Wednesday, 28 September 2016


When I first learned of Fashion Undressed, I was super excited about an event that would look at Model Diversity in such great detail. I did, however, think that there would be a hardcore focus on trends in the current climate.

Imagine my surprise then, when I arrived at the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall in late July, with my carer, only to find myself being ushered in front of the camera, instead of taking up my comfortable position behind it? Mother and daughter team, Elisa and Lily formed StyleLikeU; an organisation that declares war on trying to fit in with 'the norm' by saying stick to your own style, and take note of the exhilaration you feel when you realise you've broken the mould, just by being Urself. The two have formed the #iAmWhatsUnderneath movement, which asks volunteers to take off their masks and armour to the world, with each layer of clothing they remove, until they free the burdens imposed by fashion by freeing the weight of their individual styles.

As the first visitor of the day, Assistant Mona was keen for me to be the first British guinea pig of their #WhatsUnderneath campaign...

A video posted by Erica Sharlette (@esinthep) on

When she couldn't convince me to shed my kecks for the camera, Mum of the duo, Elisa came out to make sure that I understood the cathartic experience that occurs through shedding the shackles of clothing and just opening myself up to the moment, and being free. I explained (again) that I was happy to go through all of that, but unfortunately, on this occasion, it would have to be with my clothes ON. Reiterating what I had just got through telling Mona; I explained that this event was only my third time outdoors for something other than a hospital appointment and/or treatment since October 2014. I was just getting used to the concept of being outside of my flat again after 13 chronic illnesses left me so debilitated, that I am forced to spend most of my time in bed, recovering from the exertion it takes to complete the simplest of endeavours.

I'm taking baby steps; and getting undressed in front of their cameras for YouTube, was a distinctive leap ahead that I was just not ready to take yet - not least of all because getting dressed and undressed is something that my Carers help me with twice a day, minimum, as I am no longer capable of performing those functions alone. Obviously disappointed, but realising that I wasn't budging, Elisa went back inside to finish setting up with the team, and within moments, I was informed by Mona that they were ready for meSat beneath an errant microphone that was causing not only the duo, but their production team a headache by refusing to work; I made my introductions with as many as possible, before being told by Lily that we may as well go on with the questions I had come prepared with for them, whilst we wait. Here's what I found out:

What, if anything, do you feel is authentic about today's Fashion industry?

Elisa made the sign of a zero with her hands. There's still a certain amount of beauty being made within clothing, I guess, it's just for me, the overall is just so bad...There are pieces here and there, but it's just such an overall mess? A really talented person like Marni - she's a very talented designer - but the very, very talented people can no longer produce things that aren't so extravagantly just makes no sense anymore? It's just all become so disproportionate in terms of things being made that are beautiful, that are worth keeping for your life, from people like that, that would make things like that for you? As opposed to disposable fashion, and fast fashion, but those people can't afford to do what they want to do anymore; so they then have to charge so much money that no-one can afford it.

Marni AW16 Ready To Wear

So it's not like they don't exist, it's not like there's no artistry or talented people anymore, there's just not a model for them to exist in, that they can create in a way that enough people can actually participate in it, and express themselves through it - that's the problem. It's not like there isn't good artistry, it's just that it's unaffordable, and therefore elitist; and I've lived long enough, and I'm old enough to say, not even as well made, and as great, and as worth the money. So like, 20, or 25, or 30 years ago, these same designers - that's going to bring me to another point - like Marni was around, they were making things - they were on the expensive side, but they weren't on the side that would make you flat broke. It wasn't obscene. So you could actually invest in things that you would have for a lifetime, quality, beautiful things that were well made, that you would have for generations to hand down and all of that, which is what I think it should be, and made in a way that's not cheap themselves, so it's worth you spending that money - your hard-earned money - on that thing, y'know? That doesn't add up anymore; it's not worth it anymore.

I have things from 30 years ago, that I still have, that Lily will have, and the make of those things, from those designers, was worth it. Somehow that exchange was a worthy thing, because I'm still wearing it, but that's not happening anymore. Because they can't afford to exist, they can't afford to sustain; it's just all very, very, out of control in terms of economics. The other problem is that the fashion industry is so top-down, and so led by greed and corporations who control, that there's not enough new designers; it's still the same people as 30 years ago, the same people are still governing the whole entire thing. Where is all the crazy, wild voice of youth? Where are the new ones? They were the crazy, wild voice of youth then - where are the new generation? They haven't been allowed; they haven't been given a platform, they've been completely controlled, there's no place for them to exist, because you have to have a lot of money to start, you can't come from nothing anymore, you already have to have a business plan, you already have to have a lot of money...and I think it needs to be completely reinvented, and it's being reinvented, I think, the future of fashion, in the 21st century of fashion, and how it's being reinvented, is by individuality. It's people like you; individuals, and the choices that they make, and how they choose to express themselves, are creating the new fashion. It's not the companies or the designers. 

