Sunday, 31 January 2010

Hommage to Christian Dior: John Galliano couture show Paris 2010


photo © Larry Ewing

My love affair with John Galliano – only his genius, darling – is well known. Ten years ago I wrote a book with this most talented and modest man, and I am about to start working with him on a new one. In the time between the two, I have seen him grow to such a marvellous flowering that I truly can say that he is the fashion genius of the age, with a sense of beauty and a response to history second to none. And his couture show this season showed him at his very best.

Sensitive, as always, to women and the legacy of Christian Dior, which he treats with the utmost respect whilst never letting it subdue his own creativity, this season he added (as he frequently does) an extra dimension. This time it was in the form of the cutting techniques of Charles James, the eccentric, obsessive Anglo-American designer who came to his peak in the fifties and sixties. Notorious for quarrelling with his clients – all very rich American socialites – to such a degree that he often refused to let them take delivery of evening gowns they had sometimes waited years for, he was the perfectionist to end all perfectionists. In that he has much in common with John but, apart from the talent and integrity, no two men could be more different.

Galliano started his show with Edwardian equestriennes in sharply-cut riding jackets in hunting pink that looked severe at first glance but were softly tailored to the now traditional Galliano/Dior cut invented by Galliano several seasons ago and still being subtlely refined. They were worn with side-draped New Look skirts which the high street will make into fabulously sexy little minis. Then came the cocktail dresses, miraculously involving great rolls and swathes of fabric to make powerful shapes more sculptural than anything seen in Paris this season. And finally, the ballgowns, all of a beauty that we have come to expect from this man. The colours were amazing and the echoes of some of Dior's great gowns from the past presenetd an hommage to the great man so subtle that few in the audience (including sad little Tavi in the front row) would realise it. This was a show that confirmed that in John Galliano's hands questions as to the modern relevance of couture – I have asked them myself – are in themselves irrelevant. He continues to bestride the world like a colossus.





All photos © Larry Ewing

Friday, 29 January 2010

Viva Mexico! Jean-Paul Gaultier Paris Couture 2010 review

Swinging down the runway in a full red skirt singing "La Paloma", Arielle Dombasle, the French actress and wife of the celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (only in France! … the Brits have to make do with celebrity chefs) brought Jean-Paul Gaultier's couture show to a roaring close. The audience entered into the spirit and clapped in unison when the singer was joined by Gaultier himself (in his trademark black, and not singing).

It was the end of a very Gaultier event. An iconoclast with a great sense of humour (hands up anyone who has ever seen a couturier apart from him so much as smiling, let alone laughing) and the confidence to send up couture – the thing he loves – Gaultier's show is alwayslike a flash of light in the serious business of making clothes important. His outrageousness makes us smile, and even laugh out loud.


Photo: © Jason Lloyd-Evans

He always works to a theme and this time it was Mexico – just made for high-camp high jinks - and he worked it for all it was worth. Huge and marvellously inventive sombreros, incredibly wide Gaucho pants, flared jeans with what seemed in all the exciteme-t to be hundreds of brass buttons running down the seams, cowboy boot-shoes
and palm leaf fan pleating made sure we didn't forget for a moment that this was Mexico with a very big M. It was fun but it was also serious in that the clothes were superbly tailored and would adapt to a very chic modernity that could only be from Paris and, indeed, Gaultier himself.

I am a huge fan because I love confidence and that was what this show was all about. The confidence to make a really individual statement and have fun whilst doing it.




Photos © Jason Lloyd-Evans

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

This Year of Grace


Thinking about Grace Kelly yet? Well, you certainly should be. On the train back from Paris I was pondering the fact that this year looks as if it is going to be the biggest Kelly fest since High Society was released in 1956, the year in which her marriage to Prince Ranier of Monaco made her everybody's fairy princess, until Princess Diana appeared. Coincidentally, the film was shown shown over Christmas on British TV as a curtain-raiser for what will probably be seen as This Year of Grace. The reason is an exhibition devoted to her at the Victoria & Albert museum – I know, I know, but they have to make money somehow and medieval iron strapwork hasn't really been a crowd-puller for at least six hundred years, now, has it?

And Kelly's influence is already showing itself in fashion, with Ferragamo jumping in with a parody of To Catch A Thief, Hitchcock's 1955 romantic thriller set in Monaco and the South of France pairing Kelly and Cary Grant for the first time. The Ferragamo advertising version features Claudia Schiffer – the 'face' of Ferragamo for Spring-Summer 2010 – and a smooth young French guy whose day job is in real estate. Shot by Mario Testino in Monaco with Claudia looking soigné but not quite like Grace, who always had a a smile playing around her features that suggested that she wasn't necessarily taking all this ice-cool blonde-goddess stuff entirely seriously, any more than Cary Grant did. In fact, what seems to have been forgotten in this little exercise is that TCAT was a romantic comedy which was sending up the impossible perfection of the glamorous life of the times. None of this for Ferragamo, of course who treat the scenario with deadpan seriousness instead of the light-hearted irony of the original.

And that's the problem with re-creations of the past. They are lifeless, as pastiche always is, with none of the delicious feeling of dressing up and having fun that the original had. There must be more interesting ways of selling clothes.

