There are two things that connect the three upcoming designers Ashley Williams, Claire Barrow and Ed Marler: they are all graduates of London fashion schools (Westminster and CSM) and they are all Fashion East or NEWGEN alumni. Aptly named, they represent a new generation of London designers breaking through nationally and internationally. But as opposed to the 90’s kids who could struggle for a decade to get their feet on the ground in the market, these new talents seem increasingly business-savvy, with the help of support schemes and marketing. Despite the obvious financial and PR-advantages for such schemes, should we (as creatives) be suspicious of them? What are the politics of corporate backing, and what characterises the designers who manage to acquire such support?
Ed Marler is the epitome of a particular East London neo-Gallianoism that goes back in to the dress-up closet in a Baroque explosion of historical references, self-ornamented in sub- pop- and high-cultural curiosities and idiosyncratic paraphernalia. He designs, rather autobiographically, for the young urban romantic – who wears a plastic crown to the supermarket and adds pompoms to his/her sneakers. He was selected to light up the Fashion East runway with his romantic creations for the last two seasons, ensuring him showroom presence in Paris.
Elsewhere, Claire Barrow approaches her designs with much more abstraction – treating her textiles with a painterly awareness, which in turn become canvases for her intricate distorted pattern-doodling and Gothic portraiture. She applies this imagery onto a range of silks, leathers, cottons and wools, creating a clear cohesion between styles and textures – a distinct style that is both playful and haunting. After her 2013 Fashion East showcase she was picked up by Topshop’s NEWGEN-scheme, exhibiting at Somerset House during fashion weeks. Today, Barrow is sold in seven countries, including the United States, Russia and Japan.
Finally, British Ashley Williams celebrates girlhood in the most pluralistic sense – spanning decades of feminine culture, from 50’s cartoons to Taiwanese street style. She graduated from Westminster and has continued to develop her unique take on contemporary women’s dress, always marked by feminist over- and undertones. Her Fashion East showcase and subsequent NEWGEN sponsorship instigated her first footwear collection, a series of nostalgic kitten heels in transparent vinyl – she is currently stocked in stores such as Joyce (Hong Kong), Selfridges and Colette (Paris).
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig
Model: Kitty Garratt
Despite a wide difference in aesthetics, these three young designers are the product of London’s appraised fashion institutions– that, as well as of exceptional support schemes for London-based graduates, enables young designers to get established in the industry. Fashion’s ambivalent relationship to commerce has worked in its favour by attracting corporate sponsorship – financial speculation aside, high street and luxury sponsorships are ensuring a young design culture that is much more lively than its Parisian and NYC counterparts. Furthermore, the market is responding with graduates being picked up and mentored by stores like Machine-A – getting an opportunity to operate as a professional business for the first time (see our interview with its founder Stavros). A sceptic would perhaps warn against this tendency to measure creative success through commercial parameters – that the best designers coming out of the fashion schools are the ones who go on to showcase with Fashion East, for example. Is there an alternative route to success for an independent graduate designer?
As a further cementation of their growing establishing in the industry, the trio was recently invited by Hackney’s Live Archive to come and sell curated pieces from their archives under the pop-up event 3-s: Women. The initiative, run by STRUT London, works actively with the archiving and showcasing of fashion, and recently presented the impressive retrospective on 20 years of Comme des Garçons RED, curated by Jeff Horsley – not a bad crowd to hang with, indeed! It’s interesting to think about archiving for the emerging fashion designer; as clothes enter an archive, a sense of legitimation naturally follows. Success, it seems, is also measured by critical or historical means – by carving out a space for oneself in the history of fashion design. In a fast-paced industry — where even a Fashion East backing is only two seasons maximum — self-historicisation is as legit a strategy as immediate commercial success.