Scotland has become pretty cool recently: should we blame Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin with sensual alien Scarlett Johansson, or the Commonwealth Games that brought tourists to Glasgow? Or was it the TV adaptation of Outlander eagerly awaited by hordes of fans in love with tartan and with impossible romantic stories. Or maybe it's the fault of major art fairs and exhibitions that won Glasgow the title of hotbed of arty geniuses, not to mention the successful writers Scotland has produced throughout the decades, the legendary story of J.K. Rowling writing a masterpiece in an Edinburgh café, and an enviable independent music scene with too many artists to list.
Fashion-wise Scotland is also enjoying quite a bit of attention: two years ago Chanel acquired Hawick-based cashmere mill Barrie and Lagerfeld put Linlithgow on the fashion map hosting there Chanel's Métiers d'Art catwalk show, while the creative juices of quite a few Scottish designers are freely flowing in the fashion industry.
"Pursuing the essence of the Scottish soul and decor", as stated on its site, Holiday Magazine's latest issue (N°374) also focuses on Scotland with features on author Irvine Welsh, stylist Joe McKenna and model Stella Tennant (among the others).
Last Sunday Scotland ended up on the London Fashion Week runways thanks to Vivienne Westwood's Red Label collection. The designer sent her models out wearing "Yes" badges hinting at the Scottish independence referendum taking place on Thursday.
Born in Glossop, to English parents, Westwood harbours a special passion for Scotland, and often employs tartan in her creations. She actually has her own pattern - the "Westwood MacAndreas" (named after her third husband, Andreas Kronthaler who designed it, and officially recognised by the world's leading tartan manufacturer Lochcarron of Scotland) and developed for her Autumn/Winter 1993 "Anglomania" collection. Her contribution to the textiles and fabric industry in Scotland won her at the beginning of September admission to the Hall of Fame at the Scottish Fashion Awards (held in London...).
Westwood's Red Label collection featured a series of masculine bold and oversized suits with jackets characterised by broad shoulders matched with shirts with exaggerated collars.
These designs were juxtaposed to more feminine looks that included bustiers and corsets that may have come out of the 18th century (not new to Westwood, but in this case they looked like connections with Scottish history and with the Outlander iconography), light dresses decorated with lace and silk taffeta frocks. Some of the looks were matched with pirate hats, while "Yes" badges were used as decorations for the necklaces and hats or were proudly sported by models on the lapels of the jackets.
A print with a stylised blue bird on a white background and some of the knitwear with geometrical jacquard motifs looked like indirect references to the Saltire, but, to make her support to independence more explicit, Westwood also wrote her own manifesto about the referendum.
Rather than hoping for "Anarchy in the UK", in her show notes Westwood opted for a "Democracy in the UK" message, reversing the Trainspotting mantra that prompted Irvine Welsh's characters to shout "it's shite being Scottish", and stating "Fingers crossed they'll win. If they do, it could be the turning point for a better world. They could lead by example. Scottish Independence could be a great day for Democracy. They already have a more democratic financial system, eg no tuition fees, and they care more for people. They just wouldn't do what we're doing in England...In England there is hardly any democracy left. The government does what it wants. That which should belong to people - it gives it all to business."
Westwood is not new to openly supporting certain causes: she brought on the runway protests against the incarceration of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and she is currently fighting against fracking and climate change. Westwood has also supported and visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, was inspired in a previous collection by imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier and also appeared at Occupy London protests.
In a nutshell, fashion has turned for Westwood into a vehicle for her activism and political views. In a world in which fashion can be mainly considered as a huge dehumanised industry interested in making money, what she does is admirable.
Taking a stand is not easy, also considering that, in a commercial venture, you may easily lose consumers and buyers by supporting certain causes, so Dame Westwood has got some guts (though, when it came to Scottish history and themes, the collection was as a whole less controversial and political than Alexander McQueen's "Highland Rape", inspired by the 18th and 19th centuries Highland Clearances...).
Yet this time you wonder if she has thought about all the implications behind the birth of a nation, considering that Scotland is not Minecraft and that, while independence is a glorious ideal and a better way to spend the money of Scottish taxpayers, in practice it may have some important choices to make involving key issues such as nationality, passports, embassies, finances, currency and health, not to mention foreign, defence and immigration policies.
The repercussions that Scottish independence may have on style are actually much more dangerous: the worst impact that the "Yes" may have fashion-wise is on the fashion editorials of The Herald Magazine that already look like pastiches of Disney's The Brave-meets-Outlander with models perennially lost among romantically sublime landscapes.
Besides, if politics and fashion are intertwined and the way a politician dresses hints not at style and elegance but at power, once independent Scotland may not have many chances if you consider the dress code of Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (call the fashion police) or First Minister Alex Salmond's tartan/Saltire ties (not that the pinstriped kilt with traditional white shirt donned by previous First Minister Jack McConnell will ever be removed from the worst nightmares of many Scottish people View this photo).
