Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Best Face Forward

Is animation changing the world? I ask because the strangely expressionless faces of the characters in Avatar bear a frightening similarity to the face of today's fashionable beauty: no lines, no expression apart from that in the eyes, no engagement with the other person – and of no interest at all. Ever since Snow White, beauticians have tried to make women's faces bland and boringly predictable (or all identical, to put it another way) in the mode of the moment.

Now, of course, it is much easier thanks to the developments in Botox, plastic surgery, nips, tucks and a million and one ideas spawned by fashion's Hell's Kitchen in an endless onslaught to destroy female individuality.

Fashion is predicated on change and the best catalyst for that is to engender insecurity – something fashion discovered with Marie Antoinette in Versailles, if not long before. Insecurity is about inadequacy and feelings of inferiority. Fashion gives women a simple answer: buy yourself out of it, darling. How? Clothes? No, everybody
does that. Get a real new (for which read young) you by changing your actual face. If Anna Wintour can do it, it must be the latest fashion, surely? And why stop there? Are you happy with your body? I thought not. But don't worry, the benign scalpel in the caring hand of the plastic surgeon can make it all right again – and not for so much money!

So, we have reached the point where changing the colour and style of your hair is not enough in the constant paper chase after youth. It's about flesh and skin now. A celeb fest or a red carpet affair is the scariest thing imaginable on planet fashion. Nobody knows who anyone is anymore. "Is that X over there?" "You know, I am not sure." "It
looks like her but she's different, somehow." You bet. She's had the knife, along with most of her friends.

And it isn't just older women who crave the blandly expressionless face of beauty. Botox is popular even with teenagers in America and Brazil. And it is sad. Like most people over Christmas, I have probably spent too much time looking at old movies starring the classic actresses, each one of whom had her own strong face. And the
variety was great. I also saw a magazine picture of Jerry Hall, whose character and personality, not to mention her very individual beauty, made her an outstanding model light years ahead of today's contenders. And even she has gone bland and expressionless in that Avatar way.

So what are we left with? Where is the excitement of facial variety to be found?

Thank God for Pat McGrath, the world's undisputed makeup genius who, working with bold designers like John Galliano, is creating extraordinary looks based on tribal face painting and, rather ironically, the slapdash makeup applied by the demented in Bedlam. So far, it is only used in fashion shows and deliberately self-conscious magazine features but it might just be exciting enough when tamed to the level of real women to break the stiff face of the drawn cartoon character that is current beauty.

Wouldn't it be great if fashionable women could laugh – or at least smile – again and even show some animation in faces that have become masks as grotesque as any seen in the carnival of Venice?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Fur Will Fly

The Queen, Kate Moss, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Shirley Bassey do. Michelle Obama, Stella McCartney, Carla Bruni and Christina Ricci do not. We're talking celebs wearing fur in public.

Naturally, it's a perennial preoccupation with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) but rather a lost battle among many high-profile fashion followers who think the glamour of fur outweighs all the criticism it receives. And, largely by default, we have all played a part in allowing its insidious return. Has any fashion magazine ever suggested to a growing list of top designers who use it that fur is perhaps something that fashion can do without, no matter how beautifully designed it might be? Despite the glory years of the anti-fur campaigners in the eighties and nineties, when emotive ads shot by David Bailey and hysterical denunciations by supermodels like Naomi Campbell of fur wearing seemed to suggest that fur was as dead
a fashion as egret feathers, the fact is it is once again accepted almost without comment not only on the runway but also on the backs of the fashionable, even it does keep a low profile on the shop floor.

Over the last ten years fur crept back in the form of rabbit trims, followed by coats of often unidentified pelts, until we reached the point where Wags out for a night on the razzle or Kate Moss boarding a private jet swathed in the real thing cause not even a small sigh of disapproval from the readers of Hello or OK. Anna Wintour used her power as editor-in-chief of US Vogue to bring fur back on its editorial pages and the models and photographers who seemed so reformed slowly dropped off the edge of the moral high ground and began to reappear on runways (some of the most powerful designers in Milan and Paris had not renounced fur at all, although for some years they did not show it on the catwalk) and then in advertisements, buoyed up by the crisp rallying call of the E-in-C of US Vogue that, as long as fur is a part of fashion, the magazine should cover it … which gave the ditherers the perfect cop-out: "It's
not my fault, stupid. It's fashion, innit?"

PETA hopes to change all this with a list of the Worst Dressed Celebrities in the world - based on how often they are seen in public wearing fur - followed by an on-line poll in February which will choose a 'winner'. Who do you think? Shirley Bassey? Liz Hurley? Keira Knightly? Jennifer Lopez? All guilty. Or could it be an all
Brit final between the Queen and everybody's favourite, Kate Moss? Both super guilty. Whoever it is, a business with worldwide sales in 2007 of over $16bn which contributed over $21bn to the global economy in 2008 is going to need a very big shift in public opinion before it starts to tremble. And we haven't even begun to think about fashion's obsession with the precious skins of reptiles.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Ethical Issues

2009 was a very stimulating and challenging year and it ended on a high note which involved me with a different area of fashion from the normal day-to-day run of parties, exhibitions , lunches and parties that keep the international fashion wheels turning. Different, but important. I would even say that, for the future as well as right now, it is THE most important area, although it is so often ignored within the business. The Academy of Design in Colombo, Sri Lanka, working with the Sri Lankan government, asked me to help organise and then chair an international symposium to look at ethical questions in the manufacture of high-street clothing which are becoming so pressing around the world.

The ethics involved with the sourcing and maufacture of cheap clothing is, like that over global warming, a very simple one. We all know that those special offers of a dozen boxer shorts for £10 are based on expoitation of Third World labour, just as we know that the big countries' refusal to accept their responsibility for the plight of the smaller ones is all about expediency. We are well aware that those who should be making the decisions hide behind uncertainties which are often no such thing. We are lured into acquiesence by talk of lack of consensus among scientists on global warming. We are assured that major manufacturers are as ethical as they can be without penalising the buyer with huge price hikes to cover the new fairer wages that any attempt at equity would force on us.

So, it's easy, stupid. Copenhagen has guaranteed that you won't have to sell your second home, exist with only one car and only be allowed to use it very rarely. In the same way, the fashion mantra says, we are determined to give you the best value for money in your clothing. How? By cutting already considerable profits? By no longer building shops and malls as grand as palaces? No. By keeping foreign wages at a minimum and turning a blind eye to the exploitation, knowing that the consumer –who alone can change the situation - looks at only the price he or she has to pay, not that paid by women and children working as cheap labour for major labels in vurtually every Third World country.

I feel strongly about this double standard form of thinking, so I was delighted to be invited to Sri Lanka, home of some of the most modern and efficient clothing factories in the world, where workers are at last treated with the benevolence of the great Quaker factory owners in late Victorian times in the modern equivalent of pragmatic enlightenment set up at Bourneville and Port Sunlight. It seemed the perfectly appropriate venue, as this is a country which is trying to take its responsibilities to both the workers and the trade necessary for economic strength seriously.

We gathered a group of international and Singhalese experts to debate the issues of ethical sourcing of fabrics, acceptable standards in employment in Third-World fashion manufacturing - almost entirely for Western labels - and the need for education in these issues not only in Asia but, even more pressingly, in the West where the product is sold. Invited delegates came from manufacturing (including TopShop), retailing (including Asos) and a wide range of academics and educators. Our keynote speaker was John Thakara, a leading figure in the world of ethical food sourcing who broadened the whole subject form the start. A vital element was the close involvement of Sri Lankan manufacturers and political figures - entirely appropriately, as this small island is trailblazing in so many ways, with the help of enlightened Western manufacturers and retailers. The week was quietly successful and we are now planning next year's event, which will take the debate further.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Red Ribbon, White Space

A movie and a book neatly encapsulate the two faces of fashion: the film Valentino and the book Maison Martin Margiela. Glamour on one side, rigour on the other; overexposure of one designer as an international social force, deliberate secrecy and anonymity of another. The contrasting history and position of the designers Valentino and Martin Margiela, both of whom have now handed over their companies and taken a back seat, are worth examining as they neatly sum up what has been wrong and what has been right in fashion over the last few decades.

Valentino has enjoyed a long and very high profile career as the glamour merchant of the rich, especially in the United States. Season after season, he has made himself ever more wealthy by realising that the rich have little imagination and always eschew novelty for the known way and the path of conformity. We all know that most of Valentino's pricey little wisps of chiffon were paid for by rich men – than whom no group is more traditional. So, by never having an original idea, our Val built a multi-million dollar empire. But is this something that should make a man a household name? I don't think so. It is rather like a carpenter becoming hugely successful by making exactly the same piece of furniture over and over again, with only the slightest variations in the choice of wood. Boring to all but the most timorous and uncertain.

