Monday, 5 October 2015

From Jakarta #4

Jakarta Old City, Fatahillah Square, photo by me

I have finally acclimatised and am learning to negotiate Jakarta, a sprawling mega city. I am meeting designers,  fashion commentators, photographers and models too, it is all quite exciting.
One of the most interesting things for me was to find out that the September issue of Dewi magazine had on its cover 50 plus  year old Sarita Thaib, who came back to modelling specially for this issue on 'timeless style' and fashion for all ages (cantik & gaya di usia 20, 30, 40),  -  I am reminded here of The Guardian All Ages .

Sarita Thaib on the cover of Dewi 
Dewi magazine is one of the most important glossies in Indonesia, now part of the Femina Group and as such involved in the organisational side of  Jakarta Fashion Week . It is a veritable fashion bible, with a median readership of women over the age of 30, thus comparable to Elle (the latter is originally French but now sold worldwide, including China).
So being on the cover of Dewi is a major recognition for any model of any age.
As elsewhere, women in Indonesia over the age of forty are extremely active and visible, and pay attention to style and a fashion that suits them.  Indonesia is very diverse and has a growing middle class; several Indonesian fashion designers are aware of this diversity and design for women of all ages.  A good example is a designer such as Carmanita, who told me over lunch that when she makes clothes, she thinks of what she would like to wear herself and designs accordingly.  Her clients tend to be middle class women over the age of thirty but her creations are for all ages, including children,  and can be adapted to suit all ages. She does not design for mass consumption, her creations are all in limited editions.
Handpainted designs at Carmanita's atelier, Jakarta

It was indeed very forward of Dewi to have a mature model on its cover, the only other recent cover with a senior model I can think of was Imam for  Vanity Fair, Italian edition, August issue.

Imam on the cover of Vanity Fair Italy
There is a short 'behind the scenes' film on Youtube,  with an interview with Sarita. It is in Indonesian, naturally, but even without knowing the language the images convey the message of an elegant, glamorous woman with great personal style and commitment.
In the UK the September issue of Hunger magazine carried a spread with 'golden age models' wearing Prada, - so honoured to have been included - thus  there is a sort of synchronicity here.
I came to Indonesia believing that here fashion only addressed  the very young. I was very wrong.
It is so refreshing to find that 'agelessness' in the sense of ageless elegance,  and mature beauty are also celebrated.
The Jakarta Post, an English language newspaper with a Sunday supplement, carried an article by Willy Wilson a couple of weeks ago in which Iris Apfel, Madonna and Sarita Thaib are discussed in connection with the idea of an age appropriate fashion. Wilson thinks that 'age appropriate'  is not quite the way to describe the personal style of these older women who make a statement through what they wear.
They are all very different, of course. Sarita Thaib, for example, would not choose to wear what Madonna -  the face of Versace, at age 56 - does. But then Madonna is in showbiz and has always been known for being irreverent.
Sarita Thaib has started her own line of pret à porter clothing, very elegant, somewhat 'androgynous'  - her words - and not aimed at any particular age group.
With the recent inclusion at LFW of older models on the catwalk - both of them from Grey, we can thus see that fashion is finally acknowledging its older consumers.

Friday, 2 October 2015

From Jakarta #3

Photographer: Irene Barlian
Meet Irene Barlian, a young female photographer based in Jakarta. Her passion is documentary and travel photography and she has already won serious competitions.  Her work is being exhibited internationally. She is also a fashion photographer and takes on commercial work, especially food photography.
She was born in the same year I first came to Indonesia, 1989, and I really like this coincidence.
Irene and I will be working together on a shoot, and I cannot wait for it to happen and for the images.
Meanwhile please see her photography on her websites, she really does have very interesting and somewhat unusual images.
Talking with Irene over lunch  I got to know about a number of issues concerning photographers and also the fashion world here in Indonesia. Young artists like Irene have to struggle for sponsorship - as indeed is the case elsewhere. Apart from photographing, Irene does her own PR and management, hunting for commissions, which is time consuming.

