Fashion and therapy are two words rarely heard in a sentence together - unless we're talking about retail therapy - which, in this case, we are not. Eden Loweth, creative director of the genderless, London-based label ART SCHOOL, had a very different kind of healing process in mind for their S/S 21 show, aptly titled Therapy. Last September, 35 models of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, gender orientations and abilities walked down a de facto runway in Waterlow Park in a pre-filmed catwalk show which was to become an emotional touchstone in a season marred by COVID-19 restrictions. The eclectic cast stomped defiantly through the British sunshine in silk bias cut dresses, fine tailoring, trench coats and leather corseted mini dresses, their eyes tarnished by ghostlike contact lenses.
Loweth teamed up with Zebedee management on the casting of the show - an inclusive talent agency devoted to people with disabilities and trans/non-binary people - Damian Harper, an amputee, walked alongside Kofi Holland, a model with Down syndrome. Loweth’s mentors and ART SCHOOL regulars also appeared: SHOWstudio's own former editor Mimma Viglezio walked, as did Cozette Mccreery of Sibling fame. ‘There aren't many brands that are actually focused on these real people,’ says Loweth. The mixing of real people with professionals on the runway generated a rare alchemy similar to when film directors cast first-timers alongside professional actors - think of Julia Fox and Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (2019), or Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender in Fish Tank (2009).
As Celeste belted out lyrics about losing one's faith on 'Little Runaway,' the models appeared as if they too had weathered some kind of storm, physical or emotional; many of the garments were torn or slashed. The show's pervading mood of vulnerability and subsequent strength was fitting; in August 2020, it was announced that Loweth would act as ART SCHOOL's sole creative director following the departure of the label's co-designer Tom Barratt. 'The (S/S 21) season was a bit of a blur because Tom was there right at the very beginning and then he wasn't, so it was a big transitional period. It's quite inbuilt with trauma for me, so I've blacked a lot of it out,' says Loweth.
ART SCHOOL burst onto the London schedule in 2017 as part of Lulu Kennedy’s talent incubator Fashion East with the mission statement of using luxury fashion as a communicative tool to explore contemporary queerness. Community inclusion and LGBTQ+ visibility is at the core of the label, which is heavily informed by Eden and their friends' non-binary gender identities. This aim is not a merely conceptual one, nor is it something visible only in the inclusive casting of the label’s shows; instead, queer visibility is tangible in the actual garments themselves, via a cutting technique championed in the 1920s by Madeleine Vionnet and later popularised by John Galliano at Dior: the bias cut. Instead of cutting on the warp or the weft, fabric is cut diagonally to create a natural stretch, so it fits the body’s natural form and sits like liquid. ‘It works particularly well when we're dressing trans people because there's a natural stretch within the cloth, so as their bodies change it doesn't feel so constricting. That applies to any person in their wardrobe and over their life,’ Loweth explains.
Loweth’s new A/W 21 collection, Ascension, is dedicated to trans icon SOPHIE, the pioneering Scottish pop musician who died after an accidental fall in Athens on 30 January 2021. ‘SOPHIE was a beacon of hope, a light like no other who leaves behind a generation defining, culturally iconic legacy and body of work. We owe her so much, she has shaped many of our lives and we mourn together as a community in memory of her,’ read the show notes.
As always, the casting stood out. Loweth enlisted Lucia Blayke and Emily Crooked of London Trans Pride to take the reins for A/W 21, ushering in new faces alongside ART SCHOOL regulars in what Loweth calls 'a new take on community in London now, with people of different abilities, gender orientations and ethnicities, ages and sizes.' Transgender male model Finn Buchanan walked through The Old Truman Brewery shirtless, while Bimini Bon-Boulash and Aurora Sexton from RuPaul's Drag Race UK also made cameos. 'A lot of these kids that have done this show work in queer nightlife. This is probably the only job they're going to have in the next six months. It's putting money directly in the pockets of queer people, and that's what we're here to do,' says Loweth.