No one could say that of Maison Martin Margiela, as a fabulously original and challenging illustrated volume of the same title (published by Rizzoli) makes clear. Just as Valentino is a high-profile glamour figure (if you want to see naked vanity and self-regard, catch him and his business partner parading their outrageous bouffant hairstyles in the film whilst uttering a string of affected platitudes), Margiela has so shunned the limelight that many suspect that he doesn't actually exist and possibly never has. Not so surprising. Every edict and comment that issues from the company, not to mention the clothes, is branded simply 'Maison Martin Margiela'. The anonymity is total but the design is original, radical and challenging … and has been since the beginning from a company that has spawned ideas – witty, unexpected and frequently downright impossible – with all the excitement and unpredictability of a fairground.

Fashion is in chaos and facing meltdown at this moment. The fortunes of Valentino and Maison Martin Margiela offer an instructive parable for our time. What is wrong with a fashion world that elevates a creative nonentity to world status and leaves a true genius virtually unknown to the fashionable masses?

Could it have anything to do with advertising budgets? he asks innocently….

Monday, 14 December 2009

Issues with The September Issue

Talking to some fashion friends last night, the topic of The September Issue came up and somebody said it was a shame that it didn't have more widespread distribution. I kept quiet, but I have to say I fully understand why the film was given such a limited airing. Once again, it brings home the the stark fact that fashion only really 'works' as a spectator sport, when you are in the audience of a show – and by no means always, even then – or when it is on the glossy page of a magazine, as an image created by a top stylist and photographer – and that is becoming increasingly less frequent as more and more mediocre images are printed in a desperate attempt to keep readers' interest. There are so many desperate fashion magazines now that even students can't get excited over them. Isn't the time fast coming when most fashion magazines could be published every two or three months without causing too much angst for their readers?

We are at the beginning of a revolution. It is already clear that there are too many clothes, too many shows, too many pictures and way too many magazines even for the most dedicated fashionista. Which is why I feel that The September Issue was such a big mistake.

The truth is that it was boring … because putting together a fashion magazine IS boring. Everything moves terribly slowly. The daily dramas are over such trivial matters that nobody but the participants could possibly become emotionally involved with their outcome. Fashionistas flocked to the SI because they wanted to see Anna Wintour put in her place – fat chance! – and the director played into their hands by trying desperately to get something going between her and Grace Coddington over some pictures Wintour decided to drop. Storm in a teacup is the phrase that comes to mind and that is all it was, I'm afraid. No wonder that Sight and Sound, the cineast's bible, called The SI 'a boring film about boring people'.

No wonder it wasn't inflicted on the public at large. Even among fashion folk its appeal could only attract the weaker minded. Just show us the clothes much less frequently and leave it at that. The huge fashion magazine that is over three-quarters devoted to advertising is no great cause for celebration – except to the publishers, of course!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Books and Bokks

Christmas comes but once a year and when it does it brings … the chance of a good laugh. At least to fashion insiders.

I have two publications in front of me. My Favourite Dress, published by The Antique Collector's Guide, is a strange book, a spin-off from an exhibition of the same name in which designers were asked to nominate their favourite dress. A trite idea, but quite an interesting exhibition. But trouble comes when it is gathered in hard covers. Clearly, if a designer is asked to nominate a garment designed by himself, the chances are that it will end as a barely disguised exercise in narcissism. And, of course, it does. Some of the puffs provided by the designers – or their desperate PAs or PR companies – are shamelessly self-serving. OK, we can accept that in the most egotistical profession in the world after acting or being a world sports personality. But what is shocking in My Favourite Dress – and the thing that makes it such a fashion insider's pleasure – is the pictures of the designers themselves. I know all the designers featured here. I see them regularly and I have to say that, almost without exception, their personal pics are works of fiction in themselves. I gasped with amazement at the portraits that were clearly 20 years out of date, and the careful air brushing and retouching of the more recent ones. I know this is a vanity industry, but surely it must try to keep some links with reality? Nobody wants to go down to posterity looking like an abandoned prune or WH Auden after an especially heavy night. But my guess is that this book will have a very short life, entirely lived on a shelf in a bookshop – but one would have thought that a publisher would have tried to give even a silly book some credibility.

Have you heard of Bokks of London? Thought not. Well, they are specialists in luxury mail order (ready for an Edese Doret Boeing business jet, anybody? It's yours for only £85,000,000) for those with very much more money than sense. Their catalogue (far too classy to be called that, of course) is all carefully lit seductive photographs
of items selected more for price than taste level, supported by commentary by superannuated hacks and the likes of Dustin Hoffman and the ubiquitous Karl Lagerfeld, comes in a black cardboard container and weighs rather a lot. In it you will find such essentials as a razor by Hommage at £20,000 (ideal for dad); The Caribbean Chocolate Epic, a five-day trip to Jamaica and an eat-as-much-as-you-like chocolate bonanza for mum (from £90,000) but – and here's the shock - flying only business class; and a treehouse lighthouse (£45,000) for the kids … or Tory MPs! And if that isn't a big enough Christmas spend to impress your Surrey neighbours, you can add on exclusive entertainment for the oldies by the oldies: private gigs by Lenny Kravitz, Tony Bennett or Sting. Prices by negotiation.

Writing this, I wonder if that man of taste Sir Philip Green might be a top Bokks customer. I am sure he would find much to love in these glossy pages. They actually make Harrods look rather like a thrift shop. If this publication landed up in the wrong hands it could cause a revolution that would rival the one the French had a couple of centuries ago. Let them eat cake? Not this time, ducky. Give them diamonds instead.

PS In case you didn't get it, the name means that most items are delivered in a box – black, of course.

A New Fashion Language?

News that the movie Avatar is introducing a new language is challenging. Although only rudimentary – about a thousand words – its potential is daunting if kids take it up and make it a new way of communicating, possibly secretly. As our English language becomes more dumbed down by the day, the prospect of building a new one is exciting because it would have the precision that all 'naming of parts' requires – the precision new languages develop and old ones like English eventually lose.

How challenging if fashion – which has the most old-fashioned linguistics of any modern industry – could follow Atavar-speak, create a new vocabulary and break away from its endless round of tired old recycling of the ideas of others. It is surely only with such a radical new approach that it can regain some of the energy it once had … in the distant days when making money was second to creating something new, exciting and challenging. I find it extraordinarily lacking in vision or even imagination that designers are still working with fabrics and techniques invented centuries ago and seem quite devoid of any curiosity to change the situation. And we all know the correlation between curiosity (and lack of it) and intelligence (and lack of it).

Maybe the first step could be a serious consideration of why and who should be accepted for a fashion design course. A new pedagogic language of design, perhaps, a la Avatar? Colleges around the world provide us with graduates who are adequate as plodding foot soldiers but rarely if ever the Alexander the Great leader of the future. And why should they? Poiret, Chanel, Balenciaga and Dior never went near an art college. Neither did Miuccia Prada or Vivienne Westwood. How many of the fashion leaders we hail as greats today might not have been really great if they had enjoyed a different form of education – one that aimed to raise them above the lumpen crowd of mediocrity that floods out of the world's educational establishments every year?

Friday, 11 December 2009

Sensible Shoes

Has it taken a radical architect to end the nonsensical desperation of women's shoes, almost all designed by men of course? In her architecturally shaped thermo-injected plastic shoes, Zaha Hadid has virtually eliminated heels in a design approach apparently conceived with the revolutionary aim of allowing women to walk more than twenty yards without pain or even support from a companion, passser-by or concierge (see them here). And, it is claimed, the new shoe is selling like mad to women sick of bunions, backache and ever escalating bills from doctors and chiropodists.

I wonder. Hadid's shoe – more a sandal, really – is a strange concept for women inured to the ritual humiliation of grotesque ugliness and brainwashed into the belief that high-fashion footwear must mean high heels and soles with an even higher price tag (£400 is considered not exceptional for the right label). How will they adapt after all the commercial brainwashing?

I don't think they will change at all. Hadid's shoe is no more a fashion item than the terminally provincial Ugg boot. It goes without saying that it is designed with impeccable logic and will appeal to sensible women everywhere. But the women who have made shoe designers wealthy men in return for ensuring that they will be cripples by the time they are sixty couldn't care less. For fashion shoe eccentrics, without the agony where is the ecstasy?

Friday, 4 December 2009

Distressed About Jeans

I've just spent three days touring Sri Lanka's state-of-the-art factories dedicated to making cheap clothes for the West. All the big labels seem to be here in one form or another: Next, Victoria's Secret, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and, above all, Tesco and M&S (so much so in the case of the last that this island could be renamed Marksland - or maybe Roseland, given that the image of Sir Stuart is everywhere and his name is spoken with the awe that, in different circles, is accorded to Mother Theresa alone). It is all very caring and benevolent, I am sure, but I fear that a lot of land and rural livelihoods have been swallowed up to make it possible.

