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I Had to Survive London Fashion Week On Free Gifts Alone

For the whole five days, I blagged everything I ate, drank, wore and watched.

by Jack Mills, Photos: Carl Wilson
19 September 2014, 7:00am

The author getting some free food at London Fashion Week

London Fashion Week comes with its own specific set of certainties. You'll bump into an overworked intern on a soya latte dash; you'll spot a member of the Guinness dynasty; and you'll realise that the front row goodie bags, full of wet-look hair gel and branded Veet memory sticks, aren't really all that good.

However, if you're a regular (meaning a blogger, a stylist, an Abbey Clancy or anyone whose wardrobe is 70 percent gold mesh), there's one more given: LFW means a solid run of free rooftop parties and trips to the ME Hotel media bar.

This particular certainty recently became a very important part of my life. Last week, VICE asked me to survive fashion week "without spending any money". And they weren't fucking about. Everything I was to eat, drink, wear and watch would be either blagged or gifted from the LFW circus. The clothes I turned up in on day one would be the Negroni-splattered remains you'd see on Tuesday, unless I was lucky enough to find a Snog x British Fashion Council T-shirt in a tote bag giveaway.

Literally nothing was allowed to go in or on my body if I didn't find it at London Fashion Week. For five days.

I liked the idea of temporarily morphing into fashion's Bear Grylls - a weird, malnourished survivalist popping up in the background of Mail Online photos with the glamorous tag of "bystander at the official Marchesa after party". So I accepted the challenge.

DAY ONE

"Jack Wills" is definitely not my name

Arriving on the Friday morning, my first - and most important - task was blagging a press pass. Luckily, this was a lot easier than I'd expected. All I had to do was make life a nightmare for Somerset House's media staff for about half an hour, whining that I'd forgotten "to ask for a commissioning letter" until I could see the blood vessels in one of the PR's eyes about to burst. 

Understandably, they hated me by the time I'd managed to force their hand. Presumably as some form of punishment, I now had to spend the next five days sharing a name with a brand worn by school bullies and yachting professionals.

My first free lunch consisted of a packet of "Propercorn" and a newcomer called "Beauty Drink", so-called because after a rigorous two or three weeks on the collagen-infused frogspawn your skin will supposedly end up as smooth as a dolphin's. 

"It's been tested and everything!" said the lady handing out drinks. Which was reassuring, I guess, if not a little worrying for the brand's longevity that their sales pitch involves convincing people it isn't going to give you a tropical disease.

I thought it would be sensible to sign up to a few PR mail-outs at the beginning of the week - something I'd usually only do under duress. That said, while PR emails normally revolve around the new Gentleman's Dub Club album or incredibly premature Christmas gift guides, my first of LFW got me entry to a showcase from Portuguese designers Daniela Barros and Joao Melo Costa.

Following the show, Carl - the photographer- and I got a mid-afternoon frozen yoghurt from a free-for-all Snog stand, and I picked up a sheet of fluorescent orange wristbands from a box I found. I'm not sure why - there wasn't anything written on them. But I figured, worst-case scenario, that I might be able to somehow barter them for sustenance if I couldn't get my hands on anything other than popcorn and high-concept water.

At the ME Hotel's bar - the cooling off spot for the week, rammed with drained daily columnists and flustered shopping editors - we were told to rally outside for a fashion performance from the brand Phannatiq that promised to be both "edgy" and "Hackney-inspired".

I'm not sure how playing industrial-sized glow sticks like guitars is either of those things. What I witnessed looked more like how I'd envisage an Andrew Lloyd Webber production of Battlestar Galactica. I needed a (free) drink.

Catching wind of a party, we headed towards Hyde Park. Stopping off at a bar in Soho on the way (we sat sipping tap water, hoping someone would leave half a bottle of Cava for us to take), I spotted Alan Yentob, who was being followed around town by a camera crew.

"Alan, we're on the way to a party," I said. "Fancy coming to Mayfair?"

He came through with a solid excuse - something about having to visit Mike Leigh's flat.

My press pass got us straight into the party, slightly validating how much of a dick I'd been that morning, and we soon got a good free-drinks-flow going: two limoncellos and two beers each with every bar trip.