Photographer: Irene Barlian
We talked about fashion and the insecurities engendered by having designers preferring non-Indonesian models to showcase their work in order to be  of international standard. 'Indonesian women' says Irene 'have different bodies, so to see ourselves represented by women built differently from us can make us feel somewhat uneasy about our looks'. It is also the case that diversity of age and ethnicity - Indonesia is made up of different ethnicities - is not truly represented. 'But we know it is a fiction [meaning fashion]' she says, 'and we can take it in our stride'  even though the clothes are ultimately for Indonesian consumers.
Irene also mentioned how so much travel photography about Indonesia is by European and American male photographers. It does reflect a different viewpoint, and  she is trying to redress the balance through her own work.
From Irene I learnt to look at shopping malls as places to socialise and walk around. In a city like Jakarta where walking  is not really possible, malls are a place to go to, just as in London, Paris or New York one would go for a walk in a fashionable district, window shopping. 'Malls are places where you can meet friends, window shop, use wifi and recharge your phone, if necessary' says Irene. 'I photograph people in malls, it's a version of street photography'. Indeed.
I will be meeting designers next week. We are approaching Jakarta Fashion Week, which will take place from 24th to 30th October. I look forward to  more encounters in my effort to gain an understanding of fashion in Asia.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Harassed by a stalker

I do have an urgent  request for help in connection with this blog. I have a stalker who is harassing me with  inane and abusive comments. He usually pours his own life story in such comments revealing a very twisted mind with very despicable views of people in general. He is uncouth. I know this person,  he lives in the UK. A very pompous man, full of himself, and full of hatred, envy and jealousy of others. In the past he has issued death threats not only to me but to other people too, he was prevented from using the internet for a while but he is now back. I cannot report him to the British police from this end, I am in a different country - though I will fill in online forms to that effect. Harassment is a crime.
 I did get the police involved in the past, so did my son, who was also harassed and threatened by this individual.  It is most unfortunate that this tiresome man knows my home address. I will have to  make sure he cannot come near my home by applying for a court order when I return to UK.
As for now since he clearly cannot come to Indonesia - I doubt he would even be allowed to travel with his background, he'd probably pose a security threat with his extreme and offensive views - I can only block him and mark his comments as spam - Google will take notice of this, apparently this is the way to do it. However, if you know how else I can deal with this, please get in touch.
It is really annoying that Blogger does not allow blocking - of course this man is blocked from Twitter, Facebook and Google + and any other social platform I can think of and where I have a presence. It seems - I am investigating - that Wordpress allows blocking so I am considering moving to Wordpress, but only as a last measure.
All comments to my posts are moderated and have to be sent to a specified email address. I have made sure that his comments go directly into a spam folder.
So this individual  is basically wasting his time, as his comments will not be seen by anyone ever, nor will they now be read by me. Nevertheless, they are being collected in the spam folder and when I return to the UK they will be given to the police, two months is not too long a time to wait. As this is not the first time this individual  has engaged in harassing  behaviour hopefully he will be at the very least cautioned once again and will not be allowed to use the internet - which was what happened two or three years ago.  Everytime you get a caution for the same crime you risk being arrested if you break the terms of your caution and this is what this man is going to get, I will make sure of it.
As I said, if you, my readers,  have other suggestions please feel free to send them to me. Please note that as from today I no longer accept anonymous comments.
On a different note,  I am getting used to being here in Jakarta. My language skills are improving, it's odd with languages  one does not use for a while, I find myself remembering words I did not even realise I knew, they just come back to me. Sometimes, quite often actually, I do struggle to find the right word, but it's part of the learning process.
I now beat the traffic jams by walking, unless it is a long distance from where I live. I carry my nice shoes in a bag and wear flats when negotiating the road and the traffic. I have also discovered the smaIl scooters, or bajaj.  I always feel covered in dust, however, even  though I shower as many times as I can, and  I am very concerned about protecting my hair, I have ordered a special shampoo and conditioner without sulphates from Australia, am eagerly awaiting the parcel. There is nothing here for silver hair and most products do contain sulphates, which I try to avoid.
I am learning very interesting things about the fashion industry in Asia - the interconnections with Korea, whom Indonesians look up to,  and Japan, the franchises, identity issues brought about by the end of the former military regime, the changing beauty standards, the influx of caucasian  models to ensure 'international standards' and so on and so forth. It is too soon to draw conclusions, I am still exploring and hearing different viewpoints, but slowly a picture is emerging. Will write more about it in due course.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