One of the processes that struck me as being a paradigm for the ludicrous situation that fashion labels are now in is found in every Sri Lankan factory making jeans for the West. Which seems to be just about all of them. It takes the form of distressing brand-new, perfect denim in order to age it so that it looks as if the wearer has had his or her jeans for years. Infra-red beams are used to make creases at crotch and knee; paint is stippled through pieces of cardboard with pre-ordained patterns to imitate the messy jeans of the house painter from hell; razor blades and sandpaper slash, distress and destroy the surface… you get the picture.

The result is thousands of pairs of identically 'personalised' jeans leaving the factories everyday. How sad that the character marks that made jeans such a graphic map of an individual's lifestyle and even social status – the frayed edges, spilled paint and worn-through knees – are now presented to the buyer with a sterile and mass-produced identikit identity. This is sick manipulation, no matter what gloss is put on it. It always was, even when it was first begun by the Italians, always in awe of Hollywood and its kitsch idea of the Wild West. It didn't have much credibility even then for anyone who knew anything about the history of America, and today it is about as convincing as Simon Cowell's TV personality.

Imagine a brand-new car being sold with artificially created marks of ageing such as scratches and dents and you realise how sick the jeans trade is. Buy them new and unmanipulated, like the cowboys and the blue-collar workers of America did, and make them grow old on your body with your own history in the surface and shape. As with your car, if there are any blemishes, they should belong to you alone.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Kate's Pearls of Wisdom

My newspaper devoted an entire page to the shocking news that Kate Moss finds vanity more gratifying than eating. Quelle surprise! Who would have thought it of a model brainwashed for years by the mantra, "If you don't keep thin, you don't get work"? Simple as that. Did anyone actually expect her to advocate steak and kidney pudding followed by tiramisu as a way for young women to have fun?

So, has Kate — the little cockney sparrow we all loved because she was beautiful and seemed to be blessedly free of opinions on anything — turned into the new Cruella de Ville of high fashion, the one who speaks the unspeakable? Do all those fans who could forgive her the drugs, the fags and spilling out of nightclubs at three in the morning, giving a very good imitation of being totally wasted — just like thousands of other cool young Saturday night urbanites — see her as the enemy, as my very-middle-class newspaper seems to?

I don't think so.

What Kate has done, either naively or with clever pre-Christmas cunning (after all, she does know people who need to sell a lot of fashion clothes this season), is let the world know what most of us have divined: the look is all. As it always has been in the fashion world. Kate's comment is nothing more than an update of the slogan attributed to the Duchess of Windsor that a fashionable woman can never be too thin or too rich — although with high-street sales booming (with a lot of help from Kate) at least the second point is no longer so relevant.

And, of course, it isn't just Kate who is guilty. Most of us would like to be thinner if only we could learn to be obsessive over our looks, as models must be. But I guess that for most of us the mantra for contentment is "You can never be too complacent or lazy".

Wonder why the Duchess didn't come up with that one?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

More Ethics & Prada's Party

The second day of the Drapers Summit was very well attended… except for the session devoted to ethics and sustainability in sourcing and supply. At the end of the previous session, at least half the audience left the hall. I'm sure that it had nothing to do with the calibre of the speakers but reflected the fact that, in these difficult retailing times, retailers simply feel that ethics are a luxury they can't afford. As one speaker said, to check out cotton sourcing and manufacturing standards could add as much as £10 to the cost of a mid-price bra, as if this was such a shocking thing it couldn't be contemplated. And so the exploitation of which nearly all of us in the West are guilty goes on.

In the evening, I went to the Prada party in their Bond Street shop to celebrate the launch of a book - Prada's first - which celebrates in pictures the firm's ground-breaking history in well designed pages full of radical photographs. It was packed of course, and we found ourselves dipping and dodging round a long line of scantily dressed mannequins showing us the cruise collection of brightly coloured prints. No reference to sourcing, as far as I could tell, but that was not much of a problem for the crowds, celebrating what was effectively the first fashion Christmas drinks party in London this season.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Drapers Fashion Summit

I spent yesterday at the Drapers Fashion Summit 2009, devoted to 'The Business of Fashion', a gathering of retailers and representatives from many other areas of fashion. We were told by Joseph Wan,
CEO of Harvey Nichols, that handbags at £15,000 a pop sole with no difficulty; according to Marigay McKee, Fashion and Beauty Director of Harrods, the luxury market was also booming in her store, regardless of price. Designers like Betty Jackson and Lulu Guinness were a little less euphoric, but the most interesting contributions of
the day for me were at two diametrically opposed ends of retailing: Anthony Thompson, managing director of George at Asda and Stephanie Phair, director of, the newest venture of Net-a-Porter.

Both were reassuringly buoyant about their sides of the market, but the person I found myself in complete agreement with was Touker Suleyman, owner of Ghost and Hawes & Curtis, who said that in his opinion the bad times are still to come in fashion retailing. If he is right, I must say that I am afraid the knock-on effect will seriously endanger some of London's designers – they are already hanging on by their fingernails in the hope that next year might be better.

Today the Big Gun speakers include Diane von Furstenberg, Harold Tillman (CEO British Fashion Council) and Stuart Rose. To add some variety from all the retail emphasis, I will be doing my bit as part of a panel to discuss The Power of the Style Press.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Couture Under the Hammer

Fashion Through the Ages, the sale at Christies South Kensington on December 3 is full of promise, according to the catalogue which arrived on my desk yesterday. Looking through the colour photos of the items reminded me of what I had rather forgotten: how beautiful clothes were when couture led fashion. And how accessible to women. The reason is that they were created with customers (and often individuals) in mind, and with a knowledge of their lives. They were personal solutions, not abstract suggestions, as it seems they must be in these days of mass-marketing. And, of course, they were hand made. In my view, all students who can should get to Christies and look very carefully at these clothes. They will learn a lot from what is coming under the hammer.

It is an unusual sale in that, along with the general, random garments all sales are based on, three private collections are included. Anna Piaggi, the fashion doyenne of Italian Vogue, is selling some of her vast collection of clothes spanning just about every period since the seventeenth century. The ones for sale at Christies are modern and include pieces from Gianni Versace,
Lagerfeld and Fortuny. I am a little sad because Anna once said that, in homage to her mentor, the Australian Vern Lambert, who died some years ago, she had pledged herself to leave the clothes to aboriginal peoples to enable them to cut them up and adapt them for their way of living, thereby giving the garments a second life far away in every sense from Milan or Paris. Anna has many more clothes even yet, so it still might happen.

The second collection belonged to the late Count Palmieri. It consists of a small group of waistcoats embroidered by the world's greatest embroiodery house, Lesage, which for over fifty years has provided fabulous embroidery for all the great names of Paris, including Schiaparelli, Dior, and Balmain, and is still central to couture today. There is also a fabulously over-the-top pink and lilac mink bedspread made especially for the count by Dior in the seventies. The perfect Christmas present for Madge, I would think.

For fashion historians, the most interesting collection is the wardrobe of Anne Moen Bullitt, who died in 2007. It contains not only almost forgotten but important names like the French designer Jacques Fath; the Irish couturier Sybil Connolly; and Hattie Carnegie, who was a leading figure in New York design circles in the forties and fifties; but also a probably unique group of over fifty garments by Eisa, which was the name of Balenciaga's Spanish-based fashion house. These clothes rarely come up for sale and I am just hoping that a public collection can get together the money to buy the lot and keep them together. It would be a real pity to see them go to individual bidders and become dispersed across the globe.

Still stuck for a Christmas present for the man in your life? Out of a good range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century clothes for men and women, what about a court uniform (richly embroidered in gold thread and with white trousers) probably worn by an ambassador, which is likely to go for less than £2,000. It would certainly make carving the Christmas turkey a rather grander and more stately event than normal.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Cheaper Choos

Piggy-back races were a great playground thing when I was young. And, I guess, a form of early social training - the strong helping the weak to take part in sports activities.

I thought of this when I remembered that today is Jimmy Choo day at H&M. Choos for under £100! Has to be a feeding frenzy, leading inevitably to the rapid sell-out that has characterised other H&M collaborations with hierarchical fashion labels at a price that is affordable by many more people than the full-cost article. It seems the classic win—win situation that fashion so loves.
It's all a big change from the horror that greeted Yves Saint Laurent's decision in the mid sixties to concentrate on ready-to-wear. Although Paris saw it as a betrayal of its beloved couture, which was already showing signs of serious decline, women loved the Rive Gauche boutiques that quickly sprang up around the world because they enabled them to buy a top name at a fraction of the cost of couture.

