An unlikely partnership was unveiled at Milan men’s fashion week as Sue Tilley – the “Big Sue” immortalised by Lucian Freud in his 1995 painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping – joined forces with Fendi, one of the most elite and controversial Italian fashion houses.
Tilley, who recently embarked on a career in illustration, was the surprising star of Fendi’s spring/summer 2018 show where her sketches of tea cups, banana skins, bottle openers and bathroom taps became leather charms swinging from bags, and prints onT-shirts and fine silk shirts.
Sitting in the front row wearing a blue and white striped linen dress, Tilley said it was the brand’s menswear stylist, Julian Ganio, a long-term friend, who approached her for the job. “I’m very excited,” she said. “It’s happened so quickly. Just amazing. Although strange things happen to me all the time. People are nice to me, give me nice jobs. In life my motto is say yes to everything you’re asked to do.”
Fendi commissioned her to focus on “mundane, household” objects, she added, a theme which echoed the rest of the collection, which centred on mundanity not of the home but of the office.
Models wore suits and ties in faded 1970s colours – pinks and caramels – partnered with loafers featuring Fendi-branded heel straps. Anoraks were worn over many of the suits, some of which were were boxy, puffed-up blousons, others were flowing and loose. One standout example paired a flowing baby blue parachute silk train with mid-brown suede shoulders. Models passed through turnstiles on their way to the catwalk; the brand’s menswear designer, Silvia Venturini Fendi, took her bow in front of a facade at the end of the catwalk designed to look like lift doors opening.
Fendi is often criticised, particularly in its womenswear incarnation under Karl Lagerfeld, for its use of fur – in 2015 the actor Brigitte Bardot was among those who protested outside a womenswear show unpleasantly dubbed Haute Fourrure. It is also known for producing the baguette bag, a key part of the noughties “It bag” boom, which was popularised by TV show Sex and the City.
The relationship with Tilly, something of a countercultural heroine who was part of the inner circle of performance artist Leigh Bowery, can be interpreted as part of an effort to win over the arty, opinion-forming crowd who might otherwise be put off by Fendi’s wider brand associations.
It was not the only fashion house courting a new customer at Milan’s menswear shows, which took place at a testing time for the luxury sector, with traditional models of distribution disrupted by the internet and profits on the wane.
The buzzword of the season was “millennials” – those four syllables rolled off the tongue of almost every designer backstage, while dollar signs practically flashed before their eyes. Designers love millennials not simply because they see huge, untapped buying power, but also free publicity, given the millennial tendency to take photographs of bags and logos they like and share them on social media.
Giorgio Armani certainly has his eye on the millennial pound. The star of his spring/summer 2018 show did not appear on the runway (where there were slouchy suits in cool breeze colours of sand, ice blue and grey) but on the front row: it was the bequiffed, tattooed 23-year-old singer Liam Payne, formerly of One Direction, who spent the day leading up to the show reporting on his Armani experience in a series of short videos to his 13.6 million Instagram followers.
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