From Jakarta #2

Photo: Model: me

Now that I have been here in Jakarta for over a week the word expat  has been used quite a few times  with reference to me. Sure,  I am not a tourist  here  - Jakarta would be a strange tourist destination anyway, people pass through it but are usually keen to get out of here as quickly as possible. However, the area where I now live, Kemang, is full of expats, with shops that reflect this demographic, fancy supermarkets that sell pricey goods, including pork meat and Australian wine.
'Expatriate' denotes someone who does not live in his native country.  I have been an expatriate for decades, ever since I moved to London from my native Italy. But somehow the 'expat' label has never been used with reference to me in England. I guess in England expat is more generally understood  to mean someone not from the EU. People from  the latter are  known as  migrants if moving from one EU country to another, though in more recent times many people have begun to confuse migrants with refugees and refugees with migrants. But that's another story.
I am not new to Indonesia, this is the sixth or seventh time I have come here. Let me immediately clarify, in case you believe that my remarks about Jakarta apply to the country as a whole,  that Indonesia  is an incredibly beautiful country, with a rich and diverse culture and I have fond memories of Sumatra, Bali, Lombok and West and East Java, not to mention the beautiful Yogyakarta in Central Java. It is only Jakarta that is definitely not beautiful largely because  of the traffic and pollution and the incredible rate at which it grows.  I will say it upfront that have never liked Jakarta, always avoided it if I could help it, so coming back to Indonesia to stay here, of all places,  requires a lot of grinning and bearing. But Jakarta is the major fashion centre of the country, it is the capital of Indonesia and I had to be based here if I wanted to work on my project.

Jakarta traffic
People are very polite over here, but during rush hours tempers can be somewhat frayed. It can get tricky. I have experienced a surprising outburst from a taxi driver because I did not warn him in time that he had to take a particular turn and we went past the street I wanted and then we got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam that just did not move.  He could not turn back and eventually had to get into a maze of backstreets to take me to my destination.  He did not like it a bit and I know enough Indonesian to catch his swearing and his abruptness did not go amiss. Sure, it was my mistake, but when you think about it, it 's not that he was giving me a ride in his car out of the goodness of his heart, I was  paying for it, including waiting time. But as I said, things can get tricky during rush hours. I also tipped him enough to bring a smile on his face.
A good friend who now lives in Thailand and knows Jakarta rather well suggested  I should go and visit the old Jakarta port of Sunda Kelapa. For the record there are interesting things to see in this city, it's not just malls and busy roads. But the heat is quite overwhelming at the moment, for me anyway,  and the thought of braving the endless traffic jams does not appeal  at all.  I will, however, make an effort. I have been already here for several days  and have not even once used my  camera, only my iPhone camera, and that is so very unlike me.
 Yesterday I resolved to walk around my area, learning how to cross the main road when hundreds of motorbikes and cars seem to be coming at you  non-stop and  no traffic lights or zebra crossings can be spotted anywhere - it requires some confidence, basically you just start crossing very boldly signalling to everyone to let you go. It works, people do stop.
 I discovered two dance studios within walking distance from my new home, one of which teaches RAD ballet, so with some trepidation, fearing I would be the only adult surrounded by many cute little girls in pink tutus, I walked in and asked whether I could take a trial class.  The man at reception said  'bisa' meaning it was OK for me to join. So I did. I found myself in an intermediate ballet class with young women  preparing for some  Grade exam. They were learning steps from Raymonda - after the barre and stretches (splits etc). I nearly fainted, I am just an amateur and am still struggling with basic technique. Oh it was extremely tough to be among them, but it was truly, truly enjoyable. Afterwards I negotiated some private lessons with the teacher, to catch up on technique (my pirouettes are wobbly and pas de chats are, ahem, not light enough).
I am mentioning my ballet experience because, unbeknownst to most people, who only seem to be aware of ballet in China, Japan and Korea,  Jakarta has a very strong tradition of ballet learning  that goes back to the time of the Dutch. Standards are very, very high. I was later told that the Kemang Dance Center where I have enrolled is one of the very best in town. And it is so nice to be in a ballet class where regardless of the language, the steps are known by their French name, so a plié is a plié everywhere in the world.

Kemang Dance Center

Ok enough personal stuff. Let me tell you a little about what I am actually doing here, as it is clear by now I am not holidaying.
I am working, as mentioned, on a project about fashion. I have begun to contact all the people I need to interview. I plan to attend Jakarta Fashion Week which will take place next month and aim to interview a wide range of people involved in the fashion industry, before and after JFW, including bloggers.
Why so? For quite some time, ever since I began my involvement in fashion as a model but also as a writer and commentator,  I have been intrigued by how fashion impacts women of all ages globally and how, through media and advertising,  it is linked with issues of body image and issues of  representation. This impact  has been debated and contested widely, but  the discussion is only ever about the more affluent countries of the western world.
 Fashion in Asia is a major industry whose  influence is growing so perhaps it's time to discuss fashion and its related issues in relation to Asian women too, what it means to them and to note what they bring to the table.  I am also very interested in the challenges of ageing in Indonesia. It will help me to put in perspective the 'going gray' movement as we know it from affluent first world countries.
I decided to begin my research in Indonesia only because I know this country slightly  better than other Asian countries and this prior knowledge of the context is helpful, when  beginning  a project which I suspect will keep me busy for quite a time.
I guess I could have stayed home and feel comforted by the seeming openness of the fashion and beauty industry to older women, which I view with some scepticism, as to me it remains hugely tokenistic, despite everything,  as I discussed in my Guardian article about being a mature model. But I could not help myself wondering whether this is a fundamentally euro-centric discourse. So here I am.  I know I am going to be challenged over the next  three months but this is why I came. I like being challenged (and who knows, I might pick up a few steps from Raymonda in the process, since the teacher said I was most welcome to be in the Saturday morning class!)
Look out for my next post where I will begin to talk more in depth about the project.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

