Schneidermann and Charlotte James aka. Ffasiwn Studio, collaborate with the global fashion house on a shoot, workshops and a book with the help of the young Welsh community
A group of girls stand on Ogmore Beach in Wales, posing carefree with their feet in the water. Though their lilac dresses are raised to avoid the waves, their hems have been dampened and are illuminated by the low-lying sun. This image – evocative of hazy summer days, capturing the unalloyed pleasure of being dressed up in an incongruous place – is part of a series created in a collaboration between documentary photographer Clémentine Schneidermann, creative director Charlotte James, and fashion label Alexander McQueen.
Unlike many shoots, however, this wasn’t just a question of turning up for the day. Since 2015, Schneidermann and James have worked together under the banner of Ffasiwn Studio: a Merthyr Tydfil-based initiative working with local youth groups and communities on elaborate photo projects that place young people at the heart of the images. “We wanted to challenge negative stereotypes that exist for the Valleys, and for the community to be a part of creating that,” James explains of their approach, which yields surreal, staged photographs that linger somewhere between high fashion editorials and social documentary, set against the hills and towns of South Wales.
When Alexander McQueen’s Creative Director Sarah Burton embarked on research for her AW20 collection inspired by Welsh mythology and craftsmanship, her team alerted her to the Ffasiwn Studio. It seemed like the perfect match. In 2020, the fashion house reached out and suggested a joint project. “We had spent years developing our programme. Our first workshop consisted of one black bag full of donated clothing and each time we got more ambitious with what we could deliver,” James says. “We were always trying to expand it by having other creatives deliver workshops so the young people could learn their stories. When McQueen approached us, it was a full circle moment, and one that we never imagined could happen.”
Together, the team devised a scaled-up version of Ffasiwn Studios workshops. The young people involved were given the chance to learn more about everything from image research and clothes design to model casting and studio photography. “Working with McQueen pushed us in new directions and encouraged us to renew ourselves and question our practice,” Schneidermann says. “Luckily, we had complete freedom and Sarah Burton trusted our vision for this project.”
“Working with McQueen pushed us in new directions and encouraged us to renew ourselves and question our practice. Luckily, we had complete freedom and Sarah Burton trusted our vision for this project.”
Although there were some unexpected problems along the way, not least Covid-19 restrictions, which limited the number of participants, it culminated in an atmospheric book combining the resulting fashion imagery – complete with those lilac dresses, which were custom designed by Burton – with creative writing, embroidery, and illustrations made by the children in the workshops. The real power of this initiative lies not only in the photos, but in the lasting effect on those who took part. “Since we started the project, even though it might sound very cheesy, we wanted to believe that nothing is impossible,” Schneidermann explains. “So even though setting up workshops and shoots in the Valleys with Alexander McQueen seemed surreal, it proved to us that yes, nothing is impossible, and you can achieve wonderful things outside major cities.”
It’s a sentiment shared by James. “It was high energy with lots of excited young people buzzing around,” she adds. “Youth workers have told us that it is great for their confidence, as they are encouraged to explore their creativity or stand in front of the camera. Even as they get towards their teenage years they still want to engage in some way and ask us when the next [workshop] is – which says a lot.”