Away in the Canaries: adventure of fashion and family

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“MACHINA SILKS: exotic creativity on a far-flung Spanish island”. Since midway in my pregnancy Matthew has been birthing his own vision, our first artistic project abroad as a family. With him at the helm of organisation, I was free to recline into all things maternal, leisurely flash-forwarding to our summer trip with what would be a 4-month child, posing statuesque women in long flowing robes teamed with sci-fi armour on volcanic terrain, all in pursuit of making surreal and artistic fashion photos. ‘I’ll be shooting more milk than silks’, I vowed, to keep off the pressure on myself to perform – I just wanted to get there and back with Lilith in one piece – but I was also excited to get behind the camera again.

Having originally planned to go to Morocco, we decided to keep to the EU, and chose the unspoilt, rugged scenery of Lanzarote, far enough away from the party hotspots on its southern coast that most Brits only know the island for. We declared it “a warmer Iceland”, where the similarly textured and atmospheric beaches, deserts and lava fields made the backdrop to our newest Fashion Shoot Experience, the event where we collaborate with other photographers to fund a week of fashion magic.

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Fashion photography, already an ingredient-heavy genre, combined with a trip abroad and a clan of other photographers to cater for, made for a mountain of organisation. Everything was our job and responsibility, from the boring bottom of the pyramid to the more exciting top. I witnessed Matthew go through one setback after another with a saintly patience and such little waste of emotional energy. Contingencies changed the models at least 3 times. The main contributing designer – confirmed for months – let us down only a few weeks before, leaving a gaping hole in the the moodboard of a shoot with painfully esoteric styling. Sculptural women’s armour is not something you can find easily – not even at one of the world’s biggest costumiers, Angels, for it fails to fall into a historical era or a type at all. Thankfully we knew one other designer whose work comes anywhere near the look we’d prescribed: Boyd Batten of Divamp Couture, keeping the futuristic style of the shoot spectacularly intact. We phewed.

We did not think we’d have a huge hurdle to come with the dresses themselves. Simple but dramatic, long flowing gowns of all flavour colours, that we had no reason to believe our commissioned London designer wasn’t diligently sewing in the vast expanse of time she’d been given. A delay in the last month made us fidget, and then days before our flight, a box arrives, suspiciously shabby, and like the proverbial Pandora’s, opens up to a litany of dressmaker disasters. Dresses not started, let alone finished; bags of reels and fasteners, our own rags suddenly lost within hers. Our flustered fingers, impaled with falling dress pins, dial the number of an unresponsive line. We are left stranded with crestfallen gazes, our money all already paid. We pull out a misshapen piece of fabric we don’t even know which way round to hang on our mannequin. Expletives dwindle into sighs as we put the outrage to the back of our minds and ponder the way forward. The silver lining is there in the box itself: the purple dress, the only one complete – badly, but, a map for the way forward when you don’t have a dress pattern. A few hours later we pile into the house of a local seamstress, clutching said shabby box, Lilith in the sling, and desperate looks on all our faces. ‘I can’t promise I can do it, but I’ll try my best’: the prognosis is cliff-dangling but the blunt honesty a refreshing change. We go away hopeful, and then, days closer to our flight, our faces beam to an email telling us nearly 5 dresses are done. So, “LA/London/Japan-based Fashion Stylist + Designer + Consultant + Art Direction” is put to shame by little old Tina, work-from-home seamstress in Maidstone, who does more work in 3 days than the other did for us in 5 months. We emerge a little more jaded yet re-inspired by the helpfulness of optimism and determination.

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Now we were set, with 16 bags of gear maxing out the airline’s baggage capacity between our travelling party, ready to shoot the final picture of the puzzle we’d long laboured on, ‘to just get out and do this now’ in Matt’s favourite words. Creatives from all over, including Poland, New Zealand, US, Canada, UK, Mexico, joined us on the tiny island of Spanish idyll for our week-long working holiday, all staying together at a yoga retreat, the Casa El Morro, a cluster of villas complete with pool and and a pleasurable smattering of hammocks and cacti. We’d dine there morning, noon and night in between our schedule of shoots plotted out with the help of our pro guide, Jose, leading our driving convoy fleet of rented cars, with models ready to jump out in their bedazzling futuristic attire looking somewhat like an 80s tribute girlband and a crazy sight for the passing tourists as we dived into nature’s readymade sets.

I was cautious that babies can be on a difficult growth spurt at 4 months. But the smile on Lilith’s face on the morning of our 2.30am airport wake-up call prophesised a dream week as far as her moods were concerned, and in fact, the week gathered several comments on her calm alertness which I take to imply is rare. Staying content enough for a long morning getting to and through Stansted, my anxious breast could rest, whilst our pink-hatted elf’s smiling lines for eyes and mouth beamed round at the large travelling pack as they arrived one by one at Departures. That pack included M’s sister to help look after Lilith. I hoped to pump as little as possible, for what I really wanted was baby present on the action, my milk on immediate tap, just as it became on the first joyful day crouching by a volcano. The heat of just 3 afternoons had us leave Lilith behind at the Casa with her steadfast auntie, but for all the rest, our daughter was with us, sheltered and fanned in her red pram that I spontaneously posed with red-dressed model Kim for a humorous alien-mother picture.