From Jakarta #1

First of all, congratulations to my fellow models at Grey Model Agency, Annabel  and  Frances who have walked for London based Chinese designer Youija Jin at LWF 2015. This is a great achievement for mature models and a real change in the representation and perception of older women. I applaud Youija for her foresight.
I am also absolutely delighted to share with Frances the honour of being in Hunger issue 9, in a Prada spread, 'with a host of golden age models'. The magazine was out on 17th September.

Behind the scenes @ Hunger. Model: me
I am in Jakarta now working on a fashion project as a fashion commentator, leaving to one side, for the time being, my model persona (I do mind this a lot, I doubt it I will have any opportunity to model here) and am really keen to meet people and discuss issues related to fashion design and body image.
I have only been here four days and the first two were taken up with tedious luggage searches and a long wait for my suitcase. I have got my luggage all right, sorted out various practicalities, got myself a smartphone and SIM card for my local calls, so now I can focus on the purpose of my visit.
On Friday evening I went to the annual party of for whom I had previously written. It was great to meet these very interesting women who are trying to challenge preconceived notions of femininity and are doing an amazing job on a shoestring budget.
I am still acclimatising. Not only is it hot - it has not rained for five months - but Jakarta is quite polluted and the traffic is unbelievable. It takes forever to get anywhere. I use taxis (like everyone else) and even Uber.  A simple trip to the nearest shopping centre can turn into a long wait in a traffic jam. This is not a city where you can walk, in many areas pavements are almost non existent and public transport not too good. I would find it hard to get into one of the very crowded busses.
The shopping malls are pretty incredible, there's so many of them, it seems that the best way to pass the time for people in Jakarta is to go shopping, window shopping or actual shopping. The malls are filled with the usual western brands, some of them are high end labels but also high street names like New Look, Top Shop and Debenhams, with prices that are pretty much the same as in the UK (and goods that are probably made in Indonesia, where labour is cheaper, but labelled New Look etc. etc.). I don't normally shop at New Look but one of my problems is that my feet are size 7. I saw some lovely shoes in a few shops stocking  local brands but Indonesian women tend to be petite, with feet to match. Only New Look seems to have shoes size 7 so I had to get a pair from there - I did not bring enough shoes from London and I needed some heels.
I went to the well known annual pop up market Brightspot market in the  Senayan City complex and  the work of a couple of designers caught my eye. Brightspot market is where emerging independent labels can be found, selling directly to the public.
As I walked around (when I could walk) I seemed to be the only woman with grey hair.  I went to a party at the Dutch Embassy and all the European ladies had coloured hair. Indonesian women of about my age who do not cover their head with a hijab, definitely colour their hair, which I believe tends to be less prone to greying than the hair of Caucasian women but it is so difficult to tell the age of the women I meet. I often look at men to compare because by and large they do not colour their hair (well I believe they do not) and I see that many middle aged men do not have grey hair at all, not noticeably so, thus it must be a genetic thing.
As a result I really do look very weird, sticking out like a sore thumb. I often get stared at especially since I have the habit of leaving my hair fully down - I like drying it naturally and I wash it everyday. Some people think it is a kind of white/blonde colour, a dye in other words. How bizarre!

Textile Museum , Jakarta
Yesterday I was at the textile museum with a former student of mine who told me that they recently had a fashion show in connection with the exhibition - a show the naturally I missed, bad timing indeed. The textiles were magnificent, the display not so good - very few labels and at times I really did not know what I was looking at.
I will keep on updating this blog with news from my Indonesian 'adventure'. As soon as I get my passport back - now with the Immigration office for stamping - I will try to travel to Thailand and Vietnam. Might as well.  Jakarta is not so far from mainland Southeast Asia, I have visited Indonesia before but not the Southeast Asian mainland and am very curious to see it, especially Vietnam which I do not know at all.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Packing rituals and lost luggage

