These days it seems every country has a fashion week and often, when it comes to emerging markets, not just one but two, as in Russia, India and Brazil. A fashion extravaganza is, apparently, seen as an announcement that a nation has arrived on the global scene.
This is certainly true for two of the latest entrants to the field: Iceland and Peru, both of which hosted new fashion weeks last month. Though the clothes on display were (not surprisingly) very different, and the hoopla surrounding each was idiosyncratic to say the least, together they revealed the geo-political reasoning behind the sudden rash of national style events, and the ways fashion can be used to serve economic ends.
Things have not been going too well for Iceland since its spectacular financial meltdown in 2008 – hence the use of the country’s famously eccentric creative culture to help power a national comeback. The Reykjavik Fashion Festival, which replaced the previous fashion week, took place over two nights at the Reykjavik Art Museum after being opened by the mayor Jón Gnarr, who wore a three-piece suit and bright red lipstick. At the opening, he said: “We are prisoners of time and space. We are prisoners of the body … Through fashion we take over the prison, and we take over the world.”
The take-over, sponsored by companies such as Icelandair and Icelandic Glacial, occurred in front of 800 attendees and was powered by more than 20 men’s and women’s wear designers including Israeli-born Sruli Recht, perhaps the country’s most internationally respected designer.
Recht is known for his use of indigenous materials. Since not much grows in Iceland, this means a seal skin and fox fur dress, shoes made from whale, and a jacket made from blackbirds, feathers intact, sewn on to hunted reindeer hide.
Elsewhere, Mundi took a more whimsical approach, with a set of black-and-white patterned knitwear inspired by ski and snow, and Rain Dear showed a quirky line of coats made from transparent or brightly-coloured plastic. The most commercially successful brand in the festival was Nikita, a snowboard/skate streetwear label for girls that has only recently expanded to outerwear and the runway, which last year brought in $35m in worldwide sales.
Recht says: “After 2008, Icelanders stopped going to mainland Europe with empty suitcases and returning with them full of designer clothes. People interested in fashion and product design started looking locally.” Following the impact of the financial crisis on Icelandic high street chains, he says, “lots of spaces became available for designers to open shops, almost for free.” Downtown Reykjavik does indeed now showcase a range of Icelandic offerings and many in the crowd were surprised by flashes of uniquely Icelandic creativity – but it was hard not to feel Iceland was playing the role of a mid-sized European country rather than that of a tiny Arctic one.
By contrast, Peru was less interested in spinning itself as an international cultural centre than in getting a larger chunk of the apparel business it already partially supplies. Local press called the inaugural Lima fashion week an “appetiser” for the more important Peru Moda, a trade show in the city’s Hippodrome where Peruvian companies make deals to sell quality cotton and alpaca to companies such as Monoprix, Le Bon Marché and Kenzo.
Designer Sumy Kujon says: “Our challenge is to use our access to great local materials and manufacturing capacity to create a Peruvian design industry as well.” So the runway shows for Peruvian designers are the first step on a long and uncertain road. “It might take 10-15 [years] to develop a proper community and a world-class fashion show,” says Sergio Corvacho, a Peruvian photographer and make-up artist based in Paris. “But it’s great this is starting.” Still, “starting” was the operative word, as the “week” consisted of four days of shows featuring only 10 local designers and one international guest, Spanish designer Custo Barcelona, which drew by far the biggest crowds.
“Our biggest advantages are our pre-Columbian geometrics and our materials,” says Kujon, and these were on display in her show, comprised of pretty, sensible sweaters and dresses that mix Chinese and Peruvian design heritages and blend baby alpaca with silk. Like many of the designers at Lima’s fashion week, her pieces reflect her country’s history as a supplier of product. Meanwhile, Sergio Davila mixed men’s and women’s wear inspired by both the Incas and the American discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham III, as seen in dark suits, top hats, and light brown indigenous-style sweaters and dresses. Many of the other collections were tailored to the local market: elaborate evening gowns for Lima’s elite or a line attributed in name to Kate Moss but exhibited and sold by a local high-end mall.
Ultimately, however, despite the runway gloss, it was hard to ignore the stark political realities of Peru: fast economic growth has not brought an end to poverty or social divisions, and in the second round of the presidential elections next month citizens will be given the choice between a potentially radical leftwing military candidate and the daughter of a former president currently in jail for crimes against humanity carried out by death squads – a difficult choice, no matter how you dress it up.