The Saturday afternoon of London fashion week saw Christopher Bailey’s final show for Burberry, after 17 years designing for the label. The scene outside was post-apocalyptic – the flyovers of White City in west London looming over the aircraft hangar where the show was held, as maybe 100 people protested against fur. It was quite a slick demo – loudhailers and rhyming slogans, abattoir noises blaring from a speaker. It seemed, to someone who was alive in the 80s, vividly nostalgic, like a civil war recreation. A young man ran through the barriers brandishing a ticket, wearing a fur-lined hood. “Compassion is always in fashion,” called another guy with eyes red-splashed to look as though they were bleeding. “It’s not even real fur,” muttered the man in the hood.
I’ve been to the fashion shows before for personal reasons (in the 90s, I was in charge of bringing a designer’s dog to the front row for the finale), but have never had the beat professionally or asked what this nest of predominantly female creativity says about feminism, because it’s very erudite. Its statements are bold but not obvious, its messages arrive in layers and contradictions, over time, and its most interesting minds are often not very interested in verbally articulating ideas whose visual impact is charged by their ambiguity. Yet, plainly, neither fashion nor feminism lives under a bell jar. If fashion doesn’t speak plainly about its feminist agenda, that doesn’t mean it says nothing. The same controversies that have arisen in the rest of the culture – #MeToo, most recently – have exploded in fashion, this week seeing allegations of abusive photographers that were foreshadowed but by no means encompassed by the uncomfortable existence of Terry Richardson, the open secret of his behaviour and the fact that he as good as kept a public visual record of it, over years. Debates about diversity and body image have arisen but have never been resolved.
Your garden-variety feminist bystander has the same problem as the fur protesters: it’s hard to ask a political question about something when you’re never quite sure what you’re looking at; impossible to ask a question about feminism along any of the normal lines. If you could see a woman’s bum at a darts match or a bankers’ dinner, it would be objectification, pure and simple. A woman could walk down a catwalk as good as naked and titillation would be the acres away from the point.
“Fashion is not to do with sex,” Justine Picardie, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, says at the Molly Goddard show in Covent Garden. “The catwalk is not to do with sex. Fashion does intersect with feminism in interesting ways – it’s not just about abusive photographers. But there’s so little informed debate about it. The BBC doesn’t even have a fashion correspondent.” That is a feminist angle all its own: fashion occupies a huge amount of space, culturally, socially and economically, yet isn’t seen to warrant one full-time position in a public service broadcaster that sent 455 staff to the Rio Olympics. Yet if fashion fails to take its place in serious commentary, and you ever suspect its artistry is undervalued because it’s something that women like, that’s a case for everyone but the industry itself to answer.
On those alleged abusive photographers: the story everyone was talking about was the one in the Boston Globe that emerged at the start of London fashion week and had implications for the industry as a whole. Important, if not household, names – Patrick Demarchelier, David Bellemere, Greg Kadel – were accused of abusive behaviour by multiple models. Though each have denied the allegations, like the claims about Harvey Weinstein, these implicate a wider group of people: it is stretching credulity to think that scores of models could have been abused without editors and agents ever being made aware.
There is something peculiar to fashion in the way this abuse unfolds. The model Cameron Russell called for a models’ #MeToo, and the testimonies she received reveal a particular entitlement: the photographers who victimise models really feel as if they own the women’s bodies; that anyone who brings their beauty to the table stands to get eaten. But the catwalk culture is very different, as well as extremely public. Backstage is chaotic and heaving, like a travelling charabanc in 19th-century music hall; nakedness an irrelevance, bras everywhere. After the Pam Hogg show, a fixer tried in vain to get rid of a load of photographers: “There are women trying to get changed in here, can everyone get out?” Everyone looked at her bemused. Privacy is for the suburbs, leering for the high street; this was theatre.
Diversity is the other obvious topic, the one that people feel comfortable talking about from both sides, attack and defence. Racially, the catwalk is far more diverse than any newsroom I’ve ever seen, though of course that’s a distinction that magazine covers don’t share. But there’s diversity and diversity: on Friday morning, a group of plus-size models – led by Hayley Hasselhoff – staged a protest. The relationship with the female form remains vexed: some years, plus-size is a thing, and one voluptuous model will appear. That moves according to a trend cycle invisible to the naked eye, and has come and gone since the 90s. What you almost never see – and, here, New York fashion week, ever at the cutting edge, broke the mould this year – is a woman who is a regular size 12, with maybe a bit of a tummy. One leading plus-size model, Ashley Graham, describes herself as a body activist, which is a powerful reminder that you can evaluate fashion as art, and accept a certain body shape as its requirement, but you can’t abstract clothes away from the humans who wear them infinitely. The bodies themselves inescapably become an ideal of beauty, and that is not without consequence.
The conversation about diversity and the female ideal is itself as trend-led as the use of organza: last year, ageism was big, and Simone Rocha made the groundbreaking decision to use catwalk models from a variety of generations. This year, not so much; her models did still look, in some indefinable yet unusual way, empowered, possibly because they had their hands in their pockets (it’s a very nonchalant thing, the pocket); but they all topped out at 24.