Ascension is the first season where Loweth exerted full creative control over the collection from start to finish, and it showed. 'It's my view on the world of ART SCHOOL, rather than a joint view. I am quite a goth and my favourite colour is black, so naturally it has more of a gothic mentality than in the past,' they say. A world away from the loud glitz and glamour of the label's early shows under Fashion East's menswear scheme MAN, Ascension is split into three distinct segments of colour: black, red and white. ART SCHOOL’s signature dramatic silk evening wear reappears, as do the label’s gothic clunky wheat chains, coiled around necks and wrists, belted snugly around coats, or snaked through hats by Noel Stewart like exoskeletons. The label have created their first ever genderless bag, something which has been in the works for some time. 'I'm a bags and accessories person,' says Loweth. The bag comes in two different sizes: large or small. 'The mini one is for the club which you can put your phone in, and the massive one you can throw everything and a change of clothes in and go on holiday.’ After noticing sparkly, hand-knitted fine tinsel floor length dresses in red and black, I ask Loweth if they were designing with a post-lockdown world of partying in mind. They assure me that the dresses are ‘a slight glimmer of hope,’ and that the overarching idea of the show is of the figures walking out of the darkness and into light.
As the models walked into the light, so too did the label. In August 2020 it was announced that ART SCHOOL was to be part of the MATCHESFASHION Innovators Programme, something Loweth describes as a ‘life changing’ opportunity. The London-based retail giant gives support, mentoring and marketing help to 12 designers for the course of a year (Charles Jeffrey, Bianca Saunders and Wales Bonner are also among the 2020 cohort). ART SCHOOL’s S/S 21 collection is available to buy on MatchesFashion.com, and the A/W 21 collection will later be added too. ‘It came at the perfect time for me to have the confidence to take the next steps and start building the label and enter the next stage beyond the “young designer” banner,’ says Loweth. In Loweth’s signature fashion of involving their mentors closely with the label, Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director of MATCHESFASHION walked in Ascension.
In yet another watershed moment for the brand, Katie Grand came on board as a stylist for the show. 'Obviously Katie is an idol for me,' gushes Loweth, citing her work with Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton and Miu Miu in the mid 2000s. 'Her work was so impactful to people like me growing up.' So how did they manage to secure fashion's fairy godmother for the gig? Loweth's mentor Cozette Mcreery suggested the idea and texted Grand, who replied two seconds later saying that she was up for the job. 'I thought she would say no. The text came through and I just burst into tears. It was quite a monumental thing,' says Loweth. Having Grand attached to ART SCHOOL is no mean feat, and signals a more ambitious, serious chapter for the label. 'I want to shy away from doing these crazy moments that we did at the start of the brand, because now we have a much more serious story to tell. Me and my team are older and so are the models that we choose to focus on.'
For such an innovative and forward thinking label, it came as a surprise that ART SCHOOL stuck to the traditional runway show format at a time when brands are experimenting with fashion film left right and centre as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But for Loweth, the catwalk has symbolic power. ‘The physical act of stepping onto a catwalk and being seen alongside people as a queer person is really powerful. It raises these individuals up. They are my supermodels,’ Loweth explains.
It would appear that the industry is finally taking heed from genderbending labels like ART SCHOOL and Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY. In late 2020, The British Fashion Council announced they were scrapping London Fashion Week Men’s and instead combining womenswear and menswear on the same schedule. February 2021 lays claim to the first installment of this new experiment. ‘Having split seasons is what's aiding fashion's complete collapse. It's really brave of Caroline (Rush) to step forward and do this now,’ says Loweth.
After securing Grand as a stylist, creating the first ART SCHOOL bag, receiving ongoing support from MATCHESFASHION and showing on London's first ever genderless schedule, Loweth's label is clearly heading in the right direction. But it's not all about the clothes. 'Ascension is designed to act as more than a collection of clothes. It is a message of hope. No matter how hard the challenges our community may face, we will emerge from the darkness.' And from the darkness into the light they go.