathed in a pink light, one central figure in a do-rag and little else was lifted up by the others like a baptism of sorts.  The references to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight were deliberate and were instantly felt.  Saunders hopes to start her own label soon.  Another voice that adds yet another dimension to black masculinity is certainly more than welcome.  Ellie Rousseau’s rave-inspired oversized knits and Manchester-proud garb came trooping out with signage that was bound to get an election night crowd going.  “Corbyn In, Tories Out”, “Save our Future” and “Peace for MCR” were met with vehement cheers.   Another menswear knitwear designer, Jennifer Koch chose to address her own personal gripes about Chinese identity with a blinged out sportswear collection, doused in fortune cookies and lucky red packets.  As a mother of a biracial “hafu”, the statement “You look more Asian today” was bound to resonate.

Bianca Saunders, Menswear


Ellie Rousseau, Menswear Knitwear


Jennifer Koch, Menswear Knitwear


Designers that chose to confront the real and the mundane also found their calling in knitwear (a particular strong suit of the RCA MA graduates).  Alison Hope Murray exploited the stretchy property of her monochromatic knits to express a state of extreme comfort – so much so that one model can feel comfortable in her own topless skin.  Pippa Harries‘ knitwear was more rigorous with its nods to traditional silhouettes but in peeling back a pair of checked trousers with ciggy in mouth and a leek in hand, it revealed a facet of odd domesticity that was intriguing.

Alison Hope Murray, Womenswear Knitwear


Pippa Harries, Womenswear Knitwear


When things took a more fantastical turn, they still held true to that personal quest for answers to questions consistently asked in culture at large.  Alternative ideas of female empowerment – another misused buzzword – were explored by Fabian Kis Juhasz, and his cartoonish horror film archetypes with daggers in their feet and blood drenched tulle.  Women as maximal flora/fauna was expressed in Rose Frances Danford-Phillips‘ joyous explosion of nature-driven embroidery and feathers.  And to flip that gender exploration, Sophie Condron‘s pastel-kitsch installation of pink satin, rhinestones and nan’s house soft furnishings, transposed onto her menswear collection made for heady viewing.

Fabian Kis-Juhhasz, Womenswear


Rose Frances Danford-Philips, Womenswear Knitwear


Sophie Condren, Menswear


Confronting a rocky future ahead hasn’t killed these designers’ ability to dream big.  There were a few that unashamedly tapped into the aesthetics of the futuristic convincingly.  Aubrey Wang is hoping to set up a collective of engineers, artists and tech heads – an ambition, which was reflected in her retro sci-fi cast of characters, welding giant mobiles and encased in Mars Attacks glass bubbles.  Han Kim pieced together plastic feathers of candy stripes and polka dots in a CMYK colour palette, in complex bird-like configurations on the body.  And Colin Horgan‘s woman stood on the precipice of danger, in draped bands of holographic and black patent, that elongate the body into female figures of strength such as Lightning from my own Saturday night childhood TV staple, Gladiators and Nina Williams from the video game Tekken.  For me, they were all a welcome dismissal of a pervasive minimalism that has dominated fashion MA shows of recent years.

Aubrey Wang, Womenswear


Han Kim, Womenswear


Colin Horgan, Womenswear


The most memorable of RCA grads have often surprised with their interpretation of materials or garment categories.  Their millinery pathway once again excelled with Jing Tan‘s surreal presentation of strange fruit and flower bouquet heads atop conservative looking suited men.  We got to experience the top of the world with Ting Ting Zhang‘s physical iCloud of computer-programmed knitted hats, which utilises the same technology as Nike’s FlyKnit.  She plans to set up her own label to bring her headfuls of knitted data to the world.  Why?  “Because they are slogans, they are full of spirits, they are forever on the top. And of course, they are indeed cute!”  Quite.

Jing Tan, Menswear Millinery


Tingting Zhang, Womenswear Millinery


In between the two runway shows, we were invited to explore the installations that also yielded new exploration into the possibilities of materials on the body.  Take Abbie Stirrup’s “tailored gunge”, which had models dripping in moulded neon silicone and realtime applied gunge.  Stirrup is proposing the idea that these second skins could perhaps enrich us spiritually or even one day nourish us physically.  It’s not too far off the mark if vitamin drip bags take on a wearable form.  Louis Anderson-Bythell seems set to open up a materials lab with his collection of self-shrinking, elastomer garments, moulded and cast into clothing that appears to be alive.  His work points to the fact that true exploration of the technologically new in mainstream fashion is still largely absent.  “Fashion is always quick to adopt an image, slower to adopt any new mechanism. Maybe this will change.”

