Thursday, 24 June 2010

Fashion maketh woman

The title of the last debate in Intelligence Squared series seemed to good for this blogger to pass up. Thanks for my friend Susan who was busy on the night and kindly gave me her tickets, I was able to attend with fashion conscious eldest daughter and listen to arguments for and against the motion.  The debate was chaired by 80s author Peter York whose main claim to fame is to have invented the term "Sloane Ranger", the British preppy 80ies stereotype.  I must say that I was not terribly impressed by his performance - essentially a self-promoter, he could not lift the debate beyond his own superficial views.

Speakers for the motion included Paula Reed, Style director of Grazia, whose most effective contribution was the very sincere evocation of a childhood in Northern Ireland that was enlivened by the buzzing hairdressing salon that represented beauty in an otherwise scary and ugly environment.
Britt Lintner, a Swedish City executive who launched her own fashion line was consistently on message, selling her concept of timeless classics for the busy modern woman, gunning for the opposite camp at times.
Last to speak was Madeleine Levy, editor-in-Chief of fashion and arts magazine Bon International.  She gave a more robust defense of fashion as the repository of unique skills, crafts and knowledge about shape and colour that ultimately generates and feeds off feelings. She defended fashion as the provider of a quick fix that allows women to be the person they want to project and accused its detractors of being misogynist snobs.
Against the motion:
The star of the opposite camp (forgive the pun) was potter extraordinaire Grayson Perry whose magnificient dress designed by a Central St Martin student stole the show. I had not brought my camera so you have to imagine a brightly coloured satin concoction. His contention that "fashion maketh money, waste, carbon and lazy thinking" rang true as well as his view that "fashion is the industrialisation of playground cool".  A confident and funny speaker, he make the case for individuality and creativity against the manipulation and commercial motives of the fashion industry.
Also speaking against the motion, design commentator and author Stephen Bayley joined in the denunciation of what he called "the fashion system" and its "spurious nasty seasonality" that "says buy this and you'll be beautiful".
The last speaker was Susie Orbach whose intervention I was very much looking forward and which, I thought, fell flat. She adopted the point of view of a 10 year old girl whose self-image is dreadfully affected by a nasty fashion industry bent on imposing its reductive ideals of beauty. Whilst I agree with some of her views on the harmful effects of fashion, I felt that she missed the point and ignored the playfulness of fashion and the universal appeal of dressing up games for small and big girls.

Whilst the initial vote, before the debate, favoured the motion, it was reversed after the debate and arguments against the motion won. As far as I am concerned, my vote against the motion did not change before and after the debate.

As is often the case in those debates, a lot of the arguments revolve around semantics. Are we talking about fashion or the fashion industry? I do agree that the creativity and skill of fashion has significant intrinsic value for women and can bring them joy, emotional uplift and fun. However, the fashion industry as it has evolved, does not get much sympathy from this woman. It seems to have become a rather cynical, exploitative machine that builds brands to sell handbags and sunglasses. Whilst some women are deluding themselves and really buy into the "must have" trends and other fashion diktats, I have the feeling that most have a more playful approach that allows them to take what they want from the industry and leave what they don't want. The self-defeating acceleration of fashion seasons and "trends" has made them almost irrelevant - women can make their own fashion, create their own style and only wear what works for them: woman maketh fashion!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Women's networking clubs

