International Fashion Weeks are about more than just the latest catwalk looks. They can also reveal much about our culinary mood.
Dining in style
In case you hadn't heard, right about now the style-concerned have their eyes glued to the catwalk at the international fashion weeks that tell us what marvels of tailoring we'll all be wearing come spring. It's of concern not just to those who love clothes or know who Anna Wintour is: the looks that are displayed on the catwalk are based on research and trend forecasting that took place a couple of years ago and very often reflect the mood of society as a whole, not to mention the colours we choose for our curtains, the depth of our shagpile and even what we eat.
Trends come and go in food just as they do in clothes, and studying the canapés at fashion parties is an excellent way to start working out what's chilli hot and what's merely a lukewarm potage when it comes to fashion-forward food. Of course, to many it will come as news that fashion people ever eat anything between the rocket leaf lunches and the I-deserve-it cupcake binges. Yet the recent publication by Assouline of The American Fashion Cookbook, a collection of recipes and illustrations by more than 100 American fashion designers, belies this preconception. Surely if Behnaz Sarafpour has a great recipe for strawberry cheesecake or Diane von Furstenberg is a fan of roast chicken, that is evidence that the fashion world loves its food. Or perhaps it's just part of the industry's mission to prove that you can be rake thin and still gorge on homemade shepherd's pie.
The dichotomy was beautifully encapsulated in the recent film The September Issue, which covers the production of US Vogue's September 2007 edition, the biggest the magazine had ever produced. In the documentary, we follow the working lives of the editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her staff, from the delightful creative director Grace Coddington to a selection of airy-fairy beings whose only qualifications seem to be being sylph-like. Needless to say, very little food appears in the film, but one moment speaks volumes, both about prevailing fashionista attitudes and a hopeful future of guilt-free delicacies. Shooting the latest couture collections in Paris, the down-to-earth Coddington has brought a box of delicious-looking French patisseries to the location. The model, the tiny-waisted Raquel Zimmerman, looks yearningly at the tarts, lamenting that she can't possibly eat one because she'll never fit into the excruciatingly tight corset. Nonsense, says Grace: one tart won't make a difference. A few minutes later, we see Zimmerman pick up a huge blackberry tart with hands clad in hand-beaded tulle fingerless gloves - the entire shoot crew collectively holding its breath in horror - and wraps her perfectly maquillaged mouth around it.
The significance of this? Firstly, that for models, however much they protest their love of burgers and cake, to eat a giant pastry is to risk being unemployable thanks to the tiny sample sizes produced by couture designers. Secondly, and more cheerfully, there are pockets of sanity within the fashion world and a general recession-related movement away from the emaciated look (who wants to look like they don't eat when there are people out there who actually can't eat?) seems to be making it more acceptable to enjoy actual sustenance once in a while.
The canapé situation is a perfect example of the changes being wrought. Matthew Brint, who runs Sublime Canapés, one of the regular suppliers of delicious nothings to London Fashion Week and designers including Stella McCartney (vegetarian only, of course) and Rocha, has noted that the food he is being asked to supply, while still varied, has shifted from the ever-popular Asian fusion to British classics such as rare roast beef in a Yorkshire pudding; sausage and mash; or that old favourite, fish and chips in a cone. It is in part, he explains, a result of the fact that companies simply have less to spend on canapés than they used to.
"There's less money floating around and canapés are the last on the list, so people either want more canapés for less money or they just want fewer canapés. So we stick very strongly with seasonal ingredients, which tastes better and saves money, and those back-to-basics dishes are a lot less expensive than caviar or strawberries at Christmas." Ingredient cost aside, what Brint calls the "comfort food factor" is at play here as people hunker down for a long, tough recession and look for the foods associated with more comfortable times.
This seems to be a theme throughout the industry at the moment, as canapés in Paris this week have involved dishes such as, at Loewe, a boeuf bourguignon so highly reduced that the jus was solidified into a chocolate-like coating, and at Sonia Rykiel a tiny chocolate tart sprayed disco silver. It's not run-of-the-mill, but it's more enjoyable than an oyster jelly in an espresso cup or some other such quirky creation.
