Cool as folk (House)

One of the more unusual sights at one of London’s most well attended fashion parties last year was that of Rei Kawakubo, the notoriously glacial Comme des Garçons designer, being instructed on the finer points of Morris Dancing. The Folklore Fete, a fundraiser for the Museum of British Folklore was, as the fashion world says without any sense of its own ridiculousness, ‘a moment’. It was also affirmation that folk culture – both in the UK and abroad – is enjoying a very 21st century kind of renaissance in popularity and credibility. For a whole bandwagon-load of hipsters (essentially the bearded Urban Outfitter-clad redux of Beat-loving folkie troubadours of old), the Jack in the Green is the new black and it’s all wicker, man. And yet, there’s a lot more substance to it all than a bunch of pissed-up bank holidays on the Kent coast and gentle guitar refrains from Portland Oregon.

The Folklore Fete’s host, Simon Costin, is one of fashion’s most influential figures. More than that, he’s a fine artist in his own right: Costin’s formative career saw him working on film projects with Derek Jarman and later creating shamanistic jewellery from bones and semen. Since then he has designed theatrical, seemingly impossible sets for Nick Knight and Steven Klein, made rain fall on Alexander McQueen’s catwalk and recently helped recreate the centre of Paris at one-third scale inside the Grand Palais in the French capital for Sonia Rykiel and H&M. Last year’s Fete marked the launch of his Museum of British Folklore, scheduled to open in the south east of England in three years’ time. He subsequently went on a nationwide tour with a capsule collection of folk artefacts, including a corn dolly, a dessicated cat from the 15th century and a phallic wand from a coven in Sussex – all housed in a converted 70s Carry On-style caravan painted in Laduree macaroon colours and faded fairground swirls. This year the caravan appears again at a variety of fairs, while Simon curates a show at the Queens Gallery Hexham, as well as a string of summer-long exhibitions at a variety of venues, including the Gatehouse in Port Eliot.

Close friends Gareth Pugh and Stephen Jones contributed costume pieces for Costin to wear on tour – making Simon an integral part of the Museum experience. For milliner Jones the project struck an immediate chord: ‘I’d always thought I knew Britain and that it wasn’t exciting,’ he says. ‘Then I went to a village fair with my parents and we had our photograph taken with some prize turnips… when I looked at the picture afterwards it just looked so typically, eccentrically, English that it inspired me to put together a collection which I called Handmade in England. Then I bumped into Simon at JFK and he told me about his Museum.’

Folklore has been reworked in fashion more times than the shoulder pad. Vivienne Westwood showed several collections at the end of the 80s under the banner ‘Britain must go Pagan!’, and she’s never lost interest in Brit-folk imagery; last season she showed men’s rag rug knits in May Pole colours. Carmen Haid, of the online vintage fashion boutique Atelier Mayer, says a lot of the most sought-after pieces she handles have heavy folk influences: ‘Particularly the YSL 70s Ballets Russes collections; Ossie Clark’s Celia Birtwell prints and almost every collection by John Galliano.’ Galliano’s last collection riffed on the look again, with heavy folk-embroidery, lucky charms, and male models catwalking as platinum-blond horned satyrs.

As well as helping create fantasy worlds for the world’s most directional designers and documenting and curating the vernacular arts, Simon Costin has a passionate and personal relationship with folk culture. This spring he’ll appear, as in previous years, painted emerald and moving with the procession of other ‘bogeys’, black-faced Hunters Moon Morris men and ivy-headdressed locals through the old town of Hastings for the Jack in the Green festival. It’s but one of hundreds of events in the annual folk calendar; a schedule that’s growing apace. Certainly it’s no coincidence that there’s been a resurgence of all things folk at the same time as a global economic meltdown and the disappearance of (jobs aside) so much of what was really rubbish to begin with. ‘There’s been an estimated 25% increase in attendance at folk events around the country,’ says Simon Costin. ‘This might well be to do with a need to feel a part of something in a time of crisis, a part of a real community.’  Costin’s Museum will be made up of the past, present and future, acting as a catalyst for new craft as much as a space for document. ‘Britain is a tiny collection of islands and we have a wonderfully rich folkloric history, but we don’t celebrate it,’ he says. ‘This is a living tradition. Each generation reinvents things and makes it relevant to the modern day.’ Alongside his Museum projects, Costin is working on a book, to be published next year, of portraits of British folk festival participants, photographed by Henry Bourne.

Folk style, while very ‘of the moment’ is timeless. Roddy Woomble, the frontman of Scottish guitar band Idlewild, released his solo folk album My Secret is My Silence in 2006 and then went on to form a folk supergroup with Kris Drever and John McCusker. The band spent last year touring their album Before the Ruin, to slavish audience adoration. Both records are achingly beautiful and a paradigm of a whole backwards-to-go-forwards movement in music. While many cultural commentators are waiting for an equivalent of punk to come and wash away the creative void of light entertainment synonymous with Saturday night talent shows and Lady Ga Ga, the revolution might already be here, wearing a beard and waxing lyrical about Celtic legend. For Woomble, folk is perpetually modern because, he says, ‘it can’t get any older. People have always had stories and sung them into songs. Folk songs are elemental, like the wind. They can never go out of fashion because they pre-date it.’

Folk is very much the soundtrack to now: from Grizzly Bear and Shearwater in the States to the UK’s Blue Roses, Malcolm Middleton and Mumford & Sons, the accent is on all things candid, acoustic and which invite you to gather round and listen. For all the pretence that Britney’s recent stadium renaissance is ironic kitsch gold rather than the ghoulish showbiz equivalent of a dog eating its own sick, one can scarcely imagine the genuine excitement that would be generated by a live tour by Joni Mitchell or perhaps Kate Bush.

Folkie north London club night The Local started out life as a monthly event at a pub in Crouch End and has now expanded into tours, a festival and a record label – it’s a total phenomenon. The ceilidhs at Cecil Sharp House, where Costin’s Fete took place, are amongst the best-loved club nights in London with kilted queues snaking around the block. Rather like the Mighty Boosh truism that it’s impossible to be unhappy in a poncho, you can’t have a bad time at a ceilidh, if only because you’re compelled to dance with strangers. The ceilidh is the diametric opposite of all those dour, louche, bottle-service clubs in Mayfair and Midtown that now feel so mid-noughties. Like all things folk, it’s about getting back in touch with human nature and stripping things back to what’s important, as well as genuinely beguiling. It’s a human touch and it’s getting your hands dirty. You can see it in the handicraft that sells by the truckload on the DIY craft site Etsy.com and in the flamboyant toys, handbags and even wedding dresses that are coming out of the year-old Harris Tweed Cooperative in the Outer Hebrides. It’s even in the salted artisanal dark chocolate made in small exquisitely packaged batches in Williamsburg by the Mast Brothers, Rick and Michael, two chaps who look like an Amish duo on a shopping spree at Dover Street Market and who epitomise the slow food movement and integrity of craft in produce.

There is, of course, a potential disconnect between ‘fashion’ and ‘folk’, and some irony in the former embracing the latter (and yes, Dean & Deluca are selling that Mast Brothers chocolate for $10 a bar). Fashion is, by its very nature, ephemeral and disposable. It’s also, potentially, a shallow and fragile crafting of identity. Folk, on the other hand, comes with centuries worth of roots. It connects us all to something fundamental that makes a mockery of, and could potentially disassemble, a culture of idiocy and rubbish that can’t just be excused as post-modern frivolity any more. It’s the search for something a bit more real and a bit more rewarding; a pursuit which must be timeless.

http://www.museumofbritishfolklore.com

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