21 April 2018

Feel First

The Science of Feel - Dr Tom Waller
Business of Fashion

How do the clothes on your body feel right now? I am fascinated by the sensory experience of dress, and so hearing someone talk about designing from "feel" as a starting point definitely has me interested. Approaching the topic from the perspective of performance clothing, I think that Dr Waller raises ideas surrounding our everyday experience of dress that are worth thinking about. He uses the example of people having a pair of lucky socks, or an equivalent in their wardrobe, and how that feeling of confidence may actually stem from the physical sensations and sensory experience of that garment. Lately I have really been thinking about the balance between clothing that hugs the body and clothing that flows around the body, and how I can best combine both in an outfit in such a way that feels comfortable but functional. I like having a full range of movement while clothed, and while I do enjoy interior garments fitting closely and feeling soft against the body, I like when exterior garments flow around the body in movement. At the same time I have been wearing some more fitted garments in general lately, and it provides an interesting contrast to the baggier clothing I wore throughout the majority of Winter. There is a certain elegance to the sleekness that I enjoy. However I am always tempted to disrupt the silhouette with something wider for a contrast, not just because of how it looks, but also because of how the outfit feels in movement. There is something interesting in having a loose top and tighter trousers, or vice versa, because that dynamic from a sensory perspective provides an enjoyable contrast.  


12 April 2018

Accepting Anxiety

The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA
(Ansel Adams)

I thought that I would share something a little different on the blog today.

For those who do not know, I am currently on the recovery path from severe anxiety and agoraphobia stemming from long-term physical health issues. Well I say “recovering”, but I am not entirely sure what “recovered” really means in this context. Anxiety is something that I have grappled with at various levels for the entirety of my adult life - from being unable to get within a few steps of the front door of my home, to living a fully functional life without anybody even knowing I had any health issues at all. My goal is to be able to live an independent and functional life again. Admittedly what that means varies from person to person. For me the recovery process has been about tackling my self-limiting beliefs and behaviours. Easier said than done I know, but then pushing at the limits of our comfort zones is how we continue to grow throughout our lives.

One of the most common images I come across when reading about dealing with anxiety is actually a mindfulness technique that I often employ during meditation. You watch your thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky or leaves floating down a stream. Whether good thoughts, bad thoughts, exciting thoughts, or uncomfortable thoughts, you simply allow them to pop into your head and watch them go. Rather than getting carried away with the narrative of those thoughts, you try to observe them and allow them to be. It is about cultivating acceptance and the ability to ground yourself, through which you come to realise that thoughts are not facts. I have seen this type of metaphor employed numerous times for anxiety, where a writer will tell you to allow the anxiety to wash over you like a wave. To observe it and allow it to pass.

In my experience this works wonderfully for meditation and general thoughts racing around your mind. It teaches you to become more mindful. But when it comes to anxiety, it is pretty useless. The problem I find is that anxiety does not allow you to simply watch it flow past, especially when you have had anxiety for a long time, because it has become an ingrained habit that is always present. Anxiety refuses to budge, and when you do try, it will go kicking and screaming the entire way until you give up because you no longer have the energy to fight it. In my case it is one of the most well-trodden neural pathways I have, it has become an unfortunate habit, and so it is where my brain defaults to. It takes great effort to consciously rewrite those automatic anxious thoughts and slowly build new pathways, but we know that it is most certainly possible thanks to the wonders of neuroplasticity.

I would like to offer a different metaphor that I thought about while half-reading the Tao Te Ching as I watched people jogging along the River Thames. To my mind anxiety is like a giant boulder blocking your pathway as you move forward. It is huge and deeply embedded into the soil, and so, as far as you can tell, entirely blocks your route.

The sympathetic nervous system provides the body with the fight or flight response, wherein anxiety is played out as a physical response from a psychological trigger (or vice versa to be honest, because I often find myself misreading unrelated bodily symptoms as anxiety). The symptoms are ones I am sure most will be aware of - your jaw, shoulders and fists may clench, your blood rushes to your vital organs and so your fingers and toes may get cold, adrenaline surges through your body and you may get skittish, your breathing may become quick and shallow, etc. In response to anxiety arising from your thoughts about this boulder, your body is ready for fight or flight. Either you tense up and resist the boulder, going at it with a hellbent fury, trying to Hulk smash it out of your way. Or you start sweating and trembling and run back the way you came because the thought of trying to get past the boulder is entirely overwhelming (hello agoraphobia).