It fitted in perfectly with the philosophy of Yves and his partner, Pierre Bergé. Both had been excited by the student riots in Paris and entirely identified with the radical left - surely a first for Yves among dress designers - so it made sense. I really think they both wanted to make their product more accessible to women who love clothes but have limited budgets. That is good… but there is something different happening with the H&M collaborations. Ever since Karl Lagerfeld did it in 2004, it has become clear that most of the items grabbed in the mad excitement are not bought by women who love the designer's approach and long to have it for themselves, but by fashion speculators. It has been claimed that most of wha is bought - as much as 70 percent, according to some sources - is on E-Bay before the day is over. So much for the democratisation of fashion.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Goodbye and Good Riddance

Last Sunday's Style magazine had a very heartening front-cover shout line. "Death of the Killer Heel", it trumpeted, adding the cheery advice "Teeter no more".

So, it is revealed at last. All those ludicrous heels were never popular with women who don't have a fetish problem or can't live without pain. So, why did they happen? Thanks to the power of a small coterie of people – by no means always women – who wish to push a good idea to extremes of ugliness and discomfort that eventually becomes the main point of wearing the fashion. This has happened at dodgy periods throughout history – just think of the ludicrous headgear at Versailles.

Today of course it is not an absolute monarch and his queen who set the style but journalists… and we all know how desperate they are these days. But what I find extraordinary is how designers – including many working for prestigious labels – have been so happy to create objects of such surpassing ugliness and lack of style. Will they hang their heads in shame when, in about 15 years' time, there is an exhibition of fashion horrors from this crazed and confused period? (An exhibition equivalent in revulsion to those devoted to the horrors of medieval torture or the Spanish Inquisition.) Let's hope they will, unless they are all begging on the streets by then, which might be an appropriate punishment for their crimes against women, aesthetics and chic.

Meanwhile, enjoy your kitten heels… and walking without pain once more.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Changing Faces of Beauty

I've just been doing some research on blonde bombshells and the remarkable thing is how few of the great actresses of the past actually fitted the title, which was coined for Jean Harlow to publicise her 1932 film Bombshell. That was the time when her hair, dyed almost white, also earned her the nickname of the "Platinum blonde", because that is what it looked like in black and white film - all there was in those days, of course. There were other blondes of course: Betty Grable, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe were famed for their figures and a sense of sexual waywardness (albeit carefully nurtured by the studios), while Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren were all about class and the more subtle sexiness of unattainability. The fact that they were all very different in appearance actually helped make them stars. Other actresses, such as Rita Hayward and Jane Russell ("mean, moody and magnificent") were redheads and brunettes, with Elizabeth Taylor trumping them all not only for her raven hair but also her amazing violet eyes. It was the last era when all beauties were different.

Looking at the pictures of these old Hollywood stars I was struck at how variously beauty was interpreted and how vital it was to the screen image and persona to have an easily recognised and unique look. Then I checked out Madonna Style (see it at Amazon here). Here is a star who has totally destroyed any personality and individuality in her face in order to follow a bland concept of beauty based on the assumption that perfection (no distinguishing marks or unusual features) is what makes a woman sexy. It is wrong, of course. The fashion face - because this is what it is - is bland and empty, as a look at any fashion magazine will show. It is boring so that it offends nobody who might be thinking of buying.

Madonna has changed an interesting, challenging face that demanded attention into a mask. And she is far from exceptional among current stars and celebs. The result is that eventually all women will look alike (if they can afford the surgery!) and in 50 years' time no one will be remembered as an individual at all. And I am willing to bet that men won't find any of them sexy at all.

Erdem's Progress

Although we all know how fatuous lists of movers and shakes are, it's difficult to resist a feeling of pleasure if somebody we know is included. So I was delighted to read in the Evening Standard that Erdem is one of the paper's 1000 power list this year. He was the winner of Fashion Fringe in 2005, and I have been proud of how quickly he has become an international figure.

There are two reasons. First, he is an exceptional designer with a very individual approach to beauty, elegance and – a rare word in today's fashion – the charm of clothes. Second, and equally important, he has something else that is rare, especially in London. And that is fashion savvy. Erdem knows the system; he understands the industry. He is able to make informed decisions both creatively and for business.

That is why I am certain, even in these difficult times, that he will continue to grow – at his rate and according to his judgements. Although he is only 31, Erdem has the maturity that brings confidence. He reminds me in many ways of my late friend Geoffrey Beene, the American designer.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Bad News

Really sorry to hear that Luella has gone out of business – temporarily only, I hope. I made a short DVD with her earlier this year for Net-a-Porter and I thought she was such a natural, normal person with a great approach to life as a designer, businesswoman, wife and mother, balancing the demands of family life in Cornwall with her creative life in London.

Is she an isolated case or has the nemesis that many of us have felt has been hanging over London since the credit crisis started finally begun in earnest?

Certainly, I can think of at least three more British designers over whom the shadow of closure must be hanging - and all of them well-known names that received quite a lot of gush as part of the more-than-slightly hubristic celebrations of 25 years of the BFC, which prompted me to count the number of failed designer businesses in that time. Have a guess. More than twenty - and still counting.

Let's hope Luella can find some new backing soon.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Power of a Name

When is a designer not a designer? And who decides? With stars and celebs queuing up to buy Victoria Beckham's collection, it is a question worth asking. We all assume that Kate Moss puts in nothing more than her name and a few indications of things she likes from the ideas brought to her for her Topshop 'collection'. And it is probably a fair assumption. But Victoria is being given the benefit of the doubt.

All of which is fine – unless you are a struggling young designer. Then it must surely make you wonder why you spent four years training in the hope that you might be the next Vionnet, or whoever. But for at least the last twenty years, fashion has been sold on the strength of its label, so it is the social power of that name rather than who actually designed any particular piece that has mattered. This means that the market is less and less interested in ideas, as customers buy into the aura of a personality, dead or alive.

Seems a pity.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Fashion Without a Past?

A new book by Brenda Polan and Roger Tredre (The Great Fashion Designers) has got me thinking what decides greatness in fashion, compared with other design worlds. We can nearly all appreciate a vintage car, for example, and if we aren't quite as grown-up as we should be, may actually enjoy owning and using one. People will look but they are not likely to laugh. If we buy a Bauhaus chair and place it in a room with modern — or Georgian — furniture people will love it. But if a woman wears a dress from the pre-modern period of clothing (ie, when all skirts were to the ankle), along with feather boas, huge bird-trimmed hats and long gloves, then unless it's clear that she's going to a party, people will look askance. The wearer of even the highest-level fashion from the Edwardian and earlier ages waiting for a bus, waiting in the post office or counting down the numbers at the deli counter would be at real risk of being accosted, possibly laughed at and even attacked. Why does dressing in clothing of the past cause such extreme reactions?

Of the fifty great designers in this book there are a fair few who probably weren't that great. How do we assess the shadowy Callot Soeurs, for example, if we haven't done an in-depth study of the taste and style of their times? There are, inevitably, some strange omissions, such as Hussein Chalayan or even Paco Rabanne — and many from long ago about whose greatness it is hard to have a real opinion. Nonexperts have no way of judging, except by following what was said and written about them in their time. But fashion commentary is, like art commentary, notoriously unreliable as a long-term barometer. Didn't the critics dismiss the Impressionists as bourgeois provincials – and aren't we finding it increasingly easy to agree with them as the critical wheel comes full circle? And who really thinks that contemporary commentary on today's fashion will be of any interest in even twenty years time?

Today, as in the past, there are strong voices whose approval makes others with less strong voices follow their lead. That is the only possible explanation for taking so many current designers seriously as major figures. I often wish that fashion could be like the music world, where this year's big name is forgotten as another identical big name steps up to the podium a few months later.

How can we make fashion bubbles burst as quickly?

I think I know and it is clear that the process is finally beginning. All that was needed was the technology and the understanding of its potential. What has kept fashion so static and allowed reputations to survive unquestioned has been the media, by which I mean the actual means of getting the fashion story out there. Pictures on a page. How few images survive the past. We see the same photographs of the same few clothes over and over again – and imagine they give us a sufficient picture of the age for us to understand it.

That sort of blinkered, focused approach is rapidly going. We can now be our own editors, making our own choice of clothes that we personally consider great. And we can make up our own commentary without relying on the comments of the critics. And that can be very unreliable. In a world where rules (especially of taste) no longer exist, it is a question of who shouts loudest. With it becoming clear that the seasons are rapidly disappearing along with the endless picture stories in magazines, new fashion will only be of interest for the seconds it takes to see and pass on by the device in your hand – and what that will actually be in ten years time is anyone's guess. By that time nobody will pretend to be interested in The Great Designers; they will all look instead for the thing that interests them and their friends, right here, right now. Fashion is a culture that will soon have no past at all.

