Welsh Children Wearing Fashion in the South Wales Valleys

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It's Called Fashion (Look it Up), Merthyr Tydfil, 2016© Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James

It’s Called Ffasiwn by Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James sees the children of the Welsh valleys choose their own clothes for a series of striking photographs

South Wales might not be an area synonymous with fashion, but that doesn’t mean it’s bereft of creativity or imagination – far from it, as a new project by photographer Clémentine Schneidermann and creative director Charlotte James proves.

For the past four years, Schneidermann, who is originally from Paris, and James, who grew up in Merthyr Tydfil, have been collaborating on It’s Called Ffasiwn, a workshop where local children can learn about styling and various skills relating to fashion, such as customising clothes. The children are then invited to take part in photo shoots, the fruits of which are striking photographs that combine elements of fashion, portraiture and documentary photography.

“The first time I worked with the children, Clémentine and I turned up with costumes and graduate collections,” says James, who had already been holding shoots locally and casting her subjects from the surrounding area. “The kids suggested outfits for each other and, after seeing the way they responded to the clothes, we decided to host a series of workshops. The project grew from there.”

Most of the children belong to two youth clubs and the shoots and workshops were open to any and all of the children who live locally, explains Schneidermann. The majority of images were created on the estates where the young people live, she adds, “but we also shot in locations that we hope are nostalgic to people who grew up in similar areas. Working men’s clubs, community centres, industrial landscapes and pebbledash houses feature.”

Schneidermann, who was at the time living in Abertillery in south Wales, where she was participating in an artist residency, was already used to combining portraiture and landscapes as she had done in I Called Her Lisa Marie, but says the fashion and performative element was new to her. “Everything happened really organically. It was completely unexpected for me to create these kinds of images, but I’m very happy with how the project has evolved.”

“Working with the kids has been really lovely,” adds James. “There are so many great characters. When we started, we didn’t have any expectations about where the project would go, we just knew we wanted to keep doing it.”

Both agree that the project would not have been possible had it not been for the close creative partnership they have forged. Each was able to bring their own expertise and bounce ideas off the other and in doing so realise a shared vision for the work – one that moves away from the representation of working-class community life as focused on hardship and deprivation.

“Charlotte studied fashion and I studied documentary photography, and the work really sits in between these two fields,” says Schneidermann. “Without denying the reality, the playfulness of the photographs breaks with the traditional distance that you often see between the people behind the cameras and their subjects.”

Featuring the children often dressed in colourful and striking outfits amid rather bleak-looking surroundings, the images are at once surreal and incongruous, and yet each image, and the work as a whole, somehow makes complete sense. As Schneidermann and James explain, the photographs show how the valleys “wear the marks of time”, but they also suggest that there is hope among a younger forward-looking generation. It is this that the project celebrates so candidly.

“I hope the kids have been encouraged to look to the creative arts and have generally just enjoyed being a part of the project,” says James. “Without them, the project wouldn’t exist. Some of the girls did a speech at an evening we organised for parents and they all said they had had an amazing experience – that was the best feedback.”

It’s Called Ffasiwn by Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James is at the Martin Parr Foundation from March 27 to May 25, 2019. A zine of the work titled Ffasiwn Magazine Spring/Summer 2019 published by the Martin Parr Foundation will also be available. Schneidermann and James will be in conversation with Lucy Kumara Moore on May 7, 2019 at the Martin Parr Foundation.