But are these canapés just there for show - because one must have canapés or risk looking stingy or, even worse, broke - or are the fashionistas actually eating them? Opinion is divided. Certainly at the parties and pre-show events there were plenty of empty trays and sleight-of-hand pastry-grabbing, but Brint does admit that there are certain people who will never go near the food. "Some people don't really touch the canapés, and when we have something like game pies, some people absolutely love it but others are a little confused by it. There's still a lot of fusion and oriental flavours, but you've got to get it right - and that's presentation as well. We have a beetroot and pink peppercorn marinated salmon and the colours are lovely with flowering dill on top, which we grow ourselves. The fashion people love something that looks exquisite. With something like the boeuf bourguignon that we do, some people are a bit shocked - I think they want something that looks a little more expensive."
This is perhaps a mark of how the idea of luxury is changing. To some people, luxury is still the most expensive ingredients and the most outlandish presentation, but for a growing portion of the population luxury means the freedom of time, quality, refinement and indulgence. Yet in fashion, there is always a taste for contrariness and the extreme: the passion for rare-breed meats or home-grown herbs is just one pendulum swing away from the art of culinary design that is being showcased at the Vendôme Luxury trade show at Le Meurice, the unofficial hotel hub of Paris Fashion Week. Culinary design may in fact be the perfect fashion week cuisine: it's high-concept, it looks incredible and, crucially, it is inedible and therefore offers no temptation to hungry fashionistas wearing body-con bandage dresses.
Wolfgang Kabisch, the curator of the exhibition, presciently entitled Through the Looking Glass, explains that the culinary design scene has been an art movement in France and Japan for about 10 years, though it has yet to experience popularity in most of Europe and America. The important thing to remember is that culinary design is not in any way intended to be eaten: thus the chocolate parquet flooring by Fanny Maugey is an installation, not a chocolate feast; the chocolate candle by the movement's founder, Marc Brétillot, can neither be lit nor eaten, and Ayako Suwa's seaweed cherry is simultaneously enticing and revoltingly visceral.
"Most of the culinary designers cannot even make basic food like an omelette," says Kabisch. "It's not about eating: it's about structure and habits, changing the perceptions of the daily food that we take. The idea of showing it at Vendôme Luxury is to show fashion designers and culinary designers that there can be crossover between the disciplines." Indeed, only one of the exhibits has shown any connection with fashion, and that was the work created by Le Meurice's head chef, Yannick Alléno, whose extraordinary confectionary replicated beautiful rings, presented in jewellery boxes - reminiscent, in fact, of the famous Berkeley Hotel's Prêt-a-Portea, the accessory-shaped cakes that were brought over for Roger Vivier's presentation in Paris this season.
In fact, it seems that if you're looking for a food trend among fashion types, there is only one thing you can rely on: the appeal of novelty. These are people who spend their lives wearing clothes that are several seasons ahead of the rest of the population, whose search for newness is never-ending and for whom being the first to adopt a trend is a life purpose in itself. The "aahh!" factor is what moves canapés to rooms full of skinny models and what sells cakes to those who abhor sugar and fat. Which means that by the time the rest of the world has cottoned on to mini Yorkshire puds with rare roast beef, the fashion pack will have moved on to chocolate parquet bricks or whatever the next amazing creation happens to be.
With this in mind, Sublime Canapés has already begun to move in a whole new direction. "I'm developing a macrobiotic canapé menu," explains Brint. "Fashion people and celebrities like to stay healthy and there are always requests for healthy canapés. It's been classed as a fad because people like Madonna follow the diet, but it's all about low-fat, high-fibre, vegetarian pieces and really good quality ingredients. The only problem is making it look great and taste good too. It's still in development."
Hmm, wheatgrass juice or sausage and mash? It's a tough one. firstname.lastname@example.org