Leafing through Monday's issue of the Evening Standard - now a free newspaper that my daughters pick up and read on the bus back from school, I was intrigued by an article titled "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" . Liz Hoggard reports the launch of various women's networking clubs which aim to redress the obvious imbalance between men and women's networking opportunities. Traditional male networking revolves around sports, business conferences or the pub - not the most welcoming environments for women.
The picture illustrating the article shows a group of very glamorous women involved in The Sorority , including fashion consultant Frances Card who sports her grey hair with aplomb and style.
The Sorority, launched by branding consultant Lisa Tse counts film director Gurinder Chadha, broadcaster Katie Derham, shoe designer, Beatrix Ong (I own a lovely pair of her slip-on metallic kitten heel mules) and TV chef Ching-He Huang. Membership is by invitation only and will set you back £1000 for its annual fee. Lisa Tse describes the membership as follows: "Derived from the Latin term for 'sisters', our sorors are independent and stylish women who pursue business with passion and integrity".  I am struck by the mention of "style" within the mission statement of what is, in effect, a business networking organisation. I imagine that the picture of a similar outfit for men would feature a lot of identikit dark suits and boring haircuts, and would never mention style as an aim for the organisation.
Style is also part of PR and Marketing guru Lynne Franks' women's business club, The Garden, set up in Covent Garden, London. The building on Southampton Street is refurbished with an eye to glamour and a preference for eco-friendly materials. Membership is set at around £200/year with branches to open in other parts of the country. Information on the upcoming club is available through her social network site,
To those business networking clubs, I would like to add established women's online magazine and networking event organiser, The Next Women.
The Next Women's founder Simone Brummelhuis, who by the way is a founding member of The Sorority, reports on female internet entrepreneurs, funding opportunities and upcoming networking events. A successful internet entrepreneur in her own right, Simone also runs a mentoring programme.
I will be looking out for a new entrant in the exciting field of women's business networking, Anzaja, currently in development. Founder Liz Williams created Anzaja to bring together women owned and run enterprises.
I am very inspired by those various ventures that aim to help women in business, bring them together in a spirit of cooperation and mutual support. Add a little bit of gossip, style and glamour and I think they're on to a winner!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Sophie Harley - charms, Loveknot and mythology

Sophie Harley (and her team) designs, makes and sells her jewellry from her bright studio in the design hub of Westbourne Studios, located along the Union Canal, a short walk from Portobello road in Notting Hill.
 She has been in her current studio for 5 years from a total of 10 years in Westbourne Studios after occupying a colourful list of squats (£15/month!), central London shared work spaces and exciting collaborations within the "New Renaissance Group".
Within "New Renaissance" she worked alongside Simon Costin (who later went on to become Alexander McQueen's art director) and theatre director/designer Simon Vincenzi. The type of big catwalk pieces that she designed at the time for designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier and worn by Naomi Campbell or Saffron Aldridge share the themes she continues to explore in her jewellry and inform her current pieces.

 The pieces are now smaller but the mythological themes are still there.  I enjoyed leafing through her beautiful notebooks and tracing her inspiration back to her drawing sessions in museums.

She explains that, ultimately, all the jewellry she designs has an emotional connection and is steeped in a central theme of love. Worn on the body, jewellry is intensely personal and symbolic. Often offered, it carries the giver's intentions to its recipient: an engagement ring, an anniversary piece... She spoke with great warmth and sensitivity of the pieces commissioned by a gravely ill man as mementos of love for his family. Happier circumstances can also give rise to commissions as a wife offers her husband a unique silver box to contain the guitar picks that he leaves lying about the house.
Sophie enjoys the following of a loyal private clientele but also lends her skills to collaborations with other jewellry houses from Mappin &Webb, de Beers, Boodles or the World Gold Council. She has recently produced a line of ethical jewellry with CRED , using fairtrade gold and jems. She benefited from a surge in interest when she was selected to design the "Loveknot" worn by Eva Green in the Bond movies Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
The Loveknot brought her to international attention and her web orders have been coming from all over the planet. In characteristically enthusiastic mode, she has designed a whole collection around the Loveknot, featuring the 4 interconnected rings that define the piece. Sophie's energy can sometimes confuse as the abundance of pieces shown on her website can be rather overwhelming.  I can understand the difficulty she faces in pruning her extensive production to its core pieces and deprive her fans of possible favourites. As a lot of pieces are variations on a theme, I think that she might benefit from stricter editing to highlight the truly new or unique. As Sophie makes her own molds and takes great care and pride in the quality of the finished product, the presentation of her collections might deserve to be pared down and streamlined to highlight its craftsmanship.
A lively, warm and friendly woman, Sophie Harley clearly enjoys contact with her clientele and encourages visits to her studio where clients can pick and choose at their hearts' content. She can also tweak and adapt existing jewellry to suit clients' tastes.  For the little ones in your life, her Little Treasures children's jewelry collection, inspired by her own daughter makes beautiful gifts.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Welsh textile

