I arrive outside the cathedral. The cab driver checks – ‘Are you sure you mean the actual cathedral?’ And yes, it seems a strange venue for a Saturday night, but the stained glass is lit up beautifully (too dark for an iphone to capture well), and a gorgeously dressed couple (white cocktail dress and tux) amble about outside and I draw an excited breath.
This is certainly something different: local couture designer Matthew O’Brien’s second Fashion Show, and Amble are armed and ready with press passes! After a major stress of what to wear (what does one wear to a couture show?!?), we’re glad we stepped it up a little and went for after party glam (with a big coat as the cathedral is bound to be cold).
I’m a little early and make my way inside, stealing covetous glances at some of the stunning dresses on the other guests I pass on the way. I walk through the doors to the main room and realise I’m not only very early, I’ve stumbled upon some last minute rehearsals and am lucky enough to get sneak peak behind the scenes. I take a chance to take it all in and grab some photos while the gospel choir sing out. The space looks even larger and more towering with the pews cleared, and replaced by a long white catwalk and tall, shiny rigging adorned with flower waterfalls of green, blue and lilac, glittering chandeliers, bright, bright lights and a textured white camo sheet backdrop that looks like fluffy feathers from far away. It’s truly transformed into a magical fairy garden. I can’t wait for the show to start.
Oops, it seems we were supposed to come through the other entrance, and the few guests who, like me, are now behind the scenes, are led through to the bar area. There’s a separate VIP area roped off – VIP ticket holders are treated to a glass of fizz and canapés. The pop up bar is reasonable at £8 for a small bottle of prosecco and £4 for a bottled beer. Full bottles of wine and fizz are also available. There’s a huge wisteria flower installation dominating the bar area – it matches the floral decoration above the catwalk and it’s a focal point for people gathering at the bar. It’s a great place to fashion-watch and there’s everything from super casual through to couture, eclectic combinations (tulle ball gown and denim jacket) and some incredible menswear on show.
We queue for our wristbands (yellow for standard, white for VIP) and collect our goody bags (tiered by ticket price) and browse the stands from the brands that are supporting Matthew in putting on this show. The air is fragranced by dozens of Owen Drew candles, and I’m really taken by the room spray they diffuse by the entrance – sweet and uplifting, I learn it’s the Blaise fragrance and put it straight to the top of my birthday list (hint, hint).
There’s a bit of light chaos as a lot of staff don’t know the basics people are asking them for – toilet location, start time, where we go through etc, but we learn that a lot of people helping out are Matthew’s friends stepping in at the last minute – for example the delightful ticket table ladies who with great humour and panache dole out the wrist bands, dressed to the nines (stunning necklace stays in my mind), came as guests but stepped in just minutes before to help Matthew out. It’s lovely and charming that he has so many friends and sponsors willing to help and this lends a warm glow to the evening that washes over some of the tiny glitches.
The start of the show is running late, (we can hear ongoing rehearsals), which is standard in fashion I guess, and we are all milling around. For some the high fashion high heels are too much and the shoes are off, barefeet to the cold stone already. The wait becomes really long, well over an hour, and I’m not sure if it’s by some sign or by an innate human herding instinct but we all move towards the backstage area by the cathedral organ, packed in, with some people super keen to get good seats squeezing through the throng. Ruthless fashionistas! Their efforts are thwarted (and I must admit we had a little smirk) when people start disappearing off from the back of the crowd, we all about-turn and are finally led through an LED-lit white curtain to the catwalk area.
There’s four rows of black seats either side of the white catwalk, the coveted Frow is reserved for true VIP and the second row is for £50 VIP standard tickets and includes after party access. Prime position at the catwalk end there’s Ibiza-esque seating areas – white boxy benches and tables that were sold at £800 for 10 people and a drinks package V -VIP! For everyone else on £20 standard tickets it’s a case of first come first served for the remaining seats. You can trade up to the after party at 1539 for £15, which is a nice option to have if you want to continue the night.
As we take our seats we’re treated to the uplifting sounds of the gospel singers who regularly perform at brunch at the Opera Grill – their voices soar into the heights of the cathedral, the superb acoustics enhancing the sound. We decide they’re probably worth the £20 ticket fee on their own!
Matthew makes a short speech thanking all the sponsors and helpers, and hands over to the Vice Chair of the Lady Taverners, a charity that supports young people in the local area, and we learn that the Chair of the charity will actually be modelling tonight. It sets the tone that although this is high fashion it’s also highly inclusive and very much focused on the customers and supporters.
