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I went into the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition at the Met last week whilst in New York with fairly low expectations, because I had pre-show suspicions that the theme had been shoe-horned in to appeal to tourists (lowered still by the lukewarm-ish reviews of the show).  Of course though, my own cultural background made the show all the more intriguing.

I was aware of the premise of the show curated by Andrew Bolton.  “This exhibition attempts to propose a less politicised and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” reads the introductory wall text. “The show is “not about China per se, but about a collective fantasy of China.”  Edward Said.  Orientalism.  This hard-to-pin-down idea of what is the proper way of appropriating culture.  Say no more.  I’m there, if not to admire, then certainly to critique. 

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Entering the lower levels of this vast three floor exhibition the sweeping sounds of Ryuichi Sakamaoto’s soundtrack for The Last Emperor hit me as well as a wall of opulent Manchu robes encased in glass globules alongside examples where Qing dynasty attire have infected Western fashion designers – with Tom Ford’s A/W 2004-5 collection for Yves Saint Laurent taking centre stage.   Though the impact of Qing robes can date further back as seen in pieces like a curiously printed shirt by Coco Chanel from the 1920s.  It opens with this historical reference as the exhibition maintains it’s one of the primary Chinese references that infect designers.

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Then swiftly on, film montages curated by Wong Kar Wai are themed around what is another potent period of inspiration – the early 20th century adoption of the quipao or cheongsam – best expressed in Wong Kar Wai’s films like In the Mood for Love or Eros.  Mandarin collared dresses by Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacob’s Louis Vuitton also sit side by side with 1920s-1930s examples of cheongsams.

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You wazz through Cultural Revolution-era China – clearly there aren’t enough Western takes on the Mao suit to showcase – and then get transported to Anna May Wong’s role in our first connection with China through Hollywood.  Adjoining rooms include dedications to the obvious benchmark collections such as Yves Saint Laurent’s 1977 A/W haute couture collection that had Mongol costume mashing up with Qing dynasty or Valentino’s recent special haute couture collection made for a show in Beijing backgrounded by classics like Raise the Red Lantern or Farewell my Concubine.  Blue and white porcelain also features heavily as a favoured decorative motif for designers like Roberto Cavalli, Valentino and Rodarte, to use as they wish. 

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Although certain collections from the late 20th century dominate the exhibition, Bolton does manage to make the point that looking to China for inspiration is something that goes back to a time before 20th century fashion.  In another lavish room, an 18th century French silk mantua in the spirit of Western chinoiserie is reflected in a faded mirror as is a brilliantly oddball toile de jouy gown with jutting out hooped skirts from John Galliano’s S/S 03 haute couture collection.  Reflected upon, refracted and ultimately re-intepreted – that’s how cultural references are cycled through in fashion – and the exhibition attempts to show this process in its best light.

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Where it becomes incredibly impressive is the centre room dedicated mostly to that aforementioned couture collection by Galliano.  They sit around a Chinese garden with a projected moon on the ceiling reflected on the water, a reference to the Chinese title of the exhibition – literally “Moon in the Water”.  The dramatic lighting makes the beautiful garments hint and glint at you.  In fact, Galliano’s work for Dior runs throughout the exhibition as one of the most heightened primary examples of the West looking Eastwards in fashion.  That collection was fascinating precisely because the manifestation was borne entirely out of wild imagination.  And it’s at that point you begin to forget about all concerns of cultural appropriation.

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Another favourite moment has to be the final portion of the exhibition where in amongst perspex bamboo rods, Craig Green’s zen-inspired S/S 15 collection – the one that made everyone cry – dominates.  That’s no mean feat for a young British menswear designer.  Word on the street is that Anna Wintour asked specifically for Green’s work to be included.  That’s heartening to know.  Green’s talent deserves to be recognised on this big big stage.

And by the by, the design, layout and arrangement really is fantastic.  Stephen Jones’ head dresses for the mannequins in particular really elevated it all.