Abbie Stirrup, Womenswear


Louis Patric Alderson-Bythell, Womenswear


Finally, you have Kira Goodey‘s intricate shoes that range from more ready-to-wear friendly leather specimens to a full-on slashed PVC bodysuit, printed with a blur of Into the Void-esque neon lights from her recent travels to Tokyo.  She like all her contemporaries, is hopeful for change.  “We are on the brink of a paradigm shift in terms of the way fashion is designed, manufactured and sold – one that will usurp the ready-to-wear mass produced culture currently in place.  This movement will be much more grassroots and empowering to smaller manufacturers.”

Collectively, this was a graduate showcase that left you with a sense of optimism for fashion’s future – woke and ready to wake this industry up with their ideas.  On Alison Hope Murray’s own website, her personal summary of the RCA show says it best.  “Just because we can’t buy a house. Doesn’t mean we won’t work something else out for ourselves.  Stay tuned, we’ll probably Facebook Live the whole thing.”  

Kira Goodey, Footwear

“I don’t like the word cruise,” declared Miuccia Prada after well, what was in fact, Prada’s first cruise show.  That sounds like a deliberately contrary thing to say when venturing into but I think what Miuccia really meant was that she these clothes that form a pre collection in between the two main ready to wear seasons aren’t just for the jet set cruising folk.  They’re clothes that spend the bulk of the year on a shop floor, hence why they’re given this mini schedule of experiential shows.

But even as Prada felt the commercial need to join the other biggie houses in showing their resort collection, they were never going to do so in a far-flung location.  Another reason why the word “cruise” feels inappropriate.  Instead we went to the historical heart of Prada.  Moments away from their 150+ year old historical store in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, is the Osservatorio, a new addition to the Fondazione Prada, which will play host to photography exhibitions.  You clamber up and industrial staircase and find yourself in what feels like a secret of a space, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the iron framed cupola of the Galleria.   For this particular showset, OMA/AMO deliberately designed a contrast between the grandiose curves of the central dome, conceived by Giuseppe Mengoni in the 19th century, with a surreal mirrored set and pink satin linear seating, flanked by photographic screens.  Miuccia was fixated on the transparency of this setting – the view of the cupola seen from the Osservatorio, the panes of glass that loom over the resplendent shopping arcade and the flood of light coming into the space itself.  It certainly felt wildly different to the Prada shows of norm, held in their headquarters in a windowless space.

The Osservatorio also happens to be a lot smaller than the normal Prada show space.  All the better to appreciate Prada’s first standalone resort outing.  The transparency in the venue prompted a delicate spread of Japanese organza-esque fabric worked into frothy lingerie layers, echoing the pastel hued cakes and confectionary of the Prada-owned iconic cafe Passticeria Marchesi 1824 downstairs, where we had lunch beforehand.  Those ultra feminine underpinnings were contrasted with puffed up sportswear, like an off-the-shoulder tracksuit jacket with billowing sleeves, worn with knee high striped socks and chunky trainers.  I love that there’s a hint of late Victoriana worked into the track tops.

“I wanted something contemporary – somehow sporty – and then for it to metamorphose into elegance and then vice versa,” said Miuccia.  “I really had in mind what this place means in history and the beauty and charm of that period.  There was a sensuality as well as an eccentricity.”  And so the girls with their single feather headbands, girlish plaits and layers that flickered from club sportif to Belle Epoque promenade walked to a similarly juxtaposed soundtrack, where Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, sampled by Malcom McLaren on a mash-up house track on his album Waltz Darling.

There was also an unabashed transparency about the way some of Prada’s greatest hits were recycled and remixed.  Miuccia talked about her love of see-through fabrics in the 90s and add to that, you can tick off familiar Prada territory such as knee-high socks, techy nylons, diamanté and feather trims.  But the most notable Prada archive resurrection was a repeat collaboration with the artist James Jean, who was responsible for the fluid Art Nouveau-ish lines of fairies and blossoms in the S/S 2008 collection.  His signature florid lines this time featured illustrations of a reworking of the Prada logo and rampant pink bunnies.  This time round, Jean’s illustrations were sensual rather than whimsical.  There are many Prada collections that have been seared into my memory but that I particularly remember the frenzy of love for this one.  It’s been a whole decade since that S/S08 collection and thus there’s enough distance for Miuccia to dip into her archives, reviving an artistic collaboration for a new generation of customers.  No doubt, those illustrated bunny bags will fly.  For the Prada faithful such as myself, that of course wasn’t the only cause for celebration in this collection.  Much like the rows of mini fruit tarts and iced mini treats at Marchesi, you’re tempted to say, “One of everything, please!”

