Saturday, 12 December 2015

From Jakarta #12 - Going Home

Museum of Fine Arts, HCMC: Buddha (replica)
Everything has to end and I have come to the last days of my stay. Yesterday I got my Exit Permit from the Immigration Department and the finality of it struck me, as I read the stamp giving me six days only to leave the country. I will be leaving on 14th night, 15th technically speaking as mine is a midnight flight, so in less then six days.

The stamp on my passport

It has been an intense three months. I was based in Jakarta most of the time and I would be lying if I described this city as glamorous. It certainly has beautiful spots, the people that live here are wonderful, it is a dynamic city but...the traffic jams are too much for me, it took me a couple of weeks to adjust  and there have been moments,  whilst sitting in my uber car, stuck in a very slow moving column of vehicles, surrounded by hundreds of motorbikes, when I almost burst into tears, unable to bear it.  It's a miracle I have not got a flat bum just from sitting in a car all day long - I made sure to continue my exercise routine and not eat more than I needed.
But I have had wonderful breaks - in Yogya, in Bali - still dreaming of The Mejanggan - and then last week in Vietnam with which I am quite in love.

The Mejanggan
During my stay I suffered a family bereavement and this made me feel quite lonely at times, I longed to be with my own family, as I had to hide my loss and my true feelings from most people.
I have met many wonderful, talented, creative people who welcomed me and were willing to share their knowledge and experience. Indonesian fashion is surprisingly diverse, aimed at a cosmopolitan urban wearer and it eschews the fast fashion model, which feeds indiscriminate consumerism. A plus point indeed.
I attended many fashion shows, ranging from very high profile events such as Jakarta Fashion Week, to less formal affairs as the fashion event at Fashion First.
I even participated in photoshoots, thanks to my weird hair, and in a high profile fashion show as a model for IPMI designer Tri Handoko. I can't  say as it is usual that  I walked for him as his was a show with a difference, with models not walking at all but standing still to be photographed close range by the public. It was a very emotional performance, as Tri Handoko had lost his father while working on this new collection and the show encapsulated his feelings of loss.  It really deeply resonated with me, because of my own loss.

Tri Handoko's Mind Game, IPMI Trend Show 2016, Jakarta

Lots of plans for the future, so I know I will come back, despite the traffic jams, for shorter visits - I do not know exactly when but I know it will happen. Lots of ideas and a wonderful energy of new beginnings and of something big.
I also hope to go to Vietnam and visit it properly. I was only in Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City and liked it immensely, the rest of Vietnam is stunning, so I am told (but Vietnamese is a tough language!).
 I now feel very comfortable with my basic bahasa Indonesia and have had lots of conversation lessons from my uber drivers while waiting in line. I am not sure I would be able to pick up Vietnamese in a short time, but that's another story.  I  bought a lovely bag in Saigon, made by an ecologically aware designer - Vietnamese fashion will soon burst on the global scene, no doubt about it, to remind myself that fashion is what brought me to Southeast Asia. I would like to take something home.
I am taking a short break from blogging and will write after Christmas, from London. So I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy festive season.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

From Jakarta #11

Fitting going on at designer Tri Handoko's 

Only fifteen more days and I will be back home. The next couple of weeks are going to be quite full, with more fashion shows to attend and participate in, a short visit to Vietnam, getting my EPO to be able to leave the country, two photoshoots and of course the obligatory souvenir shopping.
I am going back just as everyone will be in a frenzy over Christmas and Christmas shopping. It will be cold too! But there is always pleasure in going home, even though Jakarta has been very interesting to explore and were it not for the traffic, a pleasant place to be. Being here has given me lots of insights and helped me to question things I took for granted.
Plans and projects are coming to maturation, ideas that are outdated are being discarded.
For example, an issue I have been thinking about is what we REALLY mean by sustainability and a sustainable fashion. Obviously sustainability concerns first and foremost ways of production, countering a model of fast fashion that is immensely destructive and in the long run, as far as fashion is concerned, self-destructive.
But implementing a sustainable fashion also means presenting a fashion that adopts a different image, that embraces real bodies, with clothes for real women and real men, rather than mannikins.
I think it is part of an overall vision.  Fashion truly needs an overhaul, of its economics but also its ideology.

Batik display at APA
In the last few days I have had the opportunity to meet more fashion designers whose work really struck me as being an alternative to the current model. One of them is Chitra Subyakto, owner of the label Sejauh Mata Memandang whose very poetic name translates 'as far as the eye can see'), whose mission is to give new life to batik making using old techniques for production of cloth which is not cut but draped most imaginatively in order to create each time a garment that is unique to the individual wearer. I loved the motif of the 'noodle bowl', the collection I saw at the exhibition on the top floor gallery at the APA space, Plaza Indonesia, a new pop up space for art, music and film. Chitra's collection is art. Beautifully captured in images by Davy Linggar, possibly the best among Indonesian photographers of the moment, the very presentation was very far removed from the usual catwalk show with blank faced girls marching down the runway on high platform shoes.
I was introduced to Chitra's work by Auguste Soesastro whom I visited again together with photographer Nita Strudwick, this time to source clothes for a forthcoming shoot -I did a very successful one with Nita already, at 2Madison, an interior design gallery in Kemang, south Jakarta. Auguste's great grandmother was a famous batik maker, in Pekalongan - read about the renowned batik of this city in this article that appeared in the Jakarta Post.  
One of the main problems about cutting a batik piece, especially a vintage piece, is that a whole batik cloth tells a story and each detail is finely hand painted. It may take from one to two years to make a fine batik tulis.
Batik can of course be finely hand stitched, with stitching that can be removed - thus the integrity of the batik cloth can be preserved.  Could a silhouette be achieved through draping and stitching, without cutting? It is an interesting question, one which can give rise to a range of creative responses.

At 2Madison with Dikdik

Non-Indonesian designers that work with Indonesian textiles may not have the same scruples when it comes to cutting for a more fitted look, yet the cutting has to have a logic and an aesthetic.
English designer Martha-Ellen currently works in Jakarta and her ready to wear label uses tenun ikat handwoven in Southern Bali to make pieces for 'real' women.  I visited her boutique whose board features London-born Indonesian/French actress Hanna Al Rashid wearing one of Martha-Ellen's designs. Why work with Indonesian textiles?
As she also explained in a published interview, her design philosophy is three fold: 1) to make the most of the motif or colour of the ikat; 2)  a different, or a creative way, of using the fabric; 3) silhouettes that would be most flattering to a range of body types and occasions.
She chose to work in Indonesia and with Indonesian textiles because Indonesia is an emerging market, it has a richness of textiles and craft traditions to be used for a different way of creating fashion and she is also interested in 'giving back' to local communities.
But Martha-Ellen would regard her aesthetics as being fundamentally English, even though she works with Indonesian textiles.

At 2Madison

As a non-English,  I am quite puzzled by this idea of English fashion aesthetics, and a little confused by it - Victoria Beckham, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood have all been said to possess an English aesthetics or may have themselves applied that descriptor when talking about their own designs.
Perhaps the concept needs further scrutiny?

Friday, 20 November 2015

From Jakarta #10

At the Menjangan 

 I am in Jakarta again after visiting Yogya and Bali. And though I was away from Jakarta for less than two weeks it was quite intense. In Yogya I met artistic people and local designers, stayed at a wonderful guest house, and enjoyed being in one of the most beautiful cities in Java. In Bali, I had a great weekend at The Menjangan, a resort right in the middle of the national park in the western part of the island. There, I did everything on the menu that appealed to me, namely trekking and horse riding and, of course, swimming. Sadly, snorkelling was not for me, I have an ear problem.
Then in Ubud, in central Bali, though I stayed at the historic hotel Tjampuhan, a charming place,  once the home of Walter Spies, I had mobile phone problems and spent much time trying to locate a Nokia Care Centre in Denpasar,  only to be disappointed (I own a Nokia Lumia 530). Being phone-less freaked me out, so I bought a Samsung.
Then in Seminyak I met Susanna Perini,  owner of the fashion house Biasa. Seminyak is extremely busy, not my ideal holiday resort, in fact I don't honestly know why people go there, it is all shops,  cars, and motorbikes.
But Susanna was a gracious hostess for the afternoon  and I learnt much from her about fashion in Bali and, more generally, Indonesia. Now an Indonesian by choice, Susanna hails from Rome and has  fashion and design in her blood, so to speak, as her mother had a fashion house in Rome in the 1960s and she grew up in that environment. She ended up in Bali twenty years ago and then began doing what she knew best ie designing. Her clothing line, Biasa, is sold in major resorts worldwide and she has now started an urban line, to complement her resort fashion. It's all beautiful linnen and cottons, very flattering to the figure, cool and elegant.

Biasa's collection 2015
Susanna is into the arts and has arranged several collaborations with artists and exhibitions at her gallery in Seminyak (north of Kuta). She travels a lot, to source materials, but the clothes are made at the factory in Denpasar, Bali, so hers is an Indonesian label, designed in Indonesia and made in in Indonesia. Fashion is a very complex business. Next time you shop look at the labels stuck on your clothes selection . Take Karen Millen, for example - I love Karen Millen's clothes and own a few . It is a British fashion house but the clothes are currently made in Rumania.
I went to Galeries Lafayette the other day, there is one branch in Jakarta - I often wonder who buys there, the prices are very high, but obviously there are several people who do shop at Galeries Lafayette or they would have closed down. I looked at the clothes by major international brands. They are designed by those brands but made in Morocco, Rumania, India, you name it. That's the garment manufacturing industry, international fashion labels could not survive without outsourcing.
It is a legal requirement that clothes labels should say where the clothes have been made. Today, for example, I had the weird experience of shopping at an Indonesian mall in southern Jakarta, buying a leather belt made in China for a Spanish brand, Stradivarius. Fashion is definitely global.
 I was quite intrigued by the fact Nokia had closed down most of its after sales care centres in various parts of Indonesia, following the handover to Windows in April 2014. Only one was still active, at the famous Roxy Mall, in West Jakarta, otherwise known as the mobile phone mall. I had to visit, I just had to,  and it was quite bewildering, shop after shop selling phones, some new, some used, and some shops just repair phones. Eventually I found what I was looking for, a new LCD for my Lumia phone. It was expensive but not as expensive as in the UK, so I bought it. Now I have three mobile phones! and no, I am not a drug dealer :)

Roxy Mas
Oh, I am walking for designer Tri Handoko's show on 1st December, very much looking forward to it.

Friday, 6 November 2015

From Jakarta #9

Auguste Soesastro's atelier in Jakarta

My ninth post from Jakarta, I am fast approaching my two months milestone. In no time I shall be ready to go back to London, but first I will be spending some time in Bali and then there is going to be a reunion in Bangkok with an old friend, if it all works out.
JFW is over and am trying to process the experience -  I saw a lot, learnt a lot. There were things I liked and things I did not like.  JFW was a window on the world of fashion in Indonesia, and by extension, Asia, the problems and challenges it faces, and it was also a showcase of the tremendous talent of the designers involved, as selected by the organisers, ranging from the more to the less established. I saw young fashion college graduates' work and that of very senior designers.
I spent the whole of last weekend reflecting on what I saw. Not in a conscious way,  I was digesting it.  To take my mind off things I watched some now old movies, Grace of Monaco with Nichole Kidman, whom I adore, and the 2008 screen version of Sex and the City. When the latter film  came out no one liked it much and people kept on comparing it to the TV series. Time improves one's perspective, and I can truthfully say the movie had its funny moments.
Then  I chanced upon the article written by Victoria Moss for InStyle UK, October issue, which I found in my suitcase, I bought it as inflight reading on my way to Jakarta and then forgot all about it  (there is also an Indonesian version of InStyle, by the way). The article was entitled 'What size is fashion? ' and it really made a lot of sense to me.
Moss talks about sizes, the reason why they tend to be small and thus thin models are required in order to wear sample sizes, as clothes are no longer fitted on a person. It's the case that the wearer's body has to fit the size, rather than the clothes fitting the body of their wearer.
Moss makes the very important point - here I quote her in full - that fashion "is a social mirror. What we see in fashion is a response to what happens in our culture. If there's a problem with the perception of body shapes, that's everyone's issue to solve, not just the fashion industry's. The sooner we accept and embrace all shapes and sizes and are more supportive of women who are proud of their shape and less 'OMG did you SEE her arse' then the fashion industry - which is a business after all - will sell us what we need".

Grey Model  Nicola Griffin in Anna Scholz, Anna Scholz' lookbook 2016

It follows that the 'standards' often invoked can be challenged and changed, as Anna Scholz has done with her plus-size range, recently modelled by Nicola Griffin.
Thus, to give another example, who says that the best way to present new collections is through catwalk after catwalk, with models looking vacantly ahead of them briefly posing for a pack of photographers in the photographers' pit, often looking  extremely tired and bored after going through countless shows? JFW is smaller than, say, LFW or NFW but even then it made me wonder whether these packed week-long shows are really the best possible way to showcase fashion and get the buyers' attention.
Talking  with committed designers such as Auguste Soesastro made me realise how desperately the industry needs changing and how difficult it can be for someone intent on making a change to bring it about.  With Auguste we talked about his beginnings, his training at the École de la chambre syndicale de la couture parisienne, his studies in architecture, his desire to create a  sustainable fashion and  his vision of clothes for women of today. Are his clothes for all women? Yes they are, they are for thinking women, his ideal wearers are  powerful, independent women. The clothes are made for real bodies and have movement and fluidity. They are not meant for any particular age group, but the classic structuring seems to appeal to stylish women over the age of thirty.

From Indonesia Fashion Week 2013

Who is your muse, I asked, who would you like to have your clothes worn by? Someone like Madame Lagarde, even though he has not yet had the pleasure of dressing her. Are his clothes specifically Indonesian? No, they can be worn by anyone, but yes, there is an Indonesian touch discernible in the fabric patterns, although it is not boldly stated.

Madame Lagarde, Photo:  Olivier Hoslet/EPA reblogged from The Guardian 

Later, in the showroom of another, very different designer, Ghea Panggabean, the queen of boho, who has been making  'clothes that tell a story' for the past 35 years and who has now diversified into designing for the home, I had to restrain myself from buying everything in sight (I so loved the cushion covers and the bags) by reminding myself of my 21 Kg luggage allowance.

Ghea Panggabean's bags

Many foreign brands are represented here in Jakarta but the same cannot be said of Indonesian brands abroad. Galeries Lafayette have an Indonesian branch, where some high fashion Indonesian designers are also represented, but the mother store in Paris has none of them, only the Antik Batik of Italian, naturalised French,  Gabriella Cortese, who has been inspired by her travels to Bali and elsewhere to create bohemian- chic. The 'made in Indonesia' label applies to Zara type of clothes and by most people outside Indonesia, Indonesian fashion is perceived as being of Zara quality (or any such high street brand). It could not be further from the truth. Auguste Soesastro's clothes, for example, are partly hand sewn, with stitching so perfect and so even, it is a feast for the eyes to see it.  Definitely not Zara quality  (FYI,  Zara is now making clothes in Morocco, not in Indonesia, but it sells here in Indonesia, in several malls).
The 'made in Indonesia' label has been problematic, as explained by Dian Kuswandini in his article for the JakartaGlobe.
But one has to be optimistic. Things can change, will change, are about to change.

(When not specified photos are my own)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

From Jakarta #8

Collage of images from JFW2016

Jakarta Fashion Week is not over yet, two more days to go, including the grand finale tomorrow but I have been thinking a lot about everything I saw and heard over the past few days and can't help writing about a few things that really struck me and which I have been mulling over.
First, there is the sheer diversity of approaches and philosophies of fashion on display. Whoever thinks that Indonesian fashion is all about 'modest fashion' is very wrong. Indonesia has the largest Muslim  population in the world, accounting for nearly 80% of the overall population of the country - figures vary depending on sources - but it is not an Islamic country. Muslim fashion from Indonesia may be well known in the Euro-American world thanks to  designers like the Sumatran Dian Pelangi, fresh from a residence at London College of Fashion, and with a recent show in New York under her belt.  But there is plenty of other fashion which does definitely not make use of hijabs. Nor does this mean that its creators, who may well be themselves Muslim (as I said Islam is the dominant religion in this country) are bad Muslims for not designing clothes that include a hijab!
A footnote here will not go amiss: I know that in the UK and elsewhere Muslim fashion  is known as 'modest fashion', a term that is very  loaded,  under its political correctness, but I am translating directly from the Indonesian term which is busana Muslim, that is, Muslim fashion.
I do not think the Indonesian busana Muslim is necessarily a strong religious identity marker as such: the more I see it, the more I perceive it as just a fashion, and only one of many trends. Thus I am wary of the way it is being construed outside Indonesia and it troubles me that it colours the perception of lifestyle in this country with just one hue. Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia. It has a richness of cultures (note the plural) and this is not only acknowledged and more or less respected by the Indonesians themselves, it is also important that people outside Indonesia should be aware of this diversity.
There is nothing like fashion to allow for  an expression of diverse creativity, as fashion is, as I noted elsewhere, underpinned by culture.

Busana Muslim, JFW

The other important issue that was raised in the context of this fashion week is that of sustainability. The film produced by Livia Firth and Lucy Siegle, The True Cost, was screened. Siegle was here, courtesy of the British Council, to lead discussions and for a press conference. Sustainability is very much on the British Council's agenda here in Indonesia,  the UK seems to have taken the lead in questioning current models of fast fashion production and the impact they are having on the environment and the life of individual consumers.  An impressive undertaking to be genuinely applauded.

JFW: it's not all about busana Muslim
I went to the events and really wanted to hear the views of the people attending them. There was a huge elephant in the room and everyone was careful not to acknowledge its presence, not even Lucy Siegle ventured into that area, even though in her day job, as she put it, she is an environmentalist. I guess being an official guest can sometimes put one in a very difficult position, unsure of what can and should be said.  Indonesia at the moment is going through one of the worst possible ecological disasters, the haze from its burning forests, in Sumatra and Borneo, with  millions of people affected  with respiratory disease. It is connected with palm oil and the slash and burn policy.  It is not  only about peatland, that would be taking an extremely narrow view. Is fashion  implicated in this chain and at what point? Well, what do you think? What are the many uses of  palm oil?

Lucy Siegle at the Press Conference on sustainability, with LCF students and Adam Pushkin, British Council
Yes, fashion could certainly begin to mark a change, were it to embrace sustainability, making those all important decisions concerning the environment - the current ecological disaster  is not just an Indonesian matter, we live on the same planet. But how can sustainability be implemented? This is the question some people have asked.  Education and training are paramount. It is not just a matter of going back to using natural dyes, as Jakarta Post journalist Lynda Ibrahim points out in her blog. A  lot more dots need to be joined.
I have a great deal more to say on sustainability and diversity,  how the two are and can be connected, and the issue that is dear to my heart, that of representation. But all this will have to wait for now, as I have to get ready to attend Day #6 of JFW.

(All photos of varying quality, including iOS uploads taken  by me unless otherwise specified)

Thursday, 22 October 2015

From Jakarta #7

Svida Alisjabhana
With  Jakarta Fashion week kicking off on Saturday, I felt I needed some preparation. Thus yesterday I secured an appointment for an interview with Svida Alisjahbana, Chief Executive of the Femina Group, who publish several magazines including Dewi, the powerhouse behind Jakarta Fashion Week, in order to understand better the significance of this event.
With a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Columbia, Svida is a super competent business woman with vision. JFW is now in its eighth year, still growing. Its aim is to situate Indonesian fashion on the international scene and nurture Indonesian designers' talent, through a series of initiatives and sustained training.
Thus the Femina Group, through JFW, has been involved in a programme called Indonesian Fashion Forward, with the participation of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, the British Council and the Centre for Fashion Enterprise,  London College of Fashion, University of the Arts. IFF aims to nurture a group of upcoming designers, selected through stringent criteria,  to become world class players, through business teaching and branding strategy.
Indonesia's fashion industry is one of the fastest growing industries, with exports totalling 65% of Indonesian exports, as per figures released by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Enterprise. Thus it is important for local fashion to have the competence and means to compete internationally.

One of the images on CFE websites, featuring British designer Vivenne Westwood.

The British Council has facilitated the partnership with the CFE and has been involved in a number of projects, featuring collaborations between UK and Indonesian fashion designers. Fashion is underpinned by culture,  so this collaborative work inevitably explores issues of culture and cultural adaptation, with interesting outcomes (you can read about these projects here).
This year the British Council will contribute to JFW a talk and a discussion focused on sustainable fashion, screening  Livia Firth's documentary The true cost.  I am looking forward to it, as indeed it will be food for thought. Some of the issues explored in the documentary might seem very close to home, in this setting.

I have also had the opportunity to talk with an upcoming designer, who will be included in a group show at JFW, only twenty-four, but already well set up with her own website for online sales, with a degree in fashion marketing, trained internationally - she was in Milan and Paris. Yet she seemed to be fairly non-committal re the sustainability trend. The same designer also told me that her preferred look is 'skinny', she likes her models to be skinny, and her ideal wearer is 'skinny' even though her clientele is of different sizes. Bless her, she was honest in stating her preferences!
 Body image is beginning to be regarded as an issue, because of the ubiquity of photoshopping, which can be done quite crudely, so a fashion magazine editor tells me. He also told me that in Indonesia the people who have a real impact on women and men are TV celebrities and pop stars, fashion magazines have a very select readership. For one thing the fashion magazines are expensive, so not affordable by everyone! Products other than fashion are also often advertised by celebrities rather than models.
His observations gave me a real insight. "We are not a very visually oriented country" he maintained. "Apart from a few centres like Yogya and Bali, already with a rich and sophisticated tradition of art making, which have taken on and developed the visuality of digital media to a very high standard, the visual sensibilities of the rest of the country are often shaped by the images conveyed through cheap, Chinese imported colour TV sets that can only highlight very strong colours". Thus  if the TV sets in  remote areas show strong colours dominating the clothes worn by the TV stars, everyone will think  the fashion in Jakarta is that garish and will adopt the garishness. Interesting point, it would have never occurred to me.
Indonesian designers deliberately choose models for their shows that conform to so-called 'international standards' of height and dress size, with a look that is actually fairly close to a European look - fair skin, high cheek bones, straight noses. Or should I say that the organisers of major fashion events choose such models? It is not too clear. What is clear though is that even more than in other parts of the world, models here are very far removed from average looks. Sometimes it is hard to tell  if the models are Indonesian, Korean or Russian. In their ethereal beauty, they can be indistinguishable, their bodies merging with the clothes. Like I said, there is a real push to implement international standards in all areas.

A model at designer Biyan's recent trunk show. Photo by me

Given such a context,  the September issue of Dewi magazine, with Sarita Thaib on its cover, was indeed a very brave initiative and one which demonstrates an awareness of the conversations taking place in London, New York etc about fashion images. There was no photoshopping involved and it was a way to say that it's all right to be mature, one can be beautiful even at fifty, there is no need for cosmetic surgery, which is doing rather well here among the members of the upper classes, the readership of Dewi.
What about disability and its perception? Oh, that is a minefield...

Friday, 16 October 2015

From Jakarta #6

At Tri Handoko's  catwalk show, with models.

Indonesia is full of creative people in the field of performance, music, film, visual arts and design, including, of course, fashion design. There is a variety of approaches,  from  traditional craftsmanship  to modernist minimalism and the picture that emerges is much more complex than whatever is thought of as Indonesian art in the Euro-American world. Ask anyone in the West about Indonesian art. People will scratch their head and then mention in one breath batik, wayang  and gamelan. Contemporary art? No, somehow people find it almost incongruous that there should be anything here apart from time honoured village traditions.
It is a misconception I have encountered quite often - as I mentioned in other posts I  have been coming here fairly frequently for different purposes since 1989. So whenever I told people back in England or Italy about the vibrant contemporary art scene of Indonesia I was met with some disbelief. For many years I  taught university level courses which always touched on Indonesian contemporary performance and choreography, the 'kontemporer' style. During that time I met artists of great calibre and international standing such as Sardono ('Mas' Don) and also discovered the work of the Sumatran Minang choreographer Gusmiati Suid - I tried to share such experiences and knowledge with my students.

 On arriving here last month I was quite aware of the intricacies of Indonesian contemporary performance and expected that a similar diverse landscape would be found in the field of the visual, and of fashion design. My current research, preliminary though it is,  confirms this prior assumption.
I have met a few designers already, including the amazing Tri Handoko, whose work seems to be just right for me, I love the zen quality of his clothes. They are the kind of thing I want to wear and it frustrates me that I cannot find them back home, when I go clothes shopping.
 As we met over morning coffee the day before yesterday, on an unusually quiet day (it was a public holiday, marking the Islamic new year) 'Mas' Tri discussed his philosophy and his inspiration and how he likes minimalistic lines, no patterns, and a mix of black and white.  He then invited me to visit his atelier, so we left the coffee shop immediately and headed for his studio. Once there I just had to try a couple of things on, I could not help it. He told me he was always on the lookout for models with personality and character to match the quality of his designs and  then quite out of the blue, he asked me to walk for him at a fashion event in early December.  Of course I will, I regard it as an honour. Life can be quite unpredictable, I had no plans to model for anyone while here - apart from those photoshoots I mentioned earlier, more for fun and keep my portfolio up to date than anything else.
I will continue my discussion of designers once I have met a few more, this will allow me to compare and contrast, just to highlight the diversity and richness of talent one encounters here, which sadly is not seen at all in Europe and, generally, outside Asia. I know, I keep on saying this, but it really needs reiterating.
With JFW looming ahead this is the right moment to talk a bit about models, as they too have a role to play in  my current research, as the 'ideal' wearers of the designers' creations - we can unpack this definition of 'ideal wearer' a little later.
There are several foreign models in Jakarta and some agencies specialise in bringing them over. There are of course local Indonesian models, some of whom have the status of supermodels, but for the past ten years, model agencies have been working following the business model known as  'mother agency, local agency'. It means that agencies from Russia, Brazil, Germany, Australia, USA  etc send their young models in need of 'development' over here to work for a three month period and the models are then represented by a local agency who looks after them, puts them up in rented  accommodation and gets them work assignments.  The models then go back home. It's a recognisable pattern, models as migrant workers. There are some sleazy developments too but I will not discuss them here.

 Modelling in Indonesia is not regarded as a 'real' profession, so I am told. According to what some agents tell me, many local models are not willing to invest their energy into modelling - this is not confirmed by all my informants however -   but ultimately the reason why foreign models might be preferred  over local ones (the local 'super' are not included here, we are talking about average models) is that foreign clients operating in Indonesia (or local clients aiming at attracting foreign money eg the tourist industry) want foreign models.There is also a difference in the fees commanded by foreign models who are paid considerably more than local ones. Modelling is after all a business, you cannot blame agents for wanting bigger profits!
But even when models are discussed, there is some complexity. Indonesia is truly a land of contrasts. You have the very tall Indonesian models, over 5'11 - in a country of nearly 250 million  there are some people who are extremely tall, both men and women, even though the average height of Indonesian women is below that of their Euro-American counterparts. There are those of mixed parentage, with a European parent and an Indonesian one, highly praised for their fair complexion (I shall talk about the obsession with fair skin in a different post, but let me say that it is not a case of aping Caucasians, it is a traditional beauty standard) and the foreign models that have been here for several years, often with an Eastern European background,  fully integrated in Indonesian society, sometimes holding down other jobs too and perfectly fluent in Bahasa - unlike the foreign models on a short term  contract who come here quite unaware of the local culture.
Surprisingly, the age barrier which models encounter in other countries,  does not seem to exist at all. Many models continue to work in fashion well into their thirties and forties, unlike  Euro-American and Australian models, who by and large by twenty five need to look for something else to do or if determined to succeed, become 'models with a personality' and diversify.
At the fashion event I attended yesterday I met the models walking for 'Mas' Tri.  They were all beautiful, in my view, but not a single one of them was pretty in a conventional way. Their ages varied. Two of them were non-Indonesian, both stunning and already over the age of thirty. One, Natalia Gumilevskaya, came over from Russia following her partner  and was a trained MD, only she could not practise in Indonesia for a host of reasons, involving Indonesia's sycophantic beaurocracy and ended up modelling to earn a living, because of her looks - tall, slim, high cheekbones.

