Fabian Kis-Juhasz and her Devilish Damsels
Words Bella Webb
The former RCA student talks femininity, Fashion Week and the fickle reality of success.
Miss Havisham models lounge around a red and pink boudoir, reading the Satanic Bible and toying with the chokers around their taut necks. Powder and rouge stain their distant faces, offsetting the saccharine surroundings with a dollop of dark kitsch. Bloody corsets protrude from piles of mattresses like a sinister take on The Princess and The Pea and church organs ring over the unsettling scene.
For a split second, immersed in the demonic depths of Hungarian designer Fabian Kis-Juhasz’s imagination, you forget that you’re in the British Fashion Council’s Designer Showroom, with crowds and cars pulsing along The Strand above. And that’s exactly how Fabian wants it. “A catwalk show is on for ten seconds, and it’s harder to appreciate the details,” she says. “With a presentation, you can communicate much more of your identity. I wanted to make a visual statement of the things I like.”
“Femininity is such an unattainable image. It’s not realistic for most people who identify with it. It’s aspirational, but it also makes you feel shit about yourself.”
This is Fabian’s first presentation at London Fashion Week. Like Josephine Jones, whose on-schedule debut the night before featured an all-trans cast, Fabian used mostly trans and non-binary models. Many were close friends and collaborators, people who have appeared in all of her collections to date. In Fabian’s work, femininity is a guise that can be put on and taken off. Her moulded corsets, complete with phallic waistlines and drooping breasts, offer a more inclusive womanhood, where the body beneath it has no bearing on its validity: “Femininity is such an unattainable image. It’s not realistic for most people who identify with it. It’s aspirational, but it also makes you feel shit about yourself. So I love this idea of femininity being performative. The idea that femininity is not definitive of who you are, but just a thing that you can be, might help you feel more comfortable in your own skin.” It’s a tool for expression, of what you can be, as opposed to an intrinsic expression of who you are.
Thanks to set designer Gillian Hyland and stylist Danielle Goldman, the devil is in the detail: dried flowers wither in faded pots and the vanity mirrors stare back at you with lipstick flowers. Eggs are scattered across the floor and surfaces, as a symbol of womanhood and fertility. As the show wrapped, Fabian’s fellow designer and RCA alumna Sinéad O’Dwyer scooped them up to take home for brunch.
“I was really interested in the Church of Satanism,” continues Fabian. “The whole thing is about not believing in anything, contesting the idea of God, religion and faith. So I had the Satanic Bible in the set.” The Monstrous-Feminine by Barbara Creed was an obvious addition, a firm favourite on Fabian’s bookshelf. Similarly, Julia Kristeva’s exploration of the abject in Powers of Horror influenced Fabian’s separation of femininity and womanhood, where clothes are the borders that define and contain the monstrous body. Amidst the academic allusions, Wuthering Heights lent an air of romanticism. The literary props were as much about entertaining the models as they were about reflecting Fabian’s process. “I started thinking about how uncomfortable it must be for the models to stand around for two hours with nothing to do, so I gave them books to read,” she laughs.
“Because we used fabrics on the walls, I had to flame-proof them, which I didn’t know was a thing.”
Thinking up things for the models to do was just one of the invisible tasks Fabian didn’t anticipate when she applied for a presentation space. “There are so many ridiculous details,” she says. “I was told I had a space four weeks before the presentation, so it was a tight turnaround. The BFC provided a production team to help you assemble things, but I had to bring my own set, models and make-up. I had so many set designers cancel on me, and one of the models did the soundscapes the night before. Because we used fabrics on the walls, I had to flame-proof them, which I didn’t know was a thing. I was running around London the day before and I spilled the flame-proofing liquid in an Uber. So I fire-proofed an Uber by accident!”
“It’s so strange because you have the presentation, which is such a huge moment and everybody is congratulating you, and then you go home to your cold apartment where the heating is broken and you go to Tesco to get food and it’s not glamorous anymore. It’s such a 180 from what you just experienced.”
The process of staging a presentation is a steep learning curve for young designers like Fabian, but one she would wholeheartedly recommend. “Doing a presentation on-schedule is great press,” she says. “You can start to gain a following, maybe get some interviews and build your image. I had a feature in LOVE Magazine, which was pretty cool.”
“Getting freelance fashion work is almost as hard as showing at London Fashion Week.”
The main downside is the cost. “There’s never a clear number attached to what you’re going to get out of a presentation or how much you’re going to put in yourself. I’d do it again if I suddenly came into a huge inheritance or something!” Here, the realities of being a fledgling designer set in. “It’s so strange because you have the presentation, which is such a huge moment and everybody is congratulating you, and then you go home to your cold apartment where the heating is broken and you go to Tesco to get food and it’s not glamorous anymore. It’s such a 180 from what you just experienced.”
The main lesson Fabian has learnt from her foray into Fashion Week? “I think you have to milk every opportunity you can get out of your graduate collection. The market is so saturated with people, and there are so few opportunities. Getting freelance fashion work is almost as hard as showing at London Fashion Week. Just because there isn’t a cool name attached to something, don’t turn your nose up at an opportunity. You can still grow through it, you can still learn something.”