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 theOutnet.com, 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 BergĂ©. 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.