But… and there is a but.  You leave with some what if’s.  The way the exhibition skirted around the idea of appropriation was as polite as most of the attendees at the Met Ball.  Beautiful?  Yes.  Risk-taking in terms of its critique.  Perhaps not.  In essence, the show writes itself out of any responsibility to represent Chinese attire in historic and accurate fashion as we’re invited to pass a non-judgemental and celebratory gaze over the garments on show.  But where does that leave the treatise on Orientalism?  What is the curator saying critically about this tendency that pervades fashion to “exoticise” the East?  To better illustrate the point of seeing China through the Western designer’s eye, you could bring in examples of work inspired by other parts of Asia, namely Japan – arguably a far larger influence on Western designers than China.  This would point to a cultural malaise that does infect the Western eye when appropriating “Asian” culture – that crossovers and misunderstanding  can often occur.  If the exhibition had retained its original title, “Chinese Whispers” it certainly would have helped to delve deeper into the “misunderstanding” part of the exhibition.

On the other hand, you wonder whether cultural appropriation deserves to be lambasted in the first place where China is concerned.  Adopting the mandarin collar or embroidering a dragon on a dress is not necessarily on the same level of cultural denigration as say wearing a feathered headdress from Native American culture at a festival.  When I went a second time with Steve on Sunday, I was surrounded by a throng of Chinese tourists.  You could overhear their comments of approval and fascination with the subject at hand.  Dresses by Rodarte or Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium collection were largely alien to them but their fantasised familiarity made for pretty and positive viewing.    

As it stands, Andrew Bolton and his team have succeeded at spectacularly showcasing the sumptuous visions of “Cathay” (as China was once known) conjured up by mostly Western designers, framed by superb exhibition design and film clips that present a smorgasbord of fantasy.  For better or for worse, they assert our collective imagination of women looking sensual and demure in qui-paos, beautiful brides in red and dashing men flying about in kung fu movies.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Especially when those images are created by Chinese people themselves (most of the directors of the films mentioned are Chinese).  In fact, the whole exhibition could be the equivalent of watching one of those visually rich films.  You’re seeing imagination at work as opposed to authenticity being dictated.

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“I did not know that when I first met you, we would go on to tell such a story,” said Olivier Saillard, as he raised a glass to his star collaborator Tilda Swinton at a beautiful Tuscan dinner last night held in a 12th century former convent where Gallileo’s daughter once lived.  The story Saillard was referring to is trio of performances, which he and Swinton have now worked on – The Impossible Wardrobe, Eternity Dress and now Cloakroom – all based on sartorial thought or .  You’ve read me go on and on about the brilliant and ingenious ways in which Saillard compels us to think about our clothes – what do they mean and how do they connect between mind, body and thread.  One of the primary reasons for attending Pitti this season was to experience this affinity between Saillard and Swinton as they reprised their Cloakroom performance especially for this edition of Pitti Uomo (a video teaser can be seen here).

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The significant thing about Saillard’s performances is their length.  Cloakroom was timed at about an hour long, and our performance in particular staged at the Teatro della Pergola yesterday was an hour and a half.  As fashion happenings go, there are few opportunities to take such a long length of time to really think.  To draw importance to the aspects of the fashion industry that we should be celebrating in order to elevate our field.  When Saillard performed Models Never Talk in New York, it raised questions about the modelling industry today.  When Saillard and Swinton first teamed up in Paris for The Impossible Wardrobe in 2012, they brought rare garments from the Palais Galliera to life, dusting dust off history for a new audience.  I didn’t see it but when they performed again in 2013, they brought attention to craftsmanship and process that goes into a garment.

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My own expectations were especially high to witness and then process yet another Swinton/Saillard coup  Cloakroom was performed in Paris back in November as part of the Festival D’Automne but because of the audience participation aspect of the performance, it meant every one would be quite different.  The idea came about when Saillard thought about the cloakroom or coat checks of the theatre or a fancy restaurant.  They’re archives in themselves, full of stories and memories.  Tilda Swinton therefore was our cloakroom attendant.  And as we the audience volunteered ourselves and our chosen cloakroom item to Swinton, she would react, interpret and ultimately elevate that piece of clothing, augmenting it with a memory or adding a layer of emotion to what ostensibly looks like a very ordinary garment.

