Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Bring It Back

'The Shining'
September 2015
Photographer: Paolo Roversi
Stylist: Lucinda Chambers

I have bought every single issue of British Vogue since the start of 2008. I would not actually recommend it to most people, but I buy it out of academic curiosity and for documentary purposes - it is still the hallmark of British Fashion with a capital 'F'. For an interesting discourse on fashion, look elsewhere. For the cutting edge, look elsewhere. For street fashion, look elsewhere. For minute-by-minute updates of fashion news, look elsewhere. That being said, as a documentary of mainstream (conservative) fashion, with a good array of advertising imagery and coverage of major trends, it is irreplaceable. Social history in the making.

But every so often there are editorials that make things interesting. More please.


Thursday, 13 August 2015

Reclaiming Luxury

Haider Ackermann
Spring/Summer 2016
Images via

Haider Ackermann
Autumn/Winter 2015

Eugene Rabkin: People usually talk about fashion as change, but I find things that last more beautiful. Do you?

Haider Ackermann: Yes, and it is also the same when everybody talks about luxury. Luxury is not something you should throw away every season, or that you change every season. For me, there is also luxury to work every time with the same person. There is a kind of an intimacy and longevity in it.

(Interview with Haider Ackermann on StyleZeitgeist Magazine)

At its best I think fashion sells us a small piece of luxury, fantasy and beauty to add to our lives. For pure function we can look elsewhere, for cheap pricing we can look elsewhere, but why we return time and again to buying and wearing fashion is because of the way it makes us feel - "here is something beautifully made that makes me feel beautiful when I wear it". It probably goes without saying that straying too far to the other end of the spectrum also has its issues. Pure luxury can often lead to impractical costumes best suited to being photographed as you make your way into an event, before you change into something easier to move around in for the actual party (e.g. Rihanna at the Met Gala). Pure fantasy provides relatively similar results, entering the realm of costume incredibly quickly and thus, while no doubt fun for special occasions, hardly suited for the realities of everyday life.

The two criticisms I often hear levelled at Haider Ackermann's work are that it looks the same from season to season, and that the unashamed luxury is only suited to those rich enough not to have to do anything more than lounge around all day in a some sumptuously decorated palace. The former criticism is one I find trite because all you have to do is sit down and look at the collections properly to see that is not the case. The latter, however, is a view I myself held for quite a while after Ackermann debuted his menswear - stunningly beautiful, but who the heck has the time to wear it? Having said that I feel his latest Spring/Summer 2016 collection was by far the most wearable men's collection he has presented thus far, being a clear refinement, as opposed to some departure, from his canon of work. The development is one that he has clearly been working on since his initial proposal in the Carte Blanche Named Opium collection. I imagine it being a good move to make the menswear more economically viable, but I am glad to see it having come about so organically. I have to admit that it actually caught me by surprise how over the past year or so I have found myself looking to incorporate some Ackermann pieces into my small wardrobe.

Ackermann's aesthetic is by now instantly recognizable, with each new collection presenting a refinement of his luxe world. I find it amusing that Ackermann is criticized for supposedly doing something that Slimane has actually been doing at Saint Laurent, to rapturous applause and even more frenzied sales, since his first collection. I see a clear progression in Ackermann's work (for both menswear and womenswear), having debuted with a truly decadent menswear collection, and then spending the most recent seasons creating a wardrobe that is more fleshed out and comprehensive. Compare this to Slimane whose collections have been stillborn and repetitive, selling a glassy-eyed vision of youth culture. Both sell an idea of luxury, but whilst Slimane's is to my mind redundant (seriously, if for whatever reason I wanted to cosplay as Kurt Cobain, I could do so at a fraction of the price, and look better doing so), Ackermann's is alluring and beautiful. If a designer is going to propose luxury, I want decadence, not overpriced high street fodder or I-got-naked-and-covered-myself-in-glue-before-rolling-around-in-a-vintage-shop, and so I find myself drawn ever-closer to Ackermann's clothing.