>> How to alleviate the tiresome feeling of waddling around town with what feels like a 3 kilo bag of rice strapped to your belly?  By doing the conga with a human sized dinosaur mascot and Bryan Boy, which got the bump jiggling along too.  And as I hit my final days of being quite uncomfortably pregnant, I thought I’d look back to more jovial times when me, bump and Rexy were havin’ it large at the Coach House flagship store opening in London’s Regent Street back in November.

As this belatedly posted set of photographs attest, touring new stores – more often than not a solemn activity, peppered with facts about marble finishings and architecture waffle – can indeed be fun.  That is the key word of course that has underpinned Stuart Vevers’ turnaround of the brand, particularly in the runway Coach 1941 collections.  But even as T-rexes and stegosauruses waggle their leather puzzle piece tails about and kitschy Brit-themed badges that peppered a special capsule collection of accessories and varsity jackets (scoured from eBay by Vevers’ team apparently), there’s heft to back up the frivolity.  At the Craftsmanship Bar, there’s a wall of emojis to choose from to monogram Coach classics, in addition to the normal initial stamping.  Downstairs, there’s now a Made-to-Order service where a bespoke Rogue bag can be created in over one million possible colour combinations.  And throughout the store, Coach’s hometown of New York is evident in black steel fixtures, mahogany wood and a central mechanised conveyor belt that actually moves – a symbol of the chugging along of Coach’s upward trajectory.  Even Bryan and I play acting with a baseball glove and ball bears some significance, as they’re pertinent reminders of the glove-tanned leather that the founder of Coach was inspired to create because of the well-worn patina and buttery feel of a pitcher’s glove.

For Vevers, London is a chance to come home and officiate Regent Street with a proper retail incarnation of what he has achieved at Coach.  It’s a concept that has rolled out in New York and is likely to do so in the future in other cities.  The word “House” as opposed to “Maison” is fitting for a store that sits on what a street that straddles between contemporary, high street and designer.

A giant Rexy near the entrance is there to invite gawkers in for a gander and a feel of what are in essence, comparatively accessible products.  Incidentally, did you know Rexy’s a “she”?  According to Vevers, “she’s” not strictly speaking part of Coach’s 75 year history but has become an apt character and mascot, representing the sort of japes that now goes down in Coach design team.  Nope it’s not that dignified or necessarily “luxurious” to be hugging a lycra-clad female dressed up as a T-Rex.  But it is a laugh – and nestled in amongst all that leather and shearling – it’s providing a formula that’s working for Coach’s newfound customer base.

 

This post is part of an on-going social media partnership with Coach

I joked to a friend that London is burying its head in luxurious looking baubles and fairy lights this year as a privileged rebuff to Brexit, Trump and what has generally been a year that I’m personally fine to see the back of.  Because the last time I was in town, wandering the streets of Oxford, Regent, Carnaby and Bond, London DID look particularly seductive.  It’s that warm glow of beckoning merchandise, whiffs of spice and all things nice and the sort of curated-to-the-hilt tasteful Christmas that have spawned about a bajillion books on the values of Danish hygge.

Except, I’ve not been able to enjoy any of this much.  This holiday period where my birthday bleeds into that Christmas lull, hasn’t been that merry.  Those of you who follow me on Instagram and Twitter might have sniffed out the reasons why.  I’ve not even thought about what wrapping paper I might use this year, which will surprise those who know me as an obsessive consummate papier freak, hellbent on matching up GSM to folding techniques, and ribbon texture to patterns.

Christmas pop-up shops are even further from my mind.  Pop-up.  Pop-off.  Whereas normally I’ll do a quick blitz weekend of pooting from one crafty affair to the next, this year will see the penultimate days to Christmas spent… well, not doing much to be honest.  I did however find some time to go and see Birdsong’s first physical temporary presence in Shoreditch.  Their feminist pop-up concept store is also another way of combatting the “heart breaking shiftiness of 2016” in Slater’s words.

I’m hesitant to add the loaded word “ethical” to what Birdsong do.  Their tagline “No Sweatshops, No Photoshop” is perhaps a more comprehensible way of describing what Sarah Beckett, Ruba Huleihel and Sophie Slater have collectively created.  I can crow “social enterprise”, “fair fashion” and “ethical sourcing” at you from dusk till dawn.  Those phrases can daunt a shopper.  The crux of Birdsong is, that they’re selling lovely things, made in partnership with lovely women’s organisations and charities and you feel lovely as a result.  You can delve deeper and look at the incredible women’s knitting groups or impoverished migrant women’s circles that create these things.  Or you can stop and admire aesthetics alone and just count on  the fact that by shopping at Birdsong, something good is coming out of that credit/debit card swipe.

