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How subversive fashion is reclaiming London

Squats bulldozed, grants cut, iconic clubs shut down. But the city’s rebel designers have found their own ways to fight back

London is at a crossroads. Its reputation is as the home of youthful iconoclasm, a place where generations of designers would burst out of the studios of Central Saint Martins to claim their place in the spotlight, and tear up the rulebook of fashion while they were at it. But things are changing – studio spaces are getting knocked down for luxury flats, grants for arts and fashion students are being slashed (funding that supported the likes of McQueen and Galliano “disappeared without so much as a murmur” according to the legendary late CSM tutor Louise Wilson) and nightlife venues that played a fundamental role in the city’s fringe culture are being forcibly closed. The spectre of corporate London, fetishising American Psycho style living as a legitimate career aspiration, looks set to take over the places that have, for decades, nurtured the city’s subversive spirit. So are we right to be concerned? How can Britain’s rebellious fashion reassert its place in the city?

Notably absent from the London Fashion Week schedule for AW15 were Meadham Kirchhoff, the duo who last season staged a momentous riot-grrl inspired protest, street-casting models to take to their runway in latex, lace bullet bras and mohawks, and creating a zine-style manifesto that rallied against the world’s homophobia and sexism. The show’s authenticity, its punk roots and political motivations, resonated strongly with both the audience and beyond, so it was to much shock and surprise that the designers announced in December that they would not be returning to Fashion Week this season. They blamed the pressure to create escalating presentations on limited budgets, leaving them cash-strapped.

“The way the industry works, you’re driven to do all these grandiose shows, all these things that are incredibly expensive,” Benjamin Kirchhoff told – “and then one day, the sponsorship runs out. You’re on your own.” His partner Edward Meadham confessed that the struggle to fulfill orders for stockists was also a problem: “It’s always seemed like, ‘How do we do this? How do we keep up?’” The sad fact was that the pressures of creating consistently strong designs, and then being able to produce and sell them, had crippled the most provocative designers in London for a long time, who felt like the only ones with a real manifesto – one that was about sticking two fingers up at authority, not just selling clothes. It seemed jaw dropping that their vision didn’t have a place on the show schedule, a concerning reflection of the age-old battle between creativity and commercialism.

“The London designer gaffer-taping together collections from plastic found in skips, or jacquard from Brick Lane, has been superseded by a polished, preened, media-savvy generation of creative directors,” wrote Alexander Fury in the most recent issue of Elle Collections. It's true that this notion of what makes a ‘real’ London designer – poring over sketches, trawling through reference books looking for the side note of history that could ignite an entire collection, cutting away at fabric with divine impunity, traits that were so key to McQueen and Galliano – feels more and more absent, replaced by polished show notes and perfectly curated Instagram feeds. Although the city mourns the loss of Meadham Kirchhoff, thankfully there are still some designers unbothered by the glossy media machine, some who prefer doing things their own way.

For his show with Fashion East, CSM grad Ed Marler sent his motley gang of mates dancing down the runway in a collection inspired, he said, by “typical working class British culture” and the best of English camp – including Only Fools and Horses and Princess Di. Gold watches were piled on wrists, signet rings stacked on fingers, girls laced into corsets and clad in Kat Slater leopard print, topped off with football team crests. Fashion has a habit of adopting traits and tropes popularly belonging to working class or urban culture in a way that can feel appropriative, but here it was authentic. Marler’s show was an intentionally unpolished celebration of his own roots, which he channeled into the collection – specifically his expat grandparents’ home in Spain, stuffed with ephemera from their days as pub landlords. At a time where the focus seems to always be on promoting luxury, Marler’s collection was more concerned with uninhibited, DIY, dressing-up-box style fun. Choosing to play with and translate signifiers of working class culture into something camp and theatrical was an act of reclamation, taking back that identity from the immigrant-hating, UKIP-voting stereotype that’s increasingly gaining ground. 

“The spectre of corporate London looks set to take over the places that have, for decades, nurtured the city’s subversive spirit. How can Britain’s rebellious fashion reassert its place?”

