INTERVIEW: GILL STARK

With designers making the final touches on their collections ready for the catwalk next week, Ellie Dyson sits down with designer-turned-writer Gill Stark to talk all things ‘Fashion Week’, and discuss the success of her book, ‘The Fashion Show’, two months after its release.

So, you’ve released your book, ‘The Fashion Show’. What’s the response been like?

The book came out at the end of July and reviews have been very good. It’s my first book and it’s been interesting how many people from around the world have picked up the book, bought a copy and contacted me to ask questions, to suggest that we meet, and I’ve had some requests to be involved in different things. I’ve been contacted by a number of academics around the world who either teach fashion show production, or they’re interested in starting to incorporate fashion show production within their degrees. I’ve been invited to speak at a number of different places; other universities and conferences and in relation to exhibitions.

 So how did your journey with Bloomsbury start, and how did you get in contact with each other?

I was put in touch with Bloomsbury by a friend who was writing for them. We discussed whether I might do some kind of publication, and what that might be. With my background as a lingerie/nightwear/corsetry designer, we talked about whether I would write a book about lingerie, or about corsetry, and I researched that and decided that that was not a good idea at the time. But one of my other areas of expertise is the fashion show, having produced shows and also taught fashion show production, and having contacts within that area of the industry.

In the meantime, I got Bloomsbury involved in meetings with the academic team that I was then managing and various colleagues started to write books with Bloomsbury. Eventually we decided that I would write a book about the fashion show. The publication is different from anything else that’s out in the market place, so I think it has filled a gap for a comprehensive guide to the history, the theory and the practice of the fashion show and show production.

You have a really diverse history in your education and your career, with experience in fashion design, having your own brand, business, marketing, as well as education. Has there been any moment that’s stood out?

Yes, I do have a very broad educational background myself. First I went to art college and I studied fashion and textiles, and art history. Since I was about thirteen, I had wanted to run a fashion business, and when I started to study at art college, I also discovered that I loved and had an aptitude for art history. After that I did a business and management course at Cranfield School of Management, and I also did an MA in Design Management, so my background spans art and design, art history, and business and management, so it’s very broad. For my position now as Head of the School of Creative and Liberal Arts at Regent’s University London, within which we teach a very broad range of subjects, having a broad educational background myself is valuable.

In terms of moments, I think there have been very many moments which have been very special, and I feel very blessed that I have been very lucky to have worked in industry running my own business, designing freelance for brands, working with textile companies … I did quite a lot of work with textile companies on prototyping different fabrics, and the promotion of those fabrics, and shows to promote those fabrics, so that was business to business, rather than business to consumer.

When I started to teach, that was as a visiting lecturer at the London College of Fashion. I wanted to teach but also continue to design, which was what I’d always wanted to do, even as a student. And I loved that, but gradually, I discovered that I really enjoyed education and became sucked into that, and then started to take on management roles, but I always wondered whether I’d be able to write, so it’s been interesting to turn from designing, to writing, and to find that I can write has been wonderful.

So what drives your passion for the fashion industry, design, and now writing?

I think a lot of people who do a fashion design degree, do so because they have a love of the cloth and the fashion product. I think a lot of people then end up in the industry and realise that the industry is not what you expected. I think for those of us who find fashion interesting, not just in terms of design but within a broader context, it continues to be a fascinating industry, and fashion is not just about design or commerce. Fashion reflects the world at a particular moment; it reflects culture, it reflects society, but it also reflects and I think we’re very often not aware of this – the broader world; it reflects politics, the economy… It reflects what’s happening in the world.

You’ve created fashion shows for both industry and for universities. Can you tell me about one of your favourite shows that you’ve been a part of?

I have been involved in very many different kinds of shows. There have been so many different things that I couldn’t pick out one, but I do think that the power of the show to excite people and to capture attention is something that I’ve talked about a lot in the book, and I think that it’s something that is probably not recognised enough generally. It is very well recognised by the industry, and that’s why the industry uses it as such a powerful promotional tool, and such a powerful tool for brands to enforce their messages within the minds of the consumer. I think it’s also a point at which the consumer is completely emotionally engaged in the brand, and as technology has moved forward, and now that we have live streaming, consumers can feel like they’re there at a show; at that moment when a new collection is released, and a really exciting show is happening.