Stefano Pilati of Yves Saint Laurent certainly takes a much more involving approach to getting us to buy his Autumn-Winter 2010 menswear. He barely shows any clothes at all in the promotional film made for him by Bruce Weber. And when I tell you that this short film is by Bruce Weber, you will know that barely is absolutely the right word. Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing is very Bruce, with naked boys wrestling, snogging, diving and looking perfectly beautiful but arrestingly dumb. On the soundtrack, Bruce points out that ANLRT is the first film he has made that hasn't starred his dogs and Elizabeth Taylor (don't know which would have been given top billing), but it does have some fifties' footage of female nudes by Bunny Yeager, one of Weber's favourite specialists in nude photography. As an oblique way of getting guys to buy clothes, this film is attractively abstract and reflects the way that Stefano Pilati (thoughtful, cultured and subtle) thinks, every bit as much as it reflects Bruce Weber's life-long photographic approach. And, even if we don't see any clothes, isn't that the best way to get us thinking about them, through a vision that has at least a chance of engaging our imaginations?

Even so, in these times when fashion is slipping from so many people's radar, it does seem that a newer and more arresting approach to advertising, one that might really kick-start our enthusiasm again, is taking a worrying length of time to emerge.

(Paris couture coming up in the next couple of days.)

www.colinmcdowell.com

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Thrill of Couture

Arriving in Paris for the couture shows has always been an experience. First-class on Eurostar; limo waiting at Gare du Nord (apart from meeting relatives or a lover, there’s no better way of arriving at a station than seeing your name on a card, held up by your personal chauffeur for the week); hotel staff welcoming you back with what seem genuine smiles; flowers from the top designers waiting in your room. What’s not to like?

Then there’s the excitement of opening the invitations to the shows, always bigger and stiffer than for ready-to-wear; checking all the right ones are there (phew!); the personal notes from the designers; the invitations to an intimate dinner – which, in fashion terms, can mean anything from 10 to 60 people! – and even private views or special open evenings at the top exhibitions at the time from the Louvre to the Grand Palais or the Pompidou Centre. You really feel privileged. And I, for one, love being pampered – or should that be corrupted?

But it’s all about work and that goes on even though first class and limo have gone for most of us. And it doesn’t matter at all because couture week is a joy, not just for the obvious privileges but also for the great privilege of seeing clothes made with love and incredibly (almost crazily) obsessive attention to detail. The couture shows are the ultimate fashion experience: refined, elegant and perfumed with that very correct Parisian politesse which means that nobody shouts – even at the paparazzi – there is no running or pushing, and even if there is chaos and hysterics behind the seams, the serenity and confidence reign supreme front of house.

But even at couture, where the numbers to be seated (tickets carefully checked, placement strictly adhered to) are much smaller than for ready-to-wear, punctuality (once the prerogative of kings, according to Louis XIV) has never been a priority of fashion and we all sit patiently, watching the private customers arrive, calculating their husbands’ bank balances (couture starts at around €30,000 per garment and can easily soar way above €200,000) and reminding ourselves that we are not at the opening of a new supermarket here but waiting to be inducted into the higher mysteries of fashion as art. No wonder it feels rather like being in a temple of perfection.

Designers – Born or Taught?

There's nothing like couture week in Paris to get one thinking about the nature of design and where designers come from. (As for the shows themselves, by the way, bear with me – I'll be looking back over the week as a whole. Not that there's any shortage of instant coverage to show you what individual shows actually looked like: bloggers seem to be virtually filing from the front row in real time – not for me! Apropos of which, at the ravishingly romantic Dior show I sat opposite the renowned Tavi, designer-dressed from head to toe and working her camera like mad.)

Christian Dior, of course, had no formal college training at all. It may seem ironic at a time when many of our colleges are over-producing 'designers' with huge prodigality, but some of our most successful fashion figures did not: Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Gianni Versace: this list is random but it is not exactly a roll call of duffers. All were basically self-taught or learned on the job, either in their own fledgling company or by working for someone else. Many of them could neither draw nor cut.

What they all had was a vision and a belief in themselves - and a conviction that the two things could be brought together by determination, hard work and self discipline. You could say that these qualities are standard in anyone who makes it in business, including the creative. But what I find most interesting is that they, and other truly great designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, had a philosophy and a cultural knowledge that informed every thing they did and was so strong that their fashion statements – to use a very silly modern expression - have always been unlike any other. And, with the exception of Dior, who changed his shapes and proportions every season without radically altering his aesthetic, they were and still are steadfastly consistent. They didn't have a muse: they had a period, a civilisation to inspire them not only through visual stimuli but also through literature, music and history. They were aware of the past even if it didn't appear overtly in the work of their own present. In other words,they had – and have – a developed point of view that informs all their work whether skirts are high or low, colours bright or dark. So, you can always tell which garments they created and which ones they didn't, something that high street economics has almost removed for less-grounded, younger designers as part of the increasingly desperate need for something totally new each season to stimulate buying.

As Balenciaga said of his customers, a woman who can wear any and all designers knows nothing about fashion, or herself, at all. It is the same for designers. If they produce any or all styles they have no personal style at all.