Etihad crew. Uniforms designed by Ettore Bilotta

Perhaps because  I will be away for some weeks, spending most of the autumn in Jakarta as a Research Fellow at the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, Jakarta Office, then travelling a bit within the Southeast Asian region ( if I can manage it) - more about it in future posts -  I spent the weekend catching up with some TV. Well, I was also busy packing, so having the TV on in catch up mode gave me the necessary background noise which aids my concentration for the extremely difficult job that is packing.
We all have packing rituals and mine are as complex as anyone else's.  Depending on the length of my trip, packing is staggered over the night before departure (short trips, obviously) or a week, sometimes even a fortnight, for trips longer than eight weeks, and consists of throwing everything that comes to mind into the chosen suitcase, which I always place in the hallway fully open so that it cannot be ignored (and people can suitably trip over it en route to the bathroom and begin their not-so-silent swearing), and then a day before departure taking everything out and ruthlessly putting to one side what I believe I can buy locally or  do not need  at all. It works.You just have to be quick and throw an item into the suitcase or bag as soon as it comes to mind - or it will be forgotten. I have been known to suddenly get out of bed at 4 am because I have remembered something that has to be packed.
As I will be  based in Jakarta for the next 10 weeks or so, so my packing was a long drawn affair, putting everything in there which I will need straightaway. I am here to acquaint myself with the world of fashion in Southeast Asia, so my packing was very careful indeed.
But of course there is nothing more annoying than landing after a long haul flight and discovering that your suitcase has been left behind at the last airport where you transited. Which is exactly what happened to me.
I flew Etihad and everything seemed to be smooth, I was early, boarded my flight on time and things started going wrong because we were not allowed to take off, had to wait for nearly an hour, the runway was not available. We got to Abu Dhabi and I had forty minutes to get to the gate, the electronic board showed my flight to Jakarta with a flashing light, last boarding call. I got through security again, begging everyone to let me go first and I got there just before the gate closed. But my luggage did not make it.
Soekarno Hatta Airport, Jakarta
So there I was at Jakarta airport, with just my laptop and a few bits and pieces in my hand luggage but my carefully packed suitcase was nowhere to be found. Finally I got it traced and while waiting for the paperwork to be completed, a fellow traveller  next to me  told me his incredible story of suitcases swapped and three weeks spent in Indonesia basically chasing his luggage. Three weeks! I nearly fainted. The woman that was dealing with me went out of her way to reassure me that the luggage had been found in Abu Dhabi, it would get to Jakarta with the 11.30 pm flight - it was 4 pm. Really,  all I could do was get a taxi to where I am staying, hoping and praying the suitcase would be delivered. I left at 4.30 pm, and at 7 pm I was 'home'. Nothing like Jakarta to make you realise that rush hour traffic in London is absolutely nothing, compared to the congestion and pollution that is the norm here and the long, long waits.
However,  the saga has not ended. It is over 24 hours since I landed and my suitcase has not yet been delivered. It is now with a driver and I have been waiting since 7 am  - it's 8.00 pm now local time.
I suppose I just need to look at the bright side. There are some positives: 1) I can get compensation as it has been over 12 hours and my insurance will pay up, provided I put in a claim within the specified time 2)  the suitcase has not been irretrievably lost  (at least I hope) 3) I have managed to get a few bits and pieces at the local shopping mall (shopping malls, now that deserves a full post) to get me going.
And I guess it is a good introduction to local culture, where everything is always happening 'soon, in the next couple of hours' and no one is ever willing to say no to your face - has the driver left, I kept on asking, suggesting that if he had not I could get the suitcase myself. He has just left, head office would reply, and obviously the driver had not or had gone on another delivery (there is plenty of people waiting for missing luggage) but somehow me going to pick up the suitcase myself was not a desirable course of action. I had to wait for the van. I suppose I have to get used to this.
 I just hope I can get my suitcase before tomorrow, I badly need my clothes and my personal effects.
From tomorrow and for the whole of next week it will be a round of offices and red tape and I need to be formally dressed.  - I am not exactly looking forward to it.
Meanwhile, salamat malam.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Monuments the past and non-places

Palmyra. Temple of Bel. Photo: Reuters

A conversation with an acquaintance re the sad state of affairs in Syria  gave me food for thought. I was bemoaning the fact that the ancient city of Palmyra seems to have been destroyed and looted. He said that what really mattered were the people of Syria who needed immediate rescue, not the monuments. People first.
Of course, people first, there is no doubt about that. But monuments do matter. The whole incident made me reflect on the importance of realising, more generally,  that investing in the upkeep of historic monuments is not a waste of time and money.
There is nothing like the recent destruction of ancient sites perpetrated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq  to make one aware that their loss is a loss for the whole of humankind, not just the Syrians and the Iraqis.
Of course what ISIS is doing is not remotely new. They are destroying but also  looting to get money to fund their so-called revolution. Earlier it was the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in Cambodia the Khmer Rouges, who did exactly the same.

