Why Frieze London is the world’s most fashion-forward art fair
From groovy Tory women in disguise to septuagenarian art dealers, Alfie Tong’s style tribes spotter’s guide is the only thing you need to read about Frieze this week
Thursday 13 October 2022 By Alfie Tong
When it comes to status signalling and fashion at Frieze, there is a simple and brutal dynamic at work. If you’re a no-money hipster, art student or (ahem) a fashion journalist, by all means wear your dystopian goth ninja outfit a la Rick Owens, or your grail-worthy Casablanca X New Balance 327s – hardly anyone, not least of all the gallerists, is going to give you a second look. Long trained in the art of spotting the actual rich from the merely well dressed, scores of them will be falling over themselves to catch the eye of the slightly overweight, middle-aged man in a non-descript T-shirt, ponytail, and New Balance dad trainers worn without one iota of irony. For they know that the big money ballers and plutocratic Moby dicks who can actually afford to drop six figures on what is essentially a bit of household object will look like crap because, well, they’re rich – and money is their outfit. The emperor may have clothes on, but it’ll be the kind of bland luxury normcore that is anonymous to the point of almost total invisibility.
The rest of us? Well, we’re just there to add ‘texture’ to the room, which perhaps explains why there were so many interestingly dressed film, music and fashion people on ‘VIP’ Wednesday before the fair started properly on Thursday. These peacocks are as integral to the show as the stuff hanging on the walls. This is the ‘Friezonomics’ in action and it’s enough to make your little Champagne socialist heart bleed (FYI: the Champagne on offer at Frieze is Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, £18 a glass.) What did they say in Succession again? ‘Money wins, money always wins’, and so it is at Frieze London, as it is everywhere in the world.
But still, Frieze remains the liveliest and most fashion-forward art fair in the world. When I told an art journalist friend that I was there to observe the fashion of the attendees rather than the art, she said, ‘Oh, how fun. Did you know that Matieres Fecales were here just now?’ Sounds chic, right? Non. Far from it. Meaning ‘Fecal Matter’, the Montreal-based duo Hannah Rose Dalton (22) and Steven Raj Bhaskaran (24), are famous for ghoulish shoes in which vertiginous heels are covered in prosthetic skin. Hair and make-up includes shaved off eyebrows, greened-out eyes and shaved heads where metal hardware fights for space with dead butterflies, accessorised with medical breathing apparatus. A caption on their account reads, ‘This is not a costume, this is me.’
As Cousin Colton from the Instagram account Gstaad Guy said in his ‘How to Attend Frieze Art fair’ guide yesterday: ‘You know your boy always pulls up with the crazy fit. Because I'm not here to appreciate art, I am here to be the art.’ His alter-ego, the conservative and pompous Constance can probably be found in his Loro Piana Open Walks at the neighbouring Frieze Masters event sneering at everything.
Of course, with so many people intent on doing their own thing, it can be hard to discern any actual trends per se. Having said that, there were interesting suits and tailoring everywhere worn by young and old, men and women. The influence of old Celine a la Phoebe Philo was still very much in evidence among female gallerinas. Loosely tailored jackets or suits in interesting shades of bright blue worn with textured roll necks in a French tuck, and jewel-coloured gondolier slippers from Venice have become a byword for art world professionalism. Glamorous, but definitely not sexualised, and crucially, accessorised with no handbag (that’s what pockets are for).
Meanwhile, septuagenarian art dealers from the establishment auction houses and long-standing Mayfair galleries wore their age-old uniform of battered old Savile Row suits with loafers, cutaway collars and Hermès ties. Actual artists could be seen wearing what I like to call ‘Starving Artist Suits’ – usually made out of corduroy or some other kind of tough fabric, these loosely cut paint and plaster-splattered ensembles look like they were actually worn when making the masterpiece that they hoped would eventually be exhibited here. Maybe they got the idea from Jean-Michel Basquiat who famously wore his Armani and Comme Des Garcon suits to paint in.
Another notable tribe is ‘Groovy Tory woman in disguise’, who can be seen floating around in a floral dress (so far, so Sloaney), but with the colour of the print dialled up to 11 to make it seem modern, with Converse trainers and a denim jacket over the top. Originally hailing from the Home Counties, but now living in Clapham, Battersea or Balham, she hangs around in the art world primarily because there’s money and high-octane social networking to be had. She may look arty but actually voted Brexit, which, naturally, she likes to keep quiet.
It has been noted, rather sniffily, that the overwhelming majority of attendees at Frieze are gawpers rather than buyers. But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that gawping and peacocking rather than simply buying stuff are really what makes life worth living. And there’s no better place to do it than at Frieze art fair.
Oh, and the best thing is that Soho House 76 Dean Street is only a hop, skip and a black cab ride away if you’re in need of a stiff Picante after all that style spotting (which you will be).