I’m not a full-on fashionista or a style reporter, but I do like a good dress, so here are my thoughts on the collection. I find it hard to distinguish a theme. The colour palette and materials are mixed: crisp whites, muted bluey-greens, blush, metallics, bold pink and intense black are combined with sequins, sheer, jacquard, scuba, lace, ruching and embellishments. Bows are a favourite and feature regularly. Overall the designs strike me as structural with a touch of sass here and there – a daring sheer panel, a high side split, a flash of unexpected colour. These are the tiny details that set these designs apart.
There’s a great moment when the mint dress on the catwalk is a perfect match for one worn by a lady standing in the audience – you know you’ve made a good fashion choice when you are bang on trend with the model!
Stand-outs for me were the long sleeved sheer and embellished black full length gown and the stunningly low cut slinky black number reminiscent of the Versace Jennifer Lawrence wore to the BAFTAs last week. The one most likely to wear for us was the short bodycon sequin dress patterned with scattered colours; the perfect party number.
Matthew introduces a short break and promises the second half will up the game.
In the break we start talking to a gorgeous girl in a stunning navy and magenta frilled midi scuba dress – the dress we’ve liked best amongst the guests so far. It turns out Claudia is a long time friend of Matthew’s, and the dress she is wearing is one of his, plus she was the recipient of a surprise custom-made dress from him for her (also surprise) 30th birthday – a lucky and lovely lady. It’s little snippets of info like this as we chat to various guests that builds a picture of what the designer is really like and why his success is based not just on talent but also on attitude – one that wins incredible support that is in abundant evidence tonight.
The choir returns to kick off the second half, and this time the crowd, including most of the front row, join in with some enthusiastic chair dancing, to Ain’t No Mountain and Proud Mary (rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river), the atmosphere intensifies and anticipation rises.
It starts with a showstopper – the lights drop dramatically and a dream of a dress lit with multicoloured shimmering lights (fibre optics) shimmies down the catwalk – photos will just not do this one justice I’m afraid.
Bouncy wavy blow dries and classic make up from the first half are replaced with slicked back crowns and edgier looks. The models are draped in glittering Boodles jewels throughout.
The tempo rises and the models stalk to tunes worthy of an Ibiza club and the vibe is increasingly more party as the dresses get bigger, sparklier and ever more elaborate.
An amazing baby pink candyfloss creation sashays down the catwalk – it’s light yet voluminous, imposing but deilcate and lets the light play with it in incredible ways. This a ballgown and a half and my favourite so far as its deliciously indulgent. Later, its sister dress is even more frou frou (in the best way) seemingly with the model enveloped in it and it tied in a huge bow around her.
The drama continues, lithe, longline, fluid sheaths in satins, lace and sequins alternate with outrageously wide-skirted gowns with precise pointed bodices (an O’Brien signature). A simpler gold design is made stunning with sequins.
There’s really creative use of structure – an extended off the shoulder that seems to defy gravity and a deep blue sequin dress with interesting angles in the top of the wide, wide, skirt (there’s a little girl on the front row with a sequin dress in the exact same shade who looks on wide-eyed)
The grande-dame of wedding dresses finishes the show; oh-so-simple-its-breathtaking and a fitting end to the evening.
The finale sees Matthew and the models doing a catwalk of honour. Matthew closes the night, speaking with heartfelt thanks. This guy is warm, authentic and full of energy, there’s no stuck-up fashion snobbery, just a boyish beaming face full of appreciation and delight, and the applause is well deserved. We all feel a bit Team Matthew having shared this occasion with him and it’s very Chester that high fashion can be served with warmth, open to everyone, with local businesses rallying to support each other to deliver great experiences.
As we leave for the after party at 1539, in a whirl of smiles and chatter, everyone is buzzing, energy is high, and I take a moment and look back and am amazed to think that this whole set will be gone as if it never happened, and the worshippers tomorrow morning will be none the wiser apart from maybe a discarded sequin or two. I like to think that the cathedral has been masquerading as high fashion at night, back to day job in the morning – a little like Cinderella, a truly magical night.
Goody bag list
White Glo whitening toothpaste for the supermodel-bright smile; a bijou box of Rococo chocolates; an exquisitely presented Crabtree and Evelyn gift bag with two hand therapy testers, £5 off voucher and a free 5 minute hand treatment at the store; flyers for Matthew O’Brien, Lady Taverners events, brochure for The Boutique Atelier who did the hair; and a Matthew O’Brien tote bag – I do love a tote bag! Though I think it would have been great to have the goodies in here instead of in the white plastic Opera Grill bag they were presented in – I for one would have been flouncing round with it on my shoulder all night.