Grenada. Alhambra. Photo by me (I also take pictures!)

We can also think of many other instances in history when rival factions would destroy and appropriate. The Catholic Spanish did it to the Moors of Andalusia and went about systematically demolishing mosques and palaces, turning them into churches and, of course,  plundering treasures.
In saying this, I am not trying to justify ISIS in any way. What they are doing is so unpalatable, so disgusting, it seems unthinkable that in the 21st century people should go back to practices that everyone acknowledges as being so fundamentally wrong.
I certainly agree with my friend that as now in Syria so many people are dying, doing something to protect their lives and well being is a first priority, the monuments will have to wait for better and calmer times. People over things, for sure. Linked with this is the refugee crisis in Europe, a huge problem about which  something must be done, to help these wretched people fleeing the horrors of their countries, torn apart by civil war.
But my friend's dismissal of the 'monuments' was hard to take in. Am I an incurable romantic? Am I being callous and disrespectful to people whose lives are in danger when I feel sorry for the monuments' destruction?

The mezquita at Cordoba, half church , half mosque. Photo by me

Let's think for a moment about monuments in general, these relics from a distant past that are part of the cultural heritage of every country.
How many people really care for 'monuments'? How many people really take time to think about them and what they stand for, beyond rhetoric?
In the best of scenarios archaeological monuments are cared about, routinely restored, kept under surveillance as they are regarded primarily as a source of revenue linked with tourism. Monuments are protected, sure. But what do people really make of them?
The Romantic poets from Goethe to Shelley and Byron invoked contemplation of ruins as part of their aesthetic vision. Thus there is an affinity between what French anthropologist Marc Augé says about ruins (see below) and the Romantic sensibility, but there is also a fundamental difference. Augé does not propose a contemplation of the grandeur of the past in a 'place of memory' but a contemplation of a non-place. For Augé a non-place is a place of transience, the 'supermodern' place, exemplified by parking lots, hospitals, airports and so on. In his definition a non-place is not  “relational, or historical, or concerned with identity". Surely this is not applicable to monuments which seem to be historical and tied to identity?  No, actually these associations are also transient and do change with time. Paradoxically, monuments are non-places. 

Cordoba, the mezquita. Photo by me

 Augé wrote in his book Le Temps en ruines (Time in Ruins), 2003:
 “To contemplate ruins makes you fleetingly aware of the existence of a time which is not the time in history books, nor the time that restoration attempts to bring back to life. It is a sheer time, unlocatable, absent from our world of images, simulacra, and reconstitutions, from our violent world whose debris can no longer afford the time to become ruins. A lost time which only art can retrieve.”
And that, for me,  is their beauty and value. We need our monuments, we need those non-places of contemplation.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Modelling schools: an investment or a waste of time?

J. Walk by ShowStudio: Naomi Campbell famous walk as taught by J. Alexander

In an interview with Nick Knight, supermodel Lily Cole said that modelling was not a skill that could be taught, that the learning was done intuitively. No one can teach you how to model, you learn how to do it as you go along (but still learn 'how to do' something i.e. modelling ). She did however concede that catwalk walking can be taught. I am sure J. Alexander aka Miss J. will be relieved to have his coaching skills recognised by Cole.
With all due respect, I do find myself in disagreement with Ms Cole's opinions. I believe she is a most wonderful model and a very cultured woman, but occasionally I wonder why she says what she does, like when she calls Terry Richardson 'a sweetheart'. No doubt the Model Alliance is not happy with calling a man, alleged to be a rapist, 'a sweetheart'.
But today's post is not about either Richardson, nor Cole, for that matter.

