On Friday, 20 October, the V&A hosted a spectacular retrospective presentation by British designer Phoebe English as part of the museum’s Fashion in Motion series. The series features leading contemporary fashion designers and makes live fashion experiences available to the public.
Set within the V&A’s grand Raphael Gallery, the Fashion in Motion series typically features a runway show. English, however, broke with this tradition and presented her designs on raised, round platforms where four models donning a range of English’s womenswear designs stood next to marionettes wearing a scaled-down version of the original designs. This provocative presentation blurred the lines between performance art and fashion show when models, or, rather, performers dressed in plain white jumpsuits moved between the platforms to toy with the marionettes, puppeteering the movements of the fashion models. Indeed, the spectacle created by this inventive set design continues English’s practice of staging her collections within immersive environments. Combined with live music by a harpist, the sublime designs and the playful scale of the marionettes resulted in what felt like visual gluttony.
The individual, rounded platforms allowed the viewer to weave through the presentation and move closer to the designs in a way that would not be possible during a traditional runway show. Although this set design was much more engaging that a catwalk, the act of moving around the platforms and observing the models and their marionettes up close felt somewhat intrusive. The models made direct eye-contact with onlookers and members of the press, posing consciously for Snapchat stories and press photos. This directness coupled with the uncanny marionettes and the puppeteers’ manipulation of the models and their puppets created a haunting, powerful experience. The weight of the presentation was most palpable at the end of the show when the models slowly descended from the platforms and walked out of the gallery, leaving only the puppets. The dangling, lifeless marionettes dressed in their Phoebe English miniatures represented, for me, the eerie, indescribably strange and alienating space that fashion can occupy.
Aside from the memorable spectacle of the show, English’s luxury designs demonstrated an expertise in technique, materials, and construction. English, who aims to set her label apart from mass made fashion, creates striking silhouettes with unconventional textures to indicate balance between craft and design. The Phoebe English label, which is entirely made in England, is certainly one to watch.
By Abby Fogle
All photos authors own