We're reporting on each of the events in the RA's free salon series for GSK Contemporary - Aware. Fourth in the series: Staging Fashion/The Fashion Stage. Featuring DJs and clothing designers The Broken Hearts, fashion stylist and designer Anna Trevelyan, and stylist Grace Woodward.
From X Factor winner Matt Cardle's biceps to Lady Gaga and the art of pastiche, tonight's conversation asked how identities are constructed and performed through fashion. Key themes included celebrity, psychology and the history of fancy dress.
Alison Bracker kicked off proceedings with a question for Grace Woodward, the stylist and creative consultant whose recent TV CV includes The X Factor (as stylist) and Britain's Next Top Model (as a judge). What was her brief for X Factor, and how much freedom did she have?
Woodward explained that she met the show's competitors at a very raw stage - as soon as they knew they were going through to the finals.
"As we all know, pop stars are brands these days. I was asked to do a kind of branding exercise on them - the brief was to make them a pop star in 12 weeks, and that's a successful pop star who's going to be featured on the covers of magazines, not somebody who falls off the face of the earth.
"It was interesting because you're working with people who aren’t quite signed up to the fact that they’re going to become a pop star in 12 weeks, and the things that go with that - they haven't projected themselves that far yet.
"They'll say, 'it's not me', and I'll say ‘well, it’s not supposed to be you, it's supposed to be you x 1000’."
Woodward explained that as the show progressed, deadlines got tighter. "I would get the creative brief from the creative director Brian Friedman. It started with two weeks, then one week and then we'd end up getting the creative brief on a Wednesday. We'd do a dress rehearsal on a Saturday, and I would go into an executive meeting with Simon Cowell and some of the other judges and we'd discuss what they did and didn't like."
In some instances, she would have to make her case: "In week two, Matt Cardle was sitting with a guitar in a John Smedley jumper, and I'd tightened up the arms on it. He's not a particularly buff guy, he's really just a normal bloke - but I knew he had a certain kind of sex appeal that would work for pretty much everybody.
"Simon Cowell said 'grey jumper, I don't get it' and I just went 'no, I'm going to explain why this works, the muscles…' so it was a process of discussion, even with the big boss man, and then he'd see it.
"The playbacks were very, very fast. I didn't have autonomy, which was difficult for someone who’s come from a fashion editorial background, because usually whatever I say goes, or it’s about a discussion with the photographer. There’s not usually a huge number of people in the decision making process, and there were (during X Factor) people would try to get involved with the process right at the last minute."
Bracker noted that 12 weeks was a short time but that individual identities emerged. How much was it Woodward's role to interpret the personae of the performers, and how much was it to exaggerate them?
"You have to start with the basis of who somebody is, until they find their own projection of whatever fantasy they want to portray," Woodward explained. "Unless you start building from a foundation you can’t build on anything.
"If you put them in a huge stage outfit, but they don’t know how to perform in it, they’re just going to look stupid; they’ll never be able to carry it off. You have to work incrementally with their confidence."
Bracker asked stylist Anna Trevelyan about her work with Lady Gaga. Gaga had established an extreme image - where could she go from here?
"The great thing about working with her is that the challenge is not pushing what’s already been done; it’s about (the artist) challenging themselves. At the moment she’s the only artist doing something that extreme," Trevelyan said.
Anna Trevelyan, left, and Grace Woodward, far right
Woodward asked that as Gaga's work was so referential, "where does she start taking off on her own platform?"
"Pretty much everything has already been done, whatever we do. We don't just say, 'choose an outfit' - it comes from all these different references," Trevelyan said.
Woodward: But she's very much known for pastiching Madonna, her work very specifically references other work - how long can she go on with that?"
Trevelyan: "She's doing it as an homage, out of respect. We're doing so many things every week, you have to take reference from other things at some point. She's never said 'I want to look like this person," it's often the way other people look at it. We have a wide range of references."
Bracker asked the speakers how their own personal style influenced their work.
Trevelyan: "It’s difficult. I do try to step away and deliberately make it not look like me, because it's not about making people in your own image. But I think when something is your taste, you maybe want to project that in your pictures."
Woodward: "I think of it less as an ego projection and more as a style laboratory. If I've (worn it) then in six months’ time or a year’s time I might use it (in my work), because I think it takes that amount of time for something from the catwalk to filter down, for people to feel comfortable with it."
"Sometimes I wear stuff that I think people must look at and say ‘what is she wearing?’ because I like experimentation. If you didn’t do chemistry you wouldn’t have formulas, and in fashion if you didn’t experiment, you wouldn’t have any moments of creativity. That’s what I think is our responsibility in many ways.
Anna Trevelyan "So before I put in on any one else, whether it be celebrity clients or in a show, I’ll try it out because if I don’t believe in it then nobody else can."
An audience member asked: 'Where do you go to be inspired – is it the streets of east London, or Indonesia, or in galleries…?"
'Everywhere," Woodward said. "I think if you are a creative person you are like a sponge. I’m really inspired by fine art, by painting; but with Gaga I guess it’s contemporary culture, pop, stuff like that."
Amber of the Broken Hearts explained their influences came from the world of performance as well as fashion: "We work with a lot of performers; often very physical performers, so for us a lot of our references come from film - visual history and performance history, such as Pierrot clowns".
Trevelyan said her inspiration came primarily from emotion: "The way I've felt about something… a lot of my inspiration comes from angst, like teenage angst or teenage lust - I like seeing emotions in people, like anger and love."
Bracker asked the speakers if they had a particular vision that they translated through the people they style.