What do you feel are the tell-tale signs that someone is being negatively affected by Fashion?

Elisa: If I see someone wearing...I mean first of all I see it everywhere in masses and masses and masses...wearing what everyone else is wearing. One of the things that comes to mind are skinny jeans with the slits pre-made en masse. Definitely like, all black all the time...

Lily: But mostly, it's also like...super self-conscious all the time, and never good enough - that's the biggest thing, I think.

Elisa: But like, how do you see that?

Lily: Well I guess you can't see that, but you hear it all the time.

Elisa: I feel like it's just everywhere, y'know? The same pant, the same boot, the same bag; it's like an army of people in the same exact thing, or some iteration of that thing? And it's not the original thing - it's like this desperation...they want so much to buy into this, but the fashion is just created as 'what is fashion'? And there is this notion of fashion being this certain thing and it's a certain kind of bag - an iteration of that bag - black's like this very homogeneous, monotone sort of look that has no colour, or ethnicity, or indigenous feel...just a very bland kind of homogeneous sort of look....there's nothing very real about what they have on...worn, real from somewhere that they might have picked - a premade look to it.

Lily: Or someone who's keeping up with every sort of trend.

Elisa: Yeah...but a trend, now, is another pet peeve for me, because a trend used to be something that came from politics and war and passion, and trends were kind of cool. They came from your feelings about something. Now trends come from the boardroom. From people that are just trying to get your money; as opposed to a trend that is coming from culturally verdant and fertile, and passionate - there's a look to that. It's come from a corporate boardroom, not a soulful person doing something very passionate.

And then there's another thing that I wanna say about it too; with women, there's a look that they have, when the look is for the male gaze. Kind of an overt sexuality, a look that has been created by men, again a corporate boardroom of men, and what women think about how they're supposed to dress, than men are going to like. That, to me, is a negative sign.

What do you feel has been the most negative aspect of the #WhatsUnderneath campaign, and is this something you feel that you can change?

Elisa: Oh we want to change everything.

Lily: The thing that we can change, is that we can awaken people to realise that they can feel good about themselves, they don't have to hate themselves. We can't change the whole industry, or the fabric of the economy, but it will change at the most, that each person recognises their own power to wake up to the fact that they don't have to hate themselves.

Elisa: We want people to understand that self-love is a right, and is how it's supposed to be. We are supposed to love ourselves, because then we are in our highest potential, and then we can do anything. So we feel that if we can get people to understand that, and to work on that, and to awaken themselves to that, then everything comes tumbling down, and the world changes. So it's coming from a place that's inverse to how it is right now; right now, it's created for everyone to hate themselves, so they buy things. That's the biggest problem.

(From l-r) Lily, Youra Truly, Elisa

Spurred on by the honesty of their questions and responses to my answers, I was raring to go by the time Lily had to reach under her own dress to detach her microphone so that I could affix it under my own clothes, in lieu of the overhead mic, that had given up the ghost (or every memory card they had, at least). Initially planning to stay for half an hour, it was over an hour and forty-five minutes later that we emerged from the Pavilion; me feeling decidedly lighter for the catharsis mission collectively nailed by the team I now viewed in the highest of esteem for their continually encouraging and supportive responses to my answers. Here are just a few so you can get the gist of the interview:

Feeling quite ready to take on the world, my newfound strength was tested by returning to the lift that really was not built with wheelchairs in mind. Determined not to let the lack of forethought by the organisers, to allow for wheelchair access at a Diversity event, by not placing the StyleLikeU Studio on the sixth floor that could only be accessed by a lift barely big enough to fit four adults; I would soon learn that this would not be the first instance where an event casting a light upon Diversity in the Fashion Industry, failed to plan for wheelchair users on the day.

Until then, I'll return to my Carer and I speed racing our way to The Clore Ballroom for the Diversity Panel. Thankful for the many staff on hand to direct visitors around the poorly signposted complex, I managed to find the wheelchair ramp that would allow me to join the other visitors assembled for the same talk. Trying to find a spot to slide into, I will say that I was almost instantly approached by a member of staff, who asked me whether I needed him to create a space for me between the reserved benches and narrow seating space set up for the expected audience. Unaware of the awful angle, and not wanting to cause a fuss that would result in an audience of my own, I kindly declined the offer of uprooting anything, and wheeled myself to the end of the row, not realising I had selected a spot behind the panel chair, whom I had expressly come to see - the inimitable Caryn Franklin OBE.

