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A Snapshot of the Present at MAN

Art School, Stefan Cooke and Rottingdean Bazaar celebrated perseverance in the face of oppression as well as vernacular banalities and ordinariness transfigured by technology.
Man's Stefan Cooke Spring/Summer 2019 | Source:
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom — Lulu Kennedy's impact on British fashion is easily quantified. The new designers her Fashion East initiative has nurtured since 2000 see to that. The menswear offshoot alone has fostered Kim Jones, JW Anderson, Craig Green and Wales Bonner, among many others. But it's not only a glimpse of the future that's offered by the talent Kennedy corrals. The designers also provide a provocative snapshot of the immediate present. As when, for example, Eden Loweth said, after Sunday afternoon's MAN show, "More important than our business is representing our community."

Loweth and Tom Barratt head the Art School collective, which, with Stefan Cooke and Rottingdean Bazaar, made up the three-part MAN presentation. Art School is committed to using luxury fashion “as a tool to explore contemporary queerness.” This was their third and last season showing with MAN (the sponsorship is for three seasons).

In that short time, their mood has darkened appreciably. Trans activist Munroe Bergdorf walked in the show. Her recent experience with racist and transphobic trolling was surely one inspiration for a presentation whose underlying theme might have been perseverance in the face of oppression. Choreographer Holly Blakey had the models crawl and fall, then get right back up again. Loweth said they wanted something visceral.

The shape of the collection was dictated by the bias cut. "We're dressing queer bodies, and bias cutting is more comfortable for trans wearers," Loweth explained. It also has an innate glamour, which the designers capitalised on. There was a definite nocturnal tinge to the clothes: dresses scattered with sequins, suits with a tuxedo flair, a silver-foiled trench, Swarovski jewellery by Dominic Myatt and marabou-trimmed heels by Gina Shoes. Glamour as a badge of defiance has an enduring allure. It will be interesting to see how Loweth and Barratt capitalise on that when they stage their first independent show in January.

James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks of Rottingdean Bazaar were also on their third and last show with MAN, and they offered the apotheosis of their “found” fashion ethos by hiring costumes from fancy dress suppliers all over the UK. Their “shownote” was an invoice from All Dressed Up in Horam, East Sussex, for a “Mr Longbody Hooped Suit”. (Rental fee £26).

You could also choose from a silver star, a mummy, a pumpkin, Planet Earth, or even David Bowie’s pierrot suit from the “Ashes to Ashes” video. Every model carried a placard advertising the costume’s place of origin with the words FOR RENT written large. Maybe that was a comment on fashion’s increasingly pilloried habit of appropriating the “other”. Or a dig at the shallowness of a society where it’s easier to “hire” a persona than actually “be” someone.

Or perhaps it was just Brooks and Buck elevating their celebration of vernacular banalities (something they’ve managed so far with great wit) with a fancy dress party. What lingered from previous exercises was a satisfying little niggle of sinister. The soundtrack featured an endlessly repeated neo-pagan chant. “We are the same people, younger than before, stronger than before.” Simultaneously innocent and creepy.

Compared with the other two, Stefan Cooke and partner Jake Burt were positively ordinary, but that’s their shtick: ordinariness transfigured by technology. They called their collection The Luxury of Boredom, imagining a summer where excitement surrenders to ennui. And then perhaps the ennui sparks something else, something wayward. Like face-painting.

Stick and poke tattoo artist Misty Mountain drew all over the models' faces (that seemed like the sort of thing you might do if you were bored), while Cooke and Burt stuffed waistbands with ostrich feathers, strewed big plastic paillettes across tailored jackets, and rimmed cardigan necklines with pearls.

They also made an argyle vest out of thousands upon thousands of suit buttons. Again, the kind of activity you make take upon yourself to fill a long, dull summer day. It also highlighted the duo’s calling card: a mastery of illusion. The buttons made a kind of chain mail. The plaids were printed on the bias. Cable knits were printed on washable paper. (“Indestructible,” they insisted.) So the ordinary was actually anything but.

That was no minor accomplishment for a label in its second season. It was also another coup for Lulu Kennedy.

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