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Material Things

By Jaleh Brazell

Next in Fashion

Netflix, 2020

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things

V&A, 2019-20

‘Culture should be attractive, otherwise no one listens.’ So declared Miuccia Prada in 2018, cutting straight to the central crux of high fashion – how to reconcile the artistic vision of designers with the commercial necessity of profit. It is one of fashion’s enduring ironies that catwalk shows are labelled ‘ready-to-wear’ while showcasing looks that are anything but wearable in daily life. Two recent insights into the industry - very different in delivery and tone - illustrate this tension with surprising (if inadvertent) clarity: Netflix’s Next in Fashion, the latest offering to the glut of reality television, and the Victoria & Albert’s exhibition of fashion photography, ‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’.

The appeal of Next in Fashion lies in the fact that reality television, like all great popular culture, is at its best when it smuggles uncomfortable truths beneath its predictable format and recycled narrative arcs – when ‘television’ becomes a veneer for ‘reality’, the ultimate sugar around the pill. The set-up of the show prompts immediate comparison to Project Runway, with a few tweaks to distinguish it from its long-running predecessor: the 18 contestants are already highly skilled, the majority have brands of their own, and they include two graduates from the prestigious Central Saint Martin’sfashion programme. Gathered from across the globe, they compete for a $250,000 cash prize to boost their business. So far, so familiar. But the show’s format unintentionally reveals the contradictions of the industry as whole: disguised by ruffles, frills and shoulder-pads, there is a gravitas to the light entertainment on offer.

The choice of hosts is instructive. Tan France and Alexa Chung are both rooted in the technical aspects of fashion: they each have their own clothing brand, with enough hands-on experience to warn contestants against choosing nylon as a fabric (a nightmare to sew, apparently). But they are equally, if not more, established in the glossier, more commercial side of the industry, reigning as social media tastemakers. As the series progresses and runway looks are criticised for failing on one side of this spectrum – alternately for being too uncommercial or for lacking creative vision – the successful careers of the hosts become more and more impressive. In the world of fashion, it is not as easy as it seems to strike the delicate balance between credibility and success.

This oscillation – with ambitious creativity on the one hand, and the strictures of celebrity culture on the other – is ongoing. In each episode, extra judges are brought on to supplement Chung and France, often top designers (Christopher Kane, Philip Lim) or celebrity stylists. The criteria for judging seem bewilderingly contradictory. On the one hand, there is an obsession with the commercial value of the designs: France is often heard asking the stylists, ‘Can you see one of your starlets in this?’ or, ‘Could you put somebody in the female look?’ (the answer in this case is no – it is not flattering or body-hugging enough; it is too ‘out there’). Judges praise an outfit because they can ‘see’ Taylor Swift in it, or rate looks on how ‘Instagrammable’ they are. The contestants seem to buy into this to a certain extent, vowing that they ‘always think of commerce when we design’.

But it soon emerges that ‘commercial’ is by no means synonymous with ‘conventional’. A designer’s work is just as often critiqued for being too ‘safe’ or ‘already done’. One outfit, a peplum construction in different patterns of plaid, comes under fire for appearing like a costume piece for a 90s-era Gwen Stefani. To the casual viewer, the specificity of this criticism is as impressive as it is cutting.

But the 90s were over two decades ago, and Stefani is not as relevant as she once was: the reproach is understandable. Soon, though, it becomes brutally apparent how immediate the contestants’ ideas are expected to be. Prabal Gurung, the designer guest judge for episode two, informs us that in fashion you must create something ‘inspirational and aspirational’, and is disappointed when certain looks are not ‘bold’ or ‘daring’ enough. France is shocked when he sees a glittery silver pair of men’s trousers coming down the runway: ‘It’s Calvin Klein right now. I’ve literally seen those pants; I think I own those pants!’.

