Edinburgh Fashion Festival: Style in the city

Brian Ferguson meets the husband-and-wife team who are putting the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival on the map by sidestepping the glitz and the glamour and getting back to the ideas that lie behind great design

Jonathan and Anna Freemantle have expanded the festival to a nine-day event this summer. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Jonathan and Anna Freemantle have expanded the festival to a nine-day event this summer. Picture: Ian Georgeson

It may only be on its second year, but suddenly Scotland’s capital has another major new festival to contend with. In the space of 12 months, the ­Edinburgh International Fashion Festival has mushroomed in size, scale and ambition. Buoyed by the international media coverage it secured – despite being staged at the height of the Fringe – the event already seems far removed from the one staged as part of Summerhall’s festival programme last summer.

Not only has the event – masterminded by husband-and-wife team Jonathan and Anna Freemantle – expanded from a four-day event to one which will be held over nine days this summer, but it has moved its dates to avoid the Fringe entirely. It will also be staged across the city, in venues ranging from the historic Mansfield Traquair Centre, the building dubbed “Scotland’s Sistene Chapel”, thanks to its priceless murals, to Edinburgh University’s cutting-edge Inspace laboratory.

And despite being billed as an “anti-fashion festival” by organisers, in a bid to distance the event from other bigger budget but more exclusive rivals, organisers have still managed to attract a host of big-names designers, stylists and creative experts.

Industry gurus Bella Freud, who famously began working with Vivienne Westwood at the age of 16 before ­setting up her own company, and Amanda Harlech, long-time collaborator of Chanel’s design head Karl Lagerfeld, are among the star draws.

London fashion label Clements Ribeiro and Icelandic design house Sruli Recht will be among the firms hosting major showcases, while the centrepiece event will be an all-day fashion fair at the City Art Centre.

Venues taking part include the Voodoo Rooms nightspot, where Vidal Sassoon’s youngest creative director, Gianni Scumaci, will be talking about his career as a cutting-edge stylist, while Harvey Nichols will be boasting a menswear-only extravaganza.


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Work from the rising stars of the fashion scenes in Norway, Denmark and Sweden will be part of a Scandinavian exhibition at the Danish Cultural Institute.

Jonathan and Anna Freemantle – a successful artist and model respectively – launched the fashion festival at Summerhall last summer – 12 months on from a tribute event to the late Alexander McQueen at the same venue. The couple have also made a name for themselves in recent years with Noir! – a series of cross-cultural club events and fairs. Their fledgling fashion festival last year a concept of the same name which was launched to great fanfare seven years ago, and brought Matthew Williamson and Jonathan Saunders to the city, but was never repeated due to funding problems.

However, in only its second year in its new incarnation, the event now looks as if it is now here to stay. Jonathan says: “The festival was staged in Edinburgh back in 2006. It got a lot of public funding, around half-a-million pounds, but never happened again.

“We were actually approached by the city last year about getting a fashion festival off the ground. There was a feeling that it might be a good time to do one again. We had a few conversations, but the festival that we had in mind wasn’t the same one that the city had in mind.

“We didn’t want to do one that was commercial and all about the high street. We did want to do one which ­connected with what people really think and feel about fashion – and not some glitzy, red-carpet, VIP event.

“A lot of the way people perceive fashion events is very much ‘sorry – you’re not on the guest list’, and that they costs a million pounds and have this whole hierarchy.


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“What we set out to do was sidestep that and go back to the ideas which lie behind great fashion. We put on last year’s festival for around £50,000 and have a similar budget this year, only we only have a small amount of public funding, from Creative Scotland, this time.”

Last year’s event attracted around 3,000 people to Summerhall for a programme of runway shows, talks, workshops, film screenings and masterclasses. But although Summerhall is back for this year’s festival, the couple feel that the city’s historic former vet school is too small to contain the whole event.

Jonathan says: “We were actually astounded by the level of interest last year. We managed to get coverage in Vogue and Harper’s and a lot of guests who came spread the word.

“The one thing we felt last year was that the festival was a bit condensed into the four days, it felt too intense. And even though Summerhall is such a fantastic venue, it didn’t really have a space big enough to stage the kind of shows we want to.

“By spreading it over the two weekends we have given it more space, but we’re also able to embrace the fantastic venues we have in Edinburgh and also engage a bit more with the city. We feel that the fashion festival has its own audience, so by taking out of the mayhem of August, means we are able to use venues we wouldn’t be able to use otherwise. It’s also a difficult time in the industry ­calendar when people are either away on holiday or preparing madly for London Fashion Week in ­September.”

While there looks as if there will be no shortage of glamour from this year’s fashion ­festival, a key aim is making the event open to all, with the bulk of the Future Fashion day at the City Art Centre free of charge and the opening five-hour event at the Mansfield Traquair ­Centre just £18 a ticket.


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Jonathan says: “When we approach people to come here to speak or show their work, we say that this is very much an ‘anti’ fashion festival. We’re not ‘anti’ the fashion industry, but it’s about looking at fashion from the point of view of it being an art form and looking at the concepts and ideas that govern it.

“One of our main themes this year is fashion as performance. We didn’t just want to have a series of catwalk shows, we wanted to have different ways for people to experience the festival.

“Right from the start, our idea was to look to the brilliant artists within the industry, the mavericks, the taste-makers and the thinkers. We’re looking at designers and artists within the fashion spectrum that take their practice beyond selling clothes. The festival is very much about fashion informs how we think and behave.

“We also want to look at designers and artists who cross into each other’s territory and the kind of hidden collaborations that go on, but are very seldom spoken about. It’s important for us to bring international designers to Edinburgh, but we also want to reignite, nurture and inspire the fashion scene in the city.”

Caroline Parkinson, director of creative development at Creative Scotland, said: “We’re delighted to support the industry symposium and emerging talent showcase, which is part of the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival.

“The symposium is a fantastic opportunity for respected names in the fashion industry to speak about their work, inspiring the sector, students and the wider public in Scotland, and stimulating debate and potential future industry collaborations. It will showcase the work of emerging fashion designers, jewellers and accessory designers, helping to promote their designs to the public.”


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Festival highlights


The Mansfield Traquair Centre plays host to a Clements Ribeiro showcase, set to a score by Australian composer Marty Hailey.


The acclaimed Reykjavik-based design studio hosts a series of masterclasses at Edinburgh University’s Inspace complex, rounded off by an exhibition of work created over the weekend.



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Designers Bella Freud, Amanda Harlech and Georgina Goodman are among the designers speaking in the old dissection room at former vet school Summerhall.


An all-day event taking over the City Art Centre to promote the cream of Scotland’s fashion and design talent, including a fashion show, pop-up design market and live music.


Harvey Nichols hosts a showcase of the best new menswear brands, including personal appearances from designers such as Lou Dalton, below, James Long and Christopher Shannon.



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The youngest-ever creative director at Vidal Sassoon appears at the Voodoo Rooms about his career working with some of the world’s leading fashion houses.

• The Edinburgh International Fashion Festival runs from 19-27 July.www.edinburghinternationalfashionfestival.com