Friday, 14 January 2011

Rio Fashion Week

The curtain raiser for Rio Fashion Week is Rio Modo Hype, a showcase for young Carioca designers, which opened the week in lively style. Featuring menswear and women's – frequently on the same runway – it was lively in the way that young fashion should be and even had some original approaches, something becoming increasingly difficult to find with young designers in the Northern Hemisphere. And the boys came out on top, in two senses.

It seems a sensible idea when a designer has men's and women's ranges to show them together on the same runway. Not only does it make the overall creative vision clear, it is much more efficient. With an industry in crisis there can no longer be any justification for separate men's and women's shows, not only from the point of view of the cost, inconvenience (all those air miles as buyers and press jet across the world) and inefficiency, but also to improve the level of design in both ranges. Anyone with half an eye can spot the desperate straining in shows across the fashion firmament to keep the audience's attention through a 'full' show – especially at menswear – when the idea could usually be expressed more cogently in half the time with a half-and-half show. Even the greatest designers are now repetitive – and their message suffers from it.

The other 'boys on top' message that came over very clearly here in Rio was the fact that, on this showing, menswear is currently very much more vibrant than women's at this level. Stars of the night were Alisson Rodrigues (a mix of shiny white parachute silk, sheepskin and big black, blue and white lumberjack checks for butch boys, or wannabes); Julia Valle (draped and pleated womenswear in a subtle palette of greys and pale pastel shades); Lucas Magalhaes (a classic Audrey Hepburn silhouette with complex and very flattering optical prints in black and white: crisp and efficient enough to stand out in any city in the world) and Akihito Hira (very assured draped, semi-abstract menswear shapes in a grey, black and white palette) and one wild card who is definitely one to watch – Martins Paolo, whose edgy, tough glamour, although not entirely original, had a great feeling of conviction about it, with strong colour in plastic against a background of black.

Fashion Rio proper started with a great bang with the Alessa show. Exuberant and extrovert, this collection steered that narrow channel between over-ethnicity and wearability by keeping the local quality just the right side of folksy. The rainbow colours and and patterns, ranging from the immense to the small, all in brilliant Smartie colours, were immediately attractive and convincing, but perhaps more generally commercial were the shimmering surfaces and textures that were reminiscent of dark silver details in elaborate Catholic churches.

Whichever appeals – and both did to me – this was a strong kick-off to the Brazilian show season that continues after Rio (ending tomorrow) in Sao Paulo in 10 days' time.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

La Cambre Mode[s]: Fashion Visionaries

We hear a lot of comment about the stranglehold the big fashion conglomerates have on the fashion business across the globe, so it is encouraging that there are little pockets of resistance to their homogenising effects – and often in unexpected places.

Take La Cambre Mode[s], which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Never heard of it? You are not alone, but it was founded on what might seem not-too fertile ground by a fashion education visionary, Francine Pairon, and is still going strong. Its history is a heartening and unlikely story of determination, belief and vision.

La Cambre Mode[s] remains today where it was originally set up – in Belgium. And if that seems pretty specialist, it gets more so. It was aimed at showing that French-speaking Belgian pupils living there could be as creative – if not more so – as their counterparts in other countries more readily associated with fashion experiments.

Because that was what La Cambre Mode[s] was all about. Its aim was to train young artists and designers in multi-disciplined approaches to fashion design that were not only multicultured, highly original and looking firmly to the future, but also about the culture of daily life and the business of fashion as an adjunct to good citizenship. With La Cambre Mode[s] we are clearly in a world a long way away in ideological terms from everyday couture-salon or high-street thinking. And perhaps it is no surprise that Francine Pairon came to fashion from a background in architecture or that her colleague and successor, Tony Delcampe, studied textile design.

Work at La Cambre Mode[s] has always been about experiment and is based on the discipline of starting the process of recasting fashion from a preoccupation with volumes and their relation to the body; the results are usually more sculptural than related to the fashion of any one time. Heavily intellectualised, it is about ideas more than practicality and its shows and graduates are cannily watched by fashion insiders who also value the outsider (watch the 2006 show here). I am sure that in some design team somewhere not too far away from you will be at least one product of this unusual place: Olivier Theyskens studied there and John Galliano has visited, attracted no doubt by the fact that this is an educational establishment that does not believe in taking the safe and predictable design route, preferring instead to find new values and options.

This is a place that should be much more central to fashion than it is in these over-commercialised days.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Paris: 7 Brilliant Brits at the Hotel Bristol

The dog days of summer have hit London with a vengeance and there is virtually nowhere in the centre of the city to find a cooling breeze. But it's still not as hot as Paris last weekend, when I co-hosted a reception at the Bristol, the French equivalent of Claridges and, like that cool and elegant restful place, the other hotel where I would love to live. Think how easy it would be to live in a fabulous hotel in either of the two most important cities in Europe: linen changed daily, room service 24/7, taxis always at the door and somebody always on tap to take in mail, parcels and, maybe, presents.

I thought of this on Saturday at the Bristol at the launch of 7 Brilliant Brits, a DVD showing the work of British menswear designers Richard James, Domingo Rodriguez, E Tautz, Oliver Spencer, Gieves and Hawkes, Baartman and Siegal and Hart Savile Row.

All the guests decamped into the garden to drink champagne – or pure, cool water – and eat delicious canapes such as macaroons with a foie gras stuffing or eggs stuffed with peppers and served on mini wooden platters, and tried to ignore the temperature. Life in fashion can sometimes be hell.

It seemed natural after all that to set off up Fauborg Saint-HonorĂ© and hit the shops. My two male companions were in crazed must-have-it buying mood and egged each other on to buy … anything as long as it had a scary price tag, which meant everything, in fact. Respectively they bought a denim shirt and a pair of trainers (at a cost of over €700) and a pair of trainers and drop-crotch pants (close to €1000), all of which will be totally out of fashion in a very short time. Which is what being a fashion person is all about. I know what they both earn and I can tell you they cannot afford it, but we all know they will make themselves afford it.

And just in case you think I am being too holy let me say that before leaving Paris I visited my favourite bookshop and behaved just as dumbly, buying three expensive books I neither need nor can afford.

Self-indulgence is in the blood with fashion people.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Menswear in Paris 2010

Two swelteringly hot days in Paris, but well worth the discomfort, including sweat trickling down the neck. I was there to do Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden business, which went very well, but I also managed to see two shows in between. And they made me realise how much I have been missing by not going to the menswear shows now that the Sunday Times no longer covers them.

First up was John Galliano. Entirely briiliant both as clothes and as spectacle. The theme was silent movies and in particular Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The show began with a mighty rushing wind and copies of the newspaper Galliano Gazette swirling across the runway to set the mood of poor urban life when the movies were the only escape from work and poverty for most of the working classes in the early years of the last century.

Out of the mist rose a vast clock (shades of Harold Lloyd), then came a Chaplin lookalike and we were off into a jerky, high-energy show with the models tumbling out onto the runway and dashing down it at fantastic speed. Chalk white faces, huge Caplinesque boots, top hats and moustaches which changed into an hommage to Monsieur Houlot and his famous cinematic holiday sur la plage. It was all rollicking good fun and raised our thoughts well up and away from the unbelievable heat in the venue.

And, apart from that, the clothes....? A brilliantly young and accessible wardrobe, sexy and able to be deconstructed into a range of looks that any guy would like even if fashion isn't his main concern in life.

It was obviously a hard act to follow but Kris Van Assche for Dior Homme was up to the challenge the day after in a venue even more torrid thn the Galliano one – which had a very senior lady of the press complaining birtterly and at some length about her discomfort. Most of us rose above the temperature and were delighted at how convincingly Van Assche has made Dior Homme his own after stepping into the space left by Hedi Slimane when he parted company with Dior. Minimalist, urbane and full of simple but telling details that made a statement as subtle as the very best (I am thinking of the sadly missed Jil Sander, the total mistress of the perfectly conceived and tailored garment that commands attention in whispers).

Van Assche has the same perfect pitch.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Margiela, Couture and the High Street

Popping in to see the Maison Martin Margiela show again a couple of days ago, I was even more impressed with its independence and boldness and yet made sad wondering for how long the honesty and originality of the founder's vision will be able to hold put against big business thinking now that he has moved out of the company he founded in 1989. It is now owned by Diesel. Already key figures, unable to reconcile the aesthetic of Diesel with the sensibility of Margiela, have moved on. And that makes me wonder if independence in fashion is doomed to go the same way it has in so many other areas of life. Is the whole world doomed to become one vast shopping mall, hypermarket or supermarket, where standardisation hides behind a facade of variety and individual choice whilst in reality every one is expected to conform to a powerful Big Brother aesthetic? Is fashion going to end up as bland as the perfectly shaped supermarket apple, with all idiosyncrasies and individuality ruthlessly excluded by the style police?

And then my feelings were lifted by the thought of couture, which I will soon see again in Paris. Having been dismissed as irrelevant for so many years, it has made a sort of comeback, although with no obvious direct impact on the fashion thinking of the millions who turn to high-street chains for the latest look. But its influence is very much there. The high street looks for ideas to couture level and always homes in on the extremists like Galliano at Dior or Gaultier, the ones who are given the opportunity to allow their imaginations to run more or less untrammelled by thoughts of economy.

