The name alone was a surefire way to drag me out of my cocoon nest and kick my imagination into overdrive, a name strong enough to subtly hint that I should spruce myself up for the occasion. But what could be so impossible about Catwalk Shows? Footage of RuPaul walking effortlessly in 10 inch stiletto heels clicking sharply on a giant rotating platform? A dress entirely covered with sewn on Lipton tea bags and lightning bolts emanating from an electric cord around the waist? A heart-wrenching moment when two hollow-eyed fashion martyrs trade blows on the catwalk or Lady Gaga undergoing another incubation in a giant egg before emerging as Kermit the Frog?
Surely I could at least expect something beyond the mere parade of fashion models with dour faces, painted purple lips and dilated pupils? (Apparently a tell-tale sign that they’re high on, ahem, hairspray fumes). Well, definitely! But I quickly realised I was completely off the mark when I first arrived and hungrily scanned the medium-sized exhibition room for a hint of scandal. Not a trace – as Simon Costin, renowned for his work with Tim Walker and Alexander McQueen, has clearly approached the subject matter of catwalk shows on a much “smaller-scale” with various model sets aiming to challenge our formalised ways of viewing garments.
Costin is truly an ingenious set designer and he has chosen a set of real and imagined spaces such as a reproduction of a nuclear power station, a cardboard forest and a sanatorium. Now what could be the link between the clothes and a place treating long-term illnesses or a plant generating nuclear power and electricity? Your guess is as good as mine and the exhibition certainly asks more questions than it answers. In a way, I found it strangely refreshing not to be spoon-fed, something we’ve grown so accustomed to and even expect nowadays. Nothing during the course of the exhibition is overtly obvious; the model sets take central stage while the garments – which are barely present – only play second fiddle to the setting, forcing you to reassess and imagine the relationship between the set designs and the clothes. This wasn’t about beauty, drama and glamour and it went beyond the fickle frippery of mainstream fashion where cutesy narratives, inspirational backdrops and dramatic lightning often compensate for a lack of interest in the clothes. I’m not saying this is wrong, I’m just saying this has now become a common and widespread marketing strategy to appeal to the mass market in a bid to generate sales and Costin has shown in the past that he is certainly very skilled in that area.
Deconstruction was also on the agenda in the shape of a dome-like structure through which you could peer at 16 lifesize lenticular lenses representing isolated parts of a same garment. Frankly the concept completely lost me…
The pictures I took of the sanatorium reproduction showed a space filled with dyed garments suspended on hangers above miniature steel baths. I was unsure about the true meaning behind this idea but the visual impact was strong and the unusual setting didn’t detract from the clothes. In fact it reminded me of a scene from a little-known movie called Giorgino.
Scene from Giorgino
The exhibition is clearly a low-budget affair but where Simon Costin succeeds, in my opinion, is in showing a different and less indulgent side of fashion. Here he drops the glitzy and glamorous décors in favour of more controversial environments where clothes may elicit an emotional and intellectual response away from the traditional catwalk. He provides interesting questions and answers about the future of the fashion show. Costin’s vision may come to life one day but it would undoubtedly be – if you’d excuse my scepticism – as part of a marketing ploy devised by the fashion industry for which a designer’s imagination is only worth exploiting if it goes hand in hand with a high profit margin; a timely reminder that when fashion forgets its disruptive, probing and uncompromising roots, it just becomes mainstream and forgettable.
I could not take pictures of the nuclear plant model set which was protected by a cardboard structure but I’ve got plenty of mood boards for you verging a little on the weird side…