20 Years of Fashion East: Long Live Lulu

Aleksandra Brzezicka celebrates Fashion East's esteemed alumni at the end of its vicennial year.

WORDS Aleksandra Brzezicka
HEADER IMAGE Courtesy of Fashion East

Two decades ago, fashion newcomer and club child, Lulu Kennedy, started a non-profit initiative with a little industry knowledge and a lot of passion for less-favoured, young talents – Fashion East. Twenty years later, Kennedy is hailed as the godmother of London’s alternative fashion scene and a mastermind behind some of the most exciting multi-designers showcase worldwide.    

Since Fashion East’s debut, Lulu Kennedy has skyrocketed careers of today’s fashion frontrunners like J.W. Anderson and Simone Rocha, and collaborated with iconic visionaries including Judy Blame and Dior’s Kim Jones. She has supported avant-garde projects of ‘circular fashion’ pioneer NOKI, D.I.Y. experiments of Rottingdean Bazaar and Gareth Wrighton’s fabulous dystopia. No matter if it was in the Old Truman’s Brewery, Somerset House or Tate Modern, the shows invariably transcended its venues’ walls and into the future. With the over-the-top bravery and faith in unpolished genius, Fashion East proved that designers can thrive beyond graduation.   

Every year, Lulu and a board of fashion industry experts closely examine candidates to hand-pick new faces in women and menswear to become a part of the Fashion East community, consisting of over 140 UK’s most outstanding and forward-thinking designers. The lucky ones go under Kennedy’s mentoring wing, get access to a bursary, in-house PR and a chance to present a collection to a star studded front row.

Today, we’re setting the drama and despair of the past twelve months aside to celebrate Fashion East’s vicennial year. Fashion East’s mission has always been putting their alumni in the spotlight first while Kennedy oversaw the spectacle from the shadows. We honour Lulu’s legacy by bringing together Fashion East’s most dazzling stars who wowed us with their debuts and continue shining their light into fashion’s ever-changing future.   


In 2005, when Gareth Pugh caught Lulu Kennedy’s attention in London’s nightclub Kashpoint, it was a turning point for both unknown warehouse-squatting visionary with McQueen’s flair and Bowery’s grand theatrics and the then baby-stepping, talent incubator. Ever since his dark and dramatic debut show, Pugh has grown stronger and stranger from reconstructing his trademark joint-focused balloons, avant-garde model-consuming silhouettes to dressing Beyonce, Kylie Minogue. He even counts high-fashion power couple Rick Owens and Michèle Lamy as his industry guardian angels and close confidants. With the support of the rich and mighty of the industry, Pugh has spread his twisted wings into  revolutionary catwalks and influenced the next generation of shape-shifting designers. Currently on a two-year runway hiatus since his SS19 collection dedicated to his friend and mentor, Judy Blame, Gareth has put his efforts into Hard + Shiny creative studio, co-founded with his husband Carson McColl. ‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary’ warns the slogan of his newest initiative and no words could better manifest what Gareth Pugh’s mission as a designer and conceptual maker has been about so far. 


British menswear designer Craig Green debuted Fashion East’s and Topman’s initiative MAN with his 2013 AW collection featuring wooden-faced pieces and clean-cut silhouettes with patchworked panels. It was a prelude to what was to be called one of the most important fashion moments – his solo debut show in SS15. He managed to create daywear pieces that aspired to be art objects, born from a utilitarian modernity but longing for romantic melancholy. One show was enough to name Green an industry trailblazer from where he went on to conquer the world. He has since been a part of two MET exhibitions, – ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ in 2015 and 2018’s ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic imagination’ – and won multiple menswear designer accolades. Gaining international renown, he’s never abandoned the universe he created in the first place, only kept on updating and reworking it every season into his now multidimensional aesthetic.   


Liam Hodges designs smart streetwear for internet-raised millennials who want to escape the superficiality of their era. Debuting on Fashion East’s SS15 runway, Hodges presented a scout-boy goes-military spirited collection. During his three seasons showing under Kennedy, his luxury streetwear went from army-inspired to the urban jungle inhabited by only the best dressed post-modern anarchists. Hodges’ warrior lives in the reality where the strong graphic language is compulsory and eco-practices are considered the desired luxury. Now six years old, Liam Hodges’ practice has gained cult following both on the streets and among the high-fashion crowd. Previously backed by Topman, and now a face of The British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN scheme, Liam Hodges with every season offers a new narrative proving that fun mixes well with awareness and non-conformism is still a vital idea, even in 2020.   