Ackermann's menswear collections have always made me picture a prince returning home from his travels, and yet he manages to do so without the overt cultural tourism and historical bricolage one would expect from others attempting to do something similar (of course, this too can be done to wondrous effect, just look at Galliano's earlier work). I think this is important because in allowing influences to be expressed through fabrics such as silks and velvets, or intricate patterning, or sumptuously deep colours such as the blood reds and inky greens, the ideas manage to be rooted in the very composition of the garment. Yes, the styling on the catwalk layers multiple prints and multiple colours providing a visually rich (sometimes even dense) vision of dandified languor; but if you deconstruct the looks you quickly see that relaxed elegance so intrinsic to Ackermann's approach. Even though the styling of some of the shows has been heavy-handed, the pieces in person have always seemed to make sense.

It is somewhat difficult to explain this idea through the catwalk images alone, so I have included images from Ackermann's webstore of the current Autumn/Winter 2015 collection. Comparing the styling of these to catwalk, the collection no longer seems (dare I say?) rarefied, but rather beautifully suited to adding a quiet sense of luxury into your wardrobe. What is more, the sense of luxury is thoroughly personal, but of course one could easily go the brash route (the gold lame trousers from the new collection come to mind - but even then I feel it comes across more campy than trashy). I enjoy the presentations because they allow Ackermann to present a coherent vision for the season, but when it comes to assessing what I would like to buy and wear, then these pared down looks are definitely appreciated.

Another reason I find myself enjoying Ackermann's work so much lately is the fact that it remains thoroughly masculine in silhouette without being comic (once again, if that is your thing - Thom Browne exploits it to delightful effect). This masculinity is tempered by the draped layering, silken fabrics and deep rich colours, which soften any real sense of aggression the silhouette could provide. Unlike the neutered sexuality of Slimane's work (and no, androgyny it is not), Ackermann provides a sensual approach for both his menswear and womenswear that is brimming with a powerful sexuality. The strong shoulders, low necklines exposing bare chest, tight waists, and elongated legs provide a classic masculine silhouette, actually reminding me in an odd way of the lakshanas of Mughal portraiture painting - barrel-chested men with swords slung on tight waists. Yet instead of relying on fitted tailoring to provide this effect, it is created by far more relaxed methods, and I definitely appreciate that - it is soft and comfortable without ever feeling lazy. Of course the rich colours and luxurious materials prevent this also, but I think the garments and silhouettes would provide the same effect even in all white cotton.

Yes it is decadent, yes it is unashamedly luxurious, but damn do I want some for my wardrobe.


Friday, 1 May 2015

Dress Well And Smell Nice

Pour Un Homme (first released 1934) and Yatagan (first released 1978), both by Caron.

Each and every morning I have a shower, I groom myself and I get dressed. I then reach for a bottle of perfume to spray on myself, choosing a fragrance that feels right for my outfit and right for what I have to do that day. I have worn perfume pretty much every single day for the past decade, and yet it is not a practice I have ever really given any serious thought to. I find this odd considering the fact that I never feel entirely dressed unless I am wearing perfume, and indeed I own several bottles including everything from the likes of Caron's fearsome Yatagan (a favourite of Iris Apfel), to a fragrance designed for Jane Birkin that was amusingly praised by Luca Turin as smelling of “boozy kisses, stale joss sticks, rising damp, and soiled underwear”.

I have spent the past two years smelling just about every perfume I can get my hands and nose on, learning to recognise notes and figure out exactly what I am smelling and what I enjoy smelling. The deeper I dive, the richer and more interesting things become. I try to remain open-minded in the sense that I do not care whether a perfume is expensive or inexpensive, from a luxury house or a celebrity release, marketed for men or women - all that matters is how it smells. In fact some of my favourite perfumes, and coincidentally the most critically acclaimed, have been relatively cheap to purchase (the fact that you can pick up 125ml of Caron's Pour Un Homme, an exquisitely comforting blend of lavender and vanilla, first formulated in the middle of the Great Depression, for under £30 is insane).

I said that I pick fragrances according to what feels right for my outfit, and that is actually quite a hard decision to describe. As with my general process of getting dressed it is very much centred around feeling, but I have noticed patterns of habit emerging. In fact I can pull sweaters out of my wardrobe and know exactly which perfume, or combination of perfumes, they will smell of before I even pull them up to my nose (I do not spray my clothing, however perfume sprayed on my neck tends to rub off on necklines). I have never been the type of person to wear the same perfume day after day, although I certainly have periods where one scent dominates (this past Winter was mainly the beautifully crafted Au Masculin from Lolita Lempicka - tacky bottle design, but a stunning liquorice, praline and violet leaf scent that is reminiscent of the original formulation of Yohji Homme).

