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.