Collage of photo by Elisabeth Anker Jacobsen Model: me

 I do find it difficult to believe that an accomplished model is certain that modelling is not about  taught skills. I do have some serious doubts about this and I also think that maintaining that  models are 'unskilled' people who learn intuitively, contributes on one hand to the mystique of modelling and on the other, it devalues it.
You are not born a model, you become one. You learn to walk - J. Alexander famously taught Naomi Campbell and a bunch of other supermodels  how to negotiate the runway. For Ms Cole it was enough to have the older models, rounded up by her agency, showing the younger ones what to do  before walking for LFW - yet it was a teaching of sort. It shows that in fact  not much time and effort is invested in new models,  they are often expected to be on the ball and know what to do, when in fact most young models do not have a clue.
Models in the second decade of the 21st century have to be able to negotiate different things and need to have  a whole bunch of skills which are definitely better acquired through someone teaching them and sharing their experience, rather than being developed intuitively.
Clients often expect models to double up as actors, to be able to speak on camera, and casting directors cast their net wide and consider for jobs people not only on the basis of their looks but on the basis of their personality and how accomplished they are.
Hence the question: should we rethink modelling schools?
Modelling schools have been around for a longtime, at one time they were a pre-requisite to becoming a model. Then they became superfluous, as the fate of the famous Lucie Clayton Charm Academy  is evidence of.
A modelling school cannot guarantee that all the students enrolled will be models, nevertheless it does teach some essential skills which many would be models and already practising models would find invaluable. A modelling school updated for the 21st century, in other words, would be an asset. Of course the problem is that many modelling schools are not serious at all and they are there only to take money, they hardly deliver anything. Quality is important and there should be a way of monitoring their standards.
Whereas this might indeed be a problem, it  does not mean that the idea of a modelling school is wrong, only that there have been and there are abuses.
J. Alexander was a model who knew how to teach others and became recognised as a catwalk coach. He did not learn his craft at any school but was able to become really good at it and then able to pass it on. People like J. Alexander are quite exceptional. Yet there is no question that learning the  skills that J. Alexander taught helped many a model to improve her performance.

Anita de Bauch by Julian Kilsby
Anita de Bauch is an independent model (i.e. not agency represented) who has written a guide to modelling which is of great help to all models, whether agency represented or not. In other words, there's a whole set of skills that models are expected to have which are definitely learnt, other by being taught directly or by reading guides such as the one written by Anita. Another way to learn very precious skills is to be mentored by an established and successful model - yet often agencies do not have time to provide that for their newer recruits.
A model is a performer of sort and modelling a profession which ,like many others, requires up to date skills.
So let's reconsider modelling schools.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Dance, fashion and shoes: fetish and discipline

My copy of the book

I finally got today my copy of Dance and Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele (2013). It's a hardback - the photos are so beautiful I just had to have the hardback. I love the opening of Valerie Steele's introductory essay: "Dance and fashion are the two great embodied art forms". Indeed they are.

That fashion and dance should have so many intersections seems a rather obvious thing to say -  costumes are an integral part of a dance performance. Yet I am aware that many dance lovers disregard what the dancer wears as being 'extraneous' to the performance, just as many fashion lovers do not really focus on the body as a wearing body, despite there being an overload of views and discussions related to body shape and body size. The point I am trying to make here is that the 'wearing body' cannot be reduced to size and shape alone, movement is also part of the equation.

The intersections between dance and fashion are numerous. Apart from the tradition of fashion designers creating costumes for dance performance - a tradition because of its long history - there is the great influence that dance as an art form has had on designers as well as the fact that a fashion show is performance, just as dance is, something that was so clearly brought out in the context of  the recent Alexander McQueen's exhibition at the V&A.  The strong performative quality of the models' bodies  as they were wearing McQueen's clothes  which  I saw in the looped video films in the Cabinet of Curiosities as well as McQueen's incredible talent for creating a full fledged performance through his catwalk shows  held me spellbound.

I will mention this in passing,  it is also on topic. When talking of dance and fashion we need to consider that there is a special kind of fashion, to do with dance practice wear. Go to any dance class and you will see a variety of leg warmers, leotards, tights, special jumpers to keep the dancer's muscles warm as they begin class and proceed to warm up. They are easily removable and not too thick, yet effective in the protection they give.

 Some leotards emphasise the lines of the body and provide some gentle support - just have a look at brands such as Sweaty Betty, Pineapple, Balletto Body and more. Several of my fellow 'sleekers' wear such delightful numbers during practice, I am a bit lax about it and often make do with some yoga leggings and a tight fitting top. I wonder whether I am still, at some level, somewhat self conscious about my body? I really can't explain this reluctance to wear better outfits, more aesthetically pleasing.

Back to the dance/fashion intersections.  The one that fascinates me is with shoes. Right now there is an exhibition about shoes at the V&A - one of a handful of museums to take fashion seriously - which I plan to go to soon enough.

An  essay in Steele's volume, by Coleen Hill, is about ballet shoes, aptly entitled "Ballet shoes. Function, fashion and fetish". Ah, the pointe shoes! they are emblematic of classical ballet and the relationship of the ballerina to her pointe shoes - male dancers do not wear them - is intensely personal, and the handling of the shoes almost ritualistic. Custom made - at least for professionals - good quality pointe shoes are an essential item for a ballerina's performance.

There are revered brands with a long history of making ballet shoes eg Capezio and Freed but since the 1990s a new ballet shoemaker, Gaynor Minden, has come to prominence.  Minden constructs ballet shoes using different methods and a technology that is akin to that employed for athletic shoes.

