Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Swimming and Spinning

The following article was first written for Young Minds, so apologies if you read it back in December. I lightly edited it for re-publishing here. I felt that the photos taken of me by the multi-talented and rather gorgeous Lucy Feng (who I put in front of the lens here) last Autumn were appropriate on two counts - not only in the general energy and joy of the shots, but also in my proximity to a body of water. Everything worn is second hand. 

Dad went swimming recently – a brief, mad dash in and out of the freezing hillside pool. I crouched on the rocks above with my camera in hand trying to frame the moment, to capture him in the green cocoon of running water. I squinted through the eyepiece as he squealed. The winter stream was bitterly chilly, but I forced him to stay until I could focus and click. As he jumped out and reached for the towel I had a brief snatch of elation, of realizing quite how special these small moments still are. 

Little over a year ago my dad wasn’t dipping as much as a toe into cold water. This was unusual for a man who usually celebrated the delights of mountain streams and plunge pools regardless of season or temperature. The other three of us often watched as he slid in and out of lakes or rivers, his long legs kicking up as he laughed with the adrenaline rush. Roger Deakin’s ‘Waterlog’ was his guiding text, the outdoors his cathedral. The swimming stopped at the beginning of autumn 2011. Long walks, days out and that fascination with the beating heart of forests and hills gradually disappeared too. 

Depression was the diagnosis – the word he was given to explain why he could no longer function; the word that was offered to my brother and me to justify why our dad would be moving temporarily out of our home and into hospital; the word handed to my mum to help her understand why her husband’s eyes were empty. That word has become misappropriated and misunderstood in every day language. It is a clinical term, describing an illness that debilitates both mind and body. It is not interchangeable with sadness, despondency or any of the other more easily defined emotions. ‘Sadness’ doesn’t hang like fog in the living room for six months. It doesn’t give justice to the man whose head was full of terror, hands trembling as he ate, speech devoted only to paranoia and apologies. ‘Sadness’ wasn’t what created an impassable void between our father and the figure that sat on the sofa all day. This shape looked like dad, but had none of his curiosity or humour. It huddled reading trashy books and filling out sudokos day after day as we tried to coax him out. I imagined the real man outside somewhere, sculling up and down a river or strolling through a field at twilight, as he used to do. The outdoors scared this replacement. When we went away to visit friends he pleaded with us to let him out of the car, to leave him behind, to let him walk back home. Our house was a cave, with everything beyond the walls and windows threatening.

It’s very easy if you're on the outside looking in on depression to use blithe instructions like ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘stop moping’ or ‘use your willpower.’ But this is as impossible and insensitive as suggesting to someone with two broken legs that they should simply pull themselves together, get up, go for a run and then do something useful. The impact is as physical as it is mental and emotional – and it radiates out from the individual to affect all who surround them. 

Severe depression took all that my dad loved and lived for, and warped it. The chemical imbalance in his brain made literature unreadable and the landscape unreachable and terrifying. For him each stretch of water was no longer an embrace, but a place filled with possible dangers: broken glass and barbed wire waiting at the bottom or hidden currents that might pull us under. He didn’t need the adrenaline from jumping in the sea, his system already full of it from the constant horror and panic of ‘fight or flight’ as he sat on the sofa. He tried to fold himself away there, but couldn't curl small enough to pass unseen. We saw, and it hurt.

Depression is a wound of sorts. It can eventually heal – although the process of recovery may be one of complications and setbacks. Getting better is also a different process for everyone. The possibility of my dad’s return became clear on the afternoon he agreed to join me for a walk. Our conversation was stilted, but the steps were progress. Like a tide, the extent of the following revival varied from day to day. He moved from activity to monosyllables as moods shifted. But if the stroll was a first sign, then the revisiting of a favourite river was a decisive signal. It’s not melodramatic to say that when he was so ill, neither my mum nor I could imagine him ever swimming again. The idea was incompatible with the reality we had all coped with for months. Nonetheless, there he was – hollering with as much energy as remembered, lips grinning beneath a striped beanie hat.

