Leah McFall exchanges jeans and suburbia for a fancy frock and a front row seat
Iwas wearing a button-down denim skirt when Amie texted me. This wasn’t surprising; I’d worn it almost daily all summer, and it was stiff with goodness knows what.
“Come to iD Fashion Week,” read her text. She didn’t add for the love of God, but she could have.
Deep down I’m one of those people who appreciates a nice look. But for the five years since having kids, I’ve traded in the part of my personality which notices a nice heel or a cinched waist. Pressed for time and endlessly tired, I’m reduced to one or two outfits: a T-shirt that doubles as pyjamas, bad jeans, sneakers (not the trendy ones; the sporty ones, for jogs I never take) and the denim skirt. I wear the sneakers constantly, even with the jeans, despite this looking terrible on everyone. (Have you tried it, though? If you’re OK with leaving your dignity at the door in the morning, it’s off-the-chart comfortable.)
When we eventually spoke, Amie did all the talking. “I can bring you backstage. I can get you a front-row seat. Do you need clothes? I’ll get a designer to dress you. We’ll get your hair and makeup done as well.”
Of course I said yes! Anyone with electrical impulses to the brain would have said yes! Saying yes meant I could walk onto a flight without any checked baggage. After all, I was wearing the T-shirt I would sleep in.
Also, flights anywhere, even one-hour flights, are not to be refused by anyone with children under five. Plus, stylish people were going to work on me to make me look attractive! The last time anybody had done this was my wedding day, which had cost me as much as a late model Mazda. This time around would be free.
Funnily enough, I’d just finished reading a book about fashion. Inside Vogue is written by its British editor, Alexandra Shulman, and charts a year at the magazine. It’s a rarefied year – a whirl of parties, lunches, dinners and openings amid the holy trinity of Fashion Weeks in London, New York and Milan. There’s a lot of Champagne in this book; a lot of airkissing, and rather too much Alexa Chung.
The book hardened many of my prejudices but at the same time, I couldn’t put it down. There’s something irresistibly compelling about the spectacle of haute couture, even to regular people. In this gossamer world of hand-sewn beading and peacock feathers, it’s fine to dress like a Regency dandy and employ a personal assistant for your cat, as does Karl Lagerfeld. Nobody thinks he’s bonks; they think he’s a genius.
Only couturiers seem to get away with this. Their influence defies explanation: most of them look like frights. If Donatella Versace wasn’t the chatelaine of a celebrated fashion house, I’d assume she was a mortician at a Las Vegas chapel of rest. She seems the perfect kind of person to drill shut a coffin.
As my plane left Wellington and banked south towards Dunedin, I accepted that I was ambivalent, perhaps even hostile, towards fashion which, as it’s currently presented, seems like none of my business.
Somehow this isn’t fair because it’s overwhelmingly ordinary women who desire clothes, and who buy clothes. We emotionally invest in clothes, and they can horribly disappoint us. Ultimately, our dreams for ourselves are governed by these distant, celebrated people, yet they behave as if we don’t exist.
Who decides, for example, that a car-mat worn as a skirt is chic? Balenciaga just sent this down the runway at Paris Fashion Week. Or that “grown-up jeans”, ruffles or even certain body parts are hot right now?
“The ear is fashion’s new focal point,” announced The Guardian last month. “At Proenza Schouler they
were even painted yellow.” (Nope, me neither.)
High camp aside, the link between clothes and wellbeing is undeniable. I’ve been miserable in my jeans and sneakers, disconnected from the person I used to be. I’m deeply tired of machine-made T-shirts. But how do I break out of my rut, and what if this whole thing (the designers, models and glamourati) simply intimidates me back to the suburbs?
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On arrival, Amie was a dazzle of hot-tonged curls and chic tailoring, and barely stopped taking calls as she rattled through our itinerary. First would be my makeup, then clothes, and then my hair would be styled backstage at the Dunedin Railway Station before the show began there at 8pm.
“And when do we get to eat?” I asked. If I had as much as a single Prosecco without a square meal first, I wouldn’t understand or remember a gosh-darned thing from this whole trip.
“We’re eating now! This is eating!” she exclaimed, gesturing at lunch. Then she said, “You have something green stuck in your teeth. Still there.” She paused. “Still there.”
Amie explained that finalists in the iD Emerging Designers Awards had shown their mini-collections earlier in the week, and the category winners would show again tonight, along with established labels such as NOM*d and Stolen Girlfriends Club.
“I can bring you backstage. I can get you a front-row seat. Do you need clothes? I can get a designer to dress you.”
We talked as we walked to the Golden Centre where Rochelle, a Revlon makeup artist, was waiting to do me up. I sat in the heart of the mall beside her foldedout kit, which looked like a tray of candies.
