Melbourne Spring Fashion Week 2015 Review
by Rose James
MSFW: A Review
This month saw the end to yet another Melbourne Spring Fashion Week event, but though its Disney-imagery banners have vanished from Melbourne’s streetscape, we are left to question: what significance MSFW really has for our local fashion identity? And why is there no critical discourse, unlike in that of our art and other cultural counterparts, for a fashion event such as this?
Fashion has an uncomfortable history of critique: what is commonly referred to as fashion criticism rarely manifests itself as actual rigorous and analytical evaluation. These days, the popular conception of a fashion critic likely conjures the image of the show review, for instance, Style.com. Though this genre may offer a little rigor and analysis, is by no means a radical, even scrupulous, gesture. Certainly there is a degree of commercial limitation of publishing negative accounts of fashion (such as for exhibitions, shows or collections), critics have famously been banned from shows for delivering ‘bad’ press, but this has delivered a serious lack of diversity of voices on fashion worldwide. Spaces of critical and alternative practice are thus difficult to identify in fashion, compared with the more evolved discourses in neighbouring cultural fields such as art literature and the arts.
Melbourne Spring Fashion Week and its seasonal counterpart, the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Week, are an example of this commercial/critical binary. Fashion weeks, in their various national incarnations, act as bookends for each fashion season and are intrinsic to the industry, so, for more geographically oblique places such as Melbourne, these events naturally take on a different and more culturally immediate significance.
Here, both MSFW and VAMFF are largely cultural, insofar as they bear very little industry function, unlike Sydney’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, which, like major high fashion weeks in Paris, London, Milan and New York, largely a trade show that services the industry. This key distinction might actually liberate MSFW from commercial constraints in the presentation and representation of local fashion in a festival context. Sadly this is not the case, both events exist and perpetuate a narrow, two-dimensional, and altogether out-dated notion of fashion.
In its earlier millennium years, visitors attended the festival in the unrennovated carpark on Royal Lane beneath Council House in the Melbourne CBD. It was a setting that, though it still held mainstream appeal, seemed a more natural extension of the independent practices of the designers within it. Shows were unstructured, informal, and immediate, reminiscent of the avant-garde fashion happenings of Melbourne’s iconic Fashion Design Council during the Eighties. Crucially, there was an emphasis on independent designers rather than groups of retail competitors, awkwardly themed together in group shows until labels like ‘Contemporary’ and ‘Spring Carnival’.
There is a natural trajectory for things to evolve with changing times, but today, MSFW has spiralled into a depressing retail menagerie that seems motivated solely by the promotion of corporate identities whose interests it represents. The schedule reflects the hegemonous culture, which strives, not to mark out a point of difference, but to sell fashion product in a very narrow and formulaic framework. It’s a landscape void of any actual creative spirit, or at least, point of view. The recent event offered no exception. To begin with, the visual identity of the festival was confusing to say the least, the turquoise, butterfly-inflected, fantasy imagery (perhaps a reference to fantasy elements of popular culture) was completely misrepresentative of the contents of the festival. This was symbolic of the event itself, which hosted an equally absurd representation of fashion, speaking to our lowest common dominator.
The fact that every year there remains to be no critical review of MSFW, doubtfully speaks to the success of its spectacle, but rather to the lack of interest by critical players within the field. But a festival is not a festival if it does not engage its wider community. MSFW performs as an out-of-touch platform for standardised beauty and commerce, when it should be – like its local festival counterparts in art, literature and the arts – about disrupting exactly these standards.
Not only is more rigorous critique and diversity needed in our local discourse on fashion here in Melbourne, MSFW, as an event representative of the vibrancy and creativity of Melbourne’s fashion culture, should be likewise be reflecting some of these cultural and critical possibilities.
Rose James is a fashion critic based in Melbourne, Australia.