Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Brutal World of Boot Fairing

Daylight robbery, swindling between sellers and hardcore veterans: welcome to the boot fair battlefield where the customer is rarely right.

Catching a flight, London Fashion Week and possibly a fire are pretty much the only circumstances in which I’ll willingly get up before 6am. Then of course there is money and when you are a student that is always a winning incentive. So with the lure of financial reimbursement, I not only agreed to wake up at the crack of dawn last weekend but to stand in a field and try selling some of my clothes at a boot fair.

Having grown up with a father who filled an entire room with second hand CDs and bought most of my toys from the back of a car, I was hoping to be a natural. I was not. Thankfully I haven’t inherited his hoarders gene or my mother’s extreme sentimentality when it comes to getting rid of belongings but I was na├»ve about pricing.  

Research on the completed listings of Ebay quickly proved I wasn’t going to be leaving a millionaire buying bacon sarnies and Mr Whippys for everyone on my way out. A £75 Warehouse dress I also hoped to sell went for £6 and that was one of the success stories.

Despite having hundreds of pounds worth of clothes, some hardly worn or with the label still attached, the effects of fast fashion and cheap consumerism have hit the second hand market hard. I had to become very realistic very quickly.

After wedging everything and finally ourselves into the tiny KA, my mum and I finally arrived at 6.45am. Late. Rule 1: do not leave preparations until the last minute. Suffice to say we were still up at 1am figuring out the Argos clothes rail.  Poor organisation leaves you parking in row S and a mile away from the portaloos…though that may be a blessing.

Before even putting up the table, we were set upon by a barrage of dealers and hardened buyers. You can tell the difference because dealers carry jewellers magnifying glass where standard buyers simply roam the field with massive empty suitcases but all mean business. 

Rule 2: Do not be swindled by other sellers. Luckily a boot fair veteran ended up on the left of us (the man on the right had been tricked into coming by his wife). Angie went through this process every Sunday and warned us about secret sellers who will rock up in the first hour expecting items for nothing just to make a quick profit on their own stalls later. In my innocence, I was shocked; you don’t see that on Bargain Hunt!

Wearing aprons as makeshift money belts, Mum and I might as well have had a loudspeaker announcing we were amateurs and ready to be duped. Such a routine occurrence seems incredibly devious and says a lot for the dog-eat-dog culture of boot fairing. It says a fair bit about humanity as well. In reality, I suppose it is no different to buying items to put on Ebay but now we had fellow sellers to contend with as well as buyers.

Within five minutes, we were also battling a malfunctioning clothes rail. Rule 3: Do not buy from a company thought up by a man on holiday. Anything on a hanger was soon on the ground and we had definitely made our entrance. “You went for the Argos rail then?” Angie asked as Mum and I looked away in embarrassment and proceeded to take turns holding it for the next five hours.

Bartering in general was daylight robbery. Even my bottom prices were laughed off. Apart from one reasonable lady who eagerly paid the marked price on a pair of FLY London boots, nobody recognised brand or quality. A Paul Smith skirt was worth no more than one from Primark. I sold a Kaliko coat for £8 - the lady still tried £7 - and even then she was about to walk away until I explained it was worth over £200.

Most transactions were also accompanied by blatant rudeness. After practically giving away 5 dresses, one buyer proceeded to shout, “BAG? BAG?” at me. It was only biting my lip and the thought of shifting those dresses that actually stopped me shouting, “DOES THAT COME WITH A PLEASE?”

 “I usually just ask them to ask nicely and if they don’t then I won’t sell,” Angie informs me. Usually? This is normal behaviour?

Of course not all buyers left civility at the door.  We did meet some interesting characters too like the man who decided to treat his girlfriend to my old bikini. I’m still not sure how it ended up at the boot fair but that is one lucky lady. Or the woman who wooed my fashion sense, told me I had good taste and then asked if I was getting rid of the clothes because I didn’t have a man to impress at the moment.

There is also that little buzz from holding off on a sale and managing to sell for that bit more later. On a sunny day, out in the fresh air, I was almost beginning to understand why Angie made it every Sunday.

