Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Fashionweek reminds me how my catwalk show was a religious experience

By Frances Burscough

October is one of the most fashion-conscious months of the year. Paris Fashion Week is just coming to an end, hot on the heels of New York, London and Milan, and so almost every day there's a style story in the news.

Then, of course, later this month there's our very own Belfast Fashionweek to look forward to. This season the catwalk shows are being held at St Anne's Cathedral, and I can't think of anywhere more spectacular to rig up a runway and launch a new fashion line.

When I was a fashion design student in Manchester in the mid-1980s, my degree show would have looked right at home in such hallowed halls, because - believe it or not - my entire collection was inspired by the religious vestments of the Catholic church.

The models were dressed in dramatic, nay flamboyant, eveningwear that was inspired by the pomp and ceremony of the Vatican.

It was tastefully done, I can assure you, so that my mum and all my Catholic relatives wouldn't be mortified. It was also in the back of my mind not to offend God. If I was going to go to Hell, I certainly wouldn't want it to be because of a fashion foible.

So while the crucifix was featured as a symbol, it was in homage to all things ecclesiastical, rather than an affront to them.

I chose the same colours from a cardinal's wardrobe - blood red, purple, black, emerald green, ivory and, of course, gold... lots of it. Each costume included a long, black slim-fitting gown worn with a voluminous brightly coloured chasuble-style cape emblazoned with a gold embroidered cross.

I worked alongside a millinery designer who created a range of miniature-sized biretta hats (the ones with a pom-pom on that cardinals wear), and the models wore these at a jaunty angle with their hair was slicked back into a ponytail. I also incorporated jewellery designed by a fellow degree student to complement my collection. The pieces included chokers, gauntlets and neck-pieces made from gold wire and enamel.

For the authentic finishing touches - and to add a whiff of drama - I enlisted the help of my local church and borrowed some of its precious hardware for the event. The lead models strode out with a smoking thurible (the brass incense burner suspended from chains that's swung around the altar during Latin mass) and filled the stage with a thin veil of sandalwood smoke, through which the other models appeared, accompanied by the sound of Gregorian chants, one brandishing a staff , another a sceptre and another carried an aspergillum (the ornate implement that priest or altar server uses to sprinkle holy water into the congregation) with which she flicked everyone on the front row with sandalwood cologne.

As you can imagine, it was a spectacle to behold and ended to rapturous applause. I was offered a job on the strength of it too. Not as a member of the clergy, but as a fashion designer for an international label.

Although my time in the fashion industry only lasted a few years, what stayed with me - and resurfaces every time the fashion shows come around - is the memory of the utter madness that goes on behind the scenes of a catwalk show.

Even though I was only showing six outfits, it took me nine months working solidly around the clock to produce my event and get the models and choreography just right.

For a full-length fashion show of approximately 100 outfits, you can only imagine the effort that's involved.

As the chic cognoscenti assemble, the supermodels sashay and the paparazzi bulbs pop, backstage there's a frantic hive of hysteria going on that few ever get to see.

I still find it phenomenal how complete chaos can become elegant serenity within a few perfectly-poised paces. Nevertheless, each time the whole shebang works seamlessly and the audience is treated to a comprehensive cross-section of the season ahead.

So bearing that in mind, I'll wish good luck to all involved at Belfast Fashionweek Autumn 2017.

If you're interested in going yourself, visit belfastfashionweek.com for all the details.

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