They have bought their feminist-focused wares to physical fruition at their pop-up on 46 Charlotte Road, alas only on until Monday 19th.  No matter.  You have this penultimate Christmas weekend to head on down and pick up a selection of what I think are pretty ace gifts for a lot of people I know.

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Avocado/egg/pomegranate boob sweatshirts and tees?  They’re not just there for emoji lolz.  They’re a result of designer Clio Peppiatt working with the women’s migrant group Mohila in Tower Hamlets to hand paint these fun motifs, that means they can earn a living wage whilst their children go to school, which subsequently goes into a collective pot for the group.  There are also a few pieces from Clio’s AW16 at the pop-up too.

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cliopClio Peppiatt AW 16

Or how about a hand knitted jumper, lovingly made by elderly female knitting circles Knit and Natter in Enfield and The Bradbury Centre in Kingston.  Each tag tells you who made your cosy piece.

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I expect the printed tees, swimsuits and hand painted denim by public artist Ibiye Camp to fly off the rails.  As part of an ongoing series ‘Such a Fan’, Ibiye uses denim as her canvas for black pop cultural icons like Lil’ Kim, Beyonce and TLC as well as more historical figures such as Rosa Parks and Josephine Baker.  In addition to paying homage to these brilliant women, they also happen to be awesome to look at/wear.

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Perhaps one of the most poignant stories to emerge from Birdsong is that of label Two Neighbors, a collaborative enterprise created by an Israeli and a Palestinian, putting their differences aside and meeting in a border town between Israel and the Palestinian Territories to find a co-existing common ground by employing both Palestinian and Israeli seamstresses to give a modern spin on traditional Palestinian embroidery that has been passed from generation to generation by women in the south Hebron hills.  In grid formation, traditional motifs and symbols of Palestinian culture are cross stitched and Two Neighbors becomes the linking conduit to take that tradition and filter it through contemporary designs such as the tencel jackets that are being sold at Birdsong’s pop-up.

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Tonight, Birdsong’s pop-up will be doing a launch event in collaboration with the first period-proof underwear brand Thinx, who caused a stir last  year when their supposedly provocative ad campaign was initially banned on the NYC subway.  Thinx is the brainchild of Miki Agrawa, who spent three years designing these wonder knickers that are able to absorb up to two tampons worth of blood.  Having done a NCT class on postpartum bleeding and the joys of Tena Lady Pants (!), I’m somewhat intrigued by Thinx so will definitely have to get some for trialling.  TMI?  Well, that’s the nature of being a woman isn’t it and thankfully, Thinx don’t shirk from those biological truths.

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thinxad

1200 grid for designers and developers

Being a sucker for African prints, I was also drawn to Khama, a group of designers and makers in London who work with a workship in Kasungu in Malawi to create clothes and accessories from that distinctive West African printed chitenge fabric, that has been ethically sourced and often produced in limited print runs.

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More underwear as Birdsong also gives substantial space to Pico, a London-based brand, that are entirely traceable from organic cotton farms to a fairtrade workshop in the South of India.

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Jewellery wise, the selection is again geared towards organisations that help women around the world better their lives.  Birdsong founder Sophia Slater makes an important point in this interview where she points out the pitfalls of feminism that is overtly focused on the issues of middle class white women and so the more global feminist stance becomes a unique USP at Birdsong.  “It can’t just be ‘Feminism Lite’ for middle-class white women,” she says.  “For us, worker’s rights, funding cuts and a lack of diversity are all top priorities.”  Jewellery designer Kirsty Kirkpatrick for instance works with the Fountain of Life Women’s Centre in Pattaya in Thailand to create her Jit-Win-Yan jewellery made out of semi-precious and regional gems, with all funds from sales going back to the organisation.  London-based jewellery label Finchittida, created by Lao-British twin sisters Tida and Lisa Finch focus their efforts on clearing the residual bombs in their mother’s home country Laos, left behind from the Vietnam war.  And Quazi Design‘s workshop in Sidwashini, Swaziland give full time employment to female artisans, in need of a living wage to support on average seven dependents per woman.

 

 

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More familiar names are also available at Birdsong’s pop-up in the form of Auria swimwear, made out of recycled fishnets as well as Alex Noble’s… well, noble EMG Initiative salvage t-shirts.

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It none of the clothing floats your boat, these brilliant drawings or surly girls in sassy clothes by Clio Isadora surely will, coupled with some lovely heartfelt bouquets by Bread and Roses, new florist venture that works with refugee women in Hackney.

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I’m guilty of making Christmas about ‘stuff’ and ‘frivolity’ as much as the next person but a visit to Birdsong is a pertinent reminder of what this time of year can really mean.

Birdsong concept store open until Monday 19th a December at 46 Charlotte Road, Shoreditch, London