Designer Erdem Moralioglu talks femininity, queerness and personal heroes

Designer Erdem Moralioglu talks femininity, queerness and personal heroes

Going deep

Text: Ryan Sng

Editor: Jolene Khor

I want you to think of the most embarrassing incident in your life time. And I mean mentally summon it, in agonisingly vivid detail. Are you feeling unnerved? Are you inwardly screaming to make the cringe stop?

Well, let me tell you about the first time I met Erdem Moralioglu.

He encountered me butt-first, on all fours, literally wearing a bin bag and crouched next to a dumpster in a parking lot. It was the lead-up to London Fashion Week in 2015. As a green design student, whose hand-sewing skills were hilariously underdeveloped, I was assigned to spray-paint show props while my peers remained in the studio. Unaware of my task for the day, I had chosen to wear a head-to-toe beige outfit. To protect it, I produced a makeshift artist's smock by punching three holes in a large bin liner — one for my head, the other two for my arms. Another bin liner, laid over the carpark gravel, became my work surface.

Because it was windy outside, a little too ventilated than is ideal for the job, I set myself up in the little enclosed area that housed the dumpsters. While unglamorous, it was mercifully odour-free. Minutes into my spraying spree, I, or rather my aloft posterior, heard the sound of footsteps, followed by words of concern.

"Oh my God, are you ok?"

I turned around, and in that moment died instantly of mortification.

Image: Getty

That absurd encounter with Erdem Moralioglu, which could have easily been plucked from the first season of Ugly Betty, is one of the fondest memories I have of being a student.

Sadly, the rosy glow of the recollection was of no comfort when I faced a similar dread last weekend, standing in the midst of Erdem's trunk show at Club 21's Four Seasons. To say that the space was packed would be an understatement. As an anxiety sufferer with a terror of crowds, I was a mere hair's breadth from losing my composure.

Women in clothes worth several months of my rent perused the designer's spring 2019 offering, while assistants rushed about taking their orders. Three dewy-skinned models with plaited hair worked the room in the collection's statement looks, posing obligingly for pictures. In the middle of it all was a very jet-lagged Erdem, receiving a long line of admirers and clients.

We were told in no uncertain terms that Erdem was unavailable for a Q&A, given his tight schedule. It seemed too great a waste, however, to leave with nary a word from the designer, who aside from being the focus of my assignment is a hero of mine. So, like a cowardly hyena, I skirted the circus before me and waited patiently for a convenient opening; one hand poised to quick-draw a voice recorder from my purse, like a firearm from its holster.

Image: Getty

Erdem Moralioglu was born and raised in Canada, and earned his master's degree from the Royal College of Art (RCA). He debuted his namesake label in 2005, and swiftly established a following for his romantic and luxurious, yet grounded clothes. Not unlike other London-based emerging designers of his day — Roksanda Ilinčić and Christopher Kane among them — Erdem possesses a preternatural knack for delivering the sort of quirky individuality characteristic of British fashion, tempered with a strong sense of commercialism.

That crucial balance between fertile creativity and business savviness allowed the aforementioned wave of labels to rise to heights unimaginable for their predecessors. After more than a decade in the game, Erdem's recent tie-ups with H&M and Nars signalled the next step up in terms of brand awareness, as well as reach.

My teenaged discovery of designers such as Erdem and Miuccia Prada — who made clothes first and foremost for women to wear — was revelatory; it had never occurred to me that a humble item like a printed, calf-length skirt could also be fashion.

Incidentally, when asked about the living designer he'd elect to the fashion pantheon, Erdem also chose Prada: "It was telling that she was highlighted alongside Elsa Schiaparelli at the Met Museum (2012's Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations). Besides Yves Saint Laurent, Miuccia Prada is the only living designer to be so honoured. I think that's no coincidence."

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With the world currently fixated on the misbehaviours of men, and the rag trade riveted by the aggression and disruption of certain male designers, it was reassuring to hear Erdem name a female creator. He has in common with YSL — his most significant influence — what he describes as an "outright adoration of women and interest in the feminine." Erdem continued, "It's often been a conundrum that, although I'm part of the London crew, I'm so obsessed with femininity. But there's a tremendous power in it that is fascinating to me."

You may have heard about the dozens of notable women he's dressed, from Oprah to Claire Foy to the Duchess of Cambridge to Wendy Davis. But my favourite Erdem sightings — and possibly the best illustrations of his work seamlessly blending into women's personae —would have to be on the comedic geniuses Megan Mullally and Jane Krakowski, in character on their respective sitcoms, Will & Grace and 30 Rock.

Not surprising, really, when you consider that character and story are an integral part of his creative process. Almost every Erdem collection has its genesis in a narrative drawn from true events or fiction of eras past. Previous shows have been broadly inspired by prairie madness, 17th century shipwrecks and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Muses have included individuals as novel and varied as Adele Astaire, Marianne North and, for spring 2019, Fanny and Stella. As a pair of gender-fluid performers and nightlife fixtures who lived in Victorian England, Fanny and Stella made headlines when they were arrested in 1871 for conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence.

