Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Posted by Bethan Holt, Fashion Junior at Large

Rare is the festival where there is a corner so civilised that it is worthy to play host to the treasured childhood dolls of fashion's great and good. Port Eliot house is nestled at the bottom of the valley where the festival takes place and is open throughout to offer festival goers an antedote to tent and field based activities.  Thus, its Dining Room was the ideal setting for an auspicious gathering of Barbies, Sindys, Kens and traditional dolls owned and much loved by the likes of Viktor&Rolf, Simone Rocha and Lady Amanda Harlech. There are few with the cachet to persuade designers and fashion luminaries to allow their treasured possessions to go on a little trip to the country but luckily Sarah Mower, who came up with the whole idea and is the festival's fashion curator, and LOVE magazine editor Alex Fury were on hand to prise the dolls from their owners' hands for a few days of tea partying. 

It seems almost obvious that a fashion designer might begin their career making clothes for dolls. After all, our childhood toys are what we use to act out our fantasies of adulthood, giving them the lives and looks which we on some level aspire to- I remember that I would ensure all my dolls had nicely plaited hair and pretty party dresses before lining them up in neat rows in my bed to be taught by me in the role of teacher or to go on imaginary trips to the zoo (my brother's farmyard animal collection) and model in fashion shows. For an aspiring designer, the doll is an ideal canvas to begin on- take Erdem Moralioglu who was "violently jealous" of his twin Sara's Skipper Barbie, which had "a flatter chest and bigger shoulders" than the Barbie Bride Sara previously had. Erdem kidnapped Skipper Barbie whilst his sister was at Brownies and "got hold of this cheap-y blue polyester , and fashioned a circle skirt from it and put it over her head", he then got his Mum to help him make a strapless bustier- "very Spring/Summer". Whether that has anything to do with the fact that he's now a very successful fashion designer is anyone's guess.
The" cheap polyester" dress which Erdem made when he was five, and a dress
 from his AW12 collection in Barbie size.  

Many of the stories which Sarah, Alex and their team of curators (Jess Dubeck and Ben Evans) unearthed as they collected designers' dolls were far more extraordinary than them simply being childhood toys. In fact, this tea party was such an insight that I reckon the V&A would be mad not to hound Sarah and Alex until they agreed to host the same tea party, or even an expanded version, as an exhibition in the capital so that even more people could realise that the power of the doll is far more than a mere plaything. These are some of my favourite stories....


The line-up of Chris Kane Barbies is a mini retrospective of his work to date. That's because a member of Chris's team recreates a look from each season in Barbie form as a record of the collection. They do it rather speedily too because Resort '13 already has its own outfit (far left). 


It was Alber Elbaz's story which sparked Sarah's idea to host a Fashion Doll's Tea party. And it doesn't even involve dolls but a distinct lack thereof. Elbaz's family were too poor to afford toys for him and so he took the ingenious approach of dressing the figures on the family's chess board. Elbaz describes how he would "use my Father's silver cigarette paper, and use flowers and sequins, and stick hair on their heads with a piece of chewing gum". Decades later, Elbaz has an endless supply of real-life dolls in the form of Lanvin customers and models but has also created the Miss Lanvin dolls which perhaps go some way to making up for his doll-free childhood. The chess set which appeared at the tea party is one he recreated especially for Port Eliot. The process made Elbaz reflect on his chess piece dressing and he remarks in the tea party notes "It made me think: maybe the best creativity comes out of lacking resources". I think it also shows that when something is innate- like his desire to dress and design- there will always be a way around it.


Jason Wu's doll connection is probably the strongest of them all and he probably wouldn't be where he is today if it weren't for his love of doll dressing. He describes how "at the age of sixteen, while at boarding school in Connecticut, I decided to call the president of Integrity toys offering them my sketches, astonishingly they offered me a job designing for their fashion dolls. A year later, I was named Creative Director, then partner. Both positions I still hold today and am extremely proud of". In fact, Wu has financed his label through the money he makes designing for Integrity, meaning that without dolly fashion, he may not be doing real lady fashion now. 


A doll version of a piece from Lee McQueen's final, posthumous collection
The dolls sent by McQueen's Sarah Burton do not have so much of a childhood resonance but represent a key stage in house's design process which began with the Plato's Atlantis collection of SS10. Each season, McQueen's famously tailored and complex shapes are engineered in doll form before being scaled up when perfect to human size. This reminded of the way that Vionnet would do all her groundwork on mini mannequins. It's not a practise unique to Burton and her team, but the dolls looked like works of art in their own right, especially as the paper dresses they have were printed with the patterns which would eventually make up the final dress. 

Lulu Kennedy's rabbits, Paul and Amanda, would be entertained by Lulu and her little brother dressed as pirates or gypsies for hours on end.

Giles Deacon sent dolls he made, dressed in miniature versions of dresses from his AW12 collection...

Simone Rocha's doll attends the tea party, complete with scars from being thrown down banisters by her loving owner.

Tallulah Harlech's Barbie with her Mother Lady Amanda's dolls
Sarah Mower at one of the first doll's parties she curated 
With such a prestigious group of dollies in attendance, this had to be a truly spectacular party. So set designer Michael Howells, who also curated the flower show at the festival and has decorated the house's chandeliers with feathers and dried flowers, scattered sweeties amid sets of doll's china to create the perfect backdrop for proceedings. The pièce de résistance was the doll's house which Sarah Mower spotted in the window of the Trinity Hospice charity shop in Kensington.

Sarah sent us this photo of (left to right) Hannah Lambert (her assistant),
Jingle-Jangle James, Meggie and designer Louise Gray beside the main table at the tea party
And Sarah couldn't get away with not inviting her very own doll. She sits, dressed in a paisley dress and knitted knickers made by Sarah's fashion loving grandmother, Maisie- the doll is named after her.  Maisie sits centre stage with Tammy Kane's (sister and business partner of Christopher) doll who is called Toni Bonnie Bella- Tammy has recently had a baby called Bonnie, perhaps named after the doll?

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