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Only Swinton could enthral an audience whilst holding one of many (many!) black coats.  Her presence is thrilling to see in person as she gives herself so wholly to the performance, improvising without it looking disingenuous.  She’d humorously turn her back on a man, keeping him waiting whilst he waited for his stub.  A neoprene bulky jacket is gingerly stroked with curiosity.  She’d whisper to two ends of a scarf as though she were sharing secrets with friends.  She’d express fear of a corporate grey suit by ducking under the table.  One lady – head to toe in Prada and Miu Miu – hammed it up for the performance, flinging her blue mink coat on the table Devil Wears Prada style.  Swinton reacted demurely.

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The climax moment was when Swinton assumed a blue jacket and together with Saillard would breathe in and out, puffing out the jacket as though they were lungs.  Quite literally a life jacket.  Finally Swinton began to leave little mementos – little witty phrases such as “Make a wish when you first wear a new garment”, a wheat stalk, a spritz of perfume or a piece of paper sealed with a kiss.  Those with physical mementos will undoubtedly never look at their coats and scarves in the same way again.

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In Paris, luminaries like Charlotte Rampling, Stella Tennant, Haider Ackermann and Michel Gaubert handed over their expensive coats and jackets.  Here in Florence, the coats handed over were far more subtle and dare I say mundane.  Which only makes Swinton’s performance even more remarkable.  She held our attention for an hour and a half as she assumed and possessed every piece of clothing in a different way.  And she made me think about so many things in the process.  How you are perceived by what you wear.  How people react to you.  How I wear certain things for certain occasions because of what i’ve associated with that specific garment.  How a piece of clothing makes you feel once it’s on.  How memories are built with clothing.  How you can almost rely on something as though it were a trusty companion.  How the simple pleasures of pushing hands into pocket can feel comforting.

Too much thought on mere clothes, some would say.  Apparently we’ve got bigger and more important things to be thinking about.  But if we reduce our industry to pure surface, that’s a depressing thought.  I can only clutch on to a fantasy that there’s got to be meaning to what we wear and Swinton and Saillard emphatically demonstrated that.

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I’ve had a few of the conversations with other journalists – that they don’t “get” Hood by Air and then I go on to defend HBA – staunchly in fact.  It might surprise a few of you that me in my pastel candy la-la-land corner will want to be going gun ho for a brand that communicates in black and white – literally – branding the letters HBA all over their once-cult, now-mass fanbase.  Ever since Shayne Oliver founded Hood by Air as a t-shirt label, it has seen a rapid rise with a social media and celebrity following, borne entirely away from the fashion microcosm to a now a somewhat established mega brand (knock off merchandise in China is surely a telling indication?) with support from LVMH.  And yet I’ve not really had the chance to say in writing why Hood by Air matters.  It builds up after every show I’ve seen (while I’ve not been in it for the long haul since the early HBA days in 2006, I’ve seen pretty much every one of their NY shows) and then I can never quite figure out a way of articulating things without it sounding jumbled or worse, pretentious.  As the excitement around HBA quickly built up, I feared any thoughts might appear disingenuous.  Poor Susie, buying into the feverish hype.

Having witnessed Hood by Air’s special collection presented as part of Pitti Uomo, I thought it a good time to speak up.  I’ve seen more than enough.  Up until this Florentine show and possibly parts of the S/S 15 collection, what has really drawn me into the world of HBA, more than the clothes themselves, is the culture and energy surrounding it.  Its very existence makes me happy because of what it represents – commentary on the signs of our times – the good, bad and the ugly even.  With every artistic decision be it in the choice of casting, its social media output, choreography of performances and yes, the clothes as well, Oliver puts up a good fight.  Against conventionality, against gender discrimination, against lack of racial diversity, against uniform standards of beauty, against oppression.  They’re shows not for you to simper and clap politely at.  You holler, you move, you whoop, you might even be antagonised.  I simply don’t buy that thousands of people branding themselves with HBA are purely buying into it for cool factor alone.  Sheeple have easier brands to buy into.  The congregation of fans and friends outside the shows in New York see something within Hood by Air that they identify with, and when they’re branded with HBA on their chests, their knees and their arms, they’re eye rolling at the world in unison.  And me?  I’m sitting at the back pew somewhere nodding my head.