To run and push her pram with childlike thrill and vigour, over the rocky, inappropriate terrain, released a spire of misery long locked inside me; a misery post loss of Evan, sent upwards into the deep blue sky we made even deeper blue with our ND filter, the blue of the eyes of the child now in my arms, physical, no longer a mysterious hopeful rainbow concept, no longer a human ‘ham sandwich’ as I’d joked throughout a craving-filled pregnancy, but here, looking at me, drooling on me, warm, bulky, fragrant, real! Parading her to the styling crew who’d long become my friends, who had comforted me on a worried shoot at 30 weeks that all was ok; they took a real shine to her, taking turns at evening dinner to hold a tired, eye-rubbing bundle of grumpy joy and play ‘musical shoulders’ to see who she’d fall asleep on. Looking back on our previous photoshoot trips that timelined her creation: the first menstruation post-Evan, radiating a private happiness in my big coat standing on Nordic black sands. In Harlem, shopping for vit b6 swallowed with a mean green juice to make the freshest start for a new tenant. Hopeful in Sofia, the big ‘if’. Then, 10 weeks pregnant, bedding down alone early in a four-poster of a French chateau whilst the rest of the party outside woohooed with wine. 14 weeks pregnant, in a dripping cold ice cave with stocky Icelanders who knew of my ‘precious cargo’ and guided me through. And now, here we were calmly triumphant, this time in the winds of the Canary Islands, the physical family we ached to be… shooting dresses of all the colours of the rainbow, fabrics that faced their own setbacks, now flying high in a subtle homage to the rainbow child herself.

Each day we shared models and time between all 10 photographers, everyone scattering to find their own ‘set’, our sturdy sunburned men-helpers in wide-brim hats marching back and forth to erect lights and troubleshoot triggers. Matt joined me on most of the setups and it was a pleasant surprise to find we worked together better than ever: agreeing to the same taste in composition, lighting and pose with a rare regularity. ‘Nailing the shot’ is a term I usually find distasteful but it was apt for the shots Matt would step in to fire, then show me on the back of the camera, morphing my face of expectant cynicism into one of agreeable admiration. The models, the landscape and the lighting just clicked – literally – but teamed with the futuristic accessories and rugged backdrops, became something edgier than whimsical. Shooting endless pictures of flowing fabric is addictive and alluring, making a hundred shapes every second in the blowing wind and even more combinations possible in Photoshop. This is both a blessing and a curse: to identify and shape the right one amongst many red herrings. A familiar inner frustration was awakened once I sat down at my home computer. Already surreal looking, I considered not using any Photoshop at all. But I arrived at my usual conclusion that Photoshop was not to be overused nor eschewed for sake of making a point, but sensibly to be used where necessary to enhance a well-chosen foundation. Select an image that excites me, genuinely, through the telltale sign of having bum stuck to my chair till the darkness falls around me without my noticing; embellish and strip it back again until the right oscillation between reality and fantasy is reached, for too much of either spells mediocrity. So far I have released three images on Facebook, my favourite is yet to come.

I’ve been reminded how much creativity releases a particular pent-up energy from my chest and shoulders that nothing else can, and it is the balance of being both mother and artist that makes my soul tick. I came home with a hard drive amassed with a rainbow trail of raw material but also memories to be long nestled in my mind of taking Lilith abroad for the first time. Each night carrying her, lullaby in her ear, across the lamplit retreat back to our fan-cooled room, hurrying to get horizontal for her on-tap nightcap, then curl up close together in dreamfeeding recharge till the next morning, in these pure gut-virginal days before she’d get to solid food. The particularly hot sticky afternoon we decided it was time for her first dip in water, filming M step into the pool cradling her sceptical but calm countenance. The mountaintop moment when a sharp gust of cool wind had me skip back to the car to hold her warmth in my arms… bringing me anticipation for the imminent autumn, and beyond that, our first Christmas together.

But before the nights draw in, we go to France for our next long-planned adventure, ‘Chateau Chique’, and I type this now in midst of the preparations as M works on a dress outside, and Lilith sits in my lap. This time we will be joined with a small gathering of children including our nephew Hunter. He was born not long after we lost our Evan; two little boys who should have grown up together, separated by the unruly happenstance of nature, never to meet. But Hunter will now be getting to know Lilith instead. And as Lilith pulls my finger onto her two sharp, emerging bottom teeth, squirming vigorously in my lap trying to type into my paragraph, I cannot help but have nothing but gratitude for the beautifully crooked way life has gone, and feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Includes photos by M’s brother Daniel

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