A few of those alcoholic assembly lines in, I spotted a table of pastries. Dinner. The above picture is of me sawing a stale pie in half with two forks :(

DAY TWO

Day two wasn't a good one for food. In our trusted press area we hoovered up some of the gelatin-free gummy bears being handed around and drank out of the vat of terrible £0.00 coffee.

I assumed that would be the worst breakfast I'd ever have, but on the way to the Freemason's Hall - where a number of the shows are held - it got worse: I was gifted a bag of nail polish and a packet of "Smashing Strawberry" Urban Fruit. If you've tried these slow-baked snacks you'll know how oppressively dry they are. Seriously, I'd rather down the polish than gnaw my way through another one of those tangy skin flakes.

We didn't last long at the venue. For Little Shilpa's showcase, women with headpieces made of 70s wrapping paper skulked around a cavernous mess hall. I'm sure it was great if you're into that kind of thing, but I didn't really get it. They just looked like a fire hazard. 

To get ready for a Rick Owens party later that night, we headed back to the Strand for a complimentary manicure. Prepping a strong black polish, the nice lady began filing, scraping and coating my nails, taking time to clip away at chewed cuticles and lather on what I assumed to be not very expensive moisturiser. 

To be honest, I wasn't sure four black nails and one pink one were really going to help me fit in with all the health goths who populate Rick Owens parties, but it was the best I could do.

After walking to Granary Square for four free gin and tonics at Shao Yen's showcase, we headed to a car park behind Selfridges for the main event. Well, I say main, but I mean only: after scouring emails, Facebook events and phone notes, it seemed that Rick Owens' mist-drenched dystopia was the night's best option.

"How can a fucking car park be at capacity?" screamed someone in the queue.

Then, in a flash, someone whose optimism I admired immediately jumped the barrier and made a dash down a smoky tunnel towards the party. As expected, his sprint was cut short by a bouncer's clothes-line, but he carried on fighting anyway.

"I will fuck your mother's cunt!" he shouted.

It was decent effort, though not a particularly effective one; bouncers tend to treat you better when you're not threatening to have sex with their mums. 

Inside, industrial techno blasted from a set of amp-stacks, and strobes occasionally revealed the exact kind of crowd I'd anticipated. One guy was covered in blood, another had a metal clasp around his skull and a gang of 12th century French counts with painted-white faces skateboarded between dancers.

At the bar, topless, emaciated skinheads served cocktails that tasted like de-icer.

A dancer pissed all over the bar and got thrown out by his own security team.

Basically, it was too much for a man fuelled purely by free candy floss to handle.

DAY THREE

Sunday's breakfast was much like Saturday's: absolutely rubbish. Downing a hot chocolate sample we were handed in the street and dabbing the crumbs of Turkish delight a friend had pity-gifted me, our first destination was Hanover Square. With Vogue House looming overhead, we headed to the basement of Café Kaizen for the launch of a new fashion magazine. 

Turns out Kaizen is home to the worst cocktail in existence - a bile-inducing mix of Koko Kanu, freshly pressed lime juice and Gomme. Still, they were free, so we hammered around five of them each and attempted to take advantage of a confusing offer from the cab app Hailo.

"3 x 10 rides during London Fashion Week," went the subject header. Hailing this free taxi was easy - it's just that nobody seemed to have informed our driver he'd be transporting us for nothing. Tired of us screaming the redundant codes we'd been mailed, the guy kicked us out in the middle of Shaftesbury Avenue.

Next stop was a party at Shopcade's new pop-up store. This is what happened there:

 As soon as we walked in, someone shoved a novelty Carnival weave on my head and handed me a blow-up phone. We split up immediately: I waited for a hive of candyfloss to be spun, while Carl rounded up several flutes of Lambrini.

Just as the fizz had reached our brains, Shopcade's LFW extravaganza imploded in on itself: "Can everyone take a few steps to your right?" hollered a girl as three session musicians walked to the stage.

'Who are these strange figures attempting to ruin everyone's night?' I thought. My question was answered almost immediately. "Put your hands up for Rough Copy!" shouted the girl.

With that, out came X Factor's emotionless covers band for one last, exhausted rendition of "Don't Let Go".

Leaving instantly, we walked to Mahiki, where the luxury brand Sorapol was having its SS15 piss-up. On unusually generous form, the venue offered an always four-deep crowd a free supply of whisky and chasers; and just as we were planning a quick trip to the nearest Pret food bin, a horde of guys brought out platters of fried beige.