And perhaps it doesn't matter. Maybe the past is irrelevant at a time when money is made by variety: opera singers giving us pop very badly or vice versa, or footballers dancing even more badly on television (no dancers playing football … yet). All of which is why, although I have a high regard for many fashion colleges, I just occasionally wonder if they have the right people teaching the right things or whether those things are so instinctive that they are beyond teaching. Certainly, I find it as hard to imagine any teacher telling Chanel how to design as I do Balenciaga in Big Brother.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Paris Couture Preview

Today I head for couture week in Paris, still the fountainhead of fashion, promoted as such by the French government and accepted by civilized women (and men) across the globe as the indispensible and inescapable creative dynamo for other fashion centres.

It used to be that couture was the driving force of this amazing city's creative energy but that is no longer the case. As fewer and fewer of the grand names of the past (Lanvin, Balenciaiga) bother with it, and so few designers in Paris have been trained in it (Gaultier is the one remaining figure since Lacroix closed his atelier and Valentino retired), couture is increasingly being seen as an indulgence the fashion world cannot afford in these straitened times.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It may seem a perverse argument but it would be highly detrimental to the future of fashion if couture were allowed to fade away – already a real and present danger – because of current financial difficulties. Without couture, fashion has no cultural basis, history or lead and becomes just another commodity to make money from. It is couture alone that creates the vocabulary of the fashion for tomorrow. Or it should do.

But at this point it isn't. If Couture is losing its position as fashion leader, blame has to be laid at The door of couture itself. The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture – the body charged with protecting and safeguarding French fashion's jewel in the crown – has opened its exclusive club (once the most exclusive in fashion) to designers who are not only not trained in couture but even not trained in fashion at all.

It is possible to cut corners and fudge the rules and get away with it lower down the feeding chain – who looks for originality of concept or intricacy of cut in high-street chains? – but it should be unthinkable at the pinnacle. During this week I will see shows of dumb, posh dresses whose designers have been welcomed in and encouraged to call their work couture. It is no such thing, no matter how hard wily PRs try to convince us that it is. All it is really about is red-carpet dressing where banal evening dresses are 'lent' (how many are ever returned?) to actresses as the best way of getting instant world publicity. And all the big-name designers (there are lots of other designers in Paris trading as couturiers, but they are little more than up-market dressmakers) have played this game. And they probably feel they have had to in order to survive. But it is a complete and disastrous reversal of the way things should be in a healthy fashion industry. There is no design energy in high-street clothing and nowhere near as much as there should be in designer fashion. Why would couture wish to align itself with sterility?

Currently, couture designers are either meaninglessly recycling the past (only Galliano at Dior and Lagerfeld at Chanel even begin to use it as a jumping-off point for a modern design approach), turning back to their own past glories, or showing retreads of the current ready-to-wear collections, their own or those of other designers. And this is why I am not expecting too much excitement this week in Paris.

But I might be pleasantly surprised. I hope I am. Couture is in trouble and the way to get out of it is not to go down the scale but to go up, with boldness and imagination. There is no other way to go, if it doesn't want to go through the door marked Exit. The fashion world is awash with interchangeable minor talents at the moment - far too many of them for a healthy industry - most little more than copyists.

Couture must stand apart from such mediocrity and fulfill its role as leader. It must provide a new path of inspired genius, vision and bold energy, one that will embolden the rest of the industry as Dior's New Look did in 1947. At that point French fashion was so much in the doldrums that many thought it could never recover. But Dior proved them wrong. Within two seasons all designers were following his lead. Much more importantly for a healthy industry, he inspired other great designers to challenge his approach to fashion, including Chanel (who came out of retirement to do so), Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. From them came the future. And, if our future currently looks bleak it is because we are waiting for their modern equivalents. It is couture's job to provide them.

Friday, 22 January 2010

A Legend Recalled

I look back at Diana Vreeland with fondness and awe. After her dismissal from her role as Editor in Chief of US Vogue I met her several times in New York, and once very memorably in Italy, when I was developing a book about Balenciaga, a shared passion. The book never happened, but it gave me the opportunity to visit her in her amazing, tiny, all-red apartment on Park Avenue, full of pattern, photographs and drawings, where we took tea and talked fashion. I was young, she was old. I was nervous – always, despite her kindness – she was grand, but encouraging and already a legend in her own time.

She talked passionately and often very aggressively about fashion. I sat at her feet and learned. She was especially outspoken about New York fashion, which she felt had grown from what she once referred to as 'the slime of Seventh Avenue'. I loved her because her attitudes were so young and irreverent, and she had a marvellous sense of humour (something conspicuously lacking in today's grandes dames of high fashion) and a great sense of irony – completely lost in today's fashion world so dominated by money. Diana Vreeland believed in quality, dreams and integrity. She didn't give a thought to money. Which would, of course, make her unemployable in fashion today.

She would be appalled at the philosophy behind most magazines now and the way editors and publishers have since her day contrived to tie their own hands so effectively.

We were once talking about advertising. Diana was not terribly interested in it and preferred to concentrate on areas she felt had more scope for imagination and creativity.
'Did you have much to do with the advertising manager when you were
editing Vogue?' I asked.
The eyes became as big as saucers. 'Certainly not. Wouldn't recognise him if I saw him. I didn't even know his name!'
'But you must have passed in the corridor or met in the elevator?'
A look part horror, part pity and part bewilderment.
'Advertising personnel using the editorial elevator? NEVER!'

Other voices, other rooms....

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Can Skills Save Fashion?

The high street swallows up so many good ideas, cheapens them in so many different ways and manages to convince women that buying shoddy quality is what buying fashion is all about. A comment from Penelope on my blog about technical skills (read it here) points out the difference between how Princess Diana's clothes were made and how her relative Barbara Cartland's were: nothing to do with taste, everything to do with knowledge. Barbara Cartland's skirts fell properly; Diana's did not. It's all in the cut and sew.

We need to keep the skills of fashion creation alive. The clothes designed for the spring and summer are more relaxed and informal, in fabric as well as cut. The formality of winter clothes comes from the way in which fabrics like wool or velvet behave under the scissors. We cannot lose this. But already it is endangered. Seventy percent of fashion now is about dresses. Even couture houses often don't bother to show coats or jackets, preferring huge ballgowns which have no meaning except when remade in white to become wedding dresses. A highly successful house like Elie Saab shows no tailoring at all, and yet is considered a bona fide couture house.

This is a problem for designers. The good ones know very well how to cut a perfect winter coat, but it takes time and skill … and what is the point if nobody wants to buy it? And the reason nobody wants to buy? The age of fashion has dropped and continues to do so. Women in their early twenties or late teens clearly don't want to dress formally. And yet…

And yet, whenever there is an exhibition or a glossy new book devoted to high fashion from the past, there is always a sigh of longing. What is the sigh for? Glamour, allure, sophistication and all the things current fashion is not especially interested in because designers feel there is not a big enough market for them. Time for some joined-up thinking in the fashion world, perhaps, to try to bring grown-up women back to high-fashion clothing once again?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Trouble With Men

Milan menswear finishes and the press caravan moves on to Paris, hoping to find the excitement there that was so lacking in Italy. But I don't think many journalists are holding their breath (not that there are that many of them in any case – the times have meant a dramatic cut in travel right across the board). Perhaps this doesn't really matter. Rather like couture, menswear shows have a diminishing point and purpose. Not because there aren't any ideas. Despite the banality of most of the shows in Milan this time, there are usually some worthwhile ideas in most seasons. But Paris is the true home of cerebral excitement in men's as well as women' fashion, in my opinion. The next few days will tell if that is true this season.

But – again, like couture – it could be said that ideas that never leave the runway or are only worn by a tiny percentage of young urbanites in half-a-dozen fashion cities in the world are basically stillborn, with no potential for growth. The similarity ends there, of course. Couture – especially in the hands of Galliano at Dior – engenders ideas on which ready-to-wear (especially the up-market high-street chains and labels) feeds for many seasons to come.

Men's fashion is different. Whereas women are excited by the new and respond naturally to an outrageous idea in couture as a challenge to be captured and tamed for reality, men hate all dress ideas that can be seen by onlookers – not to mention mates – as new, let alone fashionable. It sounds a cliche but it is as true today of most men as it was in Beau Brummel's day. As many people, including a lot of men, acknowledge, it is part of the Great Male Insecurity that lurks behind virtually everything men do, especially in dress. Only the most outrageously extrovert – who used to be called cads – want to draw attention to themselves by their clothes.

Which is why such Milan catwalk moments as camel-hair coats worn with no socks are not going to have men shouting, 'ME! God, that's so me!'; ditto for tartan trousers halfway up the calf (memories of the Bay City Rollers clearly still not far enough away to be forgotten yet); and I think we can all agree that calf-length fur-trimmed gilets aren't going anywhere either. It is desperate, but so are the designers. What can they do to ease men forward with ideas that are new but also accessible enough to stand a chance with most young guys while still keeping the attention of the experts in their audience with excitingly original looks? No-one in Milan seems to know.

The sad thing is that I am sure it doesn't have to be like this. Where I live in London there are plenty of cool young guys who look great … but very few of the ideas in their dress originated on the catwalks of this city.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Out of Season

The Milan and Paris menswear shows mark the beginning of the spring fashion round, with couture and women's ready-to-wear still to come. Except for couture, the clothes won't be in the shops for half a year. It becomes increasingly hard to find a rationale for this crazy fashion schedule imposed on designers. How much longer can this system can go on? Winter clothes arriving in the shops in July; only end-of-lines available in the run-up to Christmas, when people are more ready to buy, and nothing new in the shops in December, when the other great pull, the sales, are on. Does it make any sense to have fashion clothes available to buy when only the most demented fashionista wants to spend? (Winter coats in the shops, end of June, is a mantra of madness.) And none when the majority of women do. You couldn't make it up.

The irrationality of the situation highlights the fact that the fashion business is terminally old-fashioned. It's out of step with the realities of most women's buying needs. The calendar we work on evolved before World War I, was looking creaky in the fifties and was terminally out of date by the sixties, the era when young women realised that they didn't need a winter coat and could wear a mini in January without dying of hypothermia. In the days of strict divisions between seasonal wardrobes there was a rationale: central heating was rare; cars, buses and most transport were cold; and heating in offices and homes was kept low for economy. None of this applies today. And, even with this month's icy weather, it is clear that winters are just not as cold as they once were. Certainly in the cities where most of us work, simply because of the heat from buses and cars, neon lighting, stores with tropical temperatures belting out into the streets through open doors - and of course the body heat of the millions more workers who flood in each day – we simply do not need the luxury of winter clothing. As I see it, once everyone wakes up to that realisation, then much of what the fashion industry currently produces becomes not just irrelevant but really rather stupid. Am I missing something here? Or are they?