Yours Truly with the ICON that IS
Caryn Franklin MBE
After a discreet word with my childhood hero, and the promise of another selfie later, the panel got underway. Consisting of i-D magazine News Editor and All Walks Beyond the Catwalk campaigner, Charlotte Gush; transgender model Tschan Andrews, and beauty standards activist, Harnaam Kaur, Ms Franklin drove straight into the heart of matter after introducing each panellist.

Starting with fashion's enormous power to influence taste, emotion, and even our own sense of identity, Ms Franklin suggested that there is an importance in opening up a language that suggested empathy among young creatives that allows them to discuss the issue of gender, before asking Ms Andrews for her thoughts on the subject. Andrews acquiesced, but also pointed out that the topic of gender was much wider than just men choosing to become women; which was the main source of questioning she receives on a regular basis. Andrews suggested that there was a wealth of gender equality stories that were not being told, and if mainstream magazines would showcase these examples of stories that existed in the world, then those conversations would create a stepping stone for that language to exist.

Ms Franklin suggested that this may be because institutions of power have a very limited and narrow hierarchy, selecting representatives who don't have an experience of diversity, who don't look for it, and don't represent it, despite psychological research showing that diverse organisations with diverse opinions from diverse individuals, create a better launchpad for creative thinking. After a quick poll of the audience on body confidence, Ms Franklin asked for stories from each of the panel on acceptance of their individuality. Beginning with Harnaam Kaur, the audience learned how this beautiful lady, who also happens to have a beard, and had had one from a young age, contemplated suicide because she was unable to control it's growth.

Kaur further explained that she decided rather than living with the negative energy of suicide, she would instead try to live positively, and stop trying to remove her beard. It came with more bullying, and more bodyshaming from her peers because of it's visibility, but she found that her journey of 'self love' began. In starting her own journey, she began to notice the individuality of her peers and learned a respect and love for them, and society as a result. Kaur received no counselling or mentoring, instead changing from within using her own strength.

Tschan Andrews' turn, we heard that it was not until around the age of 21, when she became free of her parents, that she was able to start truly embracing her inner self. Suffering from anxiety, Andrews explained that the effects of imposed opinions caused her to suffer from extensive trauma for a long time, even when she wasn't in danger. Ms Franklin thanked Andrews for opening the door to the many types of vulnerabilities social pressures can create within us, before asking the previously quiet Charlotte Gush about body hair acceptance within beauty magazines.

(From l-r): Charlotte Guth, Tschan Andrews, Harnaam Kaur and host Caryn Franklin MBE

Telling us of her love of fashion magazines, Gush explained her increasing unease with the singular ideal of thin, young, white models on every page. Growing up in Manchester, Gush said that this ideal did not match the world that she grew up in; having gone to a school filled with mixed ethnicities, genders and religious cultures which she identified as "the joy of life". She found increasing confusion in this lack of representation, and although, as a thin, young, white woman she saw herself represented, she "felt bad that everyone was missing out on that representation".

Ms Franklin used this opportunity to interject that it should be recognised that men also face the same issues in lacking representation, and that women should perhaps be reaching out to men to spread the message that we understand what they are going through, and perhaps demonstrating some of the tools of change, and coping mechanisms that we have adopted up to this point. Conversely, Gush raised the point that a lot of the violence facing those who supposedly do not fit the mould comes from men, and cited that as a fact that could not be ignored, along with the question of whether that response came from a place of seeing examples of difference from themselves so challenging that they are forced to react in a violent way.

Kaur responded by explaining that she used to feel angry when people stared at her, but eventually reconciled to the idea that people do not know who she is as a person, they simply cannot marry the idea that she has "boobs and a beard!" So now takes it upon herself to approach people with love and compassion. She has experienced problems with men and women in the past; but it is actually the women, who are more unkind, which shocked her. Society and media impose such pressure on women to remove their body hair, that she feels that the women may be intimidated by the idea of her, and that it is actually men who are slightly more accepting of her.

At this Ms Franklin suggested that we learned an important lesson, that we not assume stereotypically, based on Kaur's statement. Ms Franklin then went back to the issue of understanding gender variant language, asking Tschan Andrews if she had ever been able to turn something around that had been put in her way? Andrews gave an example where she had given an interview to a major broadsheet who, at the end had asked a question about gender, and ended up making the entire interview about that, by the time that interview went to print. Andrews then went on to ask Kaur about the reasons she thought people saw her as a threat, and whether she thought it had anything to do with social conditioning? To which Kaur responded by explaining that she thought the majority of people who attacked her were insecure women with a greater need for their own self-acceptance, and that she never had that problem with strong women who were comfortable within their own skin.