She deftly transformed my face. I tried to absorb her advice (Primer is your friend. “You wouldn’t paint a house without using a primer, right?”) and tried to get to know her (she has steady hands to apply winged eyeliner, but she can’t ice a cake to save herself).
Then, with my eyelids smudged in dark chocolate and stardust, I was pulled along to the Charmaine Reveley boutique for a dress.
Charmaine would meet me later, so Amie helped choose the clothes. The collection seemed softly romantic, which is apparently a hallmark of the brand. I knew nothing about her work; Amie told me, somewhat startlingly, that she’s a dedicated rollergirl. A skater, making clothes as dreamy as these?
Pushed for time, I chose a shimmering shift dress made of mossy silk, with sequins that glinted pink, grey and pearl. Amie picked a matching slip and helped me shrug into it. She gave me green socks with a coquettish fuss of lace across the tops, so I could keep my boots on; the night was going to be cold. The dress was $595, which was terrifying.
In person, Charmaine Reveley is understated; softly-spoken, with feathery ice-blonde hair. But her strength is obvious. She’ll team a delicate, floral blouse with khaki and butch leather boots, and her brand rings as clear as a bell.
“Not all our customers are exclusive boutique shoppers,” she told me. They simply mix her pieces with their existing wardrobe.
“I’d encourage people to wear [a garment] as they want; however it suits them. It shouldn’t be about, ‘What’s the trend in hems?’ but about what looks good on you.”
Right; so trends aren’t really fashion. Instantly I feel better, because plenty look idiotic on me (I mean, peplums? Or gingham? What am I, 5 years old?).
What distinguishes her clothes? “I love fabric, I love textiles,” she says. “I don’t really follow any trends, although there are core shapes we use every season. It’s all about fabric and cut; [then] I develop a few themes within a collection.”
For example, my chosen dress. “This is the most beautiful silk sequin, made for us. It’s got such a great weight, it needed to be a shape that would complement that.” I liked this idea, that she would sculpt a garment from a fabric, rather than stamp out a pre-determined shape from a bolt of cloth.
I left the boutique feeling buoyant, and not just because I was borrowing a $600 dress for the night, crisply wrapped in pink tissue.
Tanya Carlson’s Dunedin base was set up in someone’s gracious lounge, and you couldn’t have styled it better. Her winter range was racked beside the retro mantelpiece, with dressmaking tools on every surface (a fat pink pincushion on the coffee table; a tape measure whorled on the floor). The rack spilled with textures – a gauzy mauve sleeve here, a gleam of brocade there. It had a louche, 1970s vibe.
The designer – the doyenne of iD Dunedin Fashion Week – has a crackling laugh and masses of maplesyrup hair. She sat on a fat buttercream sofa to answer questions, toying with a glass of wine, conscious that time was ticking closer to the show. Tonight, this was as relaxed as any designer was going to get.
Can you understand why I dress like this, I asked her. Despite my flawless makeup, my outfit was clearly appalling. Yet Tanya is surprisingly generous about chain stores, who make shopping easy and choices obvious. Their clothes, she says, are not badly made.
“But I was in Topshop the other day and the smell of burned plastic and formaldehyde – there’s this smell when you unpack product from overseas, and that entire shop smelled of it. I went to Cotton On – it’s
“With my eyelids smudged in dark chocolate and stardust, I was pulled along to the Charmaine Reveley boutique for a dress.”
a good store, they’re all good stores – but at the end… it was dizzying that everything looked the same, and blurred into pink satin puffer jackets and cargo pants and grey marl.
“[The shoppers] were aimlessly picking things up and looking disheartened. And I think it’s sort of, ‘Oh, it’s $49, I’ll buy it,’ and I’m sure they’re making enormous mistakes, things don’t get worn – but if they do make a great purchase, they can’t go back and buy the same thing again.”
Mid-life women, returning to fashion after years with young kids, feel lost in these stores.
“We have lots of women come in and they’ve gone from being corporates – PR, film, advertising – and they’re in a state. They feel they don’t count, don’t know what’s happened, everything’s moved on, don’t know what they’d do if they have to go out at night after four or five years [of new motherhood]. They’ve lost all of their confidence and they’ve aged.
“You’re learning a new language. You need to figure it out.”
Learn the value of investing in beautiful staples, Tanya advises. Great jeans. A white shirt. A scarf.
Then, as you shop, think ahead. “Ask, could I wear [this garment] with a blazer, with a belt over it? It’s got to be multi-purpose, and then you won’t put it in the back of your wardrobe.”