While the support of ex-punk Westwood may be seen as cool and bold in Scotland and she remains the most prominent stylish ally Salmond can count upon, not many actually thought about the impact the referendum is having outside the Scottish borders, and in countries where extreme right wing parties have been harbouring dreams of secession.The Italian Northern League leader Matteo Salvini - a man whose life choices and political directions are dictated by the slogans on his sweats/T-shirts (View this photo) - hopes for example that a "Yes" vote in Scotland will help achieving secession in Italy, and finally separate the richer North from the poorer South.
Fulton is worried about the impact a "yes" vote may have on new designers and students in London. "I think it would slightly ostracise new designers and students from maybe having opportunities down here which I think would be a terrible shame," she told Reuters. Fulton grew up in Edinburgh, but became known when she moved to London and opened her studio there.
A first superficial look at her Spring/Summer 2015 collection wouldn't maybe reveal direct connections with Scotland as the designer was mainly inspired by folk art and her craftsmanship excelled when it came to garments made with handwoven ribbons or with floral appliques on jackets and frocks (though some of the pieces in PVC were unnecessarily rigid).
Yet her show notes reveal further elements that combine her origins with wider inspirations: the main theme - sun worshippers - came from the book, The sun in Art by Walter Herdeg, but Scotland appeared in two further references, the elegant and highly polished sculpture "Eástre" (Hymn to the Sun, 1924, View this photo) by Scottish colourist John Duncan Fergusson, a representation of the Saxon goddess of spring and a portrait of the artist's partner, dancer Margaret Morris; and the Celtic Ballet Club, founded by Morris (who also started two Scottish National Ballets in Glasgow and Pitlochry 1960).
Folk art and in particular the Roses and Castles movement were therefore combined with modernism, floral elements were borrowed from Morris's look, while the shiny and polished surfaces seemed to derive from Fergusson.
Jonathan Saunders's Scottishness was highlighted by the soundtrack of his show, the music for Glasgow-based alien dystopia Under the Skin. His confident woman opted for masculine jackets, coats and cropped trousers, and feminine full and mid-length skirts decorated with prints of flower motifs or with three-dimensional flowers and leaves that called to mind Matisse's cut outs (a big theme at the moment, we will hopefully explore it in a future post).
The consistency of the fabrics was inspired by a Japanese paper-like cotton. Saunders worked indeed with a Japanese mill to make the fabrics, and this allowed him to come up with light and crisp, soft and solid textures that hinted at the masculine-feminine dichotomy. While there were no real references to Scotland, the sky blues in the collection palette (that also comprised olive green, carmel brown and gold) indirectly evoked the Saltire.
Christopher Kane took two steps backwards in time for his S/S 15 collection. The palette, mainly revolving around dark shades (though the dark turned into soft mauve and cream towards the end of the show) with bordeaux prevailing, was borrowed from the uniform of his school - Tayor High in Motherwell. Then he looked at his education at Central Saint Martins, where, inspired also by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, he experimented with ropes and cords.
These elements came back in the first and last garments in this collection, as functional elements for his day-wear or as decorative motifs for his evening-wear. Though bondage may have been on his mind, the results were actually elegant especially when it came to corded twin sets, slip dresses and sheer tops with intricate configurations of ropes. In between Kane sent out silk dresses with sheer panels anchored with thin metal bars or with flute formations and sprays of tulle exploding underneath.
Ropes linked the past with the future in this show that the designer dedicated to his former lecturer at Central Saint Martins, the late Professor Louise Wilson, who also grew up in Scotland. In a way, this was a symbolic collection in which Kane looked back at his past, while setting his eyes on the future opportunities that being part of a luxury group will give him.
Nobody can guess what the results of the referendum will be: independence is a great choice and an irresistible temptation, especially when hypocrite British Prime Minister David Cameron talks about breaking "a family of nations" and the Queen gets worried about her possessions.
Yet history has proved that divisions quite often failed, and in this case the best solution may be not a "Yes" or "No", but a mix of both. Think about it: designers such as Jonathan Saunders and Christopher Kane were rewarded by their Scottish-English education.
I have personally benefited from university exchanges involving institutions in my home country (Italy) and Scotland, exchanges that were sadly reduced or brought to an end in more recent years because European students on such exchanges weren't paying tuition fees in Great Britain (though Overseas students paying more than European students for the same course were welcomed...). I personally felt more inspired in Scottish institutions with a higher percentage of people coming from all over the world, while I deeply resented the narrow-minded views of some very conservative and nationalist lecturers.
So, who knows, maybe the solution could be not unity or independence (by the way, will sectarianism and the ridiculous rivalry between Catholics and Protestants finally be tackled with independence?) but a huge leap forward in favour of more cosmopolitan views. Fashion in a way already does so: Scottish Christopher Kane has worked with Italian Donatella Versace and his company is owned by French Kering; Westwood's tartan may be produced in Scotland, but her Red Label collections are actually made in Italy. You may argue this is capitalism and not tangible proof of internationalism, and while in many ways that's true, the future of Scotland may lie not in a "Yes" or a "No" vote and in a great utopia that may turn into the umpteenth wonderful dystopia, but in cosmopolitanism, and that's not a badge or something you acquire with a referendum - it's a state of mind.
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