To my mind both reactions are misplaced. Trying to smash the boulder and resisting against it just leads to exhaustion, tension and frustration. On the other hand, running away from the boulder means that you are unable to get to where you want to go, and indeed the next time you try to come down this path, you will likely turn back long before getting anywhere near the boulder. Both instances have an effect on the body, and serve to maintain and increase the anxiety. In your mind it becomes something monumental blocking your path, which you think that you will never get past. You build it up more and more, because it is either too large to break down by yourself, or too scary to get close to in the first place. Thus that anxiety festers and begins to poison the ground around it.

Anxiety for me is not a leaf that I can watch float past, but that giant boulder blocking my path. The conclusion I have come to sounds simple, but is difficult to embody when the very notion feels alien to you - try to be like water (shout out to Bruce Lee). Water adapts to any shape, water is patient, water finds a way to keep flowing, water is humble (it flows down to the sea, which is lower than most water on land), water is adaptable (it becomes steam when hot, ice when cold, but can always return to fluid). The idea is to accept the boulder in front of you, and rather than trying to resist it or run away from it, trying to accept things as they are in the moment as exactly the way they need to be. In being able to accept, you are able to adapt, and adaptation is the name of the game. You learn to flow past it or flow over it. With patience and persistent work (doing beats knowing) you either come to erode that boulder down little by little, or you sweep it away in a surge. And so you find a way to keep going down your path even though that boulder is there. After all, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to continue even while experiencing that fear.

For my part anxiety physically leads to quick and shallow breathing, nausea, stomach problems, dizziness, sweating, shaking, muscular tension and the feeling of blood rushing to my head. Basically, it makes me feel like shit. But in learning to accept the anxiety, I can learn to adapt to the anxiety. In doing so, I am able to learn that it is something that I can work around. And yet, the more you learn to adapt, the smaller that obstacle becomes in the long run anyway. Face the fear, and eventually you learn to flow past it.

Shallow breathing leads to hyperventilating because we tend to breath in a lot, but forget to breath out. That means too much oxygen in the body, which leads to dizziness. In that instance you want to focus on your out breath - people who tell you take a deep breath have got it backwards, you want to empty your lungs all the way and let your body take control of the in breath. Your body knows what it is doing, because if you keep over-oxygenating you pass out so that your body can take over from you screwing things up. Think of it as a reset switch, which you can thankfully avoid tripping by being more aware of your breathing.

A tight stomach causes nausea because the stomach is contracting repeatedly, which also exacerbates other stomach issues. Here I find that focusing on the the rise and fall of my stomach with each breath allows me to relax my stomach at the same time as my breathing. If your stomach does not move when breathing, you are likely shallow breathing up in your chest, which is something that a lot of adults actually do. I couple this deep breathing with a conscious effort to relax my shoulders, because they tend to hunch up and get tight. For me focusing on my shoulders acts as a gateway into me relaxing the rest of my muscles (unlike many I do not clench my jaw). It is a behaviour reinforced by meditative body scan practice, where you start from the head and move down. Indeed anxiety can actually lead to chronic holding patterns beneath our conscious awareness. This means that you might have tight muscles that you have been holding for so long that you are not even aware of them. This is not a temporary issue either, most of us have muscular tension we have held for years, if not our entire adult lives. I find that using a foam roller and stretching daily helps with general muscular tension.

The shaking was something I always thought of as the point of no return, and something I could not control, but I think of it now simply as excess adrenaline. What I find helps when I start shaking is to stand up and shake out my arms and legs individually, one after another. I may even jump on the spot a little. It is much like shaking because you are excited, and all you have to do is find an outlet for that energy. I have shaken out my arms and legs on a train, and rolled my head, just as a way of getting that energy out, and I find that it most certainly does help. This also plays into instances where you get anxious about doing something, but then run away from it in fear - that anxiety is still in your body, and so you are likely to remain tense for the rest of the day, meaning that over time you develop further muscular tension.

However tackling the body without addressing the mind is not an effective approach, and so I find that a holistic approach works best. The mind and body are one, and so disturbances in one are played out in the other. Thus while focusing on the body as described, I also try to focus on the thought process leading to my anxiety in that specific instance. The idea is quite simple - look for the demand. There is always a rigid irrational demand that we are making that leads to the anxiety. An irrational demand leads to anxiety because demands do not entertain the thought of failure. Failure becomes something that is unbearable and something that would mark us out as the worst person to have ever existed. Examples of such demands are - I must not have a panic attack, she must not divorce me, I must not get fired, they must not shout at me, things must be perfect, he must not die, I must pass this exam.

