The Dropouts

Words by: Matthew Gillespie Fashion Correspondent

It’s a mild evening in early October, and I’m standing in the middle of a lofty, slender drawing room filled with the musical chatter of forty or-so elegant strangers who are circling around me, greedily caressing rows of beguiling garments that line the walls and convince one of having travelled into a completely different, far more beautiful dimension. 

To my left, a silver haired man gazes at a black crocheted jacket which almost suggests a Bur gundian château sleeping in the dead of night; in a back corner of the room, a pair of Spaniards wail loudly over a mesmerising coat whose back shimmers with threads of a mysterious gold; and, in a slightly concerning but wholly forgivable moment of sartorial aggression, I watch a woman unapologetically elbow some others out of the way to get up close to one particularly bewitching trouser leg. 

It may surprise you to hear that this experience is not, in fact, a hallucination set in one of the fabled Rue de la Paix salons of the time of Zola, but a very real moment happening now, in 2018. To mark the launch of his first-ever furniture collection, Walid Al Damirji - a British-Iraqi fashion designer and burgeoning tapissier - is being celebrated tonight at Five Carlos Place, a Mayfair townhouse that has recently been bought by luxury clothing retailer, Matches Fashion, to serve as their new “event and creative broadcasting space.” 

Much like this building, Al Damirji represents something that has become lost in the fashion industry over the past years. Whether it’s due to the outrageous expectations now placed on designers by the fashion week schedule, the increasing power of profit-hungry conglomerates, or the pervasive influence of the Instagram treadmill, a real-meaningful connection with clothes is something rarely felt today. 

Indeed, as Al Damirji sits down to talk with writer and fashion historian, Judith Watt, menswear expert, James Sherwood, and Matches’ buying director, Natalie Kingham, he begins to speak candidly to our assembled audience about his own disappointment with this world that he knows so well. “I’ve been working in this industry for the past 30-plus years, and at one point I just gave it all up” he tells Watt, reflecting on a time a decade ago when he left his position as creative director of the retailer, Joseph. “I think fashion’s lost,” he says, “it just became too disposable, too seasonal.” 

But, though convinced he would never return, Al Damirji found a way back in. After creating a line of 19th century linen jackets that captured the attention of Paris (he secured 800 orders), he founded his own label, By Walid, in 2011, but knew that he would only be fulfilled in this new venture by becoming a total outsider. “We run at our own pace, we sell at our own pace, we create at our own pace,” he says. When asked by Sherwood if he thinks he’s “dodged a bullet” by choosing not to stage fashion shows he replies, sagely, “yes, definitely.” 

What Al Damirji appears to be a part of is a rising movement of designers who are breaking free of this “disposable,” “seasonal” mentality that has turned a once hedonistic yet intelligent world into a circus fuelled by consumerism. This September, during the Spring/Summer 2019 shows in Milan, Carolina Castiglioni—daughter of Marni founder Consuelo Castiglioni, who exited her company in 2016, four years after selling 60% of it to entrepreneur Renzo Rosso—presented her début collection for Plan C, a line of roomy, vibrant clothes that, according to the 37-year old designer, will only show twice a year and will not hold runway shows. 

Similarly, March of this year saw the birth of Colville, another label with haute bohème aspirations dreamt up by Lucind a Chambers— British Vogue’s fashion director of 25 years who was unceremoniously fired last June, not long after she, had, to resigned from Marni, where she had been Castiglioni’s right and - woman—and another pair of ex- Marni comrades, Molly Molloy and Kirstin Forss, who also left the label last Spring. 

As Molloy and Forss told me, they decided to establish Colville “to step out of a system’” plagued by “too many collections, too much product, and lots of repetition,” and to make something “joyous and inclusive.” With its name taken from the Notting Hill street where David Hockney, Peter Schelsigner, and Manolo Blahnik lived during the ‘70s, that joyousness is expressed, quite convincingly, through slouchy silhouettes and Mediterranean colours. However, considering Chambers’ continued efforts to court the favour of fashion’s ringleaders—especially, American Vogue, whose cover she now occasionally styles-Colville’s apparent inclusivity comes into doubt. 

While some who were once working right at the centre of fashion are only now discovering the wonders of rebellion, others have been seditionaries’ from the very beginning of their careers. The leading light of this group has achieved such a level of anonymity that his name remains largely unknown, even though his clothes- to those who have seen them- certainly do not. One of the few places where they can be found is London’s Dover Street Market—the cutting-edge shop founded by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and her husband, Adrian Joffe—where, in a small, plastic-wrapped room on the second floor, they hang quietly, their green labels whispering the name, “Paul Harnden.” 

Running the gamut from wrinkled woollen jackets that appear to have been shrugged off after a long-vanished thunderstorm, to handmade shoes whose soles curve upwards like Victorian rocking horses, the brilliance of Harden’s work makes one question why so much attention is given to mainstream fashion designers, most of whom, in my estimations, he far surpasses. But that’s exactly the point. Harnden—who began his career in 1985—has only reached such a level of distinction by avoiding the distractions of the limelight, as he refuses to grant interviews (the last he gave was in 1987), has never given out the address of his Brighton studio, and doesn’t even have a functioning website (clicking on it will tell you that it’s “currently not available”). There’s a reason that John Galliano christened him the Greta Garbo of fashion. 

Though he has maintained a level of obscurity unrivalled by any other, a single floor above Harnden’s cabinet of curiosities houses a wealth of other designers who have never sought celebrity, albeit in less extreme ways. Joining such labels as Daniela Gregis and Elena Dawson, the creations of Italian designer Sara Lanzi began being stocked on the third floor at the start of this year, where they can be found gently luring in customers with their functional charm.

As she has said, Lanzi-who founded her eponymous label in 2005-enjoys being on the outside of things, choosing to show only twice a year at the Paris showrooms, where she first attracted the attention of Kawakubo just over a decade ago. If being noticed by a woman who is, without question, one of the greatest living designers wasn’t encouraging enough, the fact that Lanzi now holds this coveted space in Dover Street Market is proof that success doesn’t always lie at the end of the runway. 

Encouragingly, this has been picked up on by some young designers who are looking to establish their own label straight after education-a group of people who, far too often, embark on degrees in fashion under the misapprehension that life as a star designer is, firstly, possible, and, secondly, desirable. 

Already wary of the many pitfalls that can await people like himself, John Alexander Skelton, 28, is the designer spear heading this revolution. Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2016- where he won the L'Oréal prize for his menswear MA collection-the Yorkshire designer has gone on to produce five collections that have won the admiration of such discerning critics as Charlie Porter of the Financial Times, yet he refuses to play to the fashion industry’s nasty games, choosing to present his work through films, look-books, and soulful happenings. 

For his Autumn/Winter 2018 collection, Skelton held an off-schedule show in a Dalston church that many saw as a real moment of revitalisation amid the drudgery of fashion week. Inspired by the Medieval tradition of was sailing- in which people gather in orchards to sing and drink to the prospect of a good harvest—Skelton had masked performers dance around the candlelit church hall, dressed in striped corduroy, aubergine suits, and his signature dark, Shelleyan coats. For the sake of Skelton, fashion’s dropouts, and our general sanity, let’s pray that the trees in style’s orchard will continue to shed such glorious fruit.