Fashion Space Gallery have announced a new exhibition of the work of fabled set designer Simon Costin, the creator of magical spaces for the likes of Alexander McQueen and Faberge

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Anyone who’s ever been to fashion week will know that when it comes to showing clothes, half the “wow” stems from the astonishingly intricate and magical sets, through which the models emerge, showing the designer’s latest creations. From Chanel’s huge supermarket, to the Louis Vuitton train, set designers play a key part in translating the collection’s conceit from the designer’s mind into reality.

At the forefront of this is Simon Costin, and his exhibition at the Fashion Space Gallery seeks to explore his surreal and astounding presentation ideas, questioning the potential of fashion shows, if the possibilities were limitless.

From a baroque forest where the models hide amongst the trees like bejewelled birds, to a nuclear power station filled with a slowly disintegrating collection, the exhibition will provide Costin with a chance to challenge the current formalised manner in which we view garments. Accompanying model sets there will be Costin’s sketches and notebooks, giving an insight into his creative process, as well as a selection of events including workshops, masterclasses and talks on the theme of set design.

We caught up with him to discuss his inspirations, his dream collaborators, and the future of fashion shows.

I’ve read you used to quite literally play with fire as a child! What was it that first drew you to art and in turn set design?

It’s very hard to say really. Some children enjoy playing football and some enjoy special effects, inspired by films and setting themselves on fire! I also created a harness out of belts to make it look as though I had hung myself from the staircase in my parents’ house with a fake rope. Ahhh the joys of childhood. I used to make Super-8 Horror films with my best friend and at one point, when my parents were away for the weekend, my brother and I buried him in the garden and he had to dig his way out zombie style while we filmed it. That could have gone horribly wrong…

What was the decision behind questioning the way we traditionally look at garments and what was the stimulus for this exhibition?

When Ligaya Salazar (Director, Fashion Space Gallery) approached me to create some kind of exhibition within the space, my first impulse was to do something that questioned why, after so many years, the basic structure of a fashion presentation is still a bunch of girls or boys walking up and down a catwalk. It hasn’t really changed since the turn of the century, despite all the various ways that new media allows people to see collections seconds after the runway show, all across the world. People are still able to review a show even though they were not actually present in reality. I thought it might be nice to be playful and look at other ways a collection could be presented. Of course some designers have questioned the usual mode of presentation, such as Gareth Pugh.

How did you decide on the scenarios you chose to explore?

Trial and error really. I wanted the show to be like a 3D sketch book of ideas and notions. I didn’t want to present a series of definitive designs, more series of starting points, some ‘what ifs’, to get people thinking. It sets up a lot of unanswered questions. The various scenarios came about more from thinking about the process involved first. Where could you show a garment that would decay rapidly or be presented as graffiti? Then took it from there.

I love the nuclear plant, can you explain where this idea came from and why you were drawn to it?

A year or two again I went to see that incredible Art Angel show by the artist Roger Hiorns, called ‘Seizure’. He filled an empty council flat with copper sulphate solution, which created vivid blue crystals over every surface. It was quite incredible and I thought, what if he were to cover an entire disused nuclear power reactor in crystals? A reactor where an accident had taken place. Garments could then be displayed as a presentation and clients could choose how long they were exposed to the radiation for and so arrest the level of molecular decay.

I also love the idea of spectators being handed binoculars to spot the models as if they are bird watching or something, how important do you think it is that the audience feel fully immersed in a show? 

Given how exclusive fashion shows are I always think that the least the designer can do is to employ someone to help make the experience an immersive one. Although of course I would say that, I’m a set designer! I enjoy trying to give an audience other layers of meaning within a presentation, which may not be apparent when viewing the collection. Most designers usually have a huge amount of references which go towards the creation of a collection and its good for an audience, at least those that make the effort to try and understand, to be able to interpret those references. Immersive shows tend to welcome the audience into a specially created world, where everything the audience is shown has been thought about, the clothes, light, sound and setting.

Obviously fashion shows are becoming more and more of a spectacle from Chanel’s supermarket to the pink Marc Jacobs house last night – how far do you think it will go, will we hit a limit and have to strip things back or will it spiral to the extreme?

I think there’s room for everything and to be honest, at the end of the day it all comes down to money and imagination. I’m sure there are plenty of designers who would love to have more theatrical presentations but they can’t afford to. Even a standard show costs a fortune, after you’ve paid for the models, venue, light, sound etc. The set designer is usually the last on the list unless you’re Chanel etc. What disappoints me is the way that nobody questions why it always has to be like that. Why can’t you do street casting, show illicitly in a shopping centre, think of other ways to present a collection and get the journalists look book images or use social media in imaginative ways. Designers so often create new ideas within a collection, why not the way in which the collection is presented?

What is your worst nightmare in terms of a fashion show set?

I think all those grey, minimal blank spaces that used to be the norm in New York about ten years ago, were a killer. They were usually over-lit in some dull industrial space and I would come out with a headache and an empty heart.

Obviously you have worked with almost every designer! But is there anyone you haven’t worked with that would be your dream collaboration?

I would love to do something with Marc Jacobs but unless I push Stefan Beckman under a bus they won’t happen! I love what Stefan does with his shows, it’s such a breath of fresh air. He’s tall and bald too so maybe I just need to impersonate him one day and turn up at the Jacobs office and hope for the best….

What else do you have in the pipeline for the next year?

Annoyingly clients all seem to want you to sign confidentiality forms these days, so I can’t talk about some of the juicy projects. I’m currently working on a book with the photographer, Sara Hannant. She has photographed 100 objects from the Museum of Witchcraft, which I’m the director of and I’m writing all the text. I’m also working on a book with the photographer Henry Bourne, which is a series of portraits he’s taken over a period of years, documenting British Folk Customs. Both will be out next year. There’s also going to be a large exhibition of British Folklore with the London College of Communication, for the spring next year.

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Images: Katy Davies




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