Less than sixty years ago, when fashion meant high fashion and designers created couture alone, secrecy was at a premium at the collections. No photographs, not even any sketching allowed, on pain of banishment for life. (This isn't the place to tell why - but another time, perhaps.) Now fashion has become a business where everybody demands immediacy - which is why the bloggers could change the whole picture very quickly.

In the past, the seasons were dictated to a degree by the lead times of magazines - two to three months (newspapers gave shows very limited coverage, if any at all). And that set the rhythm. Women waited to see the season's look in their favourite magazine. They had no choice. But not now. Why should women be expected to wait for six months to buy clothes they can see on the day they are shown? Seen the pictures, want the clothes, seems a reasonable argument.

If only the fashion industry could acknowledge that simple view then, with dramatic changes in timings of manufacturing and delivery of clothes, profits might come back. After all, buying is a 24/12 occupation for women of all ages in the West. The flow of new clothes, including those by designers, needs to be the same. Wouldn't everything get better if there were no longer the need for journalists, photographers and buyers to spend days and weeks traipsing from one capital to another to see designer suggestions for new seasons that actually don't exist any more? It would certainly save on carbon footprints and travel and accommodation bills, while also making high fashion much more realistic - and more desirable - for most women.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

www.colinmcdowell.com

In Milan, where I have some meetings about a project later this year, I was called by one of the people who look after www.colinmcdowell.com for me. They're excited because the site is starting to take shape - they've just added video of some of my designer interviews – and I find it exciting too because it has the potential to become something different from both fashion journalism and fashion blogging. Both of those are about the now, the latest, what's happening, what's in and what's out. I see my web site as having a rather longer life and becoming a reference source for students, writers, anyone interested in fashion. We're already republishing entries from Fashion Moments and updated entries from the Directory of 20th Century Fashion. At this point we are dealing with the historic designers and labels, but we'll also be adding new assessments of designers who weren't around for the print edition of the directory, including those working for old-established companies which already have their historic entry. We'll be adding print and video interviews, extracts from my designer talks in London and links to sources of up to the minute fashion information.

It's no secret that I bemoan the lack of knowledge among many fashionistas, especially young students and writers. So it seems only right to put my money where my mouth is, as it were, and start providing another source of background information about fashion, designers and all aspects of good design.

Building the resource will take time. Check it regularly for updates – or let me know anything you particularly want to see.'

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

I Like It, So It Must Be Good

When did the change happen? I'm talking about the fundamental seismic shift that undermined centuries of critical certainty. I was asked this recently by someone who clearly felt it had all been downhill with the arts (including fashion) in the last few decades. It seems to me that it is part of the same broad theme as the journalists vs bloggers debate. Who is qualified to judge what?

In my opinion it was the sixties when the critical equation was permanently reversed. That decade changed the old mantra of the educated classes (as they were rather quaintly called then) from 'This is good, therefore I like it' to 'I like this, therefore it is good'.

Predictably, the new approach caught on. It opened the floodgates. Who was being let in? The young of course, who not having much education at that time and generally having far too much fun to be arsed with actually learning anything that might back up their view, took things into their own hands. Their parents and teachers stood aside, awed by the sheer energy and cheek of the new culture their children were forging with no reference to anybody, or thing, least of all from the past.

It's possible to see this (plenty of people do) as the end both of a long civilization and of the meaning of criticism. If everybody's critical voice is different but equal, regardless of their degree of expertise, how can there any longer be the sort of consensus achieved by a critical structure based on agreed rules, as in the past?

So, did the sixties herald the end of a creative world? In many ways, yes. But even though at this point much of what is being produced - certainly in fashion - is seen by many as inferior to what went before, we are living in fabulously vibrant creative times when everything is possible. A few amazing ideas are beginning to emerge. If that means we have to temporarily put up with ignorance and arrogance, it is a price we can pay. We may be walking through a blizzard – but that doesn't mean that we're walking off the edge of a cliff.

It is hard to see our way, clearly. It is uncomfortable and even dangerous. Many take comfort in inertia, while others make a great show of throwing a lot of intellectual snowballs around … and we all know how brief and insubstantial their lifespan is. Far too few creators and commentators in fashion, as in any other field, have the intellectual energy and creative rigour of a snowman or as much capacity for thought as the cheeky little robin perched on his head. But there is always a thaw. All periods of artistic unrest eventually clear, leaving the way ahead open.

We probably have another generation or two before all the dross is cleared away, but I am sure that when it is we will no longer need to look back for guidance to critical tenets that are already tired and irrelevant. Just because so much of the new is at this stage so bad doesn't mean that it will stay that way.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Getting Technical

Responding to my blog about fashion bloggers, SilentStoryteller brought up the problem of fashion writers - bloggers and journalists – not knowing enough about the skills of fashion to be able to assess what comes down the runway (read the blog and the comments here). The comment begs the question of how many fashion writers know anything at all about the technical side of the clothes they are paid to assess. I'll stake thirty years in the fashion business on the fact that virtually no fashion journalists could pass Eilis' test of telling the difference between a French seam and one that is overlocked (or even define either). Imagine a ballet critic not knowing the meaning or difference between a pas de deux and a pas de chat, or a cricket commentator not knowing his maiden over from his silly mid-on.

