Leah McFall ex­changes jeans and sub­ur­bia for a fancy frock and a front row seat

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - See for the shop­ping tips Leah McFall gleaned from Tanya Carl­son.

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?

IAmie.weekf in­dus­try,landI you’re parkedof onAs her goingiD’sa in it farm; year. maythe stal­wartto Oc­tag­o­nit Sheas makeisn’t well was pub­li­cist,ex­act­ly­peacebe and su­per­visin­gin waited Dunedin.with Mi­lano,this the wasin a fash­io­nis pho­toa Youthe caféit? busiest ba­si­callyshoot­for and­for both run­ningof us. late, so I sent her the menu and or­dered

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.”

Be­fore/af­ter, from left: Leah McFall in her usual garb; makeup and hair with Rochelle of Revlon; en­joy­ing bub­bles and a Charmaine Reve­ley dress.

The Carl­son show at iD Dunedin Fash­ion Week.

Swedish de­signer Paulo Me­lim An­der­s­son showed a ret­ro­spec­tive col­lec­tion.

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