Ask yourself why that must exists. Ask yourself what would happen if the opposite were to come to pass. We try and we fail. We go through horrible things that we wish we never had to. We suffer. That is part and parcel of being human, and is nothing unique to any of us. We all go through it and it is the best way to learn and grow. I try to remind myself that I have choice and the ability to exercise preference. We all have choice over our actions, even when it feels like we do not. To take an extreme example - I could choose never to eat food ever again. It would not be a good idea, because I would die, but I could most certainly do it. Thankfully most of the choices we make are nothing so major, but they can often feel like it.

To give an example - "I can choose to go into this scenario where I could potentially have a panic attack, but I do not have to. I would definitely prefer not to have a panic attack, but I understand that it could happen. If it did happen, I know that while it would feel horrible, it will not kill me and is not the end of the world. I know that this is an incredibly uncomfortable experience for me, but even if I am unable to do it comfortably, I can still choose to do it uncomfortably." In exercising choice and preference you essentially show yourself self-compassion. You can choose to stay with the anxiety and learn to flow around that boulder instead of tensing up or running away. Accept and adapt, because in time that boulder becomes nothing more than another pebble on the riverbed.

One last thing that I always try to keep in mind - talk to yourself in that moment like you would to a loved one or friend going through the exact same thing. I think that for most of us, we are kinder to others going through hardship than we are to ourselves when going through that same hardship. But yes, rather than watching the leaf flow past, I prefer to be the water flowing over the boulder. After all, life is not about standing still. Wherever you go, there you are.


30 March 2018

Memeswear: HBX x May

Photographer: Heison Ho
Stylist: Ronnie Chan

If you spend any time on Instagram, you are probably tired of this meme by now. But as silly as it is, I like it because it actually puts the product at the forefront. With so many editorials these days seeking to portray some sense of "authenticity", it seems like everything is prioritised in the photographs except the clothing. I like photographs where the garmets shines...admittedly none of these particular coats are all that interesting, but you get the idea. A lot of people seemed to be annoyed with this editorial, but the way I see it - the girl behind the Instagram account making these is only sixteen years old, so let her have her fun, and hopefully make some money along the way. We already know when looking through magazines that so many things are photoshopped to within an inch of their life, so I always enjoy when people take advantage of what technology has to offer and create something with it that is not obscuring the digital process. All power to her.


12 March 2018

See You Space Cowboy: Kozaburo AW18

Autumn/Winter 2018

I think that the ability to tell stories is fundamental to fashion. The designer seeks to tell a story (or stories) through their clothes, their show, their interviews, their advertising campaigns, their websites, their social media feeds, and their retail spaces. Fashion magazines and stores will then pick up and style the clothes and seek to narrate new stories for their audience. This is followed by the individual, who buys the clothes and wears them - this is done in a variety of different outfits, as opposed to a single look. In doing so the individual seeks to narrate a myriad of stories that reflect the multiplicity of their expressed identity. I do not think of identity as some fixed notion, but as a fluid concept that we are constantly producing through narratives. Nowhere is this more evident than through the clothing we choose to wear because we are essentially showing ourselves in a constant state of becoming.

Our notion of self and our understanding of our place in the world (in terms of both space and time) is reliant on the stories that we tell ourselves, we tell others, and that others tell us. Indeed the process of expressing an idea of who we are, is usually coupled with expressing both when and where we are. We believe that our clothing says something about us as an individual and tells our story. There is however a disparity between what we think we say and what others believe us to say, so in that sense it is always open to interpretation. But at the same time our clothing can be used to place us historically, socially, spatially and geographically. Indeed fashion relies on this process in its referencing of the past. Stylistic and aesthetic elements are used as a visual shorthand for both time and space - we come to recognise a '70s Californian reference, or a Victorian London reference, or simply a trend from last year that was pervasive on social media.

