Gok Wan brought his special blend of fashion, fun and group therapy to Leeds last weekend. Stephanie Smith went along to meet fans, the style team, and the man himself.
“Tell everyone about what makes you a pear shape,” says Gok Wan to three panting women who have just raced each other to the stage to claim that particular body shape title.
“Fat backside,” says the first pear, flatly. Gok seems momentarily taken by surprise. “Honest, but great, yeah, lovely,” he says. “Fat backside and hips.”
Welcome to Leeds, where around 160 excited women took their seats in the ballroom of the Queen’s Hotel last Saturday afternoon, bringing their handbags, their mobile phone cameras and a generous dose of Yorkshire self-deprecation and straight-talking to the Gok Wan Fashion Brunch Club.
Despite protests of “padded bra”, Gok dismisses two of the pear wannabes as hour-glasses. “You just wanted to get on stage, didn’t you?,” he chides. This leaves his true pear shape, who looks perfectly lovely in a fitted, fuchsia pink, frill-hem dress.
Being a pear means it’s hard to find trousers that fit properly, she says, adding: “I just hate looking at myself.” The audience groans in sympathy.
“Well, that’s a horrible thing and you mustn’t feel like that, because you are gorgeous,” says Gok, giving her a hug. “And I have to say, you are doing exactly the right thing in that dress. A lot of pear shapes think you shouldn’t show off your bum, but if you show it off, you will look so much better,” he advises. “Also, statistically, pear shapes have flatter tummies than any other body shape. You’re wearing a cap sleeve as well – that’s broadened your shoulders. But the major thing that you are doing is that you are absolutely showing off that tiny little waistline.”
Cue applause for the well-dressed pear, who is now happily returning to her seat.
Mixing fashion, food and fizz with confession and group therapy, the Fashion Brunch Club has been touring the UK. Tickets are £65 for a four-hour experience, which at the Queens, included a glass of fizz, a sit-down three-course meal (typically goats cheese tartlet starter, followed by risotto and petits-fours and coffee) on tables of eight, plus a fashion show featuring eight models and 80 outfits, punctuated by an entertaining half-hour masterclass by Gok, then a Q&A, plus a good chance of meeting Gok himself, as he is more than generous with time and selfie duties.
Back to the masterclass in body shapes, a subject close to Gok’s heart. There are few men in the audience, but he manages to find one. “Can you tell me what the body shapes are then, sir?” he asks him. “Nice,” booms back the lesser-spotted male, to much whooping and applause. “You are completely right, sir,” says Gok. “I think that every single body shape is completely beautiful, whether it’s a size 8 or a size 28.”
The four body shapes, by the way, are pear, top heavy, column or rectangle, and hourglass. Top-heavy Joanne gets a live measuring on stage. “If you are top heavy, it’s never about bust size, this is a massive misconception. It’s always about the broadness of your shoulders. Did you know that?” Gok asks the audience. Some do, some don’t.
Bra straps need to work hard and you need to show off the smallest part of your body. There are different waist lines – low rise, true line and empire. Most top-heavy women have a high-rise empire line as their smallest part.
On to the apples and rectangles. “Look at your waistline again. It doesn’t mean you can’t show it off,” says Gok. Think break line, which is could be the top of the your trousers, two different colours or fabrics or textures, or skin against fabric - anywhere that breaks up your shape. Gok says: “The break line is so important in fashion because what it does is it gives you a contour. Tuck your tops in, it’s all good.”
The catwalk show is, of course, a key ingredient of the Fashion Brunch Club, with outfits provided by local retailers. “We have one of the best High Streets in the world. I think we need to celebrate that, but unfortunately we don’t, and the High Street is diminishing,” Gok says. Independent boutiques, in particular, are important for making sure the UK keeps its fashion reputation around the world.
Julie Fitzmaurice, which has been in Parliament Street, Harrogate, since 1934, has come along with a range of outfits for the miracle makeover, when a member of the audience is selected to go backstage to be transformed by the style team, which in Leeds comprises Gok’s own stylists plus hair and make-up by students at Sheffield College.
