Last Friday, the British Library donned its gladrags for a dazzling evening of fashion. Part of the British Library’s series of after-hours events, ‘LATE’, as well as the Spring Festival, ‘Fashion Flashback’ was a true celebration of style past, present and future. Curated by students from the world-renowned Central Saint Martins, this special fashion-themed LATE was inspired by the British Library’s extensive archive of design resources. One of the main themes of the night was the role of resources – whether that of information or inspiration – and their part in the world of fashion.
There was plenty to see and do, with demonstrators by collectors, hands-on workshops, a history of British fashion press display, pop-up stalls and talks (my personal highlight – more on that later), all inspired by the library’s collection of magazines, books, postcards, photo books, and prints. It was a real testament to the variety and depth of the British Library’s fashion-focused collections.
The climax of the evening was the spectacular ‘Paper Fashion’ show, which featured second year fashion print students’ work, inspired by the Library’s images, Japanese and Russian collections. The show saw models strut the staircases and glide up and down escalators in the British Museum’s iconic entrance hall to the sounds of the legendary DJ Princess Julia and Jeffrey Hinton. The space was packed with fashion-lovers keen to see a piece of design history in the making and there was a tangible murmur of anticipation as the designs were unveiled.
For me, the talks were the highlight of the evening. GQ editor-in-chief Dylan Jones, fashion illustrator Tanya Ling, fashion academic Iain R Webb and writer Camilla Morton were interviewed by CSM tutors Hywell Davies and Cally Blackman. The speakers offered an intriguing insight into the inner-workings of the fashion world, an industry often considered to be exclusive, aloof and notoriously difficult to ‘crack’, it was a breath of fresh air to have such characters sharing their experiences in such an open, candid fashion. The reality of fashion isn’t all glamour, freebies and fashion shows, but rather a fast-paced, ever-evolving and challenging environment. The talks made some progress to dispel this mystique, showing ‘fashion people’ are still a mostly normal bunch!
Many of the discussions returned to the changing face of the industry, particularly the role of digital platforms. It’s a debate that fashion is obsessed with – and I don’t see that changing any time soon! Dylan Jones made an important point about quality – he thinks there shouldn’t be a different ‘way’ of writing for digital and that good writing will shine in whatever medium. Tanya Ling echoed this sentiment with regards to imagery, describing the huge amount of ‘visual vomit’ online, and the necessity of passion and determination to stand out. The sheer volume of information can be a good and a bad thing, but the joy of research is the unexpected places it can take you – that much the speakers agreed on.
Iain R Webb offered a fascinating insight into the process of fashion research and writing, presenting a selection of his research material, sources and notes. He spoke extensively about the editing process and having the confidence to not write something. ‘You have to have passion to survive in this ruthless industry’ he added. I thought this was interesting, as there seems to be the idea that you have to be ruthless to survive it. Camilla Morton definitely showed her passion while highlighting the importance of not over-thinking everything and seeing opportunities in the unexpected. She shared many hilarious anecdotes and her approach to research/ writing seemed less cerebral and more to do with feeling.
In short, there’s no right or wrong answer! What I took from the evening was that three main things are key: (self-)editing, quality writing and the free flow of ideas – in whatever context or format. Research can come from the heart or the head, but often the most engaging results combine the two.