"I'm sorry to say, but a lot of the time, women step on each other to move up, instead of empowering one another to move forward."
Harnaam Kaur

With Charlotte Gush
Ms Franklin went to Charlotte Guth with the suggestion that we were moving forward to progress, and a time of social acceptance which could, in turn, be making us more accepting of ourselves. Referring to Guth's volunteer position within All Walks Beyond The Catwalk, Ms Franklin asked what more Gush felt we needed to address? Gush explained that seeing other empowered women, empowered her; for instance seeing iconic singer Patti Smith on the front of a magazine with her armpit hair out made her feel not only empowered, but equally proud of her own body hair. She went on to comment that fashion has the power to spread the message that it is okay not to fit the mould, and to accept difference around the world, and encourage racial diversity, so that women around the world can look at a magazine and see a role model that matches them, and encourages strength in their own convictions.

At this, Ms Franklin discussed companies who were looking to the next generation, ie. 12-19 year olds as their target audience for sales. She asked the panel whether schools could play a role in promoting good mental health, and self-appreciation as individuals, and getting students to ask themselves where they fit in, in the world, when teachers are so pressed for time in the classroom? Harnaam Kaur agreed that we should definitely see more of this in schools. Tschan Andrews felt that in the same way that there is sex education in schools, there should be a subject matter that looks at the different types of people that there are in the world, ie. gay, straight, transgender, etc. She also suggested that children should be taught different types of history that match their ethnic background, so that they may be able to find stronger ties within their community.

Moving on to the contribution of Film and the Arts, Ms Franklin asked whether we are seeing a positive move towards diversity and individuality? Charlotte Gush stated that although there are definitely some adverts (in support), coming from a position of privilege there is an inclination in the whole of media towards a default of white and male. Gush felt that we all had a conscious responsibility to tear ourselves away from that ideal, and collectively work to shift that default until there isn't one.

Closing out the panel with final comments:

Harnaam Kaur said: "On the topic of schools and education, in Sociology, let's just say, if teachers taught children more about diversity, and being of a different culture, being transgender, having body hair - those sorts of thing as opposed to the stuff I don't even remember now, but, if the people that I was educated with, like the other students, were taught about diversity and being unique, then I would not have gotten bullied as much as I did.

Also, to the next generation that we were talking about, I would just like to say, know your worth, and know the gems that you have actually, inside of your heart. Know the power that you have inside of you to just be yourself; the media and society will portray an unrealistic image, but bear in mind that we have Photoshop that gives women big bums and slender waists, and big boobs, so I would like to say know your bodies, accept your bodies, know your self-worth, and actually love yourself for who you are, because you're all so perfect. I'm looking around and I can see beauty in each and every one of you, and I think once you accept that, embrace that, and just capture that essence of yourself, no-one can take you down once you've accepted yourself."

Charlotte Gush said: "Seek out inspiring role models...there is so much literature that can show you the different perspectives to mainstream fashion magazines and there are amazing groups that you can go and meet. There is a different narrative; and if you have a privilege that enables you to seek it out without violence, then you should do that, and you should work to make the world a better place for everyone, and more accepting of everyone."

Tschan Andrews said: "I definitely wouldn't change my path, because I feel that going through that has made me know myself greater than anyone has..." Kaur added: "I always say to people that once you hit Ground Zero, you can't go any further, you can only hit rock bottom, the only direction you can go from there is up, so regardless of everything that we've gone through, it was a powerful journey, but it's allowed us to be right here and inspire everyone."

A photo posted by TSCHAN (@4tschan) on


That's it for the first half of this mighty event! Catch the second part - aka THE BIG INTERVIEW, where I talked to Ms Caryn Franklin MBE, and Miss Charlotte Gush, News Editor of i-D magazine on my thoughts surrounding diversity - thirty minutes from now. Part three will be out next Monday, 3 October where we move onto the visual portions of the day; as part of MusicMonday's BIG REVIEW, lookout for the Ryan LO retrospective, the dance performance choreographed by Lea Anderson, the People's Catwalk where someone familiar found herself in front of the outdoor masses, and a great mini-interview with the hilarious radio babes, The MAC Twins to round off - don't miss it, or you'll miss out!

Until the next...

Photos courtesy of EricaSharlette for EricaSharlette Promotions Ltd., Harpers and Tschan Andrews.