I do know what a French seam is and why it is different from an overlocked one, but that is because I came to journalism obliquely, after several years working as a designer in Italy. I wasn't any good at all, but I did spend hours helping designers chase the Holy Grail of the 'perfectly set-in sleeve' à la Balenciaga. The failures were ripped out and discarded. Highest score? Nine rejects, the final one biting the dust some time after 2:00 AM, as I remember. But that is how I learned about technical perfection and the absolute necessity for a designer to always pursue it, at no matter what cost, if he is to keep his integrity. In Hardy Amies' classic phrase, a designer only fulfils his role by 'doing honour to the cloth'. It is a very serious business, which is why I worry a little when I come out of a show where the clothes have been cobbled together and hear fans talk about the fabulous cut.

As Giles Deacon told me in an interview last year apropos fashion journalists, they are mainly so ignorant of the technical and taste aspects of the business that in his opinion a designer today can learn virtually nothing from reading them. It is a sad outlook for fashion if he is right.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Elvis Lives (for fashion folk, at least)

On your way to Parkes, New South Wales? Already there? Wishing you could be?

It's not an outlandish question for fashion followers, because Parkes is the venue of the 'biggest and best convention in the world' to celebrate the anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth (watch the BBC report here). He would have been 75 this year and Parkes has been celebrating his life since 1993 with what claims to be the world's largest jamboree of Elvis impersonators and fans who converge on this tiny town once a year to sing, dress up like their hero and, according to one not entirely delighted local resident, indulge in 'colossal drinking.'

Why should fashion people care? Simply because Elvis was one of the first – if not the very first – popular entertainer to take the link between masculine dress and stardom and put it on the streets. The gloriously camp late costumes – jumpsuits sparkling with rhinestone – have a permanent place in the pantheon of looks that will never be forgotten, of course. But more widely, pre-empting both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Elvis made young guys want to look like him with a universality that had never been seen before. Thanks to the exposure he received from television and film, he started the spread of American blue-collar fashion around the world. Other performers had worn suits – Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra – or dinner jackets, like Fred Astaire. Elvis, the one-time truck driver, dressed like young working kids in the street.

And let's not forget that jeans and casual shirts or T-shirts were fashion - or at least as far as young men in the fifties and early sxities wanted it to go. It wasn't not avant garde, true, but it shaped everything that has come since. It swept the world when Elvis' natural theatricality was reinforced by Bruce Springsteen's urban, New Jersey, blue-collar hardness. And, really, men have not looked back since then - nor, unfortunately, forward with any imagination. It's still blue jeans, T shirt and leather jacket for millions around the world on a night out. Blue suede shoes may be in a slight eclipse at this point, but the blue-collar look has lasted half a century now, making it one of the 20th century's most enduring styles.

With the menswear shows in Paris and Milan just a week away we can already predict that most of what is on the runway will be watered-down looks in the same tradition, with the designer's contribution little more than that of a stylist. Which seems a pity. 'Elvis Lives!' is the rallying cry in Parkes this weekend and, in fashion terms, it is true - with a little help from Bruce and his musical mates.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

More Bad Press

Here we go again!

The beginning of the new fashion year and it already looks as if fashion is going to be treated as cluelessly in the newspapers as it was last year and for many before that, at least at the level most women can afford. Advice from a journalist about what to buy now, which I read today, made my heart sink as I asked myself, for the trillionth time, why fill pages with stuff that means so little to anyone (not least, I suspect, to the poor hack who writes it) when there is so much glorious fashion, even at high street level, that would lift the spirits of any reader?

These were the suggestions for the 'essentials' for the coming season: a white shirt, a blazer, a sweatshirt, a denim shirt … at this point I checked the newspaper's date, suspecting that somebody had slipped in a journalistic Mickey Finn and I was actually reading a page from the seventies … chinos, a slim belt – apparently 'nothing says you "get it" like wearing a basic belt in the "right" way' – a printed scarf.… No, I can't go on. It's just too sad. The pictures were equally uninspired. And yet these were not clothes chosen for suburban mums or provincial dentists' receptionists but the serious choices of a young (I assume) urban woman for other young urban women.

I happen to believe that being able to share what you believe in with an audience is one of the greatest privileges of journalism. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to share a passion with the world? But this pallid stuff is so far removed from passion that it really is a betrayal of what newspapers are for. No wonder they are on the danger list. This is writing by somebody who couldn't care less about fashion, edited by somebody who couldn't care less about journalism. Talk about a suicide pact. And I suspect it is the result of the increasingly common problem in newspapers: the people who care – and know – about subjects that are still seen by proprietors and editors as 'peripheral' cannot get jobs because newspapers can't afford them. You can hear the boardroom conversation with the money men: 'Its only fashion, we can make some savings there, surely?'