And so the contestants are left seeking an elusive sweet spot, a design which pushes the envelope without throwing it out of the window, equal measures wearable and audacious. Once this central tension is identified, it is amplified across all aspects of the show. We see contestants sewing maniacally, their hands flashing with stacks of gold ring, practicality encased in glamour. Even the general production seems to embody two extremes: the big-budget renovation of the set – whereby a runway is constructed and dismantled every episode – is at odds with the choppy, handheld camera shots, now a hallmark of reality television. At every level, a hands-on, pragmatic attitude is contrasted with the appearance of polished perfection.

Much like the show’s runway, the dichotomy between artistic self-expression and commerciality is dismantled over the course of the series and gradually revealed to be an unhelpful framework. It becomes clear that in the high fashion world, these areas are not separate spheres, but two ends of the same spectrum. Kerby Jean Raymond, founder of streetwear brand Pyer Moss, summarises this well in the fourth episode: ‘a really balanced runway has a combination of fantasy and reality’. Success is a question of subtle and seamless unification – just enough of your own personality to make a statement, but not so much that it comes at the cost of broad appeal.

This is where Tim Walker’s work offers an interesting point of comparison. As one of the most successful fashion photographers of the last 25 years, he seems largely unencumbered by the desires of the spectral consumer. The first room of the V&A exhibition displays his commercial work, including numerous shoots for Vogue – shoots in which the clothes are barely a bit part, let alone the main character.

Instead, Walker’s photographs are devoted to the whimsical. He describes recreating images from his dreams, and it is easy to see: each image is like peering through a looking glass into a strange fairytale paradise (or dystopia). One depicts Kate Moss in all white, stretched across the floor of a sparsely furnished stately home and gazing at a snowy horse reclining before her, a kind of equine twin. Then there is Margaret Atwood, wrapped up in the autumnal tones of Viktor & Rolf couture, her grey curls standing on end as if electrified, staring intently into the camera while holding a ridiculously oversized quill. Walker’s creative visions are imaginative, wild, even wacky – but as the rest of the exhibition shows, it is clear that even these have been somewhat watered down by the commercial element so coveted by the Next in Fashion crew.

The ensuing rooms display Walker’s artistic reactions to various objects in the museum’s collection. Untethered by the commercial restraints of the first room, they are a riot of imagination let loose. A pastel pink boudoir hosts sugary nudes of Beth Ditto, delicately holding a lilac chiffon with watermelon slices scattered around her feet. A dark vestibule with choral music playing in the background displays 16th century religious stained glass alongside Walker’s neon orange response, which is photographed as if viewed through a broken window.

Walker revels in blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality. As you progress, the sets of his shoots (designed by long-time collaborator Shona Heath) escape the pictures and decorate the exhibition space. Turquoise elephants and pink monkeys preside over photographs from the jungle-themed shoot in which they initially appeared, springing from the page like characters from a children’s book. Inspired by the museum’s historical paintings from South Asia, Walker’s interpretation here sees models looming out of the Worcestershire countryside, skin covered in golden glitter, resplendent in the summer sunshine. There is joy in these exuberant images, and the title of the exhibition is aptly chosen: he has collected and created so many ‘Wonderful Things’ that the overall impression is almost one of aesthetic overload.

Given the extravagance and luxury associated with high fashion, it seems perverse to see the whole business as a compromise. But the Walker exhibition and Next in Fashion show that this is undeniably the case: the industry navigates a constant tightrope between fantasy and reality, high-flown ideas and down-to-earth practicality, clothes as art versus clothes as commerce. The subjectivity of opinions on Next in Fashion is in some ways terrifying – in one episode the disagreement is so heated that the guest judge walks out – but isn’t that the thrill? Daring but dicey is more exciting than safe but unsatisfying. At worst, you’ll buy boilerplate items that do nothing to express your sense of self. At best, you’ll wear art on your sleeve.

JALEH BRAZELL reads Classics at St Hilda's College. She is a diamante in the rough.

Art by Abigail Hodges


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