Whilst staying in Wales,  I was reminded that the region has a beautiful tradition of textile visible in the historic woolen mills which dot the countryside and its famous Welsh blankets. Sadly, the region  lost the Burberry factory in the Rhondda valley in 2007, taking jobs away and moving its manufacturing activities to China.
However, the Welsh textile tradition is not dead and has been taken up by contemporary companies that keep those skills alive and expand on them with a modern outlook.
Melin Tregwynt
Melin Tregwynt is one of them. The mill has been in the same family since 1912 and is family run, employing 20 people.  It is located in what looks idyllic from the pictures shown on the website. I knew them for their upholstery fabric and I am the proud owner of a cushion covered in their Mondo design.
Melin Tregwynt also have a clothing line that I discovered on their website, from dressing gowns (£230-310) to jackets (£170 to 240) and Birkenstock clogs (£85) or slippers (£39). Please not that the beautiful pictures (from the website) feature an elegant grey hair lady who might well be over 40.

I came across Llynfi textile company, another Welsh textile company, through my friend K. who has a sharp eye for interesting shops and designers and a great love of textile. Llynfi textile are craft dyers, designers and makers of clothing and accessories run by mother and daughter team Sue and Emily James. They use natural, sustainable fibres and their dyes are certified by the Soil Association. Dyes and wool are for sale in a range of beautiful colours and available through their website. The small collection of clothes was on sale in Hay on Wye at The Great English Outdoors and I was able to feel the fabrics and try a beautifully cut shirt (£107) and a very cute cardigan in Shetland wool (£130).
Both Melin Tregwynt and Llynfi appeal to me for their ability to tap into local skills and tradition whilst bringing modern aesthetics to their designs.  Their ability to sustain local activity, run family businesses and their green credentials give them integrity. The useful and beautiful products they create are meant to be cherished and enjoyed for a the long term, perfect for this discerning 40+ woman!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Festival fashion - Hay on Wye

Going the Hay's Festival of Literature and the Arts, to give it its full name, is always a hugely enjoyable intellectual treat. I love the opportunity to hear writers talk about their books and artists perform in a friendly, attentive and rigorous atmosphere where the audience is as smart if not smarter than the speakers. In the midst of such intellectual refinement and stimulation, one area is always problematic: what to wear at a festival where heavy rain is as likely as scorching sunshine, where one walks a lot but also sits in over-heated or freezing tents!? Frankly, I have not yet found the answer and found that my feeble attempts at covering all options, from raincoat, scarf and heavy duty boots to layering light jacket and T-shirt and packing flat shoes in my handbag were not successful. As it happens, fashion is clearly not high on the list for Hay festival goers.  As is often the case, intellectual pursuits are seen as incompatible with elegance and the resulting mix of sensible shoes, baggy tops, inappropriate floral patterns and bad haircuts is overwhelming. Whilst the general look was not as inspiring as the talks, I thought there were a few successful festival outfits, in particular a very good use of hats.
Ultimately, my festival companions got the prize for relaxed elegance!
As to talks and books, I would like to recommend Terri Apter's work on sisters. Her book, "The Sister Knot" explores with great skill and sensitivity the complex relationships that bound sisters, from love to hate and envy, companionship to competition, fear of annihilation to protectiveness. Her look...sensible and academic!
To learn more about the Hay festival:
To learn more about Terri Apter:

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Plug for Goop!

Goop is Gwyneth Paltrow's website/newsletter - it covers a variety of topics from recipes to great places to see, books to read and reflections, organised under the following headings: Make, Go, Get, Do, Be, See. My friend Alex put me on to the website and I am impressed. Not only is Gwyneth Paltrow beautiful and a good actress (I loved her in Two Lovers) but she is also thoughtful and accomplished. I know that she is sometimes ridiculed as overly healthy, worthy and "boring" imposing her over-the-top diets on her long suffering husband Chris Martin. However, I think her interests are worthwhile and go beyond the silly and overblown "celebrity" fluff.  She often calls on friends, other actors or specialists in their own fields to contribute their expertise to the website and I enjoy reading the resulting newsletters.  By the way, she is not 40 yet, but not too far off at 38!
I very much enjoyed her piece on children's book - a literary genre that I love and miss now that my daughters are growing up. The world of children's illustration is magical and never fails to make me travel back to my own childhood.

Also, the places she recommends in London make a lot of sense to me and I recognise a lot of my own favourites:

To get her newsletter: