Manchester catwalk of life swaps models for everyday heroes

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Anna Brech
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The owner of a taxi firm that offered free rides to Ariana Grande fans caught up in the arena terror attack last month was among 147 Mancunians who walked a ‘catwalk of life’ in central Manchester yesterday.

Sam Arshad, who worked through the night to help stranded concert-goers, said he was channelling Beyoncé for his turn in the spotlight. He was joined by a Big Issue seller, a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Kosovo war in a unique fashion show that played out on a runway suspended above Piccadilly Gardens. 

The project, titled What Is The City But the People?, was devised by Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. It aimed to capture a self-portrait of Manchester, a city that is still reeling from an explosion that left 22 dead.

The idea for the catwalk was devised long before the attack took place, but was all the more moving as a result; a Mancunian spirit of resilience and inclusiveness was alive and kicking at the event, which marked the beginning of Manchester international festival 2017.

All 2.5million residents of Manchester were invited to watch the runway unfold, and thousands turned out to applaud a colourful parade of local characters strutting their stuff.

This was not about superficial beauty. Instead, the show captured the rich, diverse tapestry of people who underlie everyday life in the city.

In the place of models, there were bee-keepers, a family of bakers, a cleaner at the town hall and a trainee doctor. Dancers joined drag queens, football fans and dog walkers.

Ages of participants ranged from a 99-year-old woman who worked as Field Marshal Montgomery’s driver in World War II to a five-day-old baby boy carried by his mother.

The catwalk featured extraordinary stories of courage and endurance, too.

As well as two taxi drivers who helped in the Manchester terror attacks, there was a woman who had fought cancer and an alcohol addition, and another lady who decided to say yes to everything after her husband died.

Another woman saw 19 members of her family killed in Kosovo, and was herself left for dead in the conflict.

On a lighter note, two brave people agreed to undergo a blind date for The Guardian, which began on the runway.

As each new Mancunian chosen for the show hit the catwalk, snippets about their lives flashed up on the screen. The audience cheered them, for being themselves and overcoming a multitude of challenges that life threw their way.

“Rather than putting a bunch of models on it, we're putting the people of Manchester, and it's going to be a very beautiful celebration of the city,” festival director John McGrath told the BBC, before the event.

“Each person who goes onto the runway in a way is an image and a portrait of Manchester - the people who make up the city, the people who make the city special, people you might know, people you might walk past on the street.

“It’s a modern portrait of the city,” he added, “and now certain elements of that portrait [after the terror attack] have gained a whole different resonance.”

Two of the participants in yesterday’s show included Shabnam and Shakar Hussain, who have been married for 21 years and run a local charity.

“We decided to take part because this was for everyday people who just get on with life doing things that come naturally,” they told The Guardian. “We never thought our story was special, but this project has showcased us, and so many other stories, and made everyone feel special and celebrate their lives.”

Paediatrician Natalie Francis, 33, joined them on the runway. “I have lived in Manchester for 15 years since arriving here to study medicine at university and train to become a doctor,” she said. “I am not only establishing my career in this wonderful city, but also bringing up my young family.”

Another ‘model’, designer Atul Bansal, added: “I arrived in Manchester 30 years ago as a student. I fell in love with the people, the place and the ‘I can do anything’ attitude that echoes in the city, so when I was asked to do the walk, I had to say yes to say thank you.”

Photos: Getty Images


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.