In the meantime, read The Great Designers, because it is so much better written than most – and then look at the current story in Italian Vogue shot by Steven Meissel over too many pictures to bother to count, and see how magazines (all of which cling to old visual cultures) are using fashion to create a new form of visual excitement. Sadly, it is remarkably like the old visual culture of a hundred years ago, only way less exciting.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Modern Dandy

Being a dandy isn't all that it is cracked up to be, as Beau Brummel certainly knew. All that rushing around looking for women who could give his linen 'good country washing', not to mention searching for champagne with which to have his boots polished. I thought this yesterday morning in my local laundry, where I met Esguire's editor in chief, Jeremy Langmead (the closest London has to a modern dandy) delivering his shirts to the Estonian laundress who remained admirably impassive as he explained in the best Beau manner how six shirts were to be washed and four to be dry cleaned. Dry cleaned? Shirts? 'Oh,' he explained, 'They have a silk lining on the inside front, so can't be washed.' Well done, Lanvin, for making life easier for a working boy.

Jeremy looked tired. 'I had dinner last night with Mary Portus,' he explained. 'She's very energetic.' I know it. Mary was one of London's most dynamic PRs before she became Mary Queen of Shops, TV star extraordinaire, and started ruthlessly working her brisk retail magic, smiling encouragingly at the cameras as lifetimes of retail belief are swept away and the Mary Magic put in their place. No wonder Jeremy seemed a touch fragile at 9.30 in the morning.

Meetings, lunch and then the perfect way to end the week, in Claridges, having tea and champagne with Dolly Jones, editor of, meant that I was too tired to go to the sea last night so I am off this morning.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Fashion Illustration

Yesterday I had a very exciting meeting with Nina Due, exhibitions director of the Design Museum. Even though it is almost a year away, we are beginning to get down to work in earnest on the exhibition of fashion drawings that I am curating for the museum. I have always loved fashion illustrations and have a very small collection of my favourites, but this exhibition is from a very much larger private collection amassed over many years by Joelle Chariau, a dealer and private collector based in Munich. Its highlights - and the basis of the exhibition - are work by Georges Lepape, Rene Gruau, Antonio, Mats Gustafson and Francois Berthoud who together span the entire twentieth century, which saw fashion illustration reach a fabulous peak and then very quickly dwindle and die due to commercial pressures on magazines to use photographs. We plan to display at least twenty original works from each artist, supplemented by the work of others such as Iribe, Erte, Erik, Berard and Bouche, so that it is a real survey of the creme de la creme. We are now looking to source film of these amazingly talented artists actually working.

It is a privilege to be involved with such high calibre material as this. Joelle's collection of original fashion illustrations must be the world's very best still in private hands. The hard part is knowing what to show - but any left out will, I hope, appear in the book I am writing to accompany the exhibition. Meanwhile, I am poring over reproductions of all these amazing works and trying hard to pretend that I am working hard!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Hats Off to Stephen Jones

Yesterday, I was talking to Stephen Jones, the milliner, about his trip to New York last week. Stephen is one of fashion's rarities. Clever, creative – I rate him as the world's best milliner – he has worked in equal artistic partnerships with virtually all of the great designers, including names from the past such as Montana and Mugler, British stars such as Rifat Ozbek and Zandra Rhodes, and modern superstar John Galliano, with whom he has the sort of creative cooperation that the shoemaker Roger Vivier had with Christian Dior in the fifties. Like Manolo Blahnik, Stephen is a one-off because he is educated in the arts, literature and architecture just as much as he is in fashion and millinery. Well-read and witty, not averse to a touch of scurrilous gossip, Stephen is in the mould of the great personalities of the past. Hats, his V&A exhibition earlier this year, was a blockbuster.

All of which means that the reason Stephen was in New York makes perfect sense. He had been invited to receive an honour from the Fashion Group International, which, founded in the thirties, is the oldest clothes charity in America. As part of a Night of the Stars gala event, Stephen was made a star honoree. He was in very good company. Other award winners included Michael Kors, Frida Giannini of Gucci and Victoire de Castellaine, jewellery designer at Dior. Stephen was thrilled as his crystal statuette was presented to him by the ever-elegant Dita von Tees. Entirely in keeping with his enchanting modesty, he didn't mention whether or not she wore one of his creations for the occasion!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Style Tips

To go back to something I've already mentioned, the invitation from a men's magazine to give my top ten style tips (and I do mean give – no fee mentioned for something that could easily fill half a page). I can't believe that sub-editors are so cluless that they actually think anybody can possibly write anything about style tips for men that would ahve anything to say to their readers - or engage their attention for even a moment. They were a cheap and brainless idea fifty years ago when magazines like Man About Town were trying so hard to persuade men that it was OK to be seen reading a fashion magazine. There is nothing to say about style. It is entirely individual and the moment you try to codify it you've lost it. Even Beau Brumell was reduced to idiotic platitudes when asked to explain the way he dressed - although I believe that all his pithy comments on dressing well were almost certainly made up on his behalf long after the event.

What passes for style is rules and they are always popular, especially with pack animals like men. They are usually to do with class, as well. On both counts, the rules of taste have almost always been conceived in order to separate the savvy sheep from the gormless lambs. The Victorians and Edwardians loved them: 'Brown boots are only suitable for working men'; 'Suede shoes are incorrect in London'; 'Tweed is only permissable in the country'; 'Only clergymen may use an umbrella in the country, but in town a man should carry a tightly furled one'. And so they go on, useless suggestions to keep those of us whom the arbiters think inferior in our place.

Does all this sound familiar? Of course it does. We are back in the schoolyard again - somewhere the person who asks for ten top style tips has clearly never left.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A Naff Idea

Thinking about the cluelessness of magazines a little more. Yesterday, I was actually asked by a successful magazine for men to provide a list of ten style tips. This, at almost the end of the first decade of the new millennium. It was a tired and naff idea in the sixties, the product of lazy journalism then as now - and it was the sort of piece which was not read then, just as it is today. Are magazines deliberately trying to commit suicide?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Magazine Issues

My local newsagent in Soho carries a huge range of fashion-related magazines – and very beautiful they look, too. At least, the covers do. But that is all too often the only interesting thing about them. It's not just that they are all the same as one another. Worse still, they are usually barely distinguishable from the same month's issue from two or three years ago!

Is it because editors are getting lazy… or just clueless?

The same photographers over and over again; the same advertisements; the same fatuous copy. At least, that is true of all the world famous 'glossies', the names everybody knows and which have multinational editions (all of which are also all the same, by the way). No wonder sales are slumping. It is a miracle they have remained so high so long.

Of course, if you search you can still find magazines with enough integrity not to have sold out entirely to the demands of advertisers. But you have to look hard. All individuality has slowly been eroded by a process that began a long time ago. I have a collection of Vogue going back to 1928 and the variety in the editorial pages is staggering compared with now. In those days, women read Vogue, Tatler, Harpers Bazaar, Town and Country and so on, even if they weren't especially interested in fashion. Now I don't know any intelligent women who read them. How sad that these once-great institutions are now read only in hairdressers or by the trade.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A Day of Eating

A day of meetings and eatings, starting with breakfast at the Wolseley. Kippers and toast with John Rushworth of Pentagram who, to give him his full title, is the creative brand and identity consultant for Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden. John designs our show venue and all our printed material and we all think highly of him not just because Pentagram is still, after many years, London's best design consultancy but because he gets what we are all about and always finds an exciting new way to encapsulate our mood each year. I always like to run our ideas for the new year past him and get his feedback.

Then Tiffanie Darke, my editor at The Sunday Times Style, popped up, looking fabulously healthy and casual. Her explanation was that she now cycles in London as much as she can and had just arrived by bike. Lunch was at Cipriani's with Violet Fraser, who works for the exclusive jeweller Moussaieff of Bond Street. We had a delicious meal but I was strong and said no to wine.

A meeting with a young English designer over tea made me realise that I had been sitting at one table or another virtually all day, so it was a relief to go to the London College of Fashion for the opening of a really interesting exhibition looking at hair in all its many forms, including an old bath with hairs sticking to it, Victorian cartoons and old fashioned curling tongs plus good modern photographs. Well worth a visit because it has a stong point of view about a subject not often dignified with an exhibition.

Then to - you've guessed it - the last table of the day for a dinner of potted shrimps and chicken and mushroom pie at Bob Bob Ricard which, apart from the food, has the great advantage of being only a minute from where I live. Tomorrow, I eat nothing.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

A Great Honour

Last week was exciting because I was told that The London College of Fashion, which is part of The University of the Arts, London, has decided to create a scholarship in my name. It's a great honour and it is quite humbling as it is to be awarded for journalism. It will probably take the form of a travelling bursary for a second year student who is on the BA (Hons) course in Fashion Journalism. Coincidentally, the Director of Programmes (Media) is Brenda Polan, who gave me my first journalism commission in the eighties when I returned from Rome, where I had been working as a designer for a famous couturier Pino Lancetti and later for 'The Queen of Cashmere', Laura Biagiotti – the only time in my life when I went to a beautiful medieval castle to work!