Then I needed to make use of the facilities... Rule 4: do not drink anything unless you want to experience all the horrors of a music festival without the music. It turned out to be one of those rare occurrences when I regret drinking tea. The only option is to either brave the portaloos or drive a van like our seasoned boot fairer (nobody needs to close the doors and ‘reorganise’ their boot halfway through the morning Angie!)

I became determined to stick it out until the end but by midday everyone was packing up. Counting our fortune, we made £67 in total. A small amount but what we lacked in small change, we gained in new knowledge about business, common courtesy and Argos clothes rails.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Masterpieces of Material

We spend so long admiring the cut and shape of clothing that the beauty of fabric itself is often forgotten. Yet textiles are an art form like any painting or sculpture. Self-expression is pieced together in quilting, moments in history imprinted onto silks and imagination comes to life through the embroiderer’s needle. Textile art is not only diverse in its forms but has a rich history and deep significance within many cultures.

Just part of the Bayeux Tapestry
Possibly the most famous piece of embroidery is the 70 metre long Bayeux Tapestry unveiled around 1077 and depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066. However fabrics have played both a decorative and functional role as far back as the 5th century BC. While they are difficult to preserve, remains have been found of embroidery, tapestry and even resist painted fabrics that were used for early interior design as well as nomadic draft excluders.

The Pazyryk rug

In an ice grave in east Russia a finely woven rug was discovered complete with ornate motifs of bucks and griffins. Not only was this piece skilfully crafted even by today’s standards, it is a valuable artwork and artefact capturing the culture of the Scythian people living 2500 years ago. Bucks and griffins were believed to be “mystical expressions of life passing over to death” and the grave itself is associated with a particularly cultured and art-loving Scythian king.

 The textile pattern and colour of Japanese kimonos express social status, individuality and tradition but the silhouette has remained consistent. While dowry quilts have been an important part of Indian culture and heritage for centuries. The production process of such beautiful creations is important in itself. Usually a group project between the wife-to-be and her female relatives, the women share family stories as they sew.

It is believed that during these long creative sewing and embroidery sessions that the minds, hearts and souls of these women became a part of the quilt, thus it was not only aesthetically patched, but also permeated spiritually by the family's love.

The beauty and background of the pieces are appreciated so much that many sustainable designers are now using vintage dowry quilts in their designs as wearable art.
A design from the JoannaJohn Collection
I found myself studying textiles like hanging masterpieces last week at Knole House. Usually parading around large, palatial properties pretending I own them is entertaining enough but the exhibition by craft group Zero3 was a pleasant surprise. Knole House, its five hundred year history and its occupants inspired the works.
Letters from Vita by Sarah Welsby
Members of Zero3, formed by a class of textile graduates in 2003, say they enjoy the tactile nature of working with fabric as well as exploring different textures and layering, impossible with other mediums.

The Fabric of Knole by Janine Ayres
Member Audrey Critchley’s inspiration includes everything from Aboriginal art, which she studied for her dissertation, to the embroidery work of prisoners. “Their exhibition was amazing," she recalls. "They all said they looked forward to being locked in their cells so they could get on with sewing.”

Drawing from her own photographs and screen-printing, Critchley has also created a series on London. For her piece on the recent credit crunch, she incorporated terms like ‘quantitive easing’ and comments from newspapers to capture the mood at the time. “It was bought by a man who had been in finance in the city.  He said it was a ‘moment in history’,” she says. “I work in textile art because I want to produce hangings that say something about the subject I am studying.”  It certainly is refreshing to see such a reproduced landscape imagined in a new form.

The Credit Crunch
Critchley remains positive about the future of the medium and the improving reputation of textile artists within the art world. The V&A already has a great archive and some fantastic exhibitions.

It's just another reminder that fashion reflects far more than what should be in your wardrobe this season. Textiles go far beyond their role in clothing production; they are art, artefact, heritage and stories woven in fabric.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

That Jacket

I’m in mourning. My ‘leather’ (cough) jacket has crossed from the realm of worn in and well loved to that unappealing territory of falling apart and unfit for public consumption. While I am aware this does not quite equate with the loss of a favourite grandma, I have yet to chuck the decrepit thing away and may need a box of Kleenex on standby when the time comes.