My clothes hold memories and the my perfumes hold memories. Perfume is by nature more ephemeral than clothing, because you need to physically encounter it in order to smell it, and even then, unless you are around for the entire development you only ever get a snapshot. In order to smell a perfume the aroma molecules have to physically interact with the smell receptors in your nose (which would seem to decipher odours in a syllabic manner, although the truth is we still do not fully understand how exactly our sense of smell works), with the shorter chain molecules making up the brief top notes, while the longer chain molecules form the warmer and long-lasting base notes. Perfume is one of the most affordable luxuries there is - a bottle can last a decade, and it costs the fraction of a designer dress, but you can wear it far longer. It is odd that perfume, this ephemeral and invisible luxury, so implicitly tied into the idea of fashion, lasts so much longer and stays far more relevant than fashion. To take one example, I own a bottle of Hammam Bouquet that was originally created in 1872, and assuming the current formulation is at least vaguely faithful to that original, it has a longer life than any fashion could ever hope to have.    

My first bottle of "grown-up" perfume was an original formulation of Dior Homme, first released in 2005 (I either received it that year or the year after). In fact I have been carefully nursing the miniscule amount of juice I have left in that bottle over the past few years. It has been reformulated various times over the intervening years, and what I smell in stores these days is nothing close to my beloved bottle, even accounting for the fact that perfume changes in the bottle as it ages (I should really follow Tania Sanchez's advice: if you find a perfume you love, buy two bottles, because it will invariably end up reformulated or discontinued). That being said, the first perfume I was ever given was the requisite boy scout canteen bottle of Hugo Boss at the age of 13 or 14 (these days I cringe if I smell it on a grown man). Alongside that I remember wearing perfumes owned by my eldest brother, including L'Eau d'Issey Pour Homme, of which I own a bottle, and the red plastic tub of the original formulation of Gucci Rush (marketed for women). But before these (alongside teenage memories of Chanel's Platinum Egoiste, Calvin Klein's Obsession For Men, Dior's Fahrenheit, and numerous other perfumes I doubt I could ever wear again) my experience of perfume was entirely different.  

You see I had a somewhat unorthodox introduction to perfume in childhood, in that before I encountered the eau de toilettes of my teenage years, perfume for me consisted of tiny precious-looking glass vials of dark concentrated oil that came back carefully wrapped with friends and family from the Middle East and South Asia. Unstoppering these tiny vials would unleash a dense wave of exotic smells - Turkish rose oil, Damascus rose oil, Oud oil, vetiver oil, amber oil, jasmine oil, styrax oil. While these were pure oils it should be noted that perfume oils smell different to their diluted counterparts, essentially being a condensed version that is darker and usually missing the lighter top notes. Of all of those oils I most vividly remember oud and rose. I believe Yves Saint Laurent's M7, released in 2002, was one of the first commercially successful oud-based fragrances for men, but years before that I knew the powerful smell of pure oud oil. When it comes to perfume, I was thrown in at the deep end – rich, dense, liquid gold. But to this day smelling oud makes me picture bad hair cuts and cheap polyester suits. Go figure.

My father never wore Old Spice, or Brut, or whichever aftershave most dads wore when I was younger. In fact he never wore any perfume except on special occasions when his preference was for pure rose oil. The best description I have read for the extraction of natural perfume materials is that instead of Seville oranges you always get marmalade. Rose oil is a heady and sweaty scent that differs greatly from the natural aroma of a fresh rose. But then if you smell most flowers in their natural habitat, they never smell anything like the perfumes, natural or not, based on them. In fact most natural flowers have all manner of odd notes, from faecal matter to vomit, because nature has a wicked sense of humour. It is probably thanks to my father, and his love for roses, that I have never paid attention to the “gender” of perfumes. I will wear anything that moves me, regardless of whether it is marketed towards men or women.

For me perfume is an integral part of my dressing process, and is very much a sensory practice, so I thought it would be interesting to introduce the idea here. I have been thinking of writing reviews for some of my favourite perfumes, just to see if I can, because although I have been learning about perfume, writing about it is another matter entirely. Regardless, this is a topic that I will no doubt come back to in the near future.


