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.