it’s called ffasiwn – i

The name for Charlotte James and Clémentine Schneidermann’s joint exhibition came from a chance encounter between two groups of kids in the Valleys one afternoon. Charlotte had dressed up a few local girls in all-black Halloween outfits. A group of boys coming out of a nearby youth club quickly spotted them and shouted “‘What are you wearing?! You look like you’re going to a funeral!’,” Charlotte recounts, a few days before the exhibition opens. “One girl, introduced to me as ‘Sassy Keely’, shouted back ‘It’s called fashion… look it up’.”

Linked up by a mutual friend in 2015, the pair were both working on creative projects with local communities in South Wales. Charlotte is a creative director originally from the town of Merthyr Tydfil. She splits her time between home and London, and has worked with a number of brands and labels, bridging the gap between Wales and the London-centric fashion industry. For Helmut Lang, she styled the brand’s collection on “The Women of Wales”, with photographer Alexandra Leese. Clémentine Schneidermann is an award-winning photographer originally from Paris, who moved to Wales to study an MA at the University of South Wales. Her photobook, I Called Her Lisa Marie, captured the most devout Elvis Presley fans who attend the world’s biggest annual festival for Elvis every year, at the seaside resort of Porthcawl. In 2015, when they first met, Clémentine was living in the small town of Abertillery on an artist’s residency.

it's called ffasiwn

Their partnership began with a shoot, but soon became a series of workshops for local kids. “The first shoot was supposed to be styled, so I turned up with fancy dress costumes and graduate collections,” Charlotte explains. “There were around 18 kids on that first shoot and it was a new experience for them. I let them have a rummage to choose clothing that they wanted to wear. After seeing the way the kids responded to the costumes, I thought we should make it a collaborative experience and host workshops so the youth could be a part of the styling and costume making.”

The backdrop of seaside towns, working men’s clubs, community centres, industrial landscapes and pebbledash houses of South Wales tell a story that isn’t often told in fashion imagery; the industry historically more concerned with Scotland (think tartans prints from Junya Watanabe, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood) and northern England (look no further than Alasdair McLellan’s Ultimate Clothing Company). “We shoot on the estates where the young people live but we also shoot in locations that feel nostalgic to my youth, and hopefully other people who grew up in similar areas,” says Charlotte. “Although Wales couldn’t be more different from my own upbringing, it became an adopted home,” Clémentine adds.

it's called ffasiwn

The resulting photo series is a thoughtful reimagination of what the intersection of documentary and fashion photography can look like, as well as a charming celebration of Wales; the gentle hues and soft greys of the Welsh landscape juxtaposed with the vibrant colours of the coordinated outfits. “To make it a collaborative process with the young people who attend the workshops, we decided on a colour based on the season. Red for Valentine’s Day, yellow for summer etc. Coming from a stylist perspective, I had to change my mindset and have a completely open mind,” Charlotte says. “There are no final looks, the only thing that is set in stone is the colour palette and theme. The workshops could be ruffle making, painting onto the clothes, customising, choosing what they want to wear or working on the set design. For the summer school we also gave the young people a budget and they sourced clothing from charity shops too.”

The intention was also to change the narrative in photography around small towns and communities. “I wanted to challenge the perpetuation of misery when it comes to represent struggling communities by incorporating a series of elements that would effectively defy my own view on these places,” Clémentine says. “Looking at contemporary documentary photography, I sometimes feel that there is a lack of optimism and everything is looking very serious and formal. This is probably why the work experiments in various ways with a playful humour. The communities in the Valleys have been beautifully photographed during the mining days. Although in appearance these small towns have not changed that much, I’m interested in moving away from these iconic photos of industrial Wales and finding an original way of representing the contemporary Valleys.”

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‘It’s Called Ffasiwn’ runs 27 March –25 May 2019 at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol.

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