Five of the six models at Tri Handoko's catwalk show

The other one, mother of two, getting close to the big four, is also very beautiful, in an edgy sort of way. Her name is Selma Abidin, with a Croatian mother and an Indonesian father.
These are  interesting women, cultured, cosmopolitan, fluent in several languages, with plenty of experience and great taste.
All the models wore  'Mas' Tri's creations to perfection. I loved the choreography of the show too.
Natalia told me that over here models sometimes need to be able to move in a dance like manner, which brings modelling close to performance.
I will continue my observations in the next post. I will take a short break from blogging during JFW, then back with a vengeance, as they say.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

From Jakarta #5

Ria Juwita

Nearly a month here and things are slowly beginning to fall into place.  I have even done a little modelling:  though my look is not right for Indonesia  - that grey hair (sigh!) -  some young photographers I have met are interested in photographing me and some upcoming young designers are happy for me to wear their clothes for these shoots. So I have done a shoot with Irene Barlian, wearing Maria Ruth Fernanda's designs - she will be having a show at JFW - and have another shoot  planned with another photographer, also wearing an upcoming designer's creations. This is good for my portfolio, it makes me feel I am not cutting off ties with modelling and gives me a further insight into the world of fashion in this part of the world.
I have been active meeting designers and various creatives, including models. I am ever so lucky that my flatmate is into advertising - this morning a commercial was being shot at my place, it was very interesting indeed and truly weird to get downstairs carrying my laundry and finding a whole crew in the living room and kitchen. It was one of those moments!
But let's talk about models. I met Ria Juwita, a well known model who walked for Chanel and various other fashion houses when she lived in Paris, a couple of decades ago. Now she is head of the marketing division at Plaza Indonesia, one of the premier malls in Jakarta, where many well known European and American designers have a presence. The designers themselves do visit from time to time - Ria told me that even Victoria Beckham, designer, model and UN ambassador, has been to Plaza Indonesia and her clothes can be bought there. Ria is truly admirable: beautiful, very competent and able to speak several languages.
The silver hair look does not exist here, Indonesian glamorous women would not be seen dead sporting grey hair, it really spells decrepitude to them, so my look is definitely weird (or very caucasian perhaps? I have noticed that even men dye their hair over here). However, the good news is that senior models are very active here and they can be seen in roles that are normally taken by much younger models in Europe and America. Somehow this resonates with what Grey Models is attempting to do.
Ria Juwita
Take Ria for example. She has a most demanding job at Plaza Indonesia yet she continues to model . In her modelling work she is not stereotyped as a granny or an older model, she is just a model and can be seen in shoots portraying an elegant and glamorous woman, as she indeed is.
To me this is a novelty, I am so used to the typecasting that occurs in the UK and the rest of Europe/America.
I have a few exciting meetings planned, including an interview with Sarita Thaib. I can't wait.
Meanwhile I am exploring this city and learning to appreciate its hidden treasures. If only it were a little less chaotic, traffic wise, I could really enjoy being here!

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 Iman 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.

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  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.