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Always Create

Comme des Garçons
Autumn/Winter 2015

Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons
Autumn/Winter 2015

Christian Dior wrote that 'there is no logic in the development of fashion, it has a kind of logical sensitivity which obeys one or two reflexes: reaction or confirmation'. Confirmation is the safer option of the two, whereby a designer presents a collection that appears (conscious or not) to confirm contemporary trends. Reaction is the riskier route for it means the designer goes against the prevailing current in favour of suggesting something new or, at the very least, something different. There are obviously varying degrees of reaction because fashion is not, contrary to popular belief it would seem, built upon binary opposites. Reacting against a trend in short skirts does not necessarily lead to long skirts...trousers are always an option. I joke, but hopefully you get the idea. There are an infinite number of alternatives to be had - black does not automatically give way to white, there are all the other colours in the spectrum to choose from.

This variety of choice is vital because the most commonly understood behaviour of fashion is its predilection for novelty. There must always be something new. But to be too new is to risk ridicule. Ridicule only gives way to conformity in two main instances: when enough people embrace the new look, or when a few socially-accepted trend setters adopt the new look. The former can often follow on from the latter, but it is worth noting that trends can develop from any level and move in any direction (although there is always a trail for the intrepid researcher to follow - I personally have my own documented files for the New Balance, Reebok Insta Pump Fury and, more recently, Stan Smiths trends that actually stretch back farther than one would think...and yes, I have a bit of a trainer obsession despite only owning two pairs).  

But to consider fashion only as a vehicle for novelty is a mistake. An artist creates because it is in their nature to do so (especially if their income depends on it), whether it be a writer writing, a chef cooking, or a fashion designer cutting a dress. It is a way to share what you love with the world in whichever ways you know how. Just as with language it is about communication and community. You propose an idea not simply because it is new, or because it is reactionary, or because it is confirmatory, but because you have something to say. Who listens and how many listen depends on the quality and intensity of what you have to say and the manner in which you do so. I realise this sounds rather vague, but the idea I intend to express is that fashion is at its best when it is about proposing these personal ideas. In this instance novelty is merely an inherent factor rather than a driving force.

As far as I am concerned the role of the fashion designer is to propose new ideas each season. These ideas do not need to be a radical departure from last season, actually far from it, because I feel that refinement allows for more interesting results. When I look at a catwalk show I see the clothes, I see the styling, I see the scenery, I hear the music, and of course I pick it apart and see what pieces I would myself like to wear. But there is far more to looking at a collection than simply deciding whether or not I would personally wear it. What is the designer proposing? What are they saying? Objects are mute, but I would argue design is not. Function and movement reveal meaning.

Dress needs body to be fully realised and understood. To be more precise it needs a body in movement, hence catwalk shows. Movement is where the beauty of the garment is unveiled, and this is what separates fashion designers from those who simply call themselves fashion designers. Anybody can come up with an interesting print to stick on a t-shirt, but it takes someone with an intimate knowledge of the human body and its dynamic relationship with fabric to create a dress that looks stunning in motion. Instagram and Tumblr may have spawned a million and one streetwear labels with their respective "fashion designers", but that is purely because we have a culture where all clothing is synonymous with fashion.

Fashion is manifest in clothing, but it encompasses far more than the garment itself. I think the catwalk allows designers a space in which they can say something meaningful. It is the reason I think so many designers, especially in London, would be better off simply having a showroom collection rather than a catwalk collection - many do not have enough to say to warrant a full show (and having a lot of looks is not the same as having a lot to say). I am not suggesting that fashion week should only have the type of theatrical shows Thom Browne or Iris Van Herpen present (...but I have to admit that would be a golden age), after all I enjoyed the Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons show just as much as the mainline show, but rather that we need to expand the ways in which we critique and consider fashion shows. There is room for more commercial shows, there is room for more conceptual shows, but what we should value is creativity and meaningful expression in whichever form they may happen to take.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Funeral March