The economics of newspapers make it increasingly necessary for editors to get as much content as possible written in house by people already on the pay roll. You can imagine the conference in the boardroom. 'We need an upbeat, new season fashion piece for tomorrow. Any volunteers, ladies?' So, somebody employed to cover dance or family affairs finds herself frantically ringing PRs to see what is in the shops now. They, of course, spot an amateur immediately and, quietly singing Hallelujah under their breath, thankfully offload the dodgy stuff that has End of Season sales written all over it and wait for a pat on the back from their clients.

And it is as sad as it is unnecessary. Colleges around the world are creating seriously demanding course in fashion journalism and their graduates – smart, savvy and passionately in love with their field – can't get jobs because editors have opted to save money on fashion ('It's easy stuff. Not exactly brain surgery! Ha,ha.') One can imagine how happily they would take that attitude to the financial or political pages. But, apart from the reader, the real loser is fashion. Last season, as in most seasons, the great designers from Milan and Paris created marvellous clothes, as directional as they were beautiful. Many have already begun to filter through, in watered-down versions, to the high street. There are great clothes full of new ideas to be found in all price ranges. So why do newspaper readers have to be so shockingly short-changed simply because of laziness or lack of interest in fashion? If I were a designer or the CEO of a top high-street company, I would be very unhappy. And if I were a woman I would be furious.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Fashion Blogging: The Rape of the Innocents


My quarterly clearout of magazines before I sink under their weight and am never seen again is always a harrowing experience forced on me by sheer lack of space. A snowy day in London town – to
meteorologically twist the old song – seemed as good a day as any for doing a job I hate. But this time, as I was piling them up (tears in my eyes!), I thought about a comment from Helene of The Luxe Chronicles on my blog about – well, bloggers, in fact (read her comment here), and whether the blog really could take over from the corrupt and collusive world of printed fashion magazines.

I share Helene's fear that bloggers will soon be no better than magazine editors if they become a major new means of fashion communication and are prey to the temptations of corruption in their turn. But only up to a point…. Bloggers are disadvantaged because we all know that what they write is neither edited nor refereed. So, at this stage at least, what they stand for is much more interesting than anything they might actually say. And they stand, in the main for a clean, clear way of looking. The other small problem is that they are also not normally experts in fashion – or, if they're only thirteen, in anything. But what they do have in many cases is a fresh enthusiasm that can transcend this lack of knowledge. And, who knows, it might develop into some sort of wisdom if they stick around long enough.

But then again, I don't really want them to … for their sakes. What we are all seeing is the rape of the innocents by the fashion industry just as it was in the thirties in the movie business, with child stars like Judy Garland destroyed for the rest of their lives simply because they looked cute on camera. Yes, young bloggers will probably be showered with privilege, just as their print equivalents are, but only for as long as fashion thinks they and their medium can deliver the publicity it needs. When they don't - it's out on your butt! And curly hair and cute dimples will not save you then, my girl!

There is another reason why, although in the short term the bloggers' freshness might help fashion out of its seemingly terminal creative stagnation, in the long term their future doesn't seem so rosy. And that comes back to my magazine clear-out. For a long time now, the catwalk has only kindled fashion's dynamic. The essential spark that makes the flame has come from the magazine pictures created by stylists and photographers of genius. And what they do, new technology cannot, at this stage, hope to compete with. It's a question of scale.

We all have our favourite magazines. Mine is Italian Vogue, usually as thick as a Mezzogiorno mamma's waistline but infinitely more
seductive. Its creative values are unrivalled and its variety is never allowed to stale. I paused in my clear-out. I simply couldn't bring myself to toss out the September 09 issue with its brilliant Steven Meisel story, Performance: page after page of boundary-pushing audacity (see the pictures here). It's going to be a long time before blogs can catch up with that sort of quality.

In the meantime, let the bloggers have fun and feel important (as well as sometimes giving us unusually straightforward, honest, from-the-heart appraisals of what they see). Enjoy that feeling of warm well being, my darlings. Every fashion journalist longs for that often too brief spell of being pampered, valued and cared for: the gifts ('Goody! Another Gucci bag!'), the front row seats (only three away from Suzy!), the private dinners with Dolce & Gabanna! … everything that seems to make life worth living for many of them. Fashion paradise doesn't last long. When your time has come to hit the mat marked Scram, it will come even faster than slipping in the snow and it will probably bruise your ego more than a pratfall in the snow will bruise your butt. As the say in the porno industry, 'It's your organ that has to be big, baby, not you.'

Picture source. Vogue Italia Sept 09. Sasha Pivovarova & Ash Stymest by Steven Meisel.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The White Ribbon – Perfect for Fashionistas

The Austrian director Michael Haneke, is one of the world's most challenging and puzzling film makers, as everyone who saw Caché ("Hidden"), with its disturbingly inconclusive ending, will remember. His latest, The White Ribbon, a tale of emotional deprivation and conscious and unconscious cruelty, is strong meat. Ambiguous, unsettling, puzzling, challenging: the usual critical vocabulary used of Haneke comes to mind as this grim tale of life in a German Lutheran village just before World War I unfolds – and totally enfolds the viewer in its tight and sinister closed world. Like Caché, The White Ribbon is a who-dunnit, but one for which the answer is not one culprit but a whole village, including its strange Midwich Cuckoos type children. It is a battle of power – and the ones ultimately revealed to have it are as surprising as one might expect from this director.

