Have you ever watched someone tear a live insect apart, limb by limb – let alone, at a fashion show? Fashion loves a bit of animal cruelty, but creative director Elliot Long had something wholly different in mind; at his debut Parabola Works show in Bow, East London, audience members were subject to a light smattering of insect – not animal – cruelty. After enduring a half hour wait outside the venue, guests were ushered into a low-lit, industrial warehouse lined with sewing machines for an evening of heightened discomfort, poetry and performance art.
Behind a pane of glass in the first room, a male model butchered a series of flailing crickets and other green insects with his fingers, grinding them up on a table like weed for a spliff. The voyeuristic setup had echoes of Alexander McQueen's S/S 2001 Voss show (which took place in a clinical glass box), or Damien Hirst's death vitrines of rotting cow heads and swarming flies. Sure, Long employed tried and tested shock tactics at his show, but they proved a refreshing departure from the cookie-cutter runway format – plus, discomfort is a much more interesting emotion than boredom.
The jumpy atmosphere was further enhanced by silent, poker-faced models weaving in and out of the crowd; one particularly audacious man singled out audience members for unwavering games of eye contact, poured wine into an overflowing glass (my cup runneth over?), and then smashed the bottle over his own head. 'I'd rather have people leave out of pure discomfort instead of them coming out and being like, "That was alright,"' Long tells me a couple of days after the show. And leave, people did. It was unclear whether this room of confused fashion people milling about in near darkness was the whole shebang – and after schlepping all the way to Bow, many couldn't be bothered to wait and find out.
But those who waited were rewarded. A door in the corner of the room opened, and guests descended down a stairwell into a dilapidated, cavernous studio space. Confined to separate rooms with open doors, feral models slammed themselves against the walls and shouted, obscured by copious amounts of fog and strobe lighting. Guests then seated themselves on two long rows of wooden benches (there was no seating plan, and no guest list on the door either), which implied there would be some sort of catwalk show – what ensued was instead a long-winded, theatric performance of sorts.
Models crawled, slinked and skipped across the room to a poignant, original score of strings and electronics by Akira Woodgrain, while Sonny Hall scrawled poetry on the wall. Long spent months fleshing out intricate, twisted characters for the models through fictional letter-writing. He describes the show as a 'family affair. That's why I felt so comfortable pulling out these dark, sinister moments. I'm reading people my writing that is very personal and exposing myself as a bit of a nutcase,' he says, laughing maniacally.
The clothes were difficult to make out in the dark and the fog, but most of the getup was tailoring with a twist: moleskin suiting with corduroy-lined pockets, frilly white shirts, a black floor-length dress with one snaking chiffon strap, and a grey bustier with matching trousers. There was a fluidity and flamboyance to the garments, as if they would look good on anyone wearing them regardless of gender.
The show finished with a standing ovation from well over 200 guests – an impressive turnout for a designer's first ever, off-schedule show (plus, Long is just 22 years old). So, how did he get here? Bizarrely, he used to be a chef; as a teenager, he worked at both The Ledbury and Restaurant Story in London, and Noma in Copenhagen – recently voted the best restaurant in the world. 'It's something I had never really experienced before, and I've never found it anywhere else,' he says. 'How obsessed people are, the camaraderie, this feeling that food is like God. You're all constantly striving.'
Moving from food to fashion was a logical step. 'You take these raw materials, like a courgette or a cotton twill, and then you can transform it through a lens of storytelling to make you feel something that's really special,' he says. After doing a foundation in Art and Design at Central Saint Martins for three months, Long left to work alongside Samuel Ross at A-COLD-WALL* when he was 18 years old. He describes Ross as a 'visionary' and a 'force of nature', and worked with him for nearly three years. 'A-COLD-WALL* showed me that it's not just about clothes. If you start incorporating different parts of who you are and drawing from different reference points that aren't just clothes, then you can really make people feel something,' he says. Ross epitomises contemporary notions of what a 'creative director' is; he interned with Virgil Abloh back in 2012, a man who shaped the very notion of the role after working as a creative director for Kanye West, and later, his own brand Off-White™. Likewise, Long is clearly a protégé of Ross, although the clothes they make look totally different – but they do have a theatrical itch in common.
There are plans to develop the Imp of the Perverse performance into a film, but the mood of the show will be difficult to replicate on camera. 'When you're in that susceptible, vulnerable place, I feel like you're way more open to connecting to things, almost in a childlike way,' says Long of the in-person experience. 'I want to remind people that you can really feel something. It's not all superficial.'