Car Parks Are Not Just Car Parks Anymore: at London Fashion Week 09/15

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I encountered Luo Qian at the junction of Brewer and Great Windmill Streets last Thursday, the first day of London Fashion Week. She was 28, from Shanghai, visiting Britain for the first time. She had wanted to come to look at the London Fashion Week HQ in the famous art deco Brewer Street car park because, she said, “it is just so great to see everyone wearing what they like.” Luo Qian was wearing a vintage floral-print frock, black wool coat, Nike Huaraches and the eye-and-nose beak, which was in fact a replica plague doctors mask, bought from a shop in Edinburgh. I asked if she had put the outfit together for the occasion?

“Not really,” she said.

“But it looks very… fashion,” I said.

“No, it is for real life.”

“But it’s plague doctors’ mask! It ‘s 2015, and however thin the models might be, no one’s dying of the bubonic plague.”

“No, that is for real life. I wear it for the London flu, because I am afraid to catch it. Maybe it looks good, but anyway, now I am going to look at more people!” she said.

Since it began in 1984, London Fashion Week has shifted with the fickleness of hem-lengths from Olympia to Battersea Park to Duke of York Square to the Natural History Museum and Somerset House before moving slightly north-west to the car park in September. The move from Somerset House was the idea of Caroline Rush, a former PR who is now the BFC’s chief executive.

“We were looking for a venue that would be more connected to the West End.” She told the Daily Telegraph, “and right in the heartbeat of London. As you walk around Soho you feel a lot of excitement and energy. It’s really good for an international audience to witness that, and to understand the creative inspiration that we get from this incredible city.” This of course at time when Soho is being hollowed out by big international coffee chains and the like. When you ask old-school fashion people a lot of them say LFW moving to Soho will be far better for the former than the latter, because there is too much corporate branding in Soho already. though of course they won’t say so publicly.

It has to be said that much of the crappy, “experiential” branding signage was truly awful, particularly that in Golden Square.

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Anyway, I went to the car park for the launch/”opening breakfast” on Friday morning. There was a lot of avocado. The top two floors of the car park hosted catwalk shows, static designer showrooms, and areas for press, buyers and sponsors. Just around the corner in Golden Square, shows were broadcast to the public on giant screens (such opening up of the fashion process, pioneered by Christopher Bailey at Burberry, has become fashionable. For ten years I have been saying to my wife that the brands will turn the catwalk shows into paid-for spectator events eventually). And through the whole five days there were various spin-off events in the surrounding streets. Somewhere or other Georgia May Jagger was hosting a “punk avant-garde afternoon tea” in a loft.

At the breakfast, the BFC chairman, Net A Porter founder Natalie Massenet, stressed the fashion industry’s contribution to the British economy. James McArthur, CEO of Anya Hindmarch and President of the BFC “Business Pillar” (meaning: he’s in charge of making London’s traditionally gifted-but-not-that-great-at-business designers better at business) added that the BFC’s aim was “to do better to convert talent into major business stories”.

This emphasis on a more disciplined, commercial approach is hallmark of Massenet’s regime; one of the reasons for the change in venue is that it brings the event closer to the retail centre of Oxford Street. It will mean that there is far less of the old London tendency to make fantastic clothes and then go out of business because you can’t sort out the manufacturing, and so end up having to be a creative director at a big house i Paris. I wonder if it won’t also sieve out some of the genius talent, but that’s  not very positive, I know.

The journalists and fashion editors gathered at the event were pretty positive, in a qualified way at least. Karen Dacre, a friend who is fashion editor of the London Evening Standard, said Soho would appeal to visitors and made sense as a fashion-friendly location. “I think it’s a good idea. Somerset House was fine, but a little bit staid, maybe. The only potential problem is the traffic congestion and getting to Brewer Street, but if that works out, it’ll be a really good move.”

As the breakfast concluded, most of the journalists went up to the catwalk space on the floor above for the J. JS Lee show, while everyone else emptied out onto the street. Here it was already apparent that the most striking spectacle of the whole five days would be the hundreds of madly styled people turning up on Brewer Street to enjoy the atmosphere, watch people going in and out of the venue, and pose for photographs taken by their friends and pro photographers. On Friday there seemed to be more photographers than people.

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Purveyors of extravagant street style have been fixtures of fashion weeks everywhere for years now, but the mood felt different here, somehow. At Somerset House, it wa clear that the dedicated followers of fashion had turned up at an otherwise conservative locale for the event. In Soho, where to some extent every week is fashion week, there was a pleasing sense of the theatricality and madness of the shows merging with the familiar theatricality and eccentricity of the streets. Surely it is only here that you’d find an passer by who just happens to be wearing a replica of a piece of 17th-century medical equipment, and just happens to have noticed a lot of people wearing what they like?