His depression officially lifted in late spring of last year, after much trial and error and ongoing combinations of approaches for managing and treating it. It now strikes me that his illness left him stuck at the bottom of a silted lake. We wanted, desperately, to catch him with hooks, suddenly yank him from the depths – dredge him up in an instant. Instead it was an agonizing process of waiting for the dark liquid to drain away, drop by drop.

That liquid is now not dark, but clear. The riverbed is sandy and covered in stones. Dad made up for lost time through cycling, writing and taking me on six-mile walks. Although it is now cold, he still retains this spark – a desire to fill himself up with life and the joy of being here. Whenever he now steps into a mountain plunge-pool, with breeze ruffling leaves, it is an act of celebration. A celebration of swimming; of the human ability to suffer and recover; of the wonder to be found in days out and other activities; of the bonds between family; and of the relationship with the outdoors.
We all push forward, taking it one stroke at a time.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Ethical Endeavours

The sustainable sector of the fashion industry has been steadily shaking off its crocheted burlap and saggy hemp robes over the years – replacing them with rather more innovative attire. From Henrietta Ludgate’s futuristic dresses to the dreamy aesthetic of Beautiful Soul, designers who value their ethics are ensuring that their clothes are just as, if not more, desirable than mainstream counterparts.
The continuing presence of the Estethica exhibition at LFW (which I covered for Oxfam), alongside the success of Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge signify the importance of making ethical fashion visible. Continuing in this thread of thought is the new ‘Well Dressed’ category in this year’s Observer Ethical Awards. Taking place in collaboration with Eco-Age’s Fru-Gal Challenge (which I did here), the competition aims to unearth a spectacular outfit entirely composed from sustainable sources – whether from a charity shop, vintage market, ethical label or your own sewing machine. All you need to do is submit a photo of yourself in your ensemble. It’s being judged by Livia Firth, with the closing date on the 22nd of March, so (second hand) skates must be got on if you’re thinking of entering.

I’ve submitted the outfit featured above, which is a Katharine Hepburn inspired re-styling of my favourite Goodone jumpsuit (previously featured here and here). It was a well-timed investment which has now graced not only the cobbles at LFW, but also the pages of British Vogue - I was wearing it in the photo that accompanied my article on scoliosis. 
To enhance the masculine feel of this look I added one of my great-grandma’s silk shirts and some vintage men's Bally brogues. The second hand organza silk jacket is tied with a cummerbund - both from a charity shop, while all the jewellery is vintage: the rings once belonged to my late maternal grandma (she had them made by a local silversmith/designer from melted down former pieces of jewelry) and the silver buckle bracelet was found at a flea market.

To mark the Observer Ethical Awards, Lucy Siegle, who is a Guardian journalist, presenter, sustainable advocate and author of ‘To Die For’ (you can read my review here), very kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions... 

How do you see the ethical fashion industry evolving in the next few years?

It's evolving at pace on different fronts. It is noticeably mainstreaming - ie 'ethical' concepts are being taken up by bigger brands to reduce risk in their supply chain or to overcome problems such as a shortage in production of cotton. At the moment this mainly takes the form of brands/retailers investing in recycling schemes or producing eco/conscious collections experimenting with lower impact materials. The extent to which they put real money in to feed innovation is debatable of course but there is a definite step change among most credible large brands. If you don't do anything I think that really marks you out as a dinosaur. 
One of the things that really excites me is the scientific and practical underpinning of ethics in fashion. Broadly speaking most of us knew it was a good idea to make fashion greener/ more sustainable and we were then able to highlight its environmental and social footprint. What heartens me is the gain in technical reasoning and technical solutions to some of fashion's problems. Evidence of this is increasingly found with the way that organisations work with NGOs on the ground of producer countries, ecologists, agronomists, textile scientists etc - fashion is finally waking up to the fact that it is dependent on the natural world and needs to work with environmental professionals. We need more of this energy to work through the social problems in its supply chain. Imagine what could be achieved on labour rights and standards with some input from a wide range of professionals. 
Ultimately what I would love to see is total reform of the Buyer role, which I think is key. In common with other industries (food being the first example given the mess of the beef/horse supply chain fiasco) the relationship between some fashion brands and the producers is no longer a business relationship. It is a corrosive imbalance of power structured towards short-term profit for big brands/retailers. 

