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Prague: City of Prospects
Dash Magazine, 16 February 2016, Paul Stewart
Capital cities cater – if I can shake the alliteration – to the whims and peccadilloes of people of every persuasion: it seems I cannot. In this, all destinations are equal. A range of attractions and vices fuel the fire in the bellies of those answering the call of the wild emanating from Amsterdam, or London’s Soho, now a sanitised version of its former glories, mostly prim and proper instead of rough and ready.
Judging by a Friday evening EasyJet flight to Prague and the rowdy, already well lubricated cabin atmosphere, the promise of cheap booze acts as the last vestige of the impoverished mind. So goes the exchange in the direction of London to Prague – stag-dos, hen-dos and assorted folk keen to stretch money drained in an hour at home over the course of a good weekend’s binge on the sharply atmospheric streets of the City of a Hundred Spires.
Fashion proves the alluring pull for Czech Republic designers heading in the opposite direction, intent on heightening their craft and worldview via the cachet of studying at London’s renowned schools or showing on its equally revered catwalks. This is true of Pavel Ivančic, voted Czech fashion designer of 2007, who, following gaining creative and commercial inspiration during his studies at Central Saint Martins under the guiding hand but critical eye of the incomparable Louise Wilson, has returned home to lead the fashion department of UMPRUM, or the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague.
His move back is both well intentioned and timed, for Prague currently has the whiff of fashion optimism creeping through its splendid architecture. Let the metaphor speak for itself, for there is something in the air, a local spirit Ivančic is intent on distilling and having eventually permeate the more globally recognised fashion arenas. It is not a criticism – rather a fact – to suggest that this aroma needs assistance for it to spread widely, as regional fashion schools typically neglect teaching their students about commerce, that vital arena propelling Ivančic to the multi-disciplinary methodology of leading institutions who recognise its importance in a student’s learning, alongside nurturing their natural creative talent.
Not for nothing is the fashion business so named, an inevitable dislocation caused once shareholders enter the picture to the detriment of craft and the simple but profound instruction felt by anyone whose ambition is to create, to put into the world an object it had not realised it needed but can no longer do without. The well oiled machine of the global fashion industry solicits that reaction in consumers nowadays courtesy of the oldest trick in the book – advertising so polished but debased that it answers to profit alone. Money now acts as the last word in any and all commercial transaction, but increasingly so in emotional transactions and attachments, as aspiration is held hostage in the fashion domain to hocus-pocus imagery that has long given up pretending to have any sense of emotive proportion or intellectual decency.
As awash with capital as fashion may be, it seems hell-bent on moral bankruptcy. The inverse parallel can be drawn with the history and struggle of Prague itself, whose aesthetic renaissance courses through the bones and stiffens the resolve of its current crop of fashion designers, several of whom will feature at the Ivančic curated The Last Fata Morgana, organised by the Czech Centre London and UMPRUM. The exhibition showcases the work of emerging Czech Republic designers, to be displayed at London’s Somerset House as part of its Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility programme, during Fashion Utopias: the International Fashion Showcase 2016 (IFS), the annual collaboration between the British Council and the British Fashion Council held during London Fashion Week.
Given that UMPRUM accepts no more than four students per year onto its fashion pathway, Ivančic’s caution in accepting only the finest to ensure the reputation of the institution is justified by the feedback received from fashion headhunters, who now grant Prague an international fashion standing. This position is maintained by the close-knit relationship between UMPRUM and the city’s retailers, with spaces such as the charming Debut Gallery in the Old Town, taking their stock from a majority of the school’s students. Wise to the lack of their exposure to commercial principles throughout their course, the shop, now into its fifth season, was opened with the sole intention of helping recent graduates sell their work and increase their nous when dealing with future stockists, so building on the practical skills their studies had developed.
Able and impassioned support such as this is symptomatic of the city and its relationship to its contemporaneous generation of designers, both buoyed by the ongoing success of Martina Spetlova – recently dedicated a window at London’s Selfridges – and her skill with hand-woven leather. Representing Ivančic’s UMPRUM selection at the IFS will be Antonín Šimon – who has already served under Raf Simons following the acclaimed figure sitting on his graduation judging panel – and, amongst others, a trio of female designers whose conviction in their ideas is borne out in the assertive character of their pieces. Sofya Samareva tests the limits of headwear, and our responses to objects whose form is far removed from conventional hats. Her playful freedom is derived from the removal of the stigma of wearing hats under Communism and its bourgeois association.
Her collection is inspired by nature and the movement of human hair, whose fluidity her sculptural millinery mimics and reinforces: Tereza Rosalie Kladošová, one of the standout designers of Mercedes-Benz Prague Fashion Weekend 2014 and current MA student at UMPRUM, realises her infectious enthusiasm in her deliberately overstated MEOW collection, a response to her interest in kitsch and its place within the cultural heritage of the Czech Republic, whose women once took home decoration to extreme levels of devotion. Through her use of tapestry and techniques found in carpet weaving, Kladošová creates genre and boundary defining looks that inject the much needed humour missing from fashion, her collections a reprise from the supremacy of convoluted and confused haute-couture messages in preference for committed joy, an exuberance in approach and execution bringing to mind the work of Walter Van Beirendonck.
Markéta Kratochvílová, winner of the Czech Grand Design 2014 Editor’s Award, brings a jewellery collection serving as her UMPRUM diploma project. Deeply interested in notions of womanhood, the female form and its changing historical appearance, her research into the corset and the severity of its function results in an intentionally naive and romantic project exploring the dark side of femininity and the social forces leading to the expectation that women distort and deform their shape by being contained in aggressively restrictive pieces. Her research unveiled the presence of whale bones in original corsetry, referenced here in the plastic of her own work taking the shape of such bones. For Kratochvílová, whales have a special soul, a purity matched by that of women. Her merging of bra and necklace in a standout piece brings together the shared spirit of the mammal with that of females, along with the form and function of what has exceeded the utility of mere jewellery.
The Last Fata Morgana promises to redefine the participating Czech
designers’ view of an ideal world: imagining one that no longer need be a
trick of the mind. We have seen that the fashion world has turned into
exactly that. What it can become in opposition and replacement to this
mirage is in the hands of all participants of Fashion Utopias: the
International Fashion Showcase 2016.