So the sentiment is all well and good.  Then what of the clothes?  It seems to me that once the Classics range blew up, hashtags and all, and Hood by Air was solidified in a world outside of fashion, Oliver has been attempting to up the fashion ante ever since.  The results have not been entirely free of references  (Helmut Lang, Margiela, Comme, Westwood… the “core” handful) but when coupled with that omnipresent energy, somehow something different and yes, fresh does appear.  The progression though from freakish outsider to establishment is clear.  Hood by Air’s S/S 15 collection split up into three parts, presented in New York, then Paris and then back in New York with a culminating celebratory party, explored the idea of male ego and machismo.  But more significant was the more pragmatic approach towards the clothes.  Wearable is too banal a word.  Believable perhaps?  Deconstructed suiting with a ton of flipped proportions put two fingers up at corporate values, especially seen in the Paris show, set in a menacing environment of a tower block of Montparnasse.  Denim, already a burgeoning category at Hood by Air came in different treatments, as alternative takes on Oliver’s vision of Americana.

First part of Hood by Air S/S 15 collection, shown in New York:

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Second part of Hood by Air S/S 15 collection, shown in Paris:

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In Florence last night, that push towards establishment took another leap.  Oliver has moved the Hood by Air studio to Milan with production done fully in Italy.  That is bound to have made the HBA machine a whole lot smoother.  Oliver talked about the discovery of Milan’s insane secret nightlife, one that doesn’t necessarily exist in New York anymore.  And so it is that he turned up the contrast dial last night with a show housed in a plastic box, with a gorgeous Tuscan villa looming over.  Models emerged from the steps flanked by stone lions.  Gregorian chants in the villa’s foyer preceded the dystopian glitches up soundtrack by Arca.  The clothes took on juxtapositions too.  Jackets in camel and navy might sound like Milanese menswear thoroughfare but in the hands of HBA, are spliced and diced.  Fur-trimmed zipper hoods seemed to nod to the skiwear that Italian brands also excel at were it not for their oversized proportions.  A pink puffa jacket is streamlined so that it almost looks like a businessman’s overcoat.  If S/S 15 was about questioning and poking at the suited and booted puffed up male peacock (the sort that are roaming Pitti tradeshow as we speak), then this special collection made with Florence in mind, is a positive conclusion.  These are pieces that those aforementioned peacocks would splay their feathers for.  Hood by Air will still be showing a A/W 15-6 collection in New York.  You wonder where the sartorial story will go because the clothes are starting to matter just as much as the vibes.  There’s an ambition in Oliver to ensure that his clothes say as much as they possibly can and that there’s so much more to come.

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I experienced rain in Los Angeles for the first time.  Like actual heavy-ish rain.  Looking out at the drizzly skies felt weirdly appropriate though as we were standing in the ballroom of the Four Seasons, quaffing tea, chomping on cucumber sandwiches at the annual BAFTA tea party on Saturday.  It was an odd place to find myself but I came on invitation by Mulberry who are a primary sponsor of the event for the second year running (along with Jaguar).  I’ve missed out on all the LC:M action back in London this past weekend but curiosity got the better of me as to what exactly the deal was with the hype that surrounds awards season in Hollywood.  In fact, just Hollywood in general – as in the industry of the film world, the celeb culture – was something that I’ve never really experienced before in LA.  Plus selfishly, I thought it would be nice to get a few days of sun lounging around at legendary residence Chateau Marmont.  Bar the sun, the weekend was definitely a fine taster of Hollywood at its busiest and buzziest.