The untold equality story is that fashion, populated by creative outsiders and misfits, is often ahead of the curve, by decades. Pam Hogg, whose show had a martial feel, with piping and beading and War and Peace headwear, has had a gender-as-performance theme to her work since the 90s, culturally expressing gender as a choice, not a biological given, since long before there was any feminist controversy over the matter. “I’ve never had a problem with gender,” she says. “I accept everyone for who they are, and who they say they are. Sometimes I feel feminine, very often I feel masculine. It’s when there’s a bloody label on it, that’s when the bullshit starts.”
This cussed resistance to codification is part of the charm of an art form that is ambiguous to the point of illegibility. “Fashion is always of its time – of course it is,” says the designer Osman Yousefzada, after a show of studied but nervous opulence. “But what looks like conspicuous consumption isn’t always that. Some people find a uniformity … having a uniform is the way they get through. Others don’t.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a feminist in the classical sense,” says Roksanda Ilincic, after her show, “but I’m an extreme and really big supporter of women. Not just in my work, in every sense.” It’s a distinction that annoys me in most contexts, but as two fingers to what is expected of a woman in a woman’s world, I don’t mind it so much.
“It doesn’t really matter what happens on the catwalk,” says Finn Delaney, a 20-year-old business manager in the Halpern audience. “Street style is much more important, and it’s still all about a skinny white girl.” This world is febrile, agile and absolutely brutal. Brands pay individuals, sometimes in stuff, sometimes in stuff plus money, to walk around at key moments. It’s not always at fashion shows: one driver recalls being sent to pick up a street-style star hired to “spontaneously” watch the poet/rapper Kate Tempest busking in an underpass, then being called back at the last minute because she wanted 10 grand instead of the agreed five. It is Instagram-driven and incredibly choreographed: there’s a group of four women who don’t go into the shows, just arrive outside each one ready to be photographed and photograph themselves.
When one photographer shoots someone, they all follow. To get out of a branded fashion week car and watch the snappers, disappointed by your shoes, put their lenses down is to know the most crushing sense of failure (I’m told). Chloe Mac Donnell, fashion features and style director at Instyle UK, says: “You’re judged on everything: how you’re greeted by the PR, who you’re talking to, the car you’re in, your makeup, your clothes, where you’re sitting.” Surely some people are enjoying it? “Doubt it. Even the ones who are being paid to wear a brand will be wondering why someone else got the key piece and they didn’t. Whoever you are, there’s always going to be some time that you’re pushed away.”
As if in illustration of her point, a scene unfolds outside the car I share with two influencers in Covent Garden. Irina, who used to be a dentist and is now a world-class Instagrammer, is pretending to chat to Lydia, who is street-huge, while people take their photos. Irina artfully crosses the street, but the photographers, missing their cue to break it up, stay on Lydia. I have a David Attenborough commentary going round my head. Does this mean Lydia’s pictures will appear on the wires without Irina? Will Irina survive?
The consumption of fashion has changed: people prefer Instagram to magazines; they prefer street-style images – massively – to catwalks. Like any new media story, it’s complex: you could read it as straight democratisation, people talking directly to other people, unmediated by authorities. Models, through Instagram, have their own identities and their own brand. “It certainly gives gravity to my opinions,” says model Julia Campbell-Gillies, 21, “which maybe some people would think they don’t warrant. Secretly, yes, I think we’re definitely usurpers of the form, co-creators. But I don’t think that anyone else thinks that, except for models.” But this civilian-model revolution was monetised before its feet even hit the ground, captured by corporates to the extent that none of the self-styled “real” people would ever say a word against a label that had ever sent them a free thing, or even might ever. So the self-expression that fashion has to represent for its own sense of purpose is tied in with product placement.
Paradoxically, while the demands of commerce become ever more dominating, the aesthetic of consumption – characterised by 25-year-old Georgina Evans, a fashion editor at SHOWstudio, as “the Chanel woman in the tweed suit, in that car, with that bag” – has completely capsized. Nobody wants to look like that. “It’s all about glamourising working-class culture. You don’t want to look like you’re dripping in jewels.”
Is it appropriation or evolution? “Appropriation,” she replies, firmly. This trend, tagged the “Death of Daywear” by Business of Fashion after New York fashion week, has been tied to the changing mores of the 1%, who are keen to appear “more global and open-minded and not as conservative” and, crucially, as though they have jobs – I guess to forestall the revolution. Yet the idea that it’s the market driving an ideal of how a woman should look is incomplete: markets only drive fashion to the extent that they drive everything. The distinction of it, as a creative form, and the complexity of it, from a feminist perspective, is that it defies a lot of cultural norms around women – as passive, as sex objects, as the receptacles of male desire – and that feels very liberating. But in their place is a set of hierarchies that are palpable but indefinable, that may or may not be just as rigid and just as limiting. As Charlotte Moore, editor-in-chief of Instyle UK, says: “It’s women photographing themselves for other women. It’s a female gaze thing. But the male gaze is a bit more accepting.”
Source : https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2018/feb/20/abusive-photographer-fashion-feminism-metoo-london-show