I talked to two twentysomething sisters from Ireland, Dawn and Karen, both of whom looked a bit like Kate Bush circa Army Dreamers, except in pale pink Chanel-style suits. Karen lives here and was, she said, “researching”. “I’m planning to start my own label, and I’m looking for ideas for looks,” she said. Had she designed anything yet?

“I’m just looking at ideas at the moment,” she replied.

Such talk is not untypical of the fashion week preeners and posers on the street; rather than wearing outrageous outfits for the sake of it, as many might have a few years ago, the tendency now is for quieter clothes, but loud ambition. Everyone wants – no, plans – to work in fashion, and/or have their own label. This is fair enough, though sceptics might point out that there are more amateur fash-packers watching the showbizzy spectacle around the car park than there are checking out the actual shows on the screens in Golden Square. Shouldn’t the shows be of more interest to people seeking to monitor and exploit new trends?

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I went to the square on Saturday, where a calm, almost studious atmosphere prevailed. The large screen occupied one corner, and there were tasteful black deckchairs in which to sit; elsewhere there were branded pop up shops and information booths (Sunglass Hut, Mark Hix, Swatch, Lavazza, Amex), and a giant #LFW sign made from three foot high white letters. I watched as a bearded man collides with the W as he walks along using his mobile, which feels rather symbolic.

On the screen, Jasper Morrison’s, Emilia Wickstead’s and JW Anderson’s shows came and went; Jasper doid a lot of stripes, Emilia had a lot of tangerine, and JW Anderson invented a minuscule piece of underwear called the bra-let. Later on Gareth Pugh has models who look like a nightmare version of a glam rock band, and wear striped red and white dresses that remind you of toothpaste squeezed from a tube. Lindsay Lohan is in the FROW for that one, which seemed impressive.

I met an old friend who was a former Evening Standard Fashion department staffer. He worried that the BFC’s business-friendliness and attraction of more corporate sponsors would make Soho “feel more corporate at a time when it needs less of that, not more.”

“Do you really think that, or are you just being a miserable trendy?” I asked. He gestures towards the Amex stand, which is a pop-up concierge for “insiders”.

I can see his point, though it has to be said that most people seemed quite comfortable with all the logos and branding.

And what of business in general? Will the gladrags make moneybags of Soho’s traders? It certainly didn’t seem to be doing much for taxis. I went to meet some more friends in Soho on Sunday, and the cabbie who drove me into town (“just call me ‘Swiss Cottage Kev’, ‘Swiss’ to my friends”) said his mates were avoiding the area because “you can’t get near. Everyone knows its congested at the best of times! I dunno what they wanted to have it there for.”

“I think it was because of the car park,” I said. He gave me a look in the mirror.

“The car park?”

“Yes. It’s supposed to be trendy.”

Another mirror-look. He knew I was expecting him to laugh at this, so he said, “Well. If they wanted to do it in a car park, why didn’t they do in Portman Square? Portman Square, you got access. You can drive around it. “

“But Portman Square car park’s underground, and a spiral. So probably not good for catwalks.”

“You can’t have everything,” said Swiss, and I thought, this is the sort of thing we’re going to miss if Uber takes over: drivers with an opinion about the relative merits of Zone One Car parks vis-a-vis the staging if fashion shows.

The feelings of other traders on Brewer Street were mixed, and it was often hard to predict those who had done well out of it. A bloke in the Vintage Magazine Store, which had a great display of old fashion magazines, said they had had a 50% reduction in trade. Bhavesh, the manager of AZ Electrical on Brewer Street, said  had done quite nicely thank you, with an increase to 75 customers on Saturday from the usual 60.

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Bhavesh said the “fashion people” mainly wanted cable ties and screwdrivers. That made sense, given the proximity of the venue, but I wondered how he knew who were “fashion”?

“It’s the way they don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said.

“But then how do they know to ask for screwdrivers and cable ties?”

“They don’t. They say, ‘I need something to put screws in.’ I say, “Do you mean a screwdriver?” They say, ‘Er, will that do it?’ You can be fairly sure at that point you’re not dealing with a builder.”

One of the friends I met introduced me to Roger Ashley, NCP’s head of operations for London. Roger seemed proud of the car park, which is fair enough, because it is of recognised architectural significance. Constructed in 1929, the art deco building has been listed by English Heritage as an “important example of early motoring history”.

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Its top floor is now used almost exclusively for events, and in recent years the whole building has been adapted for art exhibitions, markets and pop-up restaurtants. This is in keeping, says Roger, with an NCP policy of allowing car parks to be used as entertainment and cultural spaces. “We recently had a big dance event in the car park in Farringdon, for example. That went very well, as did this year’s London Fashion Week. Car parks are not just car parks any more.”

“Car parks are not just car parks any more.” That’s 21st-century London for you right there.