Brenda was fashion editor of The Guardian then, and later became the Woman's Page editor, a position of great significance in those days. So, in one way and another, the scholarship has a great deal to live up to, as has the winner! Incidentally, this is the second prize named after me by an academic institution. Heriot Watt university in Scotland has also created an annual award in my name for an outstanding student of fashion and it is now in its second year.

When I arrived in Kent for the weekend I was delighted to find a parcel that clearly contained a book. I have going on for about 10,000 books already – the only rooms in my house which are not like a library are the bathrooms and lavatories – but I still get excited when a new one arrives. This one was certainly something to get excited about. Cartier I Love You is an elegantly designed and beautifully printed picture book edited by Bruce Weber. It is about all the beautiful people who have fallen in love with the Cartier aesthetic, from Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn right up to today. There are lots of Weber's photographs (young men in tiaras anyone?), drawings by the likes of Cecil Beaton, anecdotes and poems but, above all, plenty of white space, which is what gives this sort of prestige publication its caché.

Cool, sophisticated, Cartier I love You is a visual feast, even for those for whom, like me, jewellery has only limited aesthetic appeal. I am looking at it now and what makes it so sophisticated is that the paper is matt instead of gloss and that gives the photographs and drawings an added depth. Even though very light on words, this must be the perfect picture book to escape with on a dreary damp autumn day, creating a fantasy wish list of fabulously beautiful jewels which are the epitome of high style, and imagining that your cup of PG Tips is a perfectly chilled glass of vintage champagne… served by a man in a tiara.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Frieze and Fashion Hacking

Yesterday was the opening day of Frieze, the international art fair in Regent's Park, four days when anybody interested in art – the art of being seen, that is – has to be there. The big opening was full of artists and VIPs from all over the world checking on their favourite galleries. I fell in love with and bought an abstract (not one of the more expensive works - and certainly not the painting I enquired about that turned out to cost 1.5 million). Maybe that swayed my judgement but I thought the general standard was higher than last year. The experts, on the other hand, were muttering darkly about the effects of the slump still being very real in the art world.

Art is, of course, the new couture: an indulgence for a few, most of whom are primarily interested in buying a name or an association with a super-cool gallery. I watched two trophy wives dressed in the height of fashion having a Howard Hodgkin explained to them. It was clear that they were bored but would buy, having been sent out by their doubtless wealthy husbands to do a little social shopping. One can only hope that some of their dinner guests might appreciate it. There are always quite a few of these elegant women on the first day. Most of them are Russian, Italian or Spanish, as far as I can tell. And beautifully dressed and bejewelled. There are also rather alarming men drifting around in bizarrely coloured suits. This time an Italian fashion businessman was wearing embroidered shoes – not for sale, thank God. The real experts are usually the nondescript little guys in macs rather than designer labels. They don't pose. They deal.

I finished off the day at the Royal Society of Arts, where I was part of a panel for a public discussion about the ethical and practical design implications and opportunities in hacking. I was there as an expert, but I confess that I learned a lot more than I gave. One of the Design and Society debates, it considered whether hacking design was folly or theft or, on the other hand, whether it heralded a new democratic dawn. Sadly, no conclusion was reached - largely because at least 10 minutes were lost when the power-point projection by lead speaker, Otto von Busch, froze and was very unwilling to unfreeze itself. The other speakers were David Godber of the Design Council; Paul Thompson, newly appointed Rector of the Royal College of Art, whom I had not seen for many years; and the chair, Scott Burnham. All bona fide experts and very interesting. Good questions from the floor. I found it very stimulating.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ed Ruscha and Alexander Wang

I spent yesterday morning at the Hayward Gallery for the press opening of the Ed Ruscha retrospective, Fifty Years of Painting. Now in his early seventies, Ruscha has been a major figure in American art since the fifties (see his Catalogue Raisonné here). He is in London for his own opening and for the Frieze opening today. He said hello and seemed modest and softly spoken; he gave a short speech full of interesting insights into how his pictures are created. Everybody interested in modern American art knows his bold and brilliantly coloured paintings often concentrating on a single word – Noise, Scream – but I thought that this exhibition shows how he took this forward in the next couple of decades, playing witty semantic games with strange sentences. For me, the really fascinating ones were his monochrome spray-gun pictures, which were reminscent of very early movies, and his portraits of mountains with random words superimposed over them.

I had lunch with the editor of Esquire, Jeremy Langmead, in Soho. Then to the London College of Fashion to discuss a scholarship in journalism that is being setting up in my name. A great honour and very exciting.

In the evening, Alexander Wang – the hot new kid on the block who is over from New York – joined me at Selfridges for an In Conversation for customers. Twenty-five years old, with a 20-million-dollar-plus company which has only been going for four years, Alex was described by a member of the audience as "awesome". Easy to see why. Apart from his creative and business success, he is also charming, fluent and relaxed. He was an ideal and stimulating conversation companion – something I often find with the top American designers, but not always (alas) with their British counterparts.

Alex is travelling with his brother Dennis, and it is clear that this is a very family-based company which will go far. It already justifies all the hype, even amid the crazy hysteria of Planet Fashion. He told me about his plans to develop his menswear not as men's fashion but as the sort of clothes regular guys feel comfortable in. That's what the Wang approach is about: sexy, real clothes for confident men and women.

Alex could only come from New York: he embodies that city's energetic belief that clothes are not designer statements but products to sell. When somebody asked him to do some really cool clothes for kids, he grinned and said he was already thinking! He is a new Marc Jacobs and, although he assured me he was busy growing his own brand at the moment, he could be interested in looking at a famous name to revitalise some time down the line. But in my opinion, the thing that really matters with this exceptionally gifted man is making his brand even more high-profile than it is already. And he will. No doubt at all. And the world is waiting.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A Productive Weekend

I had a good weekend at the sea, working on the book I am doing with Matthew Williamson. I've almost finished transcribing the tapes of my interviews with Matthew, his parents and his business partner, Joseph Velosa. They are all good talkers, have good memories and are very open, even about intimate things such as changes in the relationship between Matthew and Joseph. Although no longer a couple, they are still very much business partners, and they both claim – quite independently – that they are as close now as ever, except for living in separate houses (although very near each other). The story reminds me of two things. First, most successful young designers have a business partner to help guide their progress. And second, the business of fashion has little time for emotional indulgence: if working with a former partner is the best thing for the business, then that's what happens.

I've already started writing the text and the book is going well. In between the writing I jotted down some ideas for next year's Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden. We always have to start planning almost immediately after one year's event for the next and are already having meetings to flesh out our ideas. The team is small, but everyone is efficient and hard-working and above all has imagination. One other thing: they are all strong enough to trim my sails when my ambition flies too far from what is achievable – or affordable!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Cartier and the Maharajas

The Maharajas are in town – and so are the great and the good. The private views of the V&A Maharaja exhibition last week attracted the great and the good to the capital. Cartier marked the occasion by hosting a lunch in their boardroom in Lower Bond Street for a small group of senior journalists: fabulous white flowers, fine wines (as you would expect from a French standard bearer) and some of the best roast beef I can remember eating. Cartier's London boss, Arnaud Bamberger, and the director of international style and heritage director, Pierre Rainero, were the hosts. Arnaud made a witty speech highlighting the differences between the British and the French – in an affectionate way, of course. Cartier made a huge amount of the jewellery commissioned by Indian princes, especially in the years between the wars, using diamonds, rubies and pearls sent to Paris from India for the purpose. The Cartier people told us that, at the exclusive private dinner earlier in the week for the descendants of the maharajas who loaned pieces to the exhibition, some guests were wearing Cartier pieces that no-one from the firm had seen for many decades.

As for the Maharajas itself, the exhibition is full of fabulous things, from golden thrones and magnificent panoply for elephants to vast diamond and pearl necklaces anchored with rubies, which were worn by men - often to go into battle. The collection is unique, and such treasures will probably not be seen again in London for many years, if ever. But, call me a philistine, what I fell in love with most was a thirties Rolls Royce - as long as a bus, and painted a subtle green-grey. It made today's heavily Teutonic Rollers look as vulgar and unstylish as a dust cart.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Irving Penn

With the death of Irving Penn, at the age of 92, the era of the Titans of fashion photography comes to a final close, and with it high fashion's greatest period.

Fashion photography grew only slowly in the first half of the 20th century, forced to share the role of documenting clothes on the pages of fashion magazines with fashion artists. But as techniques and especially reproduction quality improved, it gradually took the lead.The watershed was World War II, which empowered men for new opportunities in civvy street by training them in new skills skills such as communications and photography. Penn himself served in the US Marines before embarking on his photographic career. He quickly made his mark. And it developed into a monumentally powerful one, based on the simplicity of the perfectly placed figure treated as a sculpted image of high fashion. The hauteur of the final product was anything but the new movement towards the 'girl next door' which was to dominate the sixties (see a gallery of his work here).