Marler wasn’t the only one who drew on the realities of British culture this season. Although for SS15, NEWGEN designer Claire Barrow took her cues from an imagined dystopian future, for AW15 she found herself inspired by the banalities of living in London, the “mundane ease of everyday life” – wind, taxes, taxis, corporate jobs. Visitors were handed a zine created with Ditto Press, and clothes were scribbled with to-do list style reminders (‘tidy up’ ‘donate tomorrow’ ‘don’t forget: cold + wet’), scrawled with cartoon wind and rain. Models stood on grey office carpet covered blocks, their hair and garments blown into disarray by desk fans at their feet. “It’s like when you walk past a skyscraper and it’s really windy so all your clothes get tangled,” Barrow explained. “It’s that struggle of wearing clothes in the city.” It was a realist approach (though of course decorated with Barrow’s trademark painterly prints and designs), a response to the way that London is changing, the divides between wealth, business and creativity. “I don’t feel very optimistic about it all,” she says of London – “but I don’t want to move, I want to stay and do what I want to do.”

In fashion it’s increasingly easy to get caught up in the fantasy clichés of a designer’s ‘woman’ – the idealised muse of the season, someone often far removed from the realities of life. She flits from season to season, decade to decade, an emblem of aspiration that forgoes the day-to-day realities of life to recline luxuriously on vintage chaise lounges or sip cocktails with artists and poets in the minds of designers. Barrow’s girl of the season was far more tangible, more relatable – reminding herself to take an umbrella when she goes out into the city, her hair and clothes buffeted by the wind. Frankly, it was refreshing; a way to creatively respond to the realities faced by women like Barrow, and those who will wear her clothes, who are struggling to make sense of their own place in a city like London. “I like bringing discussion and issues like this forward through the opportunity I have to do projects that people see,” comments Barrow. “Rather than just making things pretty.”

And of course, after seven years showing in Paris, last week Gareth Pugh returned to London to celebrate his tenth anniversary. His show was a visually bold, conceptually powerful homecoming for one of the best designers to emerge from Britain in the last decade, a return that he felt was “timely and true to the spirit of the work”, as “London is where everything began.” Where everything began was in the !WOWOW! collective squat of artists and creatives that lived in a (now demolished) old department store on Rye Lane, so it’s fair to say that Pugh’s fashion has its roots firmly embedded in the city’s artistic, performance and nightlife culture. You need only to look at this early shows, where models (of no discernable gender) teetered down a runway in inflated fetishwear and platform heels to shuddering bass lines, or the ways he has reimagined the runway: pumping it with smoke and chlorine or rejecting it entirely, instead showing collections in films or pagan inspired dance performances. This pushing of the definitions of what a fashion show is or should be is at the heart of Pugh’s world. But the life that nurtured him (and the likes of his collaborators like Alex Box and Matthew Stone) is increasingly being erased, cleared out to make way for blocks of flats.

Despite the symbols of Britain that permeated his collection, it was no straightforward love letter; there was something uncanny about Pugh’s patriotism, something jarring in the thundering football chant soundtrack and bloodlike Saint George’s Crosses smeared on models’ faces. “There’s always something dealing with opposites,” he said of his work in the Summer 2014 issue of Dazed. “It’s like when you put two magnets together. That friction or tension between the two disparate elements is interesting. 
It doesn’t read very easily – it’s quite unnerving to look at, but it’s not clear why.” Ultimately, Pugh’s return to London was an opportunity to address his own place in the city that is his creative home, the changes it has undergone since his early days. His response wasn’t straightforward, but neither is the state of Britain. The collection embraced this contradiction, found beauty in disparity, and used it as a creative resource to drawn on – that was why it was so powerful.

It’s easy to get nostalgic for the early days of Galliano and McQueen (days that, let’s face it, most of us didn’t actually witness) where designers rebelled against surface-level fashion by imagining new worlds, spinning stories to become engrossed in. But today, what’s more powerful is not to descend into sublime fantasies, but respond to reality like Marler and Barrow did this season. That’s a subversive act in itself. What’s important now is to turn away from escapism, to draw on the negativity and conflict of London, of England, and use that creatively. That’s the only resistance against the developers, the arts cuts – and hopefully it won’t be too long until Meadham Kirchhoff return to continue the movement that they started. Subversive London isn’t dead – it’s just found a new battleground.