They were, however, subsequently acquitted.

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"It's interesting because in this context," Erdem said, hands gesturing around the showroom "you see the clothes separated from their collection. A blouse is just a blouse, and gets absorbed into a woman's wardrobe. But I still need that narrative process to design. I explore and research to satisfy my own curiosity, and then get to enjoy seeing others take interest in those stories as well."

Taking in the rails of beaded and passementerie-covered silk moiré, warp-print jacquards, floral-printed satin and densely appliquéd organza, I heaved a sigh of relief. As a trans woman, I'm always cagey when trans or non-binary narratives are mined for inspiration. In the wrong hands, a Fanny and Stella-"inspired" collection could quickly devolve into an orgy of camp, sand-blasting away the complexity of the women whose lives lay behind it.

The collection could have also conflated, problematically, the drag and the trans/non-binary experience. Just so we're absolutely clear: drag artists are performers who irreverently poke fun at stereotypical gender roles, and can technically be of any gender. Trans and non-binary people like myself, however, are just that: people.

I'm simply myself all the time, whether I'm filling my grocery cart or being squished like a sardine on a rush-hour train. Fanny and Stella, who lived between genders (non-binary) and were stage performers, happened to be a marvellous two-in-one package.

Image: Getty

Thankfully, with Erdem at the wheel, what came through clearest in his spring 2019 show was Fanny and Stella's vivacity, and their defiant refusal to submit to despair. These women didn't want to wither away or shrink from life in the very real face of persecution and hate. It is a struggle that women of any time period — cis, trans, non-binary or otherwise — could probably relate to.

Today, plenty of fashion designers feel the need to be political, especially against the backdrop of a global culture that appears increasingly misogynistic and intolerant of LGBTQ+ folk. I give into temptation, and ask Erdem about his thoughts on the current state of womanhood, as well as the implications of selecting Fanny and Stella as muses.

Erdem was quick to downplay the topicality of his recent output: "My work is my work, it always has been. If you look back at my stuff from my RCA days, you'll be able to tell it's mine. My relationship with femininity and women has so much more to do with my upbringing and my bond with my twin sister, as well as being isolated in my basement and daydreaming as a child. Debates come and go. My work speaks for itself."

As for Fanny and Stella: "This season I just designed with their story in mind. Ultimately, it's the tale of two sisters (in the figurative sense; they were not relations by blood) who were put on trial for being themselves and found not guilty."

Image: Getty

But surely current affairs had some role to play in influencing his collection? I press further. He demurred again. "Even with the casting of trans and non-binary people in the show, I wasn't necessarily making a statement. It was just about making something beautiful. There was a moment backstage when I was struck by how incredible our closing model Hunter (Schafer, who is transgender) looked, and what a powerful thing it is to use clothes to become what you are."

It's self-actualisation by garment, I offer as a neat summary.

"Exactly. A dress may just be a dress, but I think it's so much more."

Maybe Erdem doesn't always design with clearly political intent. There is nevertheless something wonderfully progressive about his body of work as a whole. It takes a special vision to connect Fanny and Stella's tale to, say, those of the female settlers afflicted by prairie madness, with the thread of women's delicacy and resilience under extreme duress. Instead of distilling lifetimes' worth of feminine experience into a flash of provocation or shock, Erdem teases out the quieter, more mundanely human qualities of his subjects, despite their usually exceptional circumstances.

I grew up in a not too-distant time when most trans people I saw represented were junkies, criminals, sex workers or the psychologically disturbed. Things always ended tragically for them, and I was convinced that I was doomed to share their fate no matter what I did. And while such heart-breaking experiences do indeed form part of the tapestry of trans-ness, they only scratch the surface of a rich vein of life stories which also encompass joy, love and hope. I would have given anything to have been told — by Erdem or others — more of those stories as a young girl.

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The time draws near for me to break my stranglehold on Erdem's (very generous) attention. His handler is restlessly tapping her feet behind me, conscious of the slew of people still waiting for their moment with the designer. I sneak in one last question, rather gratuitously; I couldn't help but wonder if the storyteller has ever wanted step into a character, even if just for a brief spell.

As a fan of Netflix's The Crown — his spring 2018 collection was coloured by the early days of Elizabeth II's reign — what role could Erdem see himself playing on that prestige drama?

He answers without missing a beat. "I'd be friends with Lord Snowdon, who I thought was extraordinary. He was the Lord Provost of the Royal College of Art and presented me with my diploma." At the time of publication, filming on season 3 of The Crown is still underway. There's still time, Peter Morgan, if there's any chance you're reading...

Browse all the looks from Erdem's Spring 2019 collection below: