Just after London Fashion Week, an alternative London fashion show demonstrated that fashion has a long way to go before the image it presents is reflective of reality.
The atmosphere at the London Queer Fashion Show, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood on Friday night, was part fashion show, part party: Booming club music and colorful lights served as a backdrop to champagne-fueled selfies and “Burberry-meets-bondage” themed outfits that were certainly not purchased at Harrod’s.
The vibe was quite fitting. In London, staid traditions run concurrently with a sense of flagrant rebellion, and “club kids” have turned to the relatively safe and accepting environs of the after-hours scene to portray their identities, queer or otherwise. So it’s natural that a club scene was a more familiar environment for a queer fashion show than, say, the South London Mail Centre, which hosted Burberry’s show less than a week ago.
“So much of queer fashion has been associated with clubbing, and it kind of gets a bad rap, which I don’t think is [justified]. Lots of people express queerness in clubbing; for me, it’s a place I feel safer,” said queer model Jon Bellebono, who was cast in the show after attracting the eye of an organizer while clubbing. “In London, there are quite a few [club] nights that prioritize queer people of color, and that is very refreshing as a queer person of color.”
Many of the runway looks at the London Queer Fashion Show, now attracting an audience of almost 1,000 in its second year (far more than last year, according to Robyn Exton, one of the event’s organizers), reflected nightlife elements: Poca London showed graffitied jean jackets and streetwear, Cause Perdue topped bondage-style latex lingerie with a floral embroidered short suit, and Sophie Cochevelou drew cheers with an elaborate conceptual mermaid gown that seemed influenced by the drag queens of yore. Bare breasts and bottoms, in addition to Doctor Martens and platform flats, were also on display.
This lack of visibility is in the fashion industry at large is interesting when one considers that many fashion designers throughout history have been gay. “There are a lot of queer designers, obviously, but that is not necessarily reflected in their art,” Bellebono said. “It’s refreshing to see a space that portrays and showcases not only queer designers and models but also fashion that will appeal to the queer community.”
There’s less of a disconnect when it comes to official fashion weeks’ audiences, said non-binary activist Jamie Windust, who is the editor of Fruitcake Magazine and walked in the London Queer Fashion Show. “London is incredibly diverse in terms of the people attending the shows — I attended shows, and a lot of the crowd was very gender-neutral. Watching the shows, I was looking out for that diversity, but surprisingly, they didn’t have the blend that was in the audience,” Windust said. “Street style is so important because, for me, it’s more than fashion. It’s an act of queer visibility.”
As queerness — often an umbrella term for a range of gender identities and sexual orientations — has increasingly entered the public consciousness, so too has its appearance in mainstream forums, although change happens in incremental fits and spurts. Seasons of late, for example, have seen non-binary and androgynous models such as Rain Dove and Erika Linder modeling both men’s and women’s looks for brands including Kenneth Cole, Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton. Meanwhile, Calvin Klein, Burberry and Gucci have combined their men’s and women’s shows.
This spring 2019 season, Marco Marco cast a NYFW show entirely with trans models, and Vivienne Westwood continued her relatively quiet habit of casting both men and women to show her designs. And, true to form, Chromat showed a range of body types and identities.
Windust sees room for improvement. “A lot of people think the fashion industry is ‘queer’ because a lot of the designers are cis-gendered gay men, but that doesn’t mean they are doing amazingly diverse collections,” they said. Windust pointed to Art School as a prominent example of a brand showcasing non-binary designs at London Fashion Week, adding that New York Fashion Week was a bit ahead in terms of inclusion but said attempts at diversity often read as “tokenism.”
“We saw during Pride that high-street brands used Pride in a way that comes across as a marketing tool, which is glaringly obvious. [Queer] people shop when it’s not Pride and have had problems with [brands promoting Pride] due to members of their staff or their gendered spaces,” Windust said. “A few designers like Zara have done gender-neutral collections, but it’s very lackluster, very surface-level.”
As notions of diversity and inclusion are starting to gain momentum throughout fashion, there’s hope that featuring a range of models — whether they’re Muslim, 70 years old, non-binary or non-white — will eventually become less of a trend and more of the new normal.
The London Queer Fashion show, for its part, showed a range of races, ages, abilities, body types — and aesthetics, ultimately showing that “queer” is not a style: Plus Equals, a non-gendered plus-sized line, showed saturated sherbet tulle dresses embellished with feathers and flowers. Livia Rita debuted an ethereal “nature-first” collection, and Bull and Dagger showed classically tailored navy suiting with unexpected elements, like a vibrant floral tux shirt paired with yellow shorts worn by model Daniel Lul, a double-amputee who wore prosthetic legs.
“Queer representation is important everywhere,” said Bull and Dagger designer Meera Amin after the show, “but in fashion, there are not a lot of clothes made for a wide range of gender expressions and body types, so something like [the Queer Fashion Show] is amazing.”
“It’s about something that was created for us, rather than us trying to fit into something that wasn’t made for us. It’s not just about the actual fit of the clothes — when we started the brand three-and-a-half years ago, I just couldn’t find anything I felt comfortable in,” Amin said. “There’s definitely a need for clothes that are not just male or female but for anyone who falls outside the gender binary.”