For me, couture is still the wellspring, the source, of true fashion originality where the eternal verities of fashion – perfection, beauty and aesthetic subtlety (or high drama or outrageous humour) – are kept alive in a way that is impossible in most ready-to-wear, conceived to sell at a certain price and to a very targeted market. As the global depression continues - as it must until the great economies find new ways of generating wealth in the face of the collapse of the old – it seems to me that current fashion must change its ground and take on board at least some of the attitudes that are taken for granted at couture level.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Ara Gallant, Forgotten Genius

Photo from

Even fashion followers who were around in new York in the seventies have probably forgotten Ara Gallant, one of the great movers and shakers of fashion at the time. That is why I was so pleased to discover a book about him (Ara Gallant by David Wills, published by Damiani) only recently available in London. He was a bit of an insider's secret even in his heyday but was known as a genius by everyone in New York who knew and cared about fashion, from Diana Vreeland and Richard Avedon to every model in town, all of whom wanted to work with him.

Those were incredibly heady days in New York, the brief period when it was the hippest, coolest and most outrageously exciting place in the world, a magnet that pulled in everybody looking for life at the extreme edge, dangerous, drug-soaked and gay as the proverbial gadfly. Its energy was almost palpable. How, I don't know, because no one ever seemed to sleep and appeared to live for days on nothing other than cocaine.

This was before Mayor Giuliani decided to clean up the city and banish sin in order to make Saturday nights in Manhattan safe for Lutheran families in town from Arkansas, and the Village non-threatening for groups of Boy Scouts from Boisie. Sadly he succeeded in closing down the topless clubs, banished bottomless waiters, banned sleezy strip joints, shuttered the hustler bars – and destroyed New York as a leader in anything, a sorry state it is still in today.

Because, of course, beneath the sin and silliness, the city was bursting with a creativity more vibrant than anything else on earth and, as everyone knows, great cities that lead the world always need sin – and sexual sin at that. Think of Paris in the Belle Epoch or Berlin in the twenties…. Ara, as the greatest hairdresser of them all, once described as a 'fashion holy', was in the thick of it, working almost exclusively for Vogue with Avedon and the superwomen who were models on an altogether different plane from the bourgeois constructs known as supermodels who came later. These were women like Anjelica Huston, Veruschka and Apollonia van Ravenstein, whose energy, sytyle and sense of high drama – they were all larger than life and loved acting – energised the pages of the magazines in a way almost unimaginable with today's suburban teenage models. And the hair Ara sculpted for them was always so extraordinary that it ensured that it was the woman who dominated the shot.

Towards the end of his brief, drug-dominated life (he put a pistol to his head in 1990), Ara became a photographer, doing covers for Interview and L'Uomo Vogue and portraits of stars like Jack Nicholson, Margaux Hemingway and Diane von Furstenburg. But, in reality, he was the star, a creative leader acknowledged by people of the calibre of Andy Warhol and Lauren Hutton as a true original who inspired and motivated everyone he worked with. I am glad this book has saved him from oblivion.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Carnaby Street – Not What It Used To Be

I live right next to one of London's most iconic streets, known around the world as one of the great symbols of the Swinging Sixties, the period that changed not only Britain but the world. It was the street that said, 'This is London; this is now; and youth is in charge in a new classless society.' It didn't quite live up to its hopes - what ever does? - but it certainly changed the face of British fashion from deference to defiance, becoming the home of young, fun, but not very skillfully made clothes for teenagers of both sexes who were hands-on in forming the fashion and changing it with lightning speed when bored.

And that was Carnaby Street in 1960, when it developed from a louche but formless area of mixed and uncommitted social outsiders to a mecca for young male fashion followers, just as King's Road in Chelsea was initially doing for women, although each sex later joined the other to make the two streets the twin axes of cool fashion for the world.

Soho, where Carnaby Street is, has always been a male area, enjoying its notoriety as a place of brothels and its fame as a haven of acceptance and tolerance for all the byways of social nonconformity, skills and craftsmanship, as it still is today. But go back a century or so and we find that it was also a place where cultural giants lived happily. When I walk out of my front door I am very conscious that William Blake, Canova and Handel were just some of the great figures who lived less than a dozen steps from where I do now.

In 1960, Carnaby Street had a jack-the-lad confidence, even cockiness, as the first place in London to be working class in everything it stood for and yet having a universal appeal. It was also first to take menswear away from the grandeur of Savile Row and create its own look, initially aimed at gays but soon spreading its influence over all mens - and womens – wear.

This summer Carnaby Street is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding and especially its first ten amazing years as a valhalla for youth, freedom and nonconformity; the place where for the first time youth was in charge, the new buzz word was 'gear', and every young guy wanted it. We have had jazz bands, an exhibition and a good illustrated book (Carnaby Street 1960-2010) but nothing that can raise the creative temperature of Carnaby Street to anything that might represent life, let alone the pulsating energy of its brief past as a fashion crucible. Now Carnaby Street is all about cheap conformity with an emphasis on cheap jeans, T-shirts and trainers and is full of tourists hooked on a name long dead in real terms and really barely knowing what has drawn them there.

Carnaby Street now is famous for nothing more dynamic than once being famous. Sad really, I avoid it as much as I can, although it is less than two minutes' walk from my home. AS The Jam sang in 1977, 'Carnaby Street, Carnaby Street, Not what it used to be'. Even less so today, I'm afraid.