Working mainly in black and white, Penn's great days of fashion depiction - his work was never as slight as mere representation of a designer's idea – were in fact the great days of high fashion at its very highest. The New Look, introduced in 1947 by Christian Dior, led the way for clothes of a perfection and grandeur in the hands of Balmain, Balenciaga, Jaques Fath and many other French couturiers which had not been seen not seen before and will never be seen again. These were the days of rigorous tailoring and the grandest of ballgowns – manna from heaven to a photographer with an eye like Penn's.

These were serious - even at times pompous - fashion statements, and they needed serious photography. No one gave it to them more expertly than Irving Penn - although his running partner, Richard Avedon, kept pace with him. Each reflected the ethos of the magazine for which they worked. A Penn fashion shot had all the grandeur and natural poise that was Vogue; Avedon's fashion work for Harper's Bazaar was lighter, younger and more immediate. If Penn was the fashion world's Michelangelo, Avedon was its Goya. Both produced images that will encapsulate mid-20th century style for as long as people continue to have any interest in the cultural history of fashion's past.

Great fashion photographers are very much more than mere chroniclers of fashion at any given moment. They are a vital part of the creative movement that starts in the designer's head and ends with the picture on a magazine page. And this is the great difference between an artist's representation of a garment and a photographer's. Ever since fashion photography came of age in the late forties, it has been an active rather than a passive element in fashion. The great designers create their looks with the camera in mind - and couture really has no other destination than the pages of a glossy magazine because most of it is not only superb, it is also unwearable outside a photographer's studio. Nowadays, even more accessible fashion reaches its apotheosis on the page - and designers work with the photographic image very much in mind. How much longer it will continue is debatable as the end of printed media is prophesied with more insistence almost on a daily basis, but at least we'll always have the genius of Penn to remind us of past glories.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Divine Madness

A dear Italian friend called early – very early – the other morning to talk about the fashion shows. She is a designer and art collector and knows a great deal about fashion in all its forms, so she always has interesting things to say. This time she startled me. 'Are all these young designers nuts?' she asked. 'Are the press making them crazy?' It was a challenge, especially at 7.00 a.m. and I don't think I rose to it especially well. But it did get me thinking…

There is a lot of dross out there, of course, as there is in any field of design. We all know about cars that drive as if designed with a knife and fork: who hasn't experienced the boiler with an insoluble design fault? Having to accept bad modern design has become one of life's inevitable rites of passage for most of us. Who doesn't know that if you want a teapot that pours without dripping you must go back to an 18th-century design – and has there ever been a sofa as comfortable as a 19th-century one? When I was looking for a really comfortable easy chair two years ago I sat in every design classic of the 20th century. They nearly all looked fabulous but only one was comfortable enough to buy – the Eames chair and stool.

Dress is different. There is a line between the divine madness of high fashion and the wearability of clothes to be sold 'as is'. Admittedly, the line is constantly being blurred as the high street chains get cleverer – and quicker – at capitalising on the lines of the more commercial designers, not to mention the ideas of their own highly skilled design teams who know pretty well exactly what their core customers are looking for, regardless of season and regardless of Paris, Milan, et al.

But back to the divine madness, almost the sole preserve of Paris. Certainly, what appears on the runways of designers of the calibre of Galliano or McQueen seems a long way from the realities of everyday dress. And it is. But the thousands of people who logged on to Show Studio's live relay of the McQueen show from Paris this week (watch it here) were not doing so in order to find out what they would be wearing next spring. They were looking for the excitement of a creative rush that used dress almost as the incidental instrument to hang ideas and attitudes on. And ideas and attitudes are precisely what we look for the great designers who show in Paris to provide. One man's nuts is another's spiritual bombshell.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

A Walk in the Parks

It seems entirely appropriate that the new Norman Parkinson book (Norman Parkinson: A Very British Glamour, by Louise Baring) was launched last night in the elegant surroundings of Somerset House, because he and his work were so elegant and stylish – as well as being witty in a totally English way. Both the book (published by Rizzoli at £40) and the accompanying exhibition (on until January) are a must for fashionistas, lovers of photography, students and anyone wanting to discover how the Brits were in the thirties and forties.

His story then goes on as Parkinson became one of a handful of top international photographers working for all the top 'glossies' until the eighties. Tall and elegant as a crane, Parks (as he liked to be known) was a memorable figure who shot all the great models – although his best work came when he was photographing his wife, Wenda, who was the subject of my favourite Parkinson story. Shooting in Africa, she was sitting on an ostrich as he photographed her when it suddenly bolted. The bird thundered past Parks with Wenda clinging on for dear life. He called,'Fabulous, darling! Give me a little more profile!' as bird and model disappeared in a cloud of dust. He was an original not only as a photographer but also as a man – what other fashion photographer would rear pigs in Tobago and sell their sausages as Porkinsons – still on sale today?

Incidentally, Rizzoli are producing some very exciting fashion books this autumn. Martin Margiella - with a white silk cover but no guarantee of revelations of the who, what, where and why of fashion's most reclusive character; Nick Knight and SHOW studio; and one on Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. Christmas lists surely start right here.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Paris Reflections

Paris is the Mount Parnassus of the fashion world; the place where reputations are finally sealed; where the immortals bask in the perpetual sunshine of an approbation verging on idolatry. And deservedly so - as this week's fashion shows in that most beautiful of cities are triumphantly proving as the marathon of international fashion weeks draws to its close.

There is a fashion curve of excellence which absolutely mirrors the order of fashion weeks as they appear on the international schedule. New York (the first) is at the base, with London (second to show) fractionally ahead; then comes Milan - always a mixed bag, as you would expect from the most volatile creative nation in Europe, if not the world; and way ahead, at the pinnacle, the City of Light itself. If the other three disappeared, as long as Paris survived, fashion would be safe. It is the hub and epicentre of all things brilliant in dress and has been ever since Versailles - surely the most bizarre invention in history - snatched the baton from Britain and ran with it, commandeering the high ground of taste, elegance and originality which Paris still holds against allcomers today.

So, I guess you get the picture. I love Paris. And so should we all. Although Paris fashion week is not finished yet, we have already seen shows of a fantastic quality: Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy; Alber Elbaz at Lanvin and, triumphing over all others to date, John Galliano for Dior. They are to, let's say, London fashion, for example, as a Moghul tented pavilion in the Indian sun is to a scout's two-man bivouac in the rain of the Lake District.

What Paris has which feeds its great designers isn't just about creativity. It is about the visionary originality that leaves things different from the way they were before – including our ideas of beauty, self and sexuality. They are the often subconscious initiators of a long-term social force. It has little in common with beread and butter dress designing, the sort of things we see every season, all over the world, hailed as examples of creativity that are nothing more than more or less beautiful variations on an already fully stated looks belonging to somebody else's imagination. They are clothes-making, not fashion at all. No, what Paris and its great designers do is to create a feeling, a mood, something in the air that is immediately recognisable as the thing that will move fashion forward - and if fashion doesn't do that, what on earth is its purpose.

And far too often it doesn't. I believe that most of the designers in the world today are artisans, not artists at all. Trading in 'looks' and opportunistic fads filched from the catwalks of the great creators, ready to be copied by the high street for a season and then deservedly ditched, they and their clothes are totally expendable. By my calculation, there are less than ten designers in the world who are of any significance and many of the most successful ones - the ones who use advertising overkill in order that their names are known to all and that their cheaper lines will sell in huge quantities - would not be allowed at the end of the drive, let alone permitted to enter my Temple of Worthies.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A Visionary Educator

Visionaries and people who leave things better than when they found them are very often forgotten by posterity because their changes are so right that they are taken for granted remarkably quickly and it is assumed that they were always as they are after the achievement is complete.

A case in point is the fashion educator Muriel Pemberton (read an obituary here), who was born a hundred years ago. How many people in the fashion world know that name? How many fashion educators have heard of this remarkable woman – the Emily Pankhurst of fashion education, who raised the role of women in fashion from menial levels to the fully enfranchised position of female designers today? Before her pioneering work, girls from ordinary backgrounds worked as slaves in the rag trade and the few female designers – such as Lucile – were upper-middle-class women with considerable social contacts and often no dressmaking skills of any kind.

But Muriel Pemberton changed all that. Way back in the early 1930s, she refused to accept the then-current view that young girls (especially from the working classes) were not worth teaching any skills other than sewing and embroidery. In 1928 she set up a Diploma in Fashion at the Royal College of Art and then went on to make fashion drawing a core of fashion education at St Martin's. By doing so, as the course was mainly taken by women, she cunningly got them in by the back door as artists – the only classification taken seriously by the art establishment at that time.