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Back to the tea party.  We might have been made to feel at “home” with all the accoutrements of afternoon tea and British accents everywhere but the surroundings couldn’t have felt more alien to me.  The room was thronging with BAFTA nominees and at every turn you’d be brushing past people that I’ve only ever seen on celluloid or in Getty photographs.  Starstruck isn’t quite the right word.  Starshocked?  As in paralysed with fear because you’re feeling very little and insignificant in this razzle dazzle scheme of things?  Oh look, Keira Knightley looking radiant (of course she’s radiant – she’s pregnant) in yellow.  Marion Cotillard – eeeeeeek – literally awed by her beauty!  Wes Anderson – would it be entirely improper to go up to him and tell him how deeply I’ve analysed his cinematography?  Acclaimed set designer and Mulberry collaborator Michael Howells, kind gentleman that he is, was present to help guide me through this surreal setting.  This sort of thing obviously doesn’t faze him.  He tells me it’s all about nominees meeting ’n’ greeting the board of BAFTA voters – saying five second hello’s and how are you’s to hopefully garner their vote.  No time to chit chat to randoms then.  However Howells was gallant enough to manoeuvre our way to Eddie Redmayne, so that I could say how much he made me cry in The Theory of Everything.  A ten second chat ensued before his agent swiftly ushered him off to the next important person.  One line of dialogue with one nominee was more than I could handle.  Note on images, the room was declared a “No Selfie” zone and my DSLR was duly barred.

Thankfully Mulberry were present to provide some light relief in the foyer.   Cue a surreal sight of the likes of Ethan Hawke hammering away at their initials on leather bracelets at the Mulberry crafting stations.  Cara Delevigne and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith from Downton) also had a go.  It’s definitely a lot easier hammering letters into leather than hanging out with Hollywood folk.

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The night before at the Chateau Marmont, Mulberry had also hosted an informal dinner and cocktail party as well as a sneak screening of an upcoming short film.  “Out of Towners” their now signature golden balloons spelled out over the pool, which pretty much summed up my state of being.  Again, I floated around like a lost-ling as guests like Rosamund Pike and Dominic West milled about, until I was rescued by Emma Wyman, fashion editor of Dazed, who happens to be a native LA person.  She went to school with Camille Belle, who was also at the party.  Naturally.  I’m going to go all teenage on you and *sigh* –  will I ever get a clue and not be ridden with social awks?  Didn’t help of course that I was also doing a social media takeover for Mulberry on their accounts for the weekend.  I can but only ever be perpetually perplexed by this Hollywood hub-hub.  At the end of the day, it’s not my world but I thank Mulberry wholeheartedly for the otherworldly experience.

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From the perspective of Mulberry, their presence in Los Angeles and their ties with Hollywood is strategic of course to assert themselves in what is an important market to them.  In Britain, Mulberry has been clouded with negative headlines regarding their profit fall and their inability to claw back the mid-range customer that appreciated their reasonably priced, British-made leather goods, That was recently quelled by the announcement that former Céline accessories maestro Johnny Coca will be taking over the creative director reins.  Coca brings with him a track record of creating bona fide bag hits, which puts Mulberry in good stead when he begins in July this year.  

In the meantime though, looking at their S/S 15 collection, it’s clear their in-house design team are doing a solid job of holding the fort.  The clothes whilst always a sideline at an accessorised-focused brand like Mulberry, has highlights like a beautiful geometric floral jacquard, pretty broderie anglaise dresses in white and periwinkle blue and a lovely grey suit with flecks of embroidered parsley flowers.  It’s all pretty English garden fare that is appropriate for this “holding” period as Mulberry prepares for Coca’s arrival.

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On the bag front, the Cara 2-in-1 rucksack and tote combo marches on.  The Lily turns mini.  But the big Mulberry bag story of the season is definitely the Delphie.  It’s cleverly constructed so that the front envelope flips around to the back to snap into place to create a different colourway/texture for the bag.  The shoulder strap can also be shortened.  It’s hard to describe in words or convey in pics but hopefully you get the idea with this Instagram vid and pics shot around the lovingly restored features of my Chateau Marmont room.

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