I think about the abandoned clothes in my closet. I realise I don’t miss those clothes. I miss the clothes Tanya’s describing: the ones I don’t yet have.
Tanya offers a tumble of advice. Research the designers you like. Talk to their shop staff and ask them what they have to suit your body type. Find a good tailor – an altered hem can make all the difference. But above all, wake up.
“You should know your measurements. You’ve got to actually participate in this as well. You’ve got to get over your fear of approaching shop assistants.”
It was showtime at the Dunedin Railway Station, its Edwardian splendour festooned with lights. I followed Amie down the runway and took my front-row seat. In Paris and London, front row denotes importance, but in reality we were sitting on plastic chairs on what would usually be exposed platform. I was freezing.
Beside me was 22-year-old Garth, a design student with a passion for style. He told me he’d never heard of EziBuy, which made me love him, and that as a millennial, everything was ruined, which made me want to pay for his degree. I was twice as old as he was. In his view, should I dress my age?
“You should dress appropriate to your body type,” he said, confidently. “You can have an amazing body at 40 and wear something skanky. You can have fun.” He sipped his Champagne. “Is that Charmaine Reveley? You look cute.” Cute is millennial for amazing.
Full lights beamed and illuminated the catwalk. The models began to parade, spaced at careful intervals beneath loops of pretty lights. They were blank-faced, all the better for us to project our desires, but being so close helped us recognise them individually.
When one girl removed difficult shoes, continuing to model in pinched red feet, there was a smattering of sympathetic applause.
Here were dozens of looks; countless models; more than two hours of clothes. There were spiked silver boots and painted leather jackets; pretty drop-crotch shorts and ruffled shirts; pops of colour, evil stilettos, tasselled earrings, jagged hems. Everything was percussive; the clack of heels, the drums and bass, the clapping, the clinking glasses. I had stars in my eyes and glitter on my face. Garth was right; it was fun.
By the time NOM*d appeared I’d had a glass of Champagne on an empty stomach. Later, I’d check my notes and it was clear I was now out of my depth. Eton mess, I’d scrawled. Expensive ninja. Ringwraith. Other notes, for labels I can’t now distinguish, included bumblebee holding a daisy and zombie stop/go worker.
The collections fell into types. They were either fantasy dresses I’d never own (a silvery Hailwood column gown); inexplicable art pieces (a ghostly dress of tattered paper); gloomy glamour, of the kind I never see in public (a polo-neck yanked up to the eyesockets), and the nuttily avant-garde (a parka covered in prawns). I stopped taking notes after the prawns.
There were also wearable, durable, beautiful pieces; the kind that made me feel wistful. I knew if I wore them I’d experience something, instead of feeling inert in dead clothes. The prices, though, would be eye-watering.
“It’s sales,” Tanya told me, when I asked her what her hopes were for this collection.
“Obviously it’s nice to be recognised or have a good review, but for us it doesn’t make sense until it’s sold. We need to sell clothing.”
“Fashion is dead,” trend forecaster Li Edelkoort told an aghast audience in 2015. It killed itself. The industry is certainly squeezed; the day after I left Dunedin, iD reported a loss. Inside Vogue described how factory-farmed fast clothes and the rise of online shopping was making the very concept of seasons obsolete.
Shoppers now expect to buy what they see, the minute they see it. “It’s chaos out there,” Tanya Carlson told me.
Still, is it any coincidence that the pieces I liked best at iD were by Tanya and Charmaine? I’d got to know them, and felt they understood women like me. I might develop a similar relationship with Twenty-seven Names, which makes clothes in Wellington, or Kate Sylvester, whose shop I like to haunt. I’m only one degree of separation from these designers when I talk to their staff. I’d never get that close to Stella McCartney.
Could this be the saving grace of Kiwi high fashion? Yes, gorgeous fabrics, well cut and made – even better, made here. But our proximity to our designers and their willingness to truly see us; this is the kind of reciprocity a small country is ideally placed to achieve. We can reach out and touch them, and fall in love again with clothes.
That evening I smoothed Charmaine’s sequinned dress and folded it back into its wrapping. She and Tanya had strode the runway to delighted applause at the finale, thrilled by the reception for their work.
On nights like this, questioning the point of fashion seemed misplaced and churlish. Besides, there was no complete answer. I might just as well be asking: What is the point of joy?
“Everything was percussive; the clack of heels, the drums and bass, the clapping, the clinking glasses. I had stars in my eyes and glitter on my face.”
The Carlson show at iD Dunedin Fashion Week.
Before/after, from left: Leah McFall in her usual garb; makeup and hair with Rochelle of Revlon; enjoying bubbles and a Charmaine Reveley dress.
Swedish designer Paulo Melim Andersson showed a retrospective collection.