Gok has pre-selected the makeover outfits from Julie Fitzmaurice’s bespoke range. Owner Gini Palm says that the simple statement look of the Royals is an inspiration for many of her clients, especially the Duchess of Cambridge, so she has brought along her long wool jacket, which can be dyed in 200 colours. It’s ideal for a mother-of-the-bride look, after which it can be shortened to wear with jeans. “Nobody wants redundant clothes in their wardrobe,” Gini says. Gok called her “out of the blue”, after seeing the brand’s website. “He said, ‘I love your clothes, love your style - I’m falling in love with you,” she laughs.
Today’s makeover miracle is Liz Blackburn, from Rastrick, who is soon to attend a ceremony to accept the British Empire Medal she was awarded earlier this year to recognise her work as a house mother, helping more than a thousand boys with special educational needs during her 30-year career at the William Henry Smith School in Brighouse.
“I can’t believe it, I’m chuffed,” she says, as she is being styled backstage. “Who doesn’t like a bit of glitz?”
Back in the ballroom, it’s time for Gok’s Q&A.First Q up from an audience member who “would like to know what you consider to be a plus size?”
“Plus size academically is a size 16 plus and that’s because historically brands would normally only make clothes for size 6 up to size 16,” answers Gok. To him, however, plus-size is “over a size 20-22”, but it’s all a matter of opinion.
Rachel, from Newcastle, would love to know why there are so many variations in sizes in stores. It’s a down to the blocks, says Gok, the forms the fashion brands use to create their own sizes, but which are unregulated and therefore vary. He thinks there should be global, government-regulated size blocks to combat the problem, adding that it can be damaging for a 13-year-old to discover that they are a so-called extra-large, when they might actually be a size 10 or 12.
However, audience member Claire has a tougher question for Gok. “Where,” she demands to know, “are your plus size models? Do you have any?”
It depends on the city, says Gok, admitting that, for Leeds, they hadn’t quite managed to find the plus models they wanted - an issue that will be rectified, he promises, for next month’s Fashion Brunch Club in Sheffield.
“And, for the first time in UK history, we are going to start a plus size tour, because no one else is doing it and we’ve got to look after our girls.”
It’s all good. Gok accepts criticism and seems to relish an audience that talks back. There’s more fun, frolics and whooping when Hannah, who has come along with her brother, James, wants to know what Gok would would wear if he took him out on a date. (James, incidentally, appears to have little say in the matter, and has already been the object of much banter, after catching Gok’s eye earlier in the show.)
“What would I wear?” Gok muses. “Baby oil?” He turns serious for a moment. “Do you know what? I don’t look like this in any other part of my life, so for me it would be jeans, a sweatshirt and a pair of trainers. Do you know what, James? It’s all about what’s inside.” More whoops of delight from the audience.
I can confirm Gok’s off-duty look of sweatshirt and jeans, as this is exactly what he was wearing when we chatted just before the show. “I love Leeds,” he said. “It’s one of my favourite cities, actually, I’m not just saying that. I like the club culture here. I like the fact that it’s a big university town so there’s a lot of creativity here, and you’ve got so much vintage here as well. There’s nice little pockets of style and you don’t get that in many cities any more.”
He has been rehearsing with the models, who will be showing off designs from local designers and retailers - another subject close to his heart, campaigning to ensure we buy from them and make use of their expertise and experience.
“My best special occasion tip is that you’ve got to have a relationship with the people selling your clothes. That’s the most important thing, because occasion wear is very unfamiliar to you. You probably do it once or twice a year, you won’t see yourself in it, you won’t feel confident in it, so trust somebody else, get somebody else to help you with it, and the best thing is the people where you’re actually buying the clothes.”
And what of the audience, how did they enjoy the Gok Fashion Brunch Club? Wyn Naylor, from Garforth, who has come with her friend Julie Brown, from Ossett, says, “I think he embraces all women, definitely. I wouldn’t be here if he did it just for young ones.”
Occasionally outrageous, frequently potty-mouthed, always entertaining and inclusive, an afternoon with Gok is well worth the £65 ticket price. The man sure knows how to put on a show. Catch it if you can.
* The Leeds catwalk show featured outfits from: Working Wardrobe, Tracy Wells Millinery, Susan Hardcastle, Sheer Bliss Lingerie, Sian Marie Fashion, Colette Green Handbags, Julie Fitzmaurice, Firth’s of Haworth, Yorkshire Wedding Emporium and the Bobby Pin.
* Missed it? The next Yorkshire Gok Wan Fashion Brunch Club takes place on June 3 at Cutlers Hall in Sheffield. See www.gokfashion.com for details and tickets.