On the judging panel at the Brit Insurance Design Awards...

26 February 2010

I took a day out of London Fashion Week to judge the Brit Insurance Design Awards. The timing wasn’t ideal (I missed Christopher Kane and Erdem), but the opportunity to get out into the wider world, and see from another angle, how fashion fits in, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

It’s too easy for a fashion editor to get sidetracked by stuff that is so niche it’s irrelevant to anyone else. This is particularly true at this time of the year when the shows are on and we spend hours/days/weeks completely absorbed in the height of the perfect petit stiletto or whether khaki is the new black. Need to keep it real, girl.

So off I went, tempted also, I must admit, by the prospect of spending an entire day with the gorgeous Anthony Gormley who was the jury’s chairman, as well as my old mate Tom Dixon and the fabulously straight-talking Janet Street Porter.

The day started with a guided tour of all the nominations. There are seven categories: architecture, interactive, product, fashion, transport, graphics and furniture: 90 entries in all.

Predictably, the architecture section had the grandest nominations with David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin, the Highline in NY (the abandoned, elevated railway track that is now an amazing public park) and a Zaha Hadid project in Rome, alongside some really inspiring community housing in Mexico.

In the furniture section, designers had challenged themselves to making stuff that ranged from the sublime  (a dining set out of bamboo that folds completely flat against the wall when not in use) to the faintly ridiculous (public seating made from the longest possible single piece of extruded aluminium).

In transport, there was an electrical plane that could travel for an hour on a battery that cost £5 to charge, a baffling electric car that comes with a unicycle tucked into the passenger door and an electric super bike that can sneak up on you at speeds of up to 150 mph.

In the product section there was an oven made from silvered corrugated card that could boil water that had already been shipped by the container load to Haiti. There was some unputdownable putty that could do everything from mend a broken flip-flop or glass vase to customising your laptop.

Leaving some far-flung architecture and a few mad cars aside, most of the things in the exhibition would in some humble or major way affect a lot of people’s daily lives. So it became quite something after all that, to explain why the Balmain jacket mattered in the same way, or the Beth Ditto collection for Evans; or Comme Des Garcons; or even Christopher Kane’s organza dinosaur dress that had looked so exquisite on the runway but was looking a little tired and unloved, alone on a drunk-looking mannequin.  

Re-thinking the three-pin electrical plug, which has been around (and the size of a big baby’s fist) since 1946, absorbed the jury’s attention for ages in a way that CP Company’s jacket, with goggles built - for some inexplicable reason - into the hood, just couldn’t.
It is the nature of the fashion business that change happens seasonally. Nothing in our wardrobes has been left alone as long as the three-pin plug. It’s rare for something really radical to happen. What changes each season is mostly just the styling: the look.

But a lot of what’s in the exhibition seems to at least have started with a thought about how to make life properly better. In this room, the big-shouldered Balmain jacket looked like an over-priced piece of silliness. And nominating Beth Ditto as a fashion designer is a joke. She is an entertaining singer. And it has always seemed to me that fashion has made her a heroine more from embarrassment about its obsession with extreme thinness than anything else. The collection she ‘designed’ looks like stage clothes, which only someone with Beth’s attitude and vibrancy can get away with. It was just more silliness (making a Beth Ditto doll with articulated bosoms part of the exhibit, didn’t help).

I was feeling a bit embarrassed, to be honest. OK, so it’s a tall order to measure up to an electric plane, but surely the Jil Sander for Uniqlo collection deserved a mention. That’s a triumph of no-brow fashion design and marketing for our credit crunch age. Or maybe one of Alber Elbaz’s fantastic evening dresses that could pack into a handbag because he has done away with so much of the traditional construction without losing any of the glamour or impact. Or maybe the Chanel couture dress made without seams from one piece of cloth? Any of those things could have held the jury’s and the visiting public’s attention.

But then we got to the video of the last Mc Queen show and here the jury spent ages….not because he had just died, but because it was clear that on so many levels, there was a lot going on and none of us could tear ourselves away.

For a start I explained how he had been working for years on how to go from hard to soft in one piece of cloth and had pretty much come close to achieving that in this collection. Then there was the way the prints had been worked, taking one image across an entire piece of fabric and fit by hand to the body to make a dress: something seemingly random was minutely thought through.

But there was also the sheer spectacle of it. It was as exciting on the video screen in the Design Museum as it had been at the actual live event and this is because it had been conceived to be live streamed to an internet audience,  much bigger than what was in the room.

We know it makes less and less sense in the digital age for a thousand-strong troupe of fashion editors to tour four cities for four weeks twice a year to see the collections. Something has got to give soon. McQueen predicted, before he died, that one day you’d get a pyramid delivered to your desk and the show would take place in it in 3D.

We are already working on a very exciting digital project for Grazia that you’ll see later in March. The day McQueen dreamed of seems to be getting closer all the time. But for the moment, a lot of live streaming is a bit of a non-event because few designers haven’t got their heads around what it takes to communicate beyond the live experience. McQueen really did.

It wasn’t my favourite show last season. I found the look a bit too uncompromising for these nerve-jangling times. But you can’t fault the skill and the dedication to trying to deliver something significant.

It made me feel indescribably good that he represented our industry so impeccably in that exhibition and, once again, brought home the magnitude of his loss.

The Brit Insurance Design Awards 2010 is on show at The Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until June 6th. The winners will be announced 4 March.

- Paula Reed


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