Woodward: "What I do is more on the commercial side, I’m not in the business of shocking; I’m in the business of trying to translate stuff - for people who are interested in fashion or want to dress up but can’t necessarily do it themselves. A mediator."
Trevelyan: "I’m still quite young, and I’m still finding my own feet. I was assisting for four years and it’s only in the last year that people have started to notice my own work.
"I’m still coming to terms with what my own style is and what my own vision is - I’m still exploring that every single day."
Woodward: "People say to me: ‘you always look different every time I see you', but that’s what it's like, you’re trying stuff out, whether for yourself or for other people. You find your style changes. The nature of fashion is that it changes, it’s very fast moving and so we change too."
Woodward explained that whether we realise it or not, our clothing is about psychology.
"What you wear is about how you want people to see you. If you want people to think you’re sensible then you wear sensible clothes, because you probably are sensible.
"When it comes to working with designers or pop stars you have be incredibly adept at psychology. I honestly wished that I knew more about the human psyche when I joined the X-Factor because the getting the clothes bit is easy - it’s the rest of it that’s really hard.
"Clothes are our protection. Especially with people who are not ready for it, if you’re stripping back their protection they’re going to stick their heels in the ground and say no. It’s about understanding that."
Bracker picked up on the question of protection. In the case of extreme dressing, how much of that exaggeration was actually a form of concealment?
Woodward mentioned the example of the late fashion journalist Isabella Blow. "She thought she was ugly, and so she hid behind extreme clothing and hats. She projected a fantasy so you didn’t see the reality."
Anna Trevelyan and The Broken Hearts; Nisha and Amber Bracker asked the Broken Hearts when and why they began to dress alike.
Amber: "It started out almost accidentally. We both worked at (vintage clothing shop) Beyond Retro - Nisha did the press and I did the buying and at the same kind of time we started DJing together.
"Obviously we’re a very similar size and shape to begin with, and we had a very similar style and aesthetic - we’d fight over pieces that would come in. There’d be a few times when we’d coincidentally get doubles of things coming in, like showgirls' outfits that their mums had sewn together and we thought, 'that’s quite cool'."
Nisha: "I think now we’re almost projecting a brand. We don’t dress the same all the time, but if we’re working we do. The way we dress isn’t particularly outrageous so it doesn’t feel like stepping into a different character."
Amber: "If only one of us was dressed this way now it wouldn’t look unusual at all. We always wanted to make it (DJing) a visual thing as much as an aural thing and because we had an interest in performance history and side shows, those were the things that influenced us.
"There were these great Siamese twins - Daisy and Violet Hilton - in a film in the '30s, and we were also interested in the macabre side of doubles. Especially today because there’s such an emphasis placed on individualism and no one wants to admit to being in a group."
Woodward: "But fashion is the antithesis to that. Fashion teaches everyone to run around in herds of uniformed people dressing ‘on trend’".
Amber: "It does, but it also paradoxically tells you you can be different - by wearing a piece of designer and mixing it with the high street and mixing it with vintage. At the same time, fashion is selling trends through the language of individuality - especially with the emphasis placed on street style at the moment."
Woodward: "I think that’s a new thing in the last five years. The internet has blown fashion marketing out of the water."
An audience member asked about the X Factor performers: "Did you find once you’d styled them they became better and more confident performers because of what you’d put them in?"
Woodward: "I wouldn’t want to take credit on that, I don’t think they necessarily would because they don’t get to see themselves until afterwards.
"We did have a few mishaps. Katie Waissel once went on in her own clothes, because Cheryl told her to and I was like ‘what are you doing?’ but part of that is that they're learning their professionalism, realising they are performers not just singers - they have a responsibility.
"Your buyer, your public, your fans - they don’t want to see someone up there that could be them, they want the fantasy. We all want to buy out of our own slightly mundane lives."
Shoe envy: The glamorous footwear of Broken Hearts' Amber (left) and Grace Woodward Trevelyan: "It must be so different to working with an artist that has such a specific opinion of what they want to look like."
Woodward: "It depends on the point at which you come into their careers. It’s like Issy (Isabella Blow) working with Lee (Alexander McQueen) - at first that was all fine and dandy and then he went off in a different direction and kind of discarded her.
"You can work with someone at the beginning of their career, and then they decide they need somebody else now. You build massive relationships with people but we all change. "
An eye for vintage
Who do we dress for? There was general discussion between audience members and the speakers about the context for clothes. Extreme dressing is natural for performers because they are used to being looked at. Age, and issues of appropriateness in the workplace, were also factors for some: "As you get older, the way you dress becomes more about enjoyment and not caring. When you're younger you're doing it for approval," one audience member commented.
The rise of vintage in recent years was an interesting phenomenon. An audience member asked whether the economic climate was a factor - did wearing vintage allow people to 'perform' some kind of nostalgia for less complicated times?
Amber: "I think nostalgia has always been a part of fashion, in the '70s people were dressing like they were in the '30s, in Regency times people were dressing like they were in ancient Greece, it’s always been there in culture.
"I think now it’s just become more acceptable to wear clothes from that time and just create new styles in that style."
Nisha: "I think it’s to do with people wanting to look individual and vintage is a really accessible way for people to do that without buying a couture dress. "
An audience member commented that the hunger for vintage was probably more of a reaction to 'fast fashion' than the world's financial situation.
"It’s a response to the fact that everyone can go to Primark and buy something that’s knocked off from the Prada catwalk."
Trevelyan: "And it’s also a big part of that street style culture."
Supported by Bastyan.