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Fashion Insider: What does a DJ do during fashion week?

By Danielle Wightman-Stone

Feb 11, 2020

What would a fashion catwalk show be without music? Each season, fashion designers not only curate a collection of clothing, but they have to consider the venue, backdrop, model casting, styling, and what soundtrack they want to animate their collections.

As part of FashionUnited’s new ‘Fashion Insider’ series, finding out what goes on behind the scenes of fashion week, we spoke to DJ QuestionMark, a London-based DJ, musician and producer, who has DJ’ed for designers during London Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week on the importance of music for catwalk, what exactly goes into making the perfect clash between music and fashion, as well as how to break into the industry.

Fashion Insider: DJ Question Mark

How did you become a DJ/pursue music?

I was sent to learn classical piano and flute when I was really young. Randomly, I met a DJ when I went to a rehearsal with friends and that opened the door to the DJ world to me. Through DJing, I had to do all the research about what I’m playing, even what I’m collecting. The whole process from digging, listening, researching and playing it loud to people taught me the reason why I like music so much.

I majored in Civil Engineer at the National Taiwan University and I spent most of my time making music. It turned out I had various experiences in making music for different art forms, like designing sound for theatre projects, DJing in the club, playing the flute in both jazz big band and classical orchestras, as well as writing scores for short films and ads.

For me, music is a powerful medium to break through all the boundaries between different worlds.

When/how do start preparing for London Fashion Week?

London Fashion Week has its unique vibe of how it’s open to conceptual even experimental works. I start by talking with the designer about the core concept of the next collection, 6 months in advance from the show day.

Discussion is a big part of my working process. Before I start writing the pieces, I’ll try my best to squeeze every conceptual extension from the core concept, including the forms of texts, images, stories, musical references and even installations. Then I’ll spend time on framing the aural shape of the season, like a few key sounds, sounds of the train, water drops, animals etc.

You’ve been collaborating with London Fashion Week designer ApuJan for a number of seasons to create the perfect soundtrack to his collections - how did this partnership come about?

Collaborating with Apu is a long term project and a deep collaboration. We spent a lot of time learning from each other, from how we think and create, sometimes it’s not all about music and fashion. For example, both of us are anime fans, so we found artistic common ground from anime. It didn’t necessarily create the work, bit definitely helped the communication.

Clothing and music becomes two different mediums of the same art, organically, they match each other in the end, because we created the stories together.

How does this differ from your normal working style?

I have worked interdisciplinary for years, including with dance, figure skating, theatre, fashion, hip hop party, and jazz concerts. The key to making good work is to listen and listen carefully to what might inspire you. When I work with others, I listen to my collaborators, when I work on my solo projects, I look at myself and check my past again and again for inspirations.

For the creating process, there is no big difference to my other works. The only difference. and probably the biggest one, is working with Apu is working with ApuJan’s (as a brand) team. After all these years, we have become like a family, the connection is way more closer than a professional crew.

What goes into producing the music for a catwalk show?

6 months - 3 months in advance - talk, think, discuss about the concept.

3 - months in advance - making music demos look for musicians to collaborate.

1 month in advance - final adjust of all the tunes.

2 weeks - rehearse for the show.

1 day before - final adjust of all the show including with the running order.

What’s the most difficult aspect of DJing a fashion week show?

I have DJ’ed on other catwalk shows, but when I work with ApuJan, I’m more of a musical director, rather than only DJing.

The most tricky part is to make sure the music matches the clothes on the catwalk. There is always a plan of how the music goes, but there are always accidents, some models walk too fast, some models walk too slow, some times the order changes at last minute because a certain piece took more time than expect. I personally think the all musicians playing on the catwalk need to know how to improvise so the music won’t stop.

Additionally, as well as playing the music, my job includes timing the models, quickly figuring out the average time it takes for each model to walk out and walk in. Then tweak the music strategy, and give instruction to my band members. Maybe loop the following 4 bars and put solo on, or cut the next section and skip to the next tune. Most importantly, I still have to finish the story I’m telling from my music.

I would say, the most different part is to sort all the potential problems and make a good show no matter what.

You’ve created numerous soundtracks for ApuJan - do you have a favourite?

It’s really hard to tell to be honest, because every tune for ApuJan’s shows has been original. There are so many memories in each of them, as the team spent literally hundred hours in coffee shop, my studio, and the rehearsal room.

The one that is most special would be ApuJan’s spring/summer 2015 show, where the only the sound I use is from a sewing machine. This is the most straight forward way to show what’s the relationship between the music and textile/ clothes. The sewing machine was heavy and a little bit off the tune, (I did my best to choose the one nearly perfect) but it still sounds beautiful and totally worth it!

What do you love most about being a DJ?

I am a classical trained flutist/ pianist before I became a DJ, but DJing gave me a big freedom of playing music. Plus, I can play flute solo on top of my DJ set. It makes my set sound fresh and it looks fresh as well.

A good DJ needs to be good at reading people and communicate with their audience with the music. I feel honoured and happy for being able to share the music I like to tell my story using music.

Any advice for someone looking to break into creating music for fashion week shows?

Fashion is a good platform for trying out things, so be confident and just do it. Teamwork makes dream work - respect everyone and keep the communication smooth, clear and nice.

Whatever happens, stay calm, that’s the only way to make a good show.

Images: courtesy of DJ Question Mark