Thom Browne
Autumn/Winter 2015

Fashion: Come, in the name of your love for the seven deadly sins, stop a moment and look at me.
Death: I'm looking.
Fashion: Don't you recognize me?
Death: You should know that I don't see very well and that I can't wear glasses because the English don't make any that fit me, and even if they did, I wouldn't know how to keep them on.
Fashion: I'm Fashion, your sister.
Death: My sister?
Fashion: Yes. Don't you remember that we are both Caducity's daughters?
Death: What can I remember, I who am memory's greatest enemy?
Fashion: But I remember well; and I know that you and I together keep undoing and changing things down here on earth although you go about it one way and I another. 
 Giacomo Leopardi, Dialogue Between Fashion And Death (1824)

Over the past several months I have lost more family members and attended more funerals than I have ever before in my life. In those moments I found myself functioning in something close to an auto-pilot mode, where everything was broken down into a series of steps. All that mattered was the task at hand, and life was reduced into nothing but a series of these small tasks. There was no time to think, no time to feel, just the task at hand. You have to step up and do what needs to be done. I found myself focusing on the mundane details of a task more so than ever before because there were no distractions. I am standing there buttering toast, and all I am doing and thinking about is buttering the toast. I feel the drag of the knife, I feel the texture of the handle, I experience the process like never before. In a way it was the experience of perfect mindfulness, were it not for the fact that I was not really aware of anything at the time.

Awareness is wisdom, but as usually tends to be the case, awareness comes after the fact. I did not think about clothing, I did not think about dressing, it simply became another task. My wardrobe is almost exclusively black, so in a way it already fulfilled part of the function required. My cultural background is such that funerals tend to be conducted within a day or two of the person having passed, at a time when the loss is still very raw. There is no concept of dressing up for a funeral – of attending in a suit or the like. People will turn up directly from work or from home, and although most will be in dark clothing, it is not unusual for people to be in a work uniform with a coat on top or whatever the case may happen to be. In that moment of grief, function is what matters most.

I have been looking back and considering my dress precisely because I was not thinking about it at the time. But it is ever possible to make any decision or choice without some form of conscious thought? And, as I thought about it, I came to the startling awareness that in each case I had worn exactly the same outfit. I had not planned to, I had not consciously thought to do so, it had just happened. I have a notably small wardrobe, so overlap is inevitable, but the fact that it is almost all black would ostensibly lower the chances of wearing the same thing each time, yet that is exactly what happened. I made a decision on some level to wear the same outfit, but it is only recently that I have become aware of that fact. I thought it would be interesting to explore my choices and consider why I made those decisions and what implications they hold for how I think about and relate to my wardrobe.

What I reached for was a functional uniform, one that I have worn before, and one that I feel provided me with some sense of confidence and reassurance. I wore a black long sleeve Muji heat control top, which has a beautiful long and slim cut that works well with my body. I found it a few years back in Muji, but have yet to come across it again, so I regret not picking up more than just the one. I dislike Uniqlo's version because the fabric composition does not wash or wear well, it is far too shiny; the sleeves come up too short for me and I dislike the cuffs; and the bottom hem has a label sewn in which is a small detail but annoys me to no end. The Muji top has sleeves long enough to cover my wrists, has a long and slim body, has a far nicer neckline, and has no tags or labels sewn on or in the garment (it merely has a printed label below the neckline with no noticeable tactile feel).

The sweater and trousers in question.

On top of the heat control top I wore a slim black merino/silk Muji crewneck sweater. The cut is similarly long and slim, following the line of my body without hugging or being too tight. The merino/silk blend has worn well, with a nice soft hand and a decent warmth. The neckline has a far better weight and knit than the merino sweaters I have seen in Muji in the years since I bought this one. Thus on top I wearing two pieces that fit slim, were cut well for my body shape, and had enough stretch and softness to feel supportive rather than restrictive. Warmth was obviously a concern, especially with having to be outdoors for the burials. But I find it interesting that I went for a slimmer top, as opposed to the baggier layers I own and more frequently wear. How do I account for this choice? I think it comes down to movement. These clothes feel supportive, with enough stretch and comfort to support a full range of natural movement. They fit close to the body, but have no noticeable seams or breaks that one can feel in movement, unlike those that would be found with different fabrics that sought to achieve the same cut. I feel prepared and ready for movement, exactly what one needs in such a situation where mind and body are focused purely on accomplishing the task at hand.