The ballet shoe entered fashion and was embraced by non-dancers  as 'the flat', sometimes complete with ribbons. Brigitte Bardot who had trained as a ballet dancer for many years, famously wore a red pair of so-called cendrillons, custom made for her,  in Et Dieu Creat la Femme. 

Flats are an enduring fashion item, especially in summer. They are regarded to be extremely comfortable wear (as opposed to high heels) but they can be quite hard on the foot if one does not walk transferring the weight immediately from the heel to  the ball of the foot when hitting  the ground , rather than striking the heel somewhat forcefully on the ground, as many people tend to do.

 My real passion are the fetish ballet boots and the high heel variants on the ballet pointe shoe, such as McQueen's famous armadillo boots. I unashamedly love high heels, I have often worn heels  at home,  especially if the shoes are new and need breaking in. It takes practice to walk confidently in high heels without bending your knees,  holding your balance,  and not   leaning back,  as I once saw the models do at a catwalk show. I was aghast. Those stunning girls badly needed  catwalk training, I thought. It detracted tremendously from the clothes. Like spotting a dancer in the corps not doing her routine bang on time!
And isn't she beautiful? Grey haired and wearing ballet boots! She is probably wearing a wig but...I love the link between grey hair and fetish!

 The link between ballet and fetish is very apparent if one thinks of the corset, something that Steele points out in her book Fetish , Fashion and Sex, and  which Hill cites. "Like corsetry ballet is about strength and grace".  So says Lauren, a fetish enthusiast interviewed by Steele.

 I have modelled fetish fashion, worn fetish ballet boots - I could not walk in them but then they were a size smaller than mine -  have been shot in corsetry and have had experience of ballet, through class attendance. I can definitely see the link. I am also aware that fetish gear is about disciplining the body and so is ballet.

Corsets. Photographer: Vanessa Mills. Model: me

I will take this up in another post. Meanwhile if you can,  please get hold of Steele's book. It is a genuine recommendation, I am not being sponsored to say so, unlike other bloggers when they endorse products!

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Regal enough

Model: me. iPhone photo

A few years ago while on a job as a supporting artist (I have really tried my hand at everything) I did a scene in a film where I had to be a guest at a wake. I was part of a group of women of different ages and we were all dressed in very formal clothes. We did not have lines to speak but we had to look quite solemn, as one does at wakes and funerals.
 My hair, at the time not as long as it is now, had been styled in a high French pleat. I wore pearl earrings - my own - and a well cut dark grey suit, with a white blouse. When I looked at myself in the mirror I thought my outfit seemed rather corporate and remarked that I felt as if I were about to attend a board meeting, was it the right look? The stylist to whom I had addressed the question was busy fixing hats onto the other ladies, but heard me. She glanced at me and said that I looked just fine. I asked whether she had a hat for me too, as I had not seen any together with the accessories that had been put to one side for my use. She replied, with a hint of impatience, 'No, you look' she paused searching for the right word 'regal enough. This is the look for you, with no hat'.  
The answer stopped me in my tracks. I thought better than questioning her further, I could see for myself she was busy and, most importantly, that I had crossed a line. 'Of course' I said and moved away. 
That day I learnt an important lesson about professional boundaries. One should not question, on a job, a stylist's careful choice (or a make up artist's for that matter). Only the director can. 

I also learnt something else. It was the 'regal' bit of the stylist's sentence that gave me food for thought. In that context, it was not meant in a complimentary way at all. Yet I could not fail to admire the adroitness with which she had managed to shut me up. And that word, regal, has haunted me ever since. 
What does it mean to be regal? Let's see. Regal  means befitting a king or a queen. It is not the same as being royal,  one does not need to be a member of a royal family to be regal. Yet though everyone can be regal, only very few succeed.  Being regal is to do with being noble, dignified and elegant in character, not only in appearance. 
There is an anonymous  quote going round the web, a meme, often appearing on Facebook, on Twitter  or in blogs. You can even buy postcards with it, coasters and T-shirts. It says "Always wear your invisible crown" (paired with the more tongue in cheek "Queen of awesomeness"). It sounds daft but think about it. Imagine feeling the weight of a crown on your head. You would begin to move differently, your posture would change and that would affect your behaviour and the way you come across to others. It is also about confidence, feeling confident about yourself in any situation, reminding yourself that YOU are a queen (or a king), so stop beating yourself up for this or that reason. 
Being regal is ultimately about seeing yourself as worthy and believing in yourself, your abilities and your uniqueness. 
And, last but not least,  you can get rid of people that are being petulant and bothersome within seconds if you tell them they look regal enough. Just like the stylist did with me.