Inside Fashion: Fashion Takes a Bath

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Regional fashion weeks call to mind high-street catwalk shows in shopping malls and Gok Wan excitedly telling menopausal women they are fabulous. Essex has a fashion week with Towie’s spandex-clad glam squad sitting front row in lieu of Anna Wintour and Alexa Chung. Cheltenham, Oxford, Manchester, Brighton and Bournemouth all have fashion weeks. There’s even one in Norwich, the spiritual home of Alan Partridge’s polyester slacks. This year, they had a fashion swap shop and a dressmaking workshop at John Lewis.

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Bath in Fashion is different. Like the food and literary festivals the city hosts, this is a highbrow affair. “We want to look at the breadth of fashion,” says the event’s founder, Sarah Mansfield. In Bath, you don’t get makeovers and model competitions. Instead, fashion shows take place in the Georgian splendour of the Assembly Rooms, there’s a first-rate fashion museum, and you can hear Ben Kirchhoff, one half of the renegade fashion label Meadham Kirchhoff, tell an audience, “Everything we do is about the variety and complexity of women.”

The event has been going for five years and gets stronger every year. The Topshop MD, Mary Homer, dropped in to give career advice (“If you’ve got an ambition, it should be an outrageous ambition”), and Camila Batmanghelidjh, the Kids Company founder, talked about how she uses her colourful fashion as armour. But this year Barbara Hulanicki, the Biba founder, was the star. At 78, she’s like a female Karl Lagerfeld. Ageless (she moves like a woman in her thirties), she dresses in black, with a trademark white bob and dark shades that never come off, even in the rain. She gave a talk and was guest of honour at a vintage Biba fashion show, where her designs looked remarkably current. She told the audience how a 25 shilling pink gingham dress — com- missioned by the Daily Mirror’s fashion editor Felicity Green — launched Biba. “We thought we’d sell 300,” says Hulanicki. “We sold 17,000.”

Anna Wintour was her Saturday girl: “Although she wasn’t so thin back then,” says Hulanicki, who would be happy to go back to Biba, which she walked away from in 1975, if its current owner, House of Fraser, would drop the prices a bit. Hulanicki was the mother of “masstige”. The original Biba was cheap as chips, although prize vintage pieces now sell for thousands. House of Fraser is not unreceptive to the idea, so watch this space.

As regional fashion weeks go, Bath is in a league of its own. The people who live there help. It has a reputation for being the place where creative London media people come to die (or have second homes), and it is arguably one of the best connected places in the country. Sarah Mower, who grew up in the city and now writes for American Vogue, and Iain R Webb, Elle’s former fashion director who now lives in Bath, open up their contact books for the festival. Mansfield thinks that Bath’s unique approach to style also gives it the edge. “Somerset has a lovely, relaxed way of bringing together style and the lifestyle. People here understand fashion and glamour, but also enjoy a certain quality of life. That’s what gives Somerset a sense of place.”

Whatever it is, I’ll be back next year.
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