High fashion folk (Blueprint)

In just under three years, one of the most extraordinary museums in Europe is scheduled to open. In the interim, the man behind the project is gearing up to tour a sample of what’s to come the length and breadth of the British Isles, taking with him a brightly coloured caravan, a dessicated cat from the 15th century and an array of very fancy hats. The Museum of Folklore is taking shape and going on tour…

Simon Costin, the man behind the Museum, is one of the fashion world’s most celebrated art directors. He made an acrylic, liquid-filled catwalk turn black mid-show for Alexander McQueen, and then showered torrential rain on the models. He put Kylie Minogue in an oversized champagne glass for the cover of Vogue, and made guests at a fashion launch in New York City clamber through a Fluxus web of Hermes ribbons to get into a party at which a key performance consisted of a cellist dismantling his instrument noisily, and slowly, with Hermes-designed tools.

‘Twisted’ is one of the ways he describes his work. ‘People, in fashion are so cosseted and pandered to that it’s nice to mess with their heads and twist their expectations.’ He’s bringing his unique, often unsettling aesthetic, forged with his interests in storytelling, magic, British vernacular arts and echoes of paganism, to his Museum project.

Simon’s interest in folklore stems from childhood holidays, encountering such glorious and uniquely British oddities as the Helston Furry Dance event in Cornwall, in which top-hatted villagers dance in a chain in and out of each other’s houses. ‘I visited a museum in St Ives,’ he says: ‘The woman who ran it had Kate Bush hair, reeked of patchouli and had lots of vernacular art objects – twisted glass canes and horse brasses. I thought the objects were magical, and her passion for them brought it all alive for me.’

Simon’s adult conviction in the importance of the museum project is similarly passionate: ‘We are a tiny collection of islands with a rich folkloric history, but we don’t celebrate it. I have been working on fund raising for the Museum with a representative of the Charity Commission at Hackney Council, Tebussum Rashid, and she’s amazing. She’s of Pakistani heritage and at our first meeting she totally threw me with such incredible support for what I want to do. “What is it with you people?” she said. “Why don’t you celebrate your own indigenous culture the way every other country does!?” And she’s right. Folklore and folk culture are great cultural signifiers. Folklore informs the culture that produces it and we produce a lot of it.’

While the current plan is to find a 7,000 square foot site for the museum and have it opened within three years, Costin is taking a capsule interpretation of it around a dozen folk festivals this summer to generate interest, as well as recce for exhibit objects and a potential building. Amongst the exhibits in the Museum Tour will be charms, a phallic wand, a jig doll and his dessicated cat, currently on loan from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle and originally walled into an old abbey as a totem against mice. The charming Carry On-style camper van has been painted with naïve carnival patterns by Luka Crest from the Royal Opera House while Costin himself will touring in a selection of outfits made by Jenna Rossi-Camus that blend various sartorial folklore motifs: the buttons of Pearly Kings and Queens; smocking and barge-paint style emblems on embroidered gaiters. Also in the wardrobe will be gifts from colleagues from his fashion work: Stephen Jones is creating a range of hats for him, and Gareth Pugh a coat.

The whole aesthetic of the Museum of Folklore – from its typography to the exhibit designs – is being honed by the tour, and will blend the breezy, painted, yesteryear flash of the British fairground with mid 20th century design and illustration. ‘I’m drawn to that era because there was such excitement after the war, circa the Festival of Britain,’ explains Costin. ‘I’m developing a visual language. It’s very influenced by the modernity and freshness of that time, in particular the illustrator Barbara Jones and her 1951 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade which included everything from pub signs to ship busts.’

Despite being steeped in British history, the Museum project is absolutely concerned with living traditions and design. ‘There has been something like a 25% increase in the re-establishment of traditional festivals in villages, perhaps because in times of crisis people look to cement their community,’ says Simon. ‘The Jack in the Green, where I am starting the tour, was re-established in the 80s, and Maisy Day has started again in Penzance. Each generation reinvents things for relevance – when the Jack in the Green began in the 1700s it was set up by sweeps who were out of work in the summer. They wouldn’t recognise it as it’s performed now. On a practical level it brings the community in Hastings together and brings money into the town.’

The Museum will directly involve contemporary practitioners of folk arts as well as acting as an archive. Costin is commissioning pieces by well dressers from Shropshire – who traditionally clad wooden structures over wells in clay before pressing thousands of spring flower petals into the surface – as well as sending 200 blank dolls out to Morris teams to dress in their team colours. ‘We’re not just buying exhibits,’ explains Costin. ‘These people are just as important as my curatorial input.’

Some of Simon’s references for the actual design of the Museum cross over from what’s been his day job in the world of  fashion. ‘I’ve been thinking about Biba,’ he says, ‘where you entered a total world when you entered the Big Biba store and where the food hall had tins of Biba beans, and the cabinets were fantastic. The museum will be just as decorative as that, but always for a reason. So a cabinet about the Jack in the Green might be covered in leaves – there has to be a dialogue between the display and the item displayed.’

Folk culture and high fashion may make for odd bedfellows, but Costin’s magical universe has space for them both. If any evidence is needed, it’s readily available: in May, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo will be giving over the windows of Dover Street Market to his Museum project. At the same time, Simon Costin will be painting himself green and donning horns for the first day of the Museum of Folklore Tour in Hastings.



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