 Do you think that ethics should take precedence above aesthetics for designers, or are they of equal importance to you?

No because when ethics takes precedence nobody wants to buy the finished article because people buy fashion because they fall in love with the aesthetic. There's nothing wrong with that. To be clear that is different to buying because you are swept up by a micro trend or because you feel under pressure to conform to a particular look or style idea. 
I co-founded the Green Carpet Challenge with Livia Firth four years ago and we have always been clear that part of our goal is to match  'ethics and aesthetics'. That's our slogan/mantra. With the brands that we work with we aim for excellence in both. 

What would you suggest to those interested in sustainability who do not necessarily have the funds to buy high end ethical designers?

You're in a good position to make better choices and you're in good company. Most of us don't have funds to buy many high end pieces (of any type of designer). Focus on your style and what sort of wardrobe you want to develop. Are you interested in building a wardrobe that will last for a decade or are you looking for more transient style hits? In my book (shameless plug!) To Die For: is fast fashion wearing out the world? I talk a lot about budgets, how we use them for other consumer purchases but not fashion and how they're useful for getting more ethical bang for your fashion buck. I'm a big fan of beginning with your private wardrobe. It'll (likely) show you the devastation wreaked by fast fashion and how much you've bought in haste, and give you some clues - through a thorough audit - of where your real style lies. Once you've got this self knowledge you can experiment with different ways of owning fashion: swapping, loaning, altering, upcycling, making (by far the best way of getting to grips with the essential arguments of ethical fashion is to make something. You'll never treat fashion as disposable again).
Then enter this year's Observer Ethical Awards fashion category, which is one massive celebration of ethical personal style and its profound influence over the industry at large. 

Has the Estethica exhibition at LFW had a discernable impact on the fashion industry's perception of sustainable style?

Yes. Definitely. I think it began by sticking two fingers up to the mainstream fashion industry, then it became a safe place for designers who prioritised ethics with aesthetic and needed support to make their case and now it's become a total force in its own right. At LFW just gone Estethica looked amazing. A few of the brands - Ada Zanditon, Bottletop and Pachacuti just to pick out very few - startled me with how far their range has developed and how slick their products are. That sort of investment of ingenuity, creativity, time, skill etc stands out for me. I thought Estethica was the best bit of LFW this season, but then I didn't see much of the rest as it doesn't massively interest me!

What has been your favourite thing about the Fru-Gal challenge?

I love the basic concept. We tend to over think in the sustainable style movement (it's part of the attraction that there's a cerebral dimension to this type of fashion) so I like Fru-Gal's directive 'just take a picture of what you're wearing and send it to us'. As I've said before the sustainable style movement is not a rarified concept - it lives or dies by what people are doing in their own wardrobes. If they are taking that decision to make their aesthetic match their ethics and can send us a picture, that's kind of life affirming to a longstanding ethical fashion fan like me! I also think it's quite brave. I've been asked to do the Fru-Gal challenge a few times and put it off out of fear of being judged. But I think the time is almost here... I need to lead by example!

Huge thanks to Lucy Siegle for taking the time to offer such full responses to my questions.

You can also nominate someone else for the Observer Ethical Awards in a variety of categories, including the 'Well Dressed.' 

Monday, 11 March 2013

I Am The Spring

Boden dress styled in the first instance with a second hand hat and pair of wedge heels, and in the second with shorts from a charity shop, a necklace made by Maya, my favourite ankle boots and a Persephone book. 

What does a love of florals say about a person? Possibly nothing of great significance beyond a penchant for petals and colourful patterns. But it remains a universal symbol, worn by everyone from Grace Kelly to (apparently) the suffragettes; a print of continuing endurance – encompassing everything from the smallest of sprigs to the largest of abstract splashes.
Florals can appear passive at times – sweet, charming, out of reach of mud and grass stains. Indeed, the prevalence of roses and daisies on fifties' day dresses may suggest that they are purely the domain of the pretty. However, just as there is something in the region of 250,000 varieties of flowering plant in the world, so the floral print has more forms than one could wear in a lifetime. The bold, red splash of poppies; the embroidered intricacy of multicoloured chrysanthemums; the monochrome restraint of grey and white blossom scattered across a skirt. The realistic rubs fabrics with the outlandish. Flick through any book on vintage trends and there will be a profusion of flowers, from the imposing shapes on a thirties evening coat to the busy fabric of a Laura Ashley smock.
The interlinked history of florals and fashion may stretch back to when the first flower was tucked behind an ear, but achieved popularity in the 20th Century. As methods of printing became cheaper and more effective, the concept of leisure grew large in society – leading to a spate of tea dresses rippling with flowers during the 50s. Brands such as Horrocks are now famous for their functional floral creations, whilst designers such as Hubert de Givenchy, Cristobel Balenciaga and Christian Dior often took the structure, colour and effect of flowers as inspiration for the cut and pattern of their clothes.
At the moment the current SS13 collections are blooming, with Prada, Erdem (inevitably), Moschino, Zac Posen and the inimitable Corrie Nielsen, among others, making use of the floral motif. There’s a hardy endurance there. The love of flowers on clothing is deep-rooted, popping up as a trend every few seasons like newly sprung seedlings. Sometimes what follows is an article in a publication on the ‘perfect’ floral dress, as though there is a single, elusive one out there – hanging expectantly as it waits for a warm body to give it shape.
I’ve been lucky enough to find several. One is a vintage 70s dress cut tight to the torso and covered with rounded blue and brown flowers. Another is a 60s gold cocktail dress with blue roses stretched across the surface. A third is a black mini-dress covered in pink and orange petals, belted at the waist and flared slightly at the hem. I wore it to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in London on Friday to celebrate International Women’s Day. I was a feminist in a floral dress and it felt good.

But the latest floral addition is this Boden beauty, chosen to celebrate Stylist offering a £500 giveaway to one fortunate reader. It was difficult to pick from the selection of Boden dresses on offer, but from the knee length dresses this print dress (Riviera shirt dress in Steel Flower Pop) has a special resonance. It reminded me of a Brettles housecoat I became smitten with several years ago: light pink linen with deep pink, almost crimson flowers, it was the kind of item one would want to lounge around in drinking cocktails and having informal dinner parties. Perhaps this says as much about my aspirations as my preferred aesthetics, but similarly here the wide skirt, lilac cotton and shirt dress design brings with it plenty of potential. The neat pattern encourages thoughts of picnics and afternoon tea, lounging in the grass or stretching legs across the lawn on warm, summer evenings as the light fades. It is a dress of idealism, as well as a practical item to wear repeatedly once spring hits its stride. 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Homage to Orla Kiely

A plain door and flashed ticket lead to
ladder-steep stairs.
On the upper floor, desks;
where pastel secretaries tap and file.
Light brims over the clatter of keys,
a corridor of motion.

Boucle suits and t-bar shoes with polished heels and toes,
Mohair jumpers pink and soft as typists sit in rows.

Filing cabinets stacked
in blocks – a backdrop to
phones and teacups,
lamps, moneyboxes, beehives
shifting as they stoop and turn.

Cabled dresses, squirrel jumpers, jaunty circle skirts
All revealed as coats are peeled and sleeves rolled up on shirts.

We watch,
weight balanced on one metallic heel
or placed equally in two patent boots,
clustering at the edge.

They gather in a throng of knits as klaxons mark the close,
The working day has faded to a final, knock-kneed pose. 

Easy to imagine them still
typing, talking, working, walking
in a pocket of time,
suspended above Flitcroft Street:
hanging on the hem
of the past.

Rosalind Jana, 2013 

Photos of the Orla Kiely presentation very kindly provided by the beautiful Dina of She Loves Mixtapes

London Fashion Week is often described as a circus, but the more appropriate location might be the fairground. Colourfully dressed crowds; catwalk spaces strung out across the city like stalls displaying their wares; the spectacle of the shows and presentations. At LFW the Ferris wheel is not a physical presence, but an apt metaphor for the tumbling, ever-turning motion of each day as buyers and press make their way from place to place. Others are less concerned with the designers’ attractions than with the attendees – streets taking precedence over the catwalk as outfits are observed, aligned in the frame of a lens, quickly shot.

The increasingly theatrical aspect of London Fashion Week was most clearly encapsulated in Orla Kiely’s presentation in the Elms Lester gallery on Flitcroft Street. A mise-en-scene of desks, typewriters and beehived models greeted viewers who climbed the stairs with invites in hand. The whole experience was a multisensory immersion into another age - the taste of champagne and the sound of phones ringing balanced against sights of mustard cardigans and peter pan collars. It was an irrepressibly charming performance in situ. The line between stage and the audience blurred as we watched the 60s style typing pool from the sidelines – many with cameras in hand, or in my case a welsh-wool covered notebook and pen.

There is something incredibly desirable about the clothes that Kiely produces each season. They represent a full-skirted, pastel-sweetened vision of youthful elegance. Ankle socks abound in the lookbook, while during the presentation, white tights flashed past as models walked, sat and giggled behind carefully manicured nails. As with all collections, the overall theme can be broken down into individual designs – Mondrian-esque block print shift dresses, velvet jacquard jackets, pink dvore pencil skirts. The floral sprigged shirts and grey, faux fur coats will no doubt be desirable to a wide audience. A few consumers might emulate the playful office feel of the presentation, but these are all items with individual versatility and longevity. The presentation was a beautifully staged chance to set the clothes in motion and to assemble a story around the designs. 

And yet there’s something interesting about the role of women in these narratives. The crisp chic of a 50s secretary does have its allure – not only in the tailoring, but also in the whiff of stationary and thorough organisation. Add in the evocative clack of typewriter keys, the colour co-ordinated office space, the industriously stacked filing cabinets and you have a space that harks back to the world of Mad Men or The Hour. But despite the perceived glamour and style of such settings, the reality is that few would now aspire to being an ‘office girl’ - as they once did - or to working in such a retro environment. After all, the corsets and girdles worn under nipped-in dresses in the 50s and 60s were symbolic of the restraints placed on women at the time.
We are fortunate enough today (in the West) to live in a society where all jobs and roles are technically open to us – much higher rungs on the ladder to reach for if so wished (if not always achievable due to other factors.)
Perhaps it’s a process of drawing out the differences between inspiration and idealising of a past reality. Taking an era or look as stimulus for the creative process does not necessarily translate into a desire to live in that time period. We can acknowledge the allure of pencil skirts and sweaters as Orla Kiely does so gloriously, whilst also noting that we’re lucky now to be able to make an active decision to dress like this – treating the aesthetic as one of a myriad number of options, rather than a narrow given.

My slight homage to Kiely's AW '13 collection was composed of a second hand vintage blazer and cashmere jumper (both charity shopped), blue shirt from my mum, a second hand Valentino skirt (present), shoes from a charity shop and vintage accessories. 

If you want to see more of my writing, head over the the brilliant All Walks on the Catwalk website where I wrote an article about my experiences of modelling and body image. 

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