A comment on the Port Eliot post asked "Why dont we have festivals with fashion designers, and floral headwear and knitting gangs in the US?!" To add to the chagrin of this commentor, I omitted another important component that would fit nicely in this summary and that was a doll tea party. A fashion designer's tea party no less. The formidable fashion critic and British Fashion Council ambassador for emerging talent Sarah Mower had the idea to ask designers to send in their childhood dolls after interviewing so many who recalled making clothes for their dolls. The dolls were arranged by famed set designer Michael Howells inside the Port Eliot house, for festival-goers to see. Alex Fury of target="_blank">Love Magazine and Sarah Mower also hosted a tea party where they talked about post-war theatre de la mode and the historical connection between dolls and fashion. The core of it is that most gay designers I know eschewed Action Men for their sisters' Barbie/Sindy dolls and started cutting up scraps of fabric to fashion a wardrobe for their dolls. That's a general sweep of a statement. Still there's something in dolls-based childsplay that is easy for writers to map out a connection between present day fashion designers, stylists and journalists within the industry and their childhood past.
By my own doll history, sadly I wouldn't have much to show for it. So poor were we that I never had a single Barbie, Sindy or barely any soft toys for that matter (my friend bought me a Barbie when I was 14 to somehow make up for that loss). We'd play a lot of imaginary games instead pretending we were various characters and constructed our sets out of cardboard boxes, cushions and bedsheets. Or later, I got a bit more skilled with paper and scissors to make paper dolls where you can clip on clothes with tabs. Or I'd make figurines out of blu-tak, which I see as a connection to my love of powder blue today.
Alber Elbaz of Lanvin could perhaps relate to my lack of resources. As a child, his parents also couldn't afford any toys but they had one chessboard. Elbaz took the whole set and made dresses for the pieces out of cigarette papers, sticking hair on them with chewing gum. He created his own little harem of female chess pieces until one day, he was playing with them in his room with a candle and it caught fire. Elbaz relived his childhood for this exhibition to recreate the chess set with his team at Lanvin. It's a classic rags to riches story that in fashion seems scarce nowadays when getting into fashion in the first place requires a lot of family financial support.
Other notable contributions include Sarah Burton's paper marquettes constructed for the practical purposes of mapping out how the pattern should be placed in miniature so that when it is upsized, there is no fabric wastage. Christopher Kane has instilled a tradition of making up his favourite outfit from every collection into an outfit for a Barbie doll. Every single collection right from the neon bandage S/S 07 to current resort 2013 has a Barbie. Christopher's sister Tammy Kane also donated her Cabbage Patch doll called Toni Bonnie Bella, which sits proudly in the middle of the table having a convo with Sarah Mower's doll called Baby, wearing an outfit made by Mower's grandmother. I loved the bizarre similarity between Simone Rocha's two dolls, one dressed in a Victorian lacy outfit and one in a current Simone Rocha A/W 12-3 ensemble. Lulu Kennedy and I would have a lot to talk about as she also used to play very orchestrated imaginary games for her two rabbits Paul and Amanda – her "gang of little people". She'd host parties for them very early on, not disimilar from what Kennedy does now, organising the Fashion East show every season. Viktor & Rolf's more recognisable 'I Love You' doll takes centre stage from the 'Bedtime Story' collection of 2005. These are the kind of dolls that are eerie in appearance with their white bisque faces and human hair.
This exhibition neatly ties in with the rediscovering of childhood pleasures that this festival fosters. Not only do you see many, MANY children getting creative and being allowed to roam around in a place free of 21st century modern trappings but your own imagination goes into overdrive by simply being in a place where you're exposed to ideas (through the talks and events) and an almost dream-like environment (the boathouse, the fairy lights in the woods, the views of the viaducts, the surreal murals inside the house…I could go on). To see the connection between these dolls and what their owners have achieved at present, is something of an inspiration, even to doll-less folk such as myself.