Not exactly a Chanel Little Black Jacket
I can hear what you’re saying and yes I have considered getting a grip and taking a trip to Topshop. My reaction cannot be written off as the hyperbolising of a superficial fashion student though. Whether it’s their practicality or the memories they unlock, too often we underestimate the value placed on items of clothing. My own dad who has about as much interest in fashion as he does Tampax’s latest offering, still prizes his first Chelsea replica shirt from 1963. Tears would be shed should I choose to re-colour it an Arsenal shade of red. I won’t of course, I quite like living.

According to Marsha Richins (1994), value beyond an economic definition depends upon the usefulness of an object, its capacity to provide pleasure, the memories it evokes and its role in self-expression and identity. Not only has that jacket proven to be the most reliable outerwear I have ever owned but it now symbolises a monumental stage in my life and carries five years worth of memories.

“I keep certain pieces of clothing because I wore them to something special like my graduation or award ceremony and they remind me of that occasion.”

From a practical perspective it never let me down and was thus a trusted companion on trips to Spain, Paris and not forgetting the exotic land of Stoke. A collarless, black bomber, the elasticated waist and sleeves kept out bitter gusts of wind while fitting my body whatever I was wearing. During the coldest winter months it comfortably housed nine layers of clothing but was still light enough to tie around my bag for dancefloor purposes.

Like jeans, suits and bras, women can spend their lives searching for the perfect coat and I doubt I will find a jacket quite as versatile or worth its price tag. For this is no bespoke luxury leather piece but a £30 plastic version from H&M. Some people cannot part with clothing (often hardly worn) because of the eye-watering price initially paid.

“There's several things I will never ever wear again but they were more than 100 quid so won't chuck.”

However when you can’t afford to waste 30p on public lavatories, every garment must be an investment. You learn to appreciate a purchase worth its weight in gold and will wear it until it disintegrates.

For most people though, emotional and sentimental attachment to clothing is far stronger than practical value. It explains why so many of us hang onto treasured items that haven’t seen the light of day for years and are only fit for fancy dress parties or makeshift draft excluders. Why vintage remains a retail success and why my mum has kept the dresses made for my grandma before she travelled to India as a missionary nurse back in 1930.

“I doubt she got to wear them that much out there but we spent most of our childhood at boarding school so the dresses are a connection to her from that time.”

Clothes are narratives to lives we wish we’d known or do not want to forget. While anyone else will look at my jacket and see a cry for help, I see an idealistic but uncertain eighteen year old starting an adventure (cue sickening montage accompanied by the Beatles’ Yesterday or that song from Cats). First love, leaving home, a broken heart and losing loved ones. I see a university drop out twice over, a mental break down and starting again. New jobs, the right path, intense ambition. I see lifelong friends and growing confidence.

Richins speaks of the public and private meaning of objects. In popular culture the leather jacket denotes youth and teenage rebellion; think Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Olivia Newton John in Grease. While the most reckless thing I’ve done is write on the wallpaper as a toddler and haven’t braved second skin leggings, that jacket has come to symbolise growing up for me.

I got it the summer after leaving school and with an identity ready to mould. I didn’t want to be the glasses wearing nerd anymore but to start afresh at university. That jacket with its preformed connotations said goodbye to Fi the teacher’s pet and hello to a confident and effortlessly cool fresher (I vainly hoped). Perhaps it is a sign of our modern day consumer culture that commodities can become tools of self-expression, transformation and fantasies.

It’s also, inadvertently, seen me develop from a lost adolescent to a self-assured, ambitious (dare I say it) kind of adult. I’m fond of that timid kid like a big sister but I’ve moved on. I’m now coming to the next stage of my life and perhaps it’s the right time to move on from that jacket. What does a twenty-two year old posing as an adult wear when it’s raining and cold?

Richins, Marsha L. (1994) ‘Valuing Things The Public and Private Meanings of Possessions’, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 21(3): 504 – 521.