The current fashion weeks in Shanghai and Seoul close today, yet, judging from the interest they have generated in the fashion media, these cities may be destined to become from now on key appointments for quite a few fashion critics and fashionistas.
In many ways it was only natural to see further cities joining the traditional list of fashion capitals, but, somehow, the fast pace of the modern fashion industry combined with economic, political and social phenomena, has accelerated the process, shifting the interest towards other countries and bringing to the attention innovative and independent designers.
An exhibition currently on at the The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York tackles this interesting issue. "Global Fashion Capitals" looks indeed at the history of the established capitals - Paris, New York, Milan, and London - while inviting visitors to consider also the emergence of further cities (Tokyo, Antwerp, Stockholm, Berlin, St. Petersburg/Moscow, Madrid, Sydney/Melbourne, Mexico City, São Paulo, Istanbul and Mumbai...), each of them characterised by their own cultural identity.
Thematically organised, "Global Fashion Capitals" opens with Paris, the birthplace of Haute Couture, represented by Charles Frederick Worth's silk velvet and linen lace cape, Paul Poiret's silk brocade coat, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's sporty knit suit, Christian Dior's navy silk chiffon evening ensemble from the '50s and Yves Saint Laurent's wool and silk satin dress and top. The Paris display also features more recent designs, such as Christian Louboutin's metallic spiked stilettos and ensembles by emerging couturier Bouchra Jarrar and designer Yang Li.
The New York section opens with an iridescent ruched taffeta evening gown designed by Nettie Rosenstein in the late '30s. While at the beginning New York was merely competing with Paris, as the years passed, it established its own style and authority, launching its own fashion week (then called Press Week) in 1943, followed by dedicated publications and the opening of prestigious fashion schools.
Designs included such as Claire McCardell's active sportswear style for dynamic American women (check out her elegantly practical 1954 cotton dress...) or Bonnie Cashin's wool jersey skirt with pockets defined by a metal purse clasp, incarnate the very essence of American ready-to-wear.
Younger fashionistas interested in more recent designs won't be disappointed as this section also features Halston's silk chiffon evening dress, and ensembles by Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Proenza Schouler and Alexander Wang.
Though Rome and Florence were the first Italian fashion cities (represented by early couture gowns by the Fontana Sisters and Valentino and by shoes and bags by Gucci, Pucci, and Salvatore Ferragamo), the greatest fashion shift in Italy occurred in the '70s when the ready-to-wear industry moved to Milan.
Designers became powerful entrepreneurs, launched solid collaborations with textile producers and manufacturers and turned local craftsmanship into the powerful "made in Italy" industry represented by famous houses such as Armani, Ferré, Versace and, more recently, Prada. After a period of decline, Milanese fashion is currently enjoying a rebirth thanks to young up and coming designers à la Stella Jean who mixes Milan's luxurious tailoring with African prints and textiles.
London captured the attention of the international media with its rebellious fashions from the 1960s, and maintained its fame of radical capital thanks to provocative designers such as Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen.
The London display includes Westwood's quirky plaid design from 1998, a deep purple devoré 1990s velvet gown by Galliano and McQueen's silk dress cinched at the waist with a crocodile corset from his "Natural Dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection" collection (S/S 2009).
London's new designers are represented by Gareth Pugh's wool and patent leather futuristic dress (A/W 2007) and Christopher Kane's silk layered organza dress (A/W 2014).
As the exhibition progresses, visitors are introduced to cities that are currently home to forward-thinking designers who have achieved domestic success and attracted international interest.
The rise of Tokyo and Antwerp during the 1980s is well documented: the protagonists of the "Japanese fashion revolution" - Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and Rei Kawakubo - are displayed in this section along with the designers of the Antwerp 6.
One of the best designs from the Japanese display remains Yamamoto's wooden corset from 1991, a proof of his passion for construction and deconstruction, but new designers featured include Sacai and Matohu.
Interestingly enough, some of the garments included in the Belgian display betray a global inspiration: A.F.Vandevorst's ensemble was inspired by a trip to Peru, while Walter Van Beirendonck's raffia and cotton satin design references the Rapa Nui tribe of Easter Island.
China's economic growth over the last decade has also allowed local designers to establish their businesses and develop: Shanghai designer Masha Ma, known for her interest in creating intriguing texture and textiles, is among them, but the China display also includes Uma Wang's dress inspired by Eurasian steppe tribes.
Seoul is represented by an ensemble from Lie Sang Bong's 2006 "Hangul" (Korean script) collection and Big Park's graphic Spring/Summer 2015 dress, in which designer Sooy and Jay Park (daughters of veteran designer Park Youn Soo) combined their childhood memories of the Korean countryside with global streetwear style.
The New Delhi/Mumbai section celebrates not just designers such as Wendell Rodricks who was instrumental in starting Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai and Manish Arora (check out his design with prints of Bollywood cinema magazine covers and eye catching embroideries and embellishments), but also reminds visitors that FIT played a key role in establishing New Delhi's National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1986.