"Is it a free-for-all?" I asked Gail Porter, who looked as confused as I was.

That photo above tells me I then washed down my fried whatever with a sip of someone's daquiri-filled treasure chest. Which, in retrospect, is pretty shameful.

Drunk, boiling and with handfuls of BBQ ribs to wade through, we danced to Whitney Houston tunes until a guy lit an oversized sparkler in his mouth and stole our thunder.

DAY FOUR

Monday started off civilised and ended with me eating someone's packed lunch.

In the early afternoon we hit arts venue 180 The Strand - an old office block that's apparently now used for much more exciting stuff - to watch Thomas Tait's retro-futuristic spring line. As models walked under exposed wires and PRs huddled next to piles of broken plasterboard, the sound of The KLF's "What Time Is Love" blasted from a rigged pillar. I felt like I was stood right in the middle of every 90s fashion movie ever made.

Next up, The Photographer's Gallery brought the free Red Bull, and the Designer's Showrooms the beer.

At that second venue we met Daisy Knights, who makes mini plastic badges you can latch to your shoes. I was starving by this point and started explaining what I was doing out of pure hangry frustration.

"Have my breakfast," she offered, kindly handing me a sweaty banana bread bar. "I haven't eaten it yet and it's past six." 

At The Sanderson Hotel we managed to get our hands on some lychee-flavoured vodka in the press area, so hung around there eyeing up the nearby gift bags, which we hoped might be full of gin and hotdogs.

Sadly, they were not. Dejected, we headed to the toilets to angrily slap on the actual contents: face putty and perfume.

After a long walk to Hoxton Square's Lyst Studios, we were greeted by models locked in a multicoloured cage. Which is probably one of the more unsettling welcomes I've had.

In one corner, an "anti-selfie" app called Glitché filmed passers-by and projected them, pixellated, onto a wall. As I stared forlornly at the image of my drowsy, defeated, Glitché-d up face, gallery owner Katie Rose came over and, after a quick briefing about my involuntary hunger strike, offered to find me some food. 

'I could get used to this,' I thought, before realising there is absolutely no reason why I'd ever want to.

DAY FIVE

Tuesday's lesson was this: as easily as it can sustain life, London Fashion Week can (nearly) take it away. That morning at the Topshop Show Space, a builder fell through the moss-coated corrugated roof, smashing into a girder on the way down.

I'd been there for the Marques Almeida show an hour or so beforehand, where I grabbed a complimentary wild boar slider for breakfast (I know) and headed to a Somerset House sofa for a lie down, trying desperately to ignore the stench of my rapidly moulding clothes. 

Failing to find anyone who'd give me their lunch, we jumped in a Gordon's gin tuk-tuk that was there to take guests to one of the brand's events. When we found out said event wasn't free, we asked the driver to drop us off at Lincoln's Inn Fields so we could admit defeat in the comfort of worms and greenery.

Though we'd been beaten, I didn't think I'd done too badly. I had a feeling, going in, that surviving fashion week without my wallet was a pretty achievable dare. And I was right; it is relatively easy, as long as you don't mind surviving solely on stolen pies, alcohol and pity. Blagging a press pass is vital, and the rest is just a mixture of perseverance, chance and the philanthropy of strangers. Plus, I work at a magazine, where deadline weeks usually involve wearing the same clothes for five days straight and dropping a few pounds.

It's an interesting spectacle, LFW. Fashion is an industry linked inextricably to consumerism, so it comes as no surprise that brand ambassadors from all over descend on the event, giving away everything from organic gummy sweets to the latest in liquid carcinogens. And it's that aspect that actually makes it the perfect place to survive off blags and giveaways - a bi-annual event where people are falling over themselves to give you stuff for free, helping you to save five days' funds to go towards bills or a holiday or a full-sized wild boar bun.

My only advice: change your clothes a couple of times - I have a feeling my all-week outfit might have given me rubella.

@jackstuartmills

More from London Fashion Week:

I Dressed Like an Idiot at London Fashion Week to See How Easy It Is to Get Street Snapped

Meet the Guy Behind the 'Selfie Hat'

Grime, Trackies and Parties: Nasir Mazhar Is Everything British Fashion Should Be

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