When Grace Wales Bonner debuted ‘Ebonics’ for Fashion East’s 2016 AW showcase, the audience of professionals was stunned. In one collection, filtered through her mixed-raced (European and Afro-Atlantic) eyes, she has constructed a representation of black identity and masculinity that lets us into the world that’s simultaneously strongly-willed and subtle, proud of its aesthetics and ready to disrupt the status quo. In the times when blackness was defined through streetwear, Wales Bonner presented an elevated version of what it could be if you care to look back in history. No wonder, she’s won the 2016 LMVH Prize, BFC Designer Fashion Fund and collaborated with Dior and Adidas to spread her larger-than-fashion message. 


Just like Lulu Kennedy a decade earlier, Charles Jeffrey made his name as the Scottish-born wunderkind of London’s nightclubs and the ringleader of the alternative looking and living East London creative crew. Now, his LOVERBOY brand might be the epitome of underground going mainstream but the source of its gritty, subculture-oriented, glamour lies in an authentic place built on Fashion East’s grounds. For three consecutive seasons, Jeffrey presented his flamboyant tartan-wearing and a gender-bending gang of outcasts, dressed in the finest scraps reimagined in a beautifully dark vision. This most recent season, Charles Jeffrey wanted to share the love flowing through his community within the virtual sphere in a capsule collection, ‘Healing’. LOVERBOY’s fashion medicine has always been strong. This time we’re also being served a pretty powerful cure for all boredom-related diseases.   


If you don’t recognise the 2017’s Fashion East’s alumni, you’ve probably seen his iconic tie-dye transparent tops and mega-layered scrappy dresses on the coolest kids in your area. A Sai Ta, a mastermind behind nunchuck bags and Chinese takeaway-like packages, inspired by his British-Chinese-Vietnamese heritage and South London upbringing, puts forward a bold blend of Asian iconography and sensual 90s grunge. Despite paying an obvious homage to the past, the house of ASAI has always remained at the forefront of contemporary fashion. After finishing Fashion East’s residency, ASAI’s first solo show, ‘Ground Up’ (AW19), bathed in beiges and bronzes, redefined the modern British identity. Inspired by August Sander’s photographs of continental Europe, it matched closely with the dystopian reality. A reality that’s subject to change, as ASAI proclaims its acronym to mean ‘Actively Stand Against Injustice’.   


If big-scale events and shows can’t happen, DIY, local craftsmanship must make a comeback. It’s a lifestyle that worked so far for Yorkshire-based, cult queer designer, Matty Bovan. After graduating from CSM he was invited to join Fashion East’s team for a show that celebrated everything he’s about – 80s glitz and glamour, pop artist Keith Haring, theatrical performer Nina Hagen and his nan’s style. Instantly, his one-man led fashion operation has caught the international spotlight. With Adwoa Aboah, Björk and Rita Ora among his loyal fan-base along with LVMH and BFC’s board, he deep-dives into all that makes him tick and realize his larger-than-life, ravey dreams. Matty Bovan is a maximalist at heart and we live for that.


In 2017, South London’s designer Charlotte Knowles and her partner Alexandre Arsenault joined forces to create a brand that presents a new perspective on what female iconography could be when recentering the gaze. In prevailing with embroidered corsets, bra-based constructions and mini-dresses, they play a conceal-reveal game set in the sensual 70s. It screams freedom. Since debuting on Fashion East’s grounds, Charlotte Knowles has patchworked her version of modern femininity that’s sexy and in charge, paying a subtle homage to Vivienne Westwood’s refined lingerie-related garms and this decade’s social shape-obsession. 


British-Nigerian designer Mowalola Ogunlesi’s career has skyrocketed since her first menswear show for Fashion East in AW19. She served an explosive mixture of sex, punk and music-influenced garms by London’s vibrant Black club scene. Her tribe walked the runway covered in silk, latex and leather imprinted with trippy graphics. During her three-season tenure with the talent incubator, she’s become a truly ground-breaking designer, favoured by celebrity style icon Naomi Campbell who wore her bold bullet-wound dress. Only recently Mowalola has released a short video ‘Drip City’, evolving around her fashion aesthetics translated into digital for GucciFest, and was recently appointed as Yeezy x Gap’s Design Director. Mowalola has provocation in blood and is not scared to broach often unspoken topics like the horror of falling in love and racial inequality.  We were honoured to feature Mowalola, along with rapper boyfriend Odunsi, on the cover of the latest issue of BRICKS (available to purchase from our online store), and we can’t wait to see her continue her fashion takeover into 2021.

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