The lights in Lafayette Arts & Design Centre center were way too bright, and none of the paintings were level. Some girls scrambled to straighten them while the sound from the DJ booth cut out. About 100 people were in the space for the opening event of Shanghai's first ever Alternative Fashion Week, organized by The Dark Mattress (TDM). The official Shanghai Fashion Week was still happening just two blocks away. This new venue had been secured after the original space, Le Royal Meridian, pulled out at 9pm the night before. The organizers hadn't slept at all. Kind of a miracle this happened.
[Update: Their Monday night show at ArtLabor was also relocated last minute, and happened at Lucca Bar instead]
Buzzed on free vodka, people made their way downstairs to see the first runway show, and the lights looked straight out of the Taobao bargain bin. Same for the speakers. When the girls came out for the first show of a rather revealing line of dresses, none of them had matching underwear, which was quite obvious. Their shoes didn't match either. Or the makeup. Everyone had their own walking style, including one or two who actually knew how to walk on a runway. One girl tripped and almost fell. The first designer didn't come out after his show, and a long, long awkward silence hovered before the next models came out. For an Alternative Fashion Week, this felt quite tame. I expected models to come out drenched in fake blood, antagonizing the audience like Gigi Allen or something.
But despite all this, the event felt cooler and realer than Shanghai Fashion Week. Conceptually, anyway. Other fashion weeks, like those in London, Berlin, and Vancouver have their alternative counterparts, but this is the first for Shanghai. It's a showcase for the designers who have big ideas, but lack the connections and / or money to get into the real fashion week. Shanghai needs this kind of thing. And there were beautiful moments, like when the second designer's grandmother traveled all the way from Inner Mongolia to see the show.
After the show, I sat down with the organizers to chat about why they're doing this and the beauty of failure.
Danny: Basically it's a not-for-profit organization that promotes creative talent in China. We wanted to create a Studio 54 / Factory where creatives can get together and bounce ideas around, and it's just developed from there…
Danny on far right, Moe beside him, Tak on far left
Moe: We saw Shanghai Fashion Week for a while, I visited a few years, some friends were showing…I was telling Danny, who's been working in fashion for a long time, "is it normal that it's just catwalk and then it's over, and it's at the same place every year, same kind of clique, nothing really happens and it's kind of corporate?" The brands that show, they just buy into it, then they get to show. There's no real creation. Then we started getting this idea of just doing an alternative fashion week in Shanghai like they have in every big city.
Tak: Every. London has three. Actually a lot of really good designers come from the non-mainstream fashion week…
Danny: Alexander McQueen became big in alternative fashion week. Gareth Pugh…
Tak: Basically, as long as you're passionate enough about what you're doing, you get a chance to show it. But in China there's very little chance. So we gotta have some kind of platform.
Danny: Absolutely nothing. It's killing us [laughs].
Moe: We're turned from a not-for-profit organization to a for-a-loss organization lately [laughs].
Danny: We're very good at schmoozing people and venues….
Moe: We confirmed this venue at 20 past 9pm in the evening last night, and we were only allowed to set up at 5pm today, so we had 2.5 hours to set up the entire show, and the first time we saw this space was last night.
Danny: We've been doing events for years and years and years…We're really good at organizing shit really quickly. It's not like this is the first time we've done anything.
Danny: I've been a design manager at various companies: Levi's, Jack & Jones, Bench, Superdry…
Tak: I'm a fashion photographer, I've been working in Barcelona, London, New Zealand. I really love magazine work, and four years ago I came here, and I couldn't find a magazine that would take me. I'm pretty crazy. So I thought there must be some kind of alternative choice for anyone who's really in love with they do.
Moe: I'm also really into magazines. When I came to Shanghai I was looking for magazine work, and I met Tak, he needed an art director…
Tak: I had a magazine that failed [6 Magazine; laughs].
Moe: Previously I've been working for MTV, writing a little bit, between graphic design and journalism…
Danny: It's anti-money. [Fashion week is] Proper artists and proper companies working together to produce really average stuff, so we wanted to take the finance side out of it.
Moe: The only guidelines we have is, sometimes we tell people "you're too famous", sorry. We wanna showcase up-and-coming people. If there's someone quite famous, we put them on the judge panel, then they can offer their guidance.
Moe: [laughs] They're new models. Some of them have never been on a catwalk before. They came to us and wanted to participate. That's the whole point, and I'm happy people noticed that. We didn't pay them -- they were here to promote themselves, as models. And we have a category at the end of the week, one being "new-face model", so our judges will decide which one of these models is the most up-and-coming…
Danny: Tonight the same person did all the makeup and hair, with a team of twelve people. They're newbies.
Moe: We got the interns to hand out free VIP tickets [for alternative fashion week]…but anyway it's free. Our daytime job is photography and video production, and we produced the video for the finale show of Shanghai Fashion Week last year, but we had to re-edit it a million times. They were like "oh no…it's too hardcore". This is why we do TDM actually. We're trying to somewhat raise the standard of how far you can go, because coming from London, there's no real limit, but in Shanghai there's still that boundary.
Random Girl: It was awesome. It was different, it was nice…
[Note: I later asked about the lack of edge in this show, and how it seemed quite tame for an opening. They said a lot of local media came out for this one, so they wanted to do something somewhat familiar for this first impression, and that things would get crazier later].
Moe: Because it was Danny…[laughs]
Danny: I didn't wanna take away from the real designers. I also made it last night, by the way.
Moe: We didn't sleep, by the way. Sending out invites…someone was supposed to send out all the invites and that totally fucked up. Danny spent all night making the dresses.
Danny: I made one dress about three months ago, and then yeah, decided to do this in a whole color range. I did the first one in two hours, so I was like "oh yeah I could probably do this in twelve hours".
Moe: We spent most of our days last month walking around schmoozing people, securing venues, re-securing them, losing the venues…
Moe: People don't trust us, I don't know why [laughs].
Danny: We basically go to people and say, "can we have your really expensive venue, and can you pay for all the beers?"
Danny: What we're trying to do it, 25% press, 25% industry people, and then 50% is open to absolutely anyone. They just have to write us an email [to email@example.com]. We really didn't wanna make it that cliquey.
Moe: If the night is booked then we shuffle you to the next night. We want everyone to come, who really wants to see it. We're limited for those reasons of not having the biggest venue in the world.
Moe: On the final night this week, when all the winners show their work one more time, at Factory 54.
Tak: Why are you here? [laughs, implying that the goat walk got everyone's attention]
Tak: It's the goat / sheep year.
Moe: We just walked through Shanghai from People's Square to The Bund with a couple of goats we borrowed from a friend and new-face models. There were tens of thousands of people who took photos and shared them.
Danny: The road to failure is littered with success.
Moe: That's really important to us…
Tak: We love failing.
Moe: This whole fashion week is just for the winner, that's a success on their road…
Danny: [But] don't be arrogant when you get a little bit of success, because there's ups and downs, so just stay kinda cool and don't be arrogant.
Tak: And the only way to push the boundaries and have something new and interesting, is to fail.
Alternative Fashion Week continues this week, here's the rough schedule. Note that these venues may change, so best to email them at firstname.lastname@example.org first.
Wednesday, April 15 @ Red Bull Rooftop from 7pm.
Thursday, April 16 @ The Nest, from 8pm.
Friday, April 17 @ Daliah
Saturday, April 18 @ Factory 54 from 7pm.
All photos by Aleksandar Carevic, except the goat walk photo, which came from TDM.