London Fashion Week: A Model Way Of Life?

So LFW “SS14” (what they would like you to wear in Spring & Summer next year) draws to its conclusion. The five-day event opened at the British Fashion Council (BFC) Courtyard Show Space in Somerset House on Friday 13th September with a show by Turkish designer Bora Aksu – whose collection (enthused the London Evening Standard) featured “ floor-sweeping chiffon gowns alongside structured minidresses nipped in at the waist, accentuating the hips”. The final slot in the catwalk schedule (6pm Tuesday 17th September) at the same location was allotted to Haizhen Wang (from Dalian, China & a graduate of Central St. Martins), whose ideal client is “An extraordinary woman who is confident yet sensual and appreciates shape & form”. The fashion world’s focus now switches to Milan (18th-23rd Sept) and then to Paris (24th September – 2nd October), concluding the current season which started in New York (5th – 12th September).

Questions are being asked, however, about what exactly is the purpose of all this frenetic rushing from one “fashion city” to the next. As Jess Cartner-Morley pointed out in the “Guardian” on 7th September, “ the traditional catwalk has decreasing relevance in the digital age”. Suzy Menkes (“who has been fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune for 25 years”) wrote the next day in the “Sunday Times” that the obligation to “bring in their teams, chase the best models & replay the tension and drama of yet another runway show” in New York and the other three locations twice a year (Spring & Autumn) puts both management and creatives (especially the European designers) under constant pressure”. It has all become, she declared “ a whirligig that seems to be spinning out of control”.

The BFC, though, appears to have few such qualms about the importance of LFW – especially its role in boosting the UK’s slowly recovering economy. It estimates that the bi-annual event – consisting of 60 catwalk shows and more than 120 ready-to-wear and accessories exhibitions & presentations – results in orders worth more than £100 million being placed on each occasion. “Over 5,000 visitors attend: Buyers, TV & radio crews, journalists and photographers. Media coverage exceeds most major news and international sporting events”.

A special print edition of “Blouin LifeStyle.com” extolled the fact that LFW “with its support of rising design stars and initiatives to assist new labels, has gained a reputation as the ideal event to anoint fashion’s new heavyweights”. Blouin LifeStyle, The Guardian, the Evening Standard & Time Out (among others) have all acknowledged that LFW  is “a heady mix of the big-name, established designers” – such as Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Cristopher Bailey (“the creative force behind our beloved British label Burberry”), Ireland’s J.W. Anderson (“ the expert in modern cool”), Tom Ford, Jonathan Saunders – and London’s “up-an-coming talent”. Those singled out as “ones to watch” included Fashion East’s Ashley Williams (speciality: print dresses and knitted red jumpers) & Clare Barrow (trademark piece: “the hand-painted vintage leather biker jacket”) – both of them University of Westminster graduates – and the Hong Kong-born Ryan Lo, who studied at the Cleveland College of Art in Middlesborough. Also: Unique’s Emma Farrow, who “always holds her own against high-end designers, creating incredible collections at a fraction of the price”.

An integral feature of LFW, of course, is the media attention given to the “famous names” who turn up for the catwalks. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business, for example, occupied a first row seat at the Bora Aksu Show. The photo on the front page of the 13th September edition of the “Evening Standard” was, however, not of him but of “model Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley and singer Ellie Goulding” posing together at LFW. During New York’s Fashion Week, designer Oscar de la Renta (reported “The Observer”) reacted to the “celebrity circus” by halving the guest list for his show. The newspaper also quoted the complaint by the fashion industry consultant Robert Burke that “Sometimes you can hardly see the show because people are jumping up to photograph each other. Designers (he added) want to bring the focus back to the clothing. Bloggers and celebrities are important, but there needs to be a balance”. Some designers (such as Tom Ford) apparently “already show their clothes to a select few and forbid photography”. Cartner-Morley, in her Guardian article of 7th September, referred to Suzy Menkes’ lament about the advent of “mob rule” in the industry and the distinction she made between the “professionals” and the “peacocks”.

There have been other controversies this year involving the fashion industry. In “The Observer” on 6th July, Kirstie Clements ( former editor of Australian “Vogue”) lambasted the “thin-obsessed culture in which starving models eat tissues instead of food and resort to surgery when dieting isn’t enough”. The longer she worked with models (she revealed) “the more food deprivation became obvious. Cigarettes and Diet Coke were dietary staples”. Some models, it seems, thought it was “normal” to faint at least once a day: “It’s the ultimate vicious cycle. A model who puts on a few kilos gets reprimanded by her agency. She begins to diet, loses weight and is praised by all for how good she looks. She thinks losing more will make her even more desirable. And no-one tells her to stop.”

In the same newspaper on 8th September, journalists Tess Reidy & Tracy McVeigh noted approvingly that there is now a trend towards “quirkiness & diversity” in models (for example, Georgia Jagger’s “gap teeth) and that “curvier girls such as Kate Upton are occasionally appearing in place of the typical edge-of-starvation look”.

The general rule is still, though, (according to the Association of Fashion Model Agents website) that “girls should be at least 5ft 8ins (1.73cms) tall and more or less 34-24-34 (86cm-61cm-86cm). A male model should be at least 6ft tall (1.83cms), chest 40 and inside leg 33ins (84 cms)”. They need to have “clear skin, good hands, nails & teeth, regular features, common sense and a good sense of humour”.

The AFMA, along with the BFC, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Equity (the actors’ union) have established a “LFW Model Programme” based on the latter’s ten-point “Code of Conduct” covering working hours & breaks, the provision of meals, travel expenses, nudity/semi-nudity, changing rooms, reasonable working temperatures, insurance and protection for the models’ safety, health and personal dignity. Models under the age of 16 cannot be used “in photoshoots representing adult models”, no nudity or semi-nudity will be permitted and they must be accompanied by an approved chaperone. The more a designer has appeared at LFW, the higher the pay rate: A John Rocha official estimated that its models receive around £300 for participating in one of its LFW shows.

Coinciding with the start of LFW, Amirul Haque Amin, President of the Bangladesh National Garment Workers Federation, arrived in the capital on a mission to persuade (together with British trade unionists and the charity “War On Want”) fashion retailers to improve the working conditions and pay rates in factories such as the Rana Plaza near Dhaka (where the disaster occurred in April). Leading brands such as Tesco, Primark, Gap, Monsoon, Accessorize, Marks & Spencer and Asda have all signed up to a proposed “international pact” – whereas “nearly all US clothing chains” (as stated in “The Washington Post”) have declined to do so due to “fear of litigation”.

Filed under: Society | Posted on September 17th, 2013 by Colin D Gordon

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