In the same way Manish Arora included in his designs elements from the Indian culture, Mexican designers have been moving from the local craft traditions to reinvent and map a fashion future for their country.
Carla Fernández's S/S 2009 suit features intricate Aztec patterning, but it's based on a Mexican cowboy costume and it's decorated with an ammunition belt pointing to the Mexican Revolution (Fernández collaborates in her workshop with indigenous Mexican tribes).
Ricardo Seco's Spring/Summer 2015 ensemble includes instead geometrically beaded sneakers from his collaboration with New Balance. Hand-beaded in Mexico, the shoes' motifs are inspired by the mystical patterns and ancient beading techniques of the 15,000-year-old Wixárika tribe.
Beads also appear in the Brazilian display: Alexandre Herchcovitch's avant-garde prints and motifs usually come from the street culture of Brazil, but the inspiration for his S/S 2007 beaded jumpsuit came from the Ndebele tribe of Zimbabwe.
Africa is celebrated via Stoned Cherrie's Rorschach test inspired design, Xuly Bët (a label launched by Mali-born designer Lamine Kouyaté)'s recycled pantyhose and sweaters ensemble, Maki Oh's fringed dress inspired by the village life and African story-telling traditions and Lisa Folawiyo's beaded mini-dress that reinterprets traditional Ankara fabrics.
Political events in Ukraine have brought to the attention of the media the local designers: organizer and creative director of Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days, Daria Shapovalova launched a platform to promote Kiev designers, such as Anton Belinskiy, the designer who staged a photoshoot in the middle of the local protests in 2013, and Anna K.
The Kiev display includes Belinskiy's floor-length turtleneck dress with a graphic underlayer integrating the work of Kiev graffiti artist Vova Vorotniov.
The exhibition curators included in the exhibition European capitals such as Madrid, Berlin, Stockholm and Copenhagen. Spain is represented by Agatha Ruiz de la Prada's dramatic yellow polka-dot silk taffeta dress, a Josep Font gown for Delpozo and a Sybilla for Gibo olive linen and silk dress characterised by a grid pattern.
The Berlin avant-garde art scene is evoked by Marina Hoermanseder's fetishistic leather, fiberglass, and mohair ensemble, and by Kilia Kerner's design informed by the local music scene, while Ann-Sofie Back's asymmetrical suit layered over a fringed denim skirt and sheer trousers and a tufted dress by Henrik Vibskov introduce visitors to the Swedish and Danish fashion scenes.
There are new fashion capitals on the horizons, including Istanbul (see Zeynep Tosun's dress and Arzu Kaprol's boldly printed dress with matching quilted jacket), Sydney and Melbourne (a structural ensemble by Sydney's Dion Lee illustrates his "filter technique" that allows the designer to come up with interesting architectural motifs), and St. Petersburg, the latter represented by avant-garde Jenya Malygina's Pirosmani label and Alexey Sorokin's designs for his Homo Consommatus brand.
As the exhibition - organised by Ariele Elia, assistant curator of costume and textiles, and Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant - is truly global it can be cleverly enjoyed online, discovering the various locations via a digital map that geographically locates the fashion capitals and showcases the latest runway and street style photographs, but it is also possible to enjoy the event online on a dedicated site and read a series of interviews with international bloggers (more about that in another post...).
There is one point that the exhibition organisers did not emphasise too much, but that it is obvious when you analyse the designs featured: the phenomenon of the global fashion capitals has been produced also thanks to those designers who went to study in another country and then went back to their own places, establishing their brands and studios and then maybe taking part in fashion weeks in a major fashion capital or winning a fashion competition in another fashion city (think about duo Marques'Almeida, hailing from Portugal, but based and showcasing their collections in London, and winners of the LVMH Young Designer's Prize in Paris).
Though the future of fashion weeks in general is a bit uncertain at the moment and, in a few season's time, we may end up seeing many fashion designers opening up their catwalk shows to the public like Givenchy did in New York in September, it is maybe too early to see the dominance of New York, London, Paris and Milan being threatened, especially if we consider how new brands often want to prove they can make it in a major fashion capital before being appreciated also in their own countries (nemo propheta in patria sua...) and that some of these new vibrant capitals do not have yet the infrastructures for a solid fashion industry (but they may create them soon with proper government support...).
Yet this event remains a good opportunity to ponder about global fashion, see designers who have never before been featured in an American museum and discover the best emerging designers to know.
The final message of this event remains indeed a positive one: while the rising phenomenon of the global fashion week is not terribly healthy as it generates a sort of endless frenzy and thirst for what's new, trendy and hip (fashion weeks never stop and as one comes to its end, another one starts in a different country in a sort of nightmarish vicious cycle that allows attendees to keep on travelling non-stop for an entire year...) and it doesn't automatically bring money or domestic/international success to young designers, this event proves that fashion can be a medium to understand better another country's culture and can teach us to be inspired by each other. In a world in constant conflict that's definitely a great message.
"Global Fashion Capitals", The Museum @ FIT, New York, until 14th November 2015.
All images in this post courtesy of The Museum at FIT.
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