Having made that advance, she went on to set up the Department of Dress at St Martin's, which included the previously all-male areas of art history and creative design. The rest is history. Women from ordinary backgrounds were able to move out of the back rooms into the creative studios to join their male counterparts as bona fide designers, just as they do today.

All of which came to me after reading the latest fashion book from the V&A, a facsimile of one of Lucile's books of drawings provided as a catalogue for the customers of her London, Paris, New York and Chicago establishments. The drawings have a strong period flavour, of course, and the text is exactly what you would expect from Valerie Mendes, a respected fashion theorist and scholar, but the book would have had a much broader appeal if the sketches had been smaller to enable more of the contemporary photos of the clothes being worn to be printed large, rather than postage-stamp size, as they are in most cases. It is the people who wore the clothes that make past periods and their dress of interest to a wide public. That being said, this is a useful book for fashion historians and scholars and, although it is expensive in hardback, Lucile will be well worth buying by anyone interested in the period, the woman, or the fashion when it comes out in paperback.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Patronising Paris

A runway shot from Paris Fashion Week is meant to bring joy when we open our newspapers and, it is true to say, that is normally the case. But I wonder if I am the only reader who felt queasy over breakfast this morning at a picture from Christophe Decarnin's show for Balmain under the headline 'Rags for Riches: Balmain's Recession-busting Chic'. Below it was a picture of a model wearing a top ragged with holes. The sort of thing that dirt-poor women in far too many countries of the world have as their sole garment – the poor and disadvantaged countries, some of which I have visited, where to have virtually any item of clothing involves a struggle against crippling financial deprivation.

The copy in my newspaper pointed out that the holey shirt was a 'star piece' of the show, part of the designer's 'backstage aristocracy aesthetic'… whatever that may mean to the writer. 

What it means to readers not stranded on Planet Fashion is simple: an industry at great pains to point out that it is a caring, 'people' industry, concerned with ethical standards at all levels, is in fact double-dealing by praising a garment so patronising and insensitive to the realities of life for the really poor. Decarnin, you should know, has 'a devoted following of wannabe rock chicks with thin thighs and deep pockets' and, I would add, thick heads. He was admired last season for selling ripped jeans at around a grand a time – and there was a waiting list! 

Is it any wonder that, in the minds of normal people, a woman referred to as 'rich' so often has the rider 'bitch' tagged on? But perhaps the saddest thing for those who love fashion is the selling out that such cheap and easy gimmicks represent. This  is styling, not fashion design, and shows a terrible lack of imagination – in Paris, the city which imagined fashion for us all in the first place.
I want to end with a story. Some years ago, I was in India where a fashion shoot was to take place. There was huge anticipation as the local people learned that two models from Paris were to arrive. I shall never forget the dismay and horror when they did. Everyone was expecting goddesses of beauty. Two pretty girls in shredded jeans were duly delivered from the airport – to the utmost bewilderment of the Indians. How could such beautiful Western girls be so badly treated and from such poor families that they had to dress just as the poorest Indians did, in rags? I had no answer then. I have no answer now – except that mindless Western decadence and indifference to the rest of the world presents a danger from which Planet Fashion is not as immune as it imagines.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Beyond These Shores

Iust received some pictures from an event I took part in a few weeks ago at Copenhagen Fashion Week.

I was one of the judges for Designer Nest, a competition to find and encourage young student designers from art schools and colleges across Scandinavia and Greenland. It was a great experience. The clothes ranged from wild and wacky to elegant and grown up and, not for the first time, made me realise that the English mantra that our fashion colleges are the best in the world does not go entirely unchallenged. There is a lot of very good work being done around the world which we have little interest in finding out about. More modest, too.

It was a long time since I had been to Copenhagen and I had forgotten what a civilised city it is, with a lot more to recommend it than the Little Mermaid, including great architecture from eighteenth-century classicism to plate glass modernity, good food and charming people – all of whom speak perfect English. I had a great time. 

The Crown Princess came to the show and was so informal and relaxed that she was happy to show how much she was enjoying it. She took an interest in the students and talked to them individually and at length. We sat together next to each other during the show and I was delighted that she was so informed – about both fashion and education. Danish fashion is lucky to have her so clearly and enthusiastically on board. 

The Crown Princess's Australian roots show in her informal approach to royalty. 

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Mais Non, Monsieur Sarkosy

The fash-pack is returning to London after Milan fashion week. 

Some will be happy to say goodbye to the life of organised, dutiful absurdity that the fashion show regime imposes in the month-long parade of shows here in London as well as in Milan, New York and, finally, Paris. Others will still be eager to round it all off on the last lap in Paris. But the danger of being immersed so thoroughly in a 24/7 regime of frocks is that a fashionista's grasp on the realities of life (fragile at the best of times) can become worryingly loose. Blame it on luxury hotels, grand dinners, private limos and fawning PRs if you like, but it can be the only explanation of the Bermuda Triangle effect of too many fashion shows in too short a space of time. 

An intriguing example of either divine madness or Sophoclean clarity of thought brought on by the Bermuda effect is the suggestion made this week that Italian fashion is currently becoming just too vulgarly sexy because of the bedroom antics of that country's political leader. 

I can't help wondering how far this idea can be pushed before it collapses as suddenly as Pompeii when the light of logic – a rare beam indeed in fashion! – is turned on it and the theory is driven to its ultimate point of destruction. Does London's fashion reflect the private life of our own dear prime minister? Do the clothes on the runways of NewYork personify the new Obamaism? And, most worrying of all, what can we expect in Paris when the shows begin there on Friday? Will the Dior collection be an hommage to the international pugilism masquerading as statesmanship that has made M. Sarkosy such an entertaining member of the international political scene? And does it matter at all to anyone?

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

A Day of Meetings

A day of meetings – all about exciting possibilities.

The day began with a discussion with Selfridges about building on the very successful In Conversation with Christopher Bailey last Thursday. The next one is on October 13th, with the New York designer Alexander Wang, who ticks the essential boxes by being hot and cool at the same time! I am looking forward to it very much as it is some time since we had an American guest for one of my In Conversations.  

Left that meeting in a good mood and was soon put into an even better one at the next one. It was held in Home House, one of the last great eighteenth-century London townhouses still with its interior decoration intact, just as it was when it was in private ownership. It is now a private members' club, and despite modern additions – a bar by Zaha Hadid, for example – still gracious and calm, at least in mid-morning. I am not a member but one of the people I was meeting is. We were there to discuss a very exciting – and big – idea for a new fashion initiative in Asia which I might be asked to help. I hope so, as it would be both stimulating and challenging and open up for me a country I do not know in a part of the world which I find increasingly interesting. 

After that I went to see Matthew Williamson, whose headquarters in Shepherd Market is housed in another elegant, well-proportioned townhouse. I was there to interview him for a book we are working on for publication next year, which chronicles his career so far. It is a sort of half-term report, I guess, and it is going to look beautiful.

Monday, 28 September 2009

A Trip to Munich

Spent the day in Munich, looking at a fabulous collection of original fashion drawings by the greatest names of the twentieth century. Privately owned, it really is a total history of how fashion was illustrated from about 1910 to now. I am hoping to create an exhibition of this neglected area of fashion before all the artists' names are forgotten by people in the fashion world. The paradox is that, although fashion drawings very rarely appear in magazines today, collectors clamour for them. 

The owner of this unique treasure trove knew most of the artists she has in her collection, and she told me a nice story about one who, in the fifties, was driving his mother somewhere when they had a terrible accident in which she was killed. Although inconsolable at his loss, he took comfort from the fact that at least she was wearing Balenciaga when the crash happened. 

Fashion people!  What can you do?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

A Quiet Saturday

Having a relaxed weekend at my house on the coast of Kent. I do all my writing down here because it is very peaceful: there is nothing but sea and sky between me and the lights of Boulogne. I escaped here late on Thursday evening, after my conversation with Christopher Bailey of Burberry.    

Today, I've been working on the third issue of Distill, a magazine set up last year to collect all the very best pictures from fashion magazines from around the world and reproduce them in one place. The rationale is simple. Not even the keenest fashion-follower can keep up with all the magzines – and certainly can't afford to buy them – so we bring their best stories to our readers. Our criteria are also simple. We don't look at the clothes but at the work of the people who so often get forgotten: the stylists, art editors and, preferably, emerging photographers. In a sesnse, we look at the magazine page as a minor work of art and I must say we have seen some incredible photoshoots since we began, many from magazines I had never even heard of - and I am the editor-in-chief! How shaming is that? But I am getting better.

The new issue of Distill comes out in the last week of Ocober. But you won't find it in the newsagents because this time our contents will be available direct to an Iphone. I have to admit I was a little uncertain about how this would work but, to my delight, the stories absolutely glow. Readers will be able to see them as many times as they want, whenever they want, but also to share them with their friends at a tap of the screen.