Viktor & Rolf 'I Love You' Doll – "Fifty-five dolls were shown in a six-metre high dolls' house, which itself referred to three seventeeth-century Amsterdam dolls' houses in the Rijksmuseum. They were commissioned by extremely wealthy Dutch burgher's wives – not as playthings, but as exact replicas of their own homes and rich possessions.
Alber Elbaz' doll's chess-set based on the set he made when he was five: "I have made this set with my assistants in the studio at Lanvin. It brought back all my memories of being five years old again. It made me think: maybe the best creativity comes out of lacking resources. If you only have potatoes and olive oil, you ahve to be a damn good cook to make a great meal out of it."
Sarah Burton's paper maquettes for Alexander McQueen: "Growing up, I remember Sindys, Barbies – all kinds of dolls. It wasn't the dolls I was interested in – it was the clothes. We used to play dress-up everyday. Once I made a feather skirt and a metallic top, I remember. Plus ca change!
Christopher Kane's complete doll size show of all his collections to date: "My Barbies have become a tradition in the office. Every time I design a collection, there are scraps of the fabric left over, so the girls in the studio started making a Barbie outfit each season. It was never an intention to do a Barbie project or anything – it was just the girs making them for me."
Lady Amanda Harlech and daughter Tallulah Harlech's dolls: "My dolls inhabited a parallel world just out of the corner of my eye. I spent hours with them – I would build them houses out of my brothers' wooden bricks, they had shoe boxes stuffed with clothes. Jasper Conran who lived two doors down from our house had a bevy of princsesses and we would act out dramas together or make jewellery out of broken tail lights and headlights." Amanda Harlech
"I was a Barbie-crazed freak as a child. I often stole the outfits off my brother's action Man and made tomboy Barbie or Pop Star Barbei with a bikini top and baggy Action Man trousers. The hair never lasted long." Tallulah Harlech
Tammy Kane's cabbage patch doll: "I remember she had a wee Aran sweater and that our granny was abolustely horrified when she saw me pretending to breastfeed her one day."
Sarah Mower's doll 'Baby': "Baby is wearing a paisley-print dress and a pair of knitted knickers, which were made for me, amongst many other things, by my grandmother, maisie Defriez, who was a huge lover of fashion. She made all her own clothes – which I now realise she had adapted herself from looking at Cristobal Balenciaga, like coats with swing backs and three-quarter sleeves."
Erdem's two Barbies wearing an original dress he made when he was five and a dress from his A/W 12 collection: "I got hold of this cheap-y blue polyester, and fashioned a circle skirt from it and put it over her head. And then my mother helped me sew a strapless bustier with a low back. It's very spring-summer."
Lulu Kennedy's two rabbits Paul and Amanda: "I started organising 'events' from an early age. I took them deadly seriously and had to have absolute control of art directing all the elements or I'd get very fed up. I'd dress up all my toys up in their very best outfits and place them in a very specific order, a bit like a seating plan at a catwalk show. I'd hand-make invitations and snacks, and charge guests 2p to get in."
Simone Rocha's two childhood dolls: "My doll had a full Victorian lacy outfit with matching shoes, dress and hat. I used to send her flying down the stair banister which resulted in cracked porcelain faces and bones. She's wearing her original lace outfit, with her broken leg accessorised with a band-aid from a previous banister injury."
Giles Deacon's dolls: "I get my work placement students to help make them – I've found it's a good test of how skilled they are. You can tell who's going to have it, and who not, from how well they can work at doll-size."
Jason Wu's dolls for Integrity Toys: "At the age of sixteen, while at boarding school in Connecticut I decided to call the president of Integrity Toys. Offering them my sketches, asotnishingly they offered me a job designing dresses for their fashion dolls. A year later i was named creative direct, then partner. Both positions I still hold today and extremely proud of."
Virgina Bates (of Virginia vintage in London) and her rag doll: "Dorothy is a rag doll with a hand-painted face, I thinks he dates from the late 1920s. But she is a very naughty girl and she loves ot party. DOrothy strictly dirnks Margaritas, no tea please! She is very patriotic too so I dressed her up for the Jubilee."