As for the lower half of my body, for anyone who has read my previous post (click here), it will come as no surprise that I opted for something baggy. In this instance it was my favourite pair of Yohji trousers, a wide cut black woollen pair in a size LL (they have a 36 inch waist). I wear them belted at my natural waistline and with the hems rolled up. Underneath these I wore black knitted long johns as my knees tend to hurt in the cold, however all my pairs are sized up so that the fabric is supportive without being restrictive. The sensation of the trousers in movement is one of my favourite things about them – there is an organic swing of fabric in time with the flow of movement, so that your legs come into contact with the fabric at a reassuring interval; couple this with the additional weight provided by the rolled hems at the bottom of the trousers and the flow is improved. Again it is all about the movement and that feeling of freedom within a supportive structure.

I have not worn these trousers with braces frequently enough to comment, however I would be interested to see how my experience of the mind-body-dress interface changes when compared to the belted natural waistline I currently employ. The sensation of trousers hanging from the shoulders is entirely different, especially in movement, to a belted waist or belted hip, which no doubt changes the emotional/psychic quality of the experience. What I will say however is that the feeling of a belted waistline, especially at the natural waist level, does for me have a certain determinedness attached to it. You feel prepared and you feel ready. Of course at the extreme this can be detrimental, for example anxiety often presents with a tightened stomach. But then the anxiety bell curve would suggest that this is the body being over-prepared, so scaling that feeling back from the extreme would suggest it is that nervous anticipation of action and movement that allows you to feel confident. I do not happen to wear any of my woollen trousers lower down at my hip level, as one would do jeans or other trousers with a lower rise, however that is something I would like to investigate.

For footwear I went with my deadstock 1980s Dr Martens shoes. They are sturdy, smart and have a wide enough foot bed to help me feel secure and grounded when moving or standing. The traction on the sole was also important for attending the graveyard. For outerwear I wore my black woollen winter coat and wrapped a six foot black cashmere shawl around me. Six foot of cashmere sounds rather luxurious, but, oddly enough, for me it is wearing a regular patterned men's scarf that seems luxurious in comparison. I grew up seeing my mother wearing Kashmiri pashminas and shawls, so wrapping myself up in cashmere has a certain childlike security to it. I do not tend to wear hats, and my coat has no hood, so the closest I get to blocking out some part of the world is wrapping the shawl around me. I now have a five foot black Kashmiri pashmina to add to my scarf line up, which is incredibly soft and delicate, and I am interested to see how it feels when wearing in comparison to the thicker cashmere of the six foot shawl.

I wore the exact same outfit each time without even thinking about it. Function ruled supreme, but function in service of an emotional, as well as a physical, need. The outfit was about allowing me to feel like I had maximum freedom of natural movement whilst simultaneously feeling supported and comforted. I find it interesting to consider the contrast between the slimmer top half and baggier bottom half, but I think it relates to the movement and emotional potential of both (free arms and chest for hugging, or conversely for fighting I suppose, etc.). It is a fascinating process for me to break down outfits in this way, especially when considering them in movement, because it helps reveal some of those hidden thought processes that go into dressing and brings me closer to understanding why I choose to wear what I wear.

As we can see the feeling of the garment is arguably the primary concern in this instance, and I would argue that it informs the majority of my dressing process. That is not to say that how a garment looks is not important, but rather that the work that goes into finding garments that suit my body happens long before the garments actually enter my wardrobe. All choices also have to made with consideration of the rest of my wardrobe, especially given how small it is, which means multiple pieces have to work together. Having such a coherent wardrobe provides you with a safety net, in that you do not have to think so much in the moment of whether pieces work with each other, which I find helps in opening you up to a more emotive process in dressing.

For me it is about feeling and function. Then it is about how it looks. Of course how the garment looks will inform how the garment feels to an extent that must not be understated, but I am interested in the order of primary drives when choosing and wearing clothing. As for how I think this relates to the process of building my wardrobe...I always talk of 'building' my wardrobe, but the only time it will ever be 'built' is when I stop adding to it, which is to say when I stop wearing clothes. A finished wardrobe is a dead wardrobe, which given the topic at hand is perhaps fitting. But yes, I think going ahead I want to focus more on exploring the feeling of garments in movement and documenting those experiences, especially when it comes to trying on new clothing (and of course, potential future purchases).

I am the observer and the observed, and dress provides the avenue for insight.