Stories are then interpretive devices that allow us to understand our lives and the world. But this is exactly where anxieties over authenticity arise, because we are unsettled by the gap between perceived semblance and perceived substance - am I what I say I am? Indeed traditionally in the West the idea of being has been counterpoised to the idea of doing. What I mean by this is that the being of our self has been seen as more authentic than the doing or performing of our self. Of course Goffman sought to change this with his belief that there was nothing behind the mask, because the self was the mask. People often talk about feeling like a fraud, or the idea of faking it until you make it, and that anxiety is based on this ostensible dialectic.

These stories are not simply narratives we tell ourselves and others through language. I think that in a wider sense it is about expression. A story can be told through language, through music, through dance, through painting, through food, through a ring passed down from generation to generation. A house can tell a story, a car can tell a story, a watch can tell a story. The material world is filled with objects that have stories to tell, with many of those stories older than humanity itself, which will continue long after humanity ceases to exist. I like looking at the world and imagining how old things are and the lives and stories that they have seen, from a tree to a brick. Pick up the thing closest to you right now and think about the materials it was made from, where they came from, how it was made, where it was made, and the journey it has gone through to get to this exact moment and this exact place. Ultimately each and every thing and person has their own unique set of experiences and narratives.

But these are not fixed narratives, but a matter of perception through time. Indeed our sense of self is constantly evolving through the differing narratives we tell ourselves and others. To use a very basic example, say I cannot ride a bicycle - I tell myself that I am someone who cannot ride a bicycle. Then I begin to learn how to ride a bicycle - I am no longer simply someone who cannot ride a bicycle, but someone who cannot ride a bicycle yet, because I am in the process of learning. Then I learn how to ride a bicycle - now I am someone who can ride a bicycle, who is not the same person as the one who could not ride a bicycle. Multiply that by an infinite amount of variables and life experiences, not to mention emotional attachments to each narrative, and you can see how complex the story becomes.

At the same time I like to think about how we each have our own unique viewpoints and how these come to encompass our own truths. I experienced yesterday, just as you experienced yesterday, just as seven billion other people experienced yesterday. But we all have our own unique version of yesterday that is true for us, and probably only for us. We can all produce a narrative of yesterday, but each will be individual, because nobody experienced exactly what I experienced yesterday. So if I had a terrible day yesterday and you had a fantastic day yesterday, then neither of us can say that yesterday was all good or all bad, we can only speak of our experience of it. And obviously this narrative is subject to change over time. If we are asked to recall yesterday a week from now, we might feel differently, and if we were asked to recall yesterday a decade from now, the chances are that we would remember nothing about it at all. But if we rehearse our narrative of yesterday, and others rehearse their narratives of yesterday, and we remember independently or collectively, then years from now yesterday takes on a monumental importance.

The fashion cycle is a process of constantly rehearsing and rewriting narratives from the past in order to tell new stories. And so I really do enjoy the work of designers who are able to tell stories that feel fully formed and alive, rather than a fleeting moment that lasts for the duration of the show but you forget the moment it is over. That is what caught my eye with the Kozaburo Autumn/Winter 2018 collection above, because I feel like the designer Kozaburo Akasaka created a world through a look book that I found really exciting. Akasaka won the Special LVMH Prize last year, but I have to admit that I did not really know anything about his work until I saw this collection. Born and raised in Tokyo, the designer originally studied philosophy at university, before he left to enrol at London's Central Saint Martins, followed by the MFA degree at Parsons in New York. The collection above is only his sixth, and yet to look at the way he has developed and refined his style over the past few seasons is a testament to his strength in design and ability to tell stories.

I found it unsurprising to discover that Akasaka holds Thom Browne in high esteem, because Browne's shows are for me a master class in storytelling. With this collection Akasaka took cowboy boots as his starting point and sought to portray the American West through the lens of his Japanese upbringing. Hence details like denim jackets made using sasiko, belt buckles featuring oni heads, and belts featuring Japanese characters spelling out "rain falls on everything". I love the dark indigos and blacks, and the restrained use of patterns in preference for more textures, such as the recycled yarn jeans or furry jacket. I thought that the snake patterning on the suit, that also featured on a coat, was really cool, because it is one of those details you would miss at a quick glance, but up close is no doubt quite a visual treat. The shapes and silhouettes, such as the curved jacket sleeve and curved and flared trousers, are a continuation and refinement on patterns that featured in past collections. I would love to try them on to see how they feel and move. I think that the lookbook was really well done, and made me think of criminal cowboys on an alien planet years into the future. In fact after looking through the collection two or three times my mind was already conjuring stories for each character and the world they would inhabit.

What do you think of the collection?