Festival highlights the real face of fashion

Former model hopes Edinburgh event will show haute couture in a flattering light, writes Magnus Linklater

The world of fashion is ruthless, stupid, greedy and egotistical. It exploits young models and fools the public. But it is also beautiful, artistic, a major employer and a significant contributor to our modern economy. That is the way Anna Freemantle-Zee, a former model, sees it as she launches the fifth Edinburgh International Festival of Fashion. This is the newest addition to the city’s portfolio of festivals, which aims to both present the acceptable face of fashion and explore the hidden world of haute couture.

For 17 years Ms Freemantle-Zee, Dutch-born but now living in Scotland, trod the runway, modelling for Vogue, Chanel and most of the big fashion houses. She encountered the dark side of an industry, which she describes as selfish and self-obsessed.

“As a model I never really enjoyed it,” she says. “I had to learn how to put a mask on, it wasn’t really where I came from, and over the years I’ve learnt how to take it off again and be OK with what I’ve got.”

She does not have a high opinion of the men — and it is often men — who run an industry that is obsessed with itself and interested only in its image.

“Sometimes what you find behind [the mask] is not at all what you expect,” she says. “I’ve met some people who were my heroes, but you’d be surprised by how many times I was disappointed.

“People were ruthless, there was no borderline, they did whatever they wanted to get to where they needed to be; there was no self-respect. I was intrigued by how you could end up working with a team of completely stupid people, and somehow these were the big guys.”

The festival aims to redress this balance and focus more on the positive side of fashion. So last month it launched a preview show on the importance of the Harris tweed industry to fashion, which was attended by the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay.

Ms Freemantle-Zee added: “We called it ‘From Harris to Paris’ and it highlighted the journey a garment takes before it is seen on the runway. People are unaware of what happens behind closed doors, and how much needs to be brought into the light, because there is a danger that we may be losing all that.

“The textile industry is suffering. All the people we met in the Harris tweed industry and in the mills seemed to be about 85. Yet without their skills Paris fashion won’t have the raw material it relies on.”

She campaigns against what she calls the “fast food” aspect of fashion — clothes produced by cheap labour in third world locations, such as Bangladesh. Instead, the festival will include the designer Stella McCartney presenting “green” fashion — clothes made from sustainable sources.

A two-day conference will involve industry leaders talking about such topics as sexuality in fashion, and how the line between fashion wear for men and women is becoming steadily blurred.

Ms Freemantle-Zee came to London to study hospitality management and marketing, took up modelling, and met and married Jonathan Freemantle, an artist who encouraged her to look at fashion with an artistic eye, seeing it as much a part of the art world as an exercise in celebrity.

Tiring of London, they moved to Edinburgh, where she launched the fashion festival in 2011. The event has explored such themes as the power of the fashion industry, but also the way it creates impossible ideals of beauty which often undermine women’s confidence as much as it creates an ideal for them to aspire to.

“Fashion is an expression of all of us as individuals, not only in terms of what we are like, but what it says about our psychology and emotions,” she says.

“If you feel bad you will dress differently to when you feel great or vice versa. Maybe you will wear outfits that make you feel great for that day, they will give you the right confidence to face anything that comes your way.”

On the other hand, she argues, by parading impossibly thin young women wearing outrageous creations, fashion is losing touch with the real world.

“Girls see something in a magazine and try to idealise themselves by looking perfect in something that is the wrong colour, the wrong size, and what they need is someone to come and say actually you’ve got broad shoulders so that’s not going to work for you.

“There’s not one garment that’s perfect for everyone. Everyone can look amazing in green or orange but it has to be the right green or orange, and once you get that right you feel better about yourself.

“Fashion is much more than thin girls wearing something impossible. We’re all different people with different shapes, and what matters is not trying to be like Naomi Campbell, it’s more about how you feel during the day. We’ve created our own big monster, so we don’t have any runway shows this year — that’s fashion week, and we’re not fashion week. Fashion is an industry and an art form.”

She goes on to argue that fashion gurus like Victoria Beckham and Anna Wintour use clothes as a way of concealing their insecurity.

“To be honest every woman and every man has got some insecurity — we all have, it would be silly to deny that we don’t,” she says. “Women are open books in terms of insecurity and lack of confidence.

“Look at Anna Wintour always dressed basically the same, it’s a power look, with sunglasses and hair in the same bob, but you could also say that there’s a real insecurity there. Strong women like Victoria Beckham all present themselves in a certain way.

“It looks quite intimidating, but obviously it’s a façade. In fashion we are great at façade, but when you come home you may be crying for help.”

She says that the festival is also intended as a gateway to the fashion world for young designers.

“We’re not commercial and we’re not trying to make money, but we are trying to help new and young designers, offering them different approaches to business models. We don’t all have David Beckham behind us, with £100 million to spend, so how do we keep this as a functioning industry, which we all need, because we all have to have clothes to wear.

“You try to do it in the right way, but at the same time you’ve got to lure the audience in. So you need a big name or a famous person to do that, which is why we have Stella McCartney showing.

“I wanted to create a doorway where things could happen, a platform where young and old can create something, with no boundaries, and no commercial machine telling you to make 30 dresses.

“Just make whatever you want and express what you want without society telling you what to do,” she concludes.

What’s on show

● The Edinburgh International Fashion Festival runs from July 21-24. The highlights include:

● Stella McCartney exhibition and event at Archerfield House, East Lothian.

● Saskia de Brauw book launch at the Surgeons’ Hall Museums.

● Symposiums, all at the National Museum of Scotland, include:

● Object of desire — sex, fashion and the female gaze

● Blurred lines — his and hers fashion and the future of menswear