Because that is so powerful, I think there are other ways in which it can be harnessed. For instance, I think it could be harnessed much better for charities, and I think some of the most exciting shows that I was involved in, years ago, were for charities. The opportunity for charities to harness that and to really engage people in their work is underestimated. I think that the shows where designers have highlighted really important social issues; those are exciting moments, and I think they’re very important moments. An example is Missoni with the pussy hats. I think that the fashion show could be harnessed far more to speak to consumers and other audiences about really important issues within fashion, within society, within culture.

I remember in your book I think you wrote about Vivienne Westwood bringing attention to things.

Yes absolutely, sadly, there wasn’t space in the book to pursue this further, but I think designers like Gaultier have been very clever at using times when the world’s press were there, and were keen for stories, and were ready to publish stories, to promote issues around gender, identity, remember Gaultier’s men in skirts. Gaultier was also influential in social change around LGBTQ and transgender, that’s been really important; for instance by putting Andrej Pejic onto the catwalk in the bridal gown at the end of his shows. I think that as the world looks more and more to companies to be socially responsible and to address important issues, it would be great to see the show being part of that communication, promoting that dialogue.

I noticed that BFC have announced that London Fashion Week for this year is going to be completely fur-free.

Yes, absolutely. That’s an excellent example of how the fashion show can be used to highlight important issues. Paint has been thrown at models on the catwalk in the past to protest against the wearing of fur. Now the catwalk is, again, the site of commentary about the use of fur in fashion. With modern technology, there is no need to use fur, there are many great alternatives.

Fashion Week is coming up. Will you be attending this year?

I certainly will, yes. It promises to be an interesting fashion week, with some good dialogues already well under way. Anti-fur is one example. I really enjoy the way that such dialogues are explored around the catwalks of the world’s fashion weeks. Fashion weeks are the times when the fashion communities gather to keep up to date and to communicate about fashion and where it is going. While many other activities also happen at fashion week, I love the way that catwalk is central to fashion at the point at which it moves forward.

Have you got any advice for designers who are going to be having their very first show this year?

John [Walford] talked about how phenomenally expensive it is for young designers to do shows. The young designers that I’ve talked to have talked about how very important they are, but also how impossibly expensive they are. I think that if young designers are lucky enough and successful enough to win competitions, so that they can get some initial sponsorship and promotion, that’s a great opportunity. The reality is, it’s almost out of people’s budgets to do a show and to be involved in fashion weeks in that way because it is phenomenally expensive, and when you look at designers like Stella McCartney, there was a lot of talk about the fact that she had massive advantages. I think one of the biggest advantages was just having money behind her. Everything is about being noticed and when you look back at designers like McQueen, they had no money, but at that point it was possible with very little money to stage shows, and I don’t think it’s possible any more, and I think that’s one of the biggest sadnesses in fashion. Much of the industry has become dominated by the huge conglomerates. It was in the 1980’s that the real commercialisation of fashion started to happen, and when marketing really started to take off, and it was at that point also that shows started to become phenomenally expensive. What designers like McQueen very cleverly did was they produced shows that were as dramatic, as noteworthy, as attention-grabbing as they could, and they were able to do it at a time when it was possible to hold stage a show for very little and still to get the attention of some of the world’s most influential press. It’s much more difficult to do that now.

It’s not just about getting attention through one show; once you do a show, you’ve got to be seen to show season after season after season. If you drop for a season you are highly unlikely ever to come back, so it’s not just about having the capital to begin with, it’s also about having the capital on an ongoing basis. It’s very sad that it is so expensive, because it shouldn’t be about money, it should be about talent and craft.

You’ve got your book released, and you’re getting good attention. What’s your next step, could there be another book on the way?

Yes. I’ve already started working on a proposal for the next book, and I don’t want to give too much away but it’s about London fashion. It’s a much more theoretical piece of work. The Fashion Show is a very comprehensive publication in terms of its breadth, looking at the history and the theory and the practice of the show, so we knew when I started to work on The Fashion Show that we wouldn’t be able to achieve much depth in any particular area. The second fashion book is more theoretical and will enable greater depth; it’s a really exciting new venture. I have some great interviews lined up and I have some original material which has never been published before, so that’s very interesting.

‘The Fashion Show’ by Gill Stark was published by Bloomsbury Publishing, and is available on Amazon at £26.64 in paperback format.

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