For visually aware fashionistas (is there any other kind?), the film is stunning. Image after carefully composed image builds up the sense of a separate but strangely familiar world of total authenticity. It doesn't take too long for the penny to drop. This film is a re-creation of the turn-of-the- century world of the German photographer August Sander, specifically inspired by his best-known image, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. In order to capture the etched-in-ice clarity of Sander's photography, Haneke shot the film in colour and then converted it to black and white. The result is a blend of sharpness and subtlety that eerily conveys a sense of time and place that colour would have probably failed to capture.

But what will fascinate all people who are excited by appearances is the cast. Carefully chosen for their ability to look exactly like their historic counterparts seen in Sander's work – which, shockingly, was largely destroyed by the Nazis – what stays in the memory is the faces (I seem to be having a faces 'thing' at the moment, especially in films), which are almost unnervingly period perfect, especially those of the children, chosen from over 7,000 hopefuls, for how convincingly they could be 'Sanderised'. Interestingly, most of the adult actors were recruited from the theatre, not film, and few are known outside Austria. What is clear is that a film like The White Ribbon is authentic because the director wished to re-create a period and place for us and set out to do so with uncompromising rigour.

In contrast, the idiocy of most period films (eg the truly dire The Young Victoria) results from a determination to modernise the past - mainly, I suspect, so that the heroine can be easily recognised and identified by her fans. The result, apart from a slight nod in the direction of an early-19th-century hairstyle, is that Emily Blunt as the young queen looked no more Victorian than any pretty young woman walking down a street today. You will not be too surprised to learn that The Young Victoria has so far earned almost £5 million at the box office in the UK while, to date, The White Ribbon, released just six months later and the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, has made just over £400,000. The former, of course, will soon sink into that deep pit of oblivion known as movies on TV, whereas the latter will be seen and talked of for many years to come wherever people take seriously the art of film.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Keeping Couture Alive

Old wine in new bottles, fine; new wine in old bottles, dodgy. I was thinking of this today after talking with a colleague about this season's Paris haute couture, which takes place in two week's time. As couture shrinks – for how many years can it survive before it just becomes a parade of posh frocks little different from designer ready-to-wear? – many couture houses have tried to revive their sinking fortunes by bringing in new young designers. It's a stratagem that might look convincing on paper but it fails much more than it succeeds. Inevitably. Couture is so grounded in a period of privilege and a way of life that cannot be conceivably restored that it must eventually die as a practical exercise in fashion to be worn. Again, couture is not something to be taught in colleges. It takes years of 'hands on' experience – in Paris alone – for it to be mastered. No young designer today has that experience.

So, what is to be done? Established fashion houses are very valuable commodities that can go on making money long after their eponymous designer has gone. And few can resist the temptation to give it a go. It was, for example, inconceivable to let Chanel disappear with the death of Coco. Perfume, makeup, accessories - all needed a fashion show to keep the spirit of the house alive and its profits high. It was a touch of genius to bring in Karl Lagerfeld to carry the torch. Bold as a lion, shamelessly addicted to personal publicity, much more a stylist than a designer, he entirely ignored Chanel's dictum that all fashion must be logical and charged in like a mad bull, tossing everything for which she had stood on his sharp, ambitious horns and deliberately vulgarising her aesthetic in order to make the house the hottest fashion news in the world. His chutzpah succeeded brilliantly. Coco might have been spinning in her grave with rage but, under Lagerfeld, Chanel has survived and prospered. The reason is that he was a virtual reincarnation of her - arrogant, dismissive and so totally convinced of his superiority that he could have been her son.

In contrast, Christian Dior – gentle, modest and never entirely at ease with his fame – had to wait much longer for his alter ego to appear after his death in 1957. Things had ticked over but had been lack-lustre until John Galliano – a man with no experience of couture but, in strong contrast to Lagerfeld, a deep respect for the legacy of the house's founder, along with a mix of creative assurance and modesty almost unknown in Paris – set about revitalising it for a modern clientele, whilst so successfully retaining the original aesthetic that Dior could have designed the collections himself. The love of fabric, the romantic idealisation of women, the theatricality and the pleasure in turn-of-the-century glamour: their creative DNA is as one and the rest is … as they say.

Balenciaga has had no such luck. Nicolas Ghesquiere, the current designer there, sees no relevance in couture for modern women. And he is right in that, of course. But it seems a great pity that, even in its long, slow death, couture is deprived of a reprise of the artistic spirit of Cristobal Balenciaga, one of its greatest luminaries - even the greatest in the informed view of many. Not that it is easy to imagine Ghesquiere's aesthetic ever being subtle enough to re-create Balenciaga's magisterial modernity, I think. Then again, we are told that the spirit moves in mysterious ways, so it might still happen.

But I will never know, not having seen his clothes on the runway for some seasons. You see, I was banned from Balenciaga because I wounded Gallic pride by accusing the house of being intellectually pretentious. If I had called General de Gaulle a secret transvestite and a wife-beating drunk, the heavens could not have showered my head with more fire and brimstone. The women in the press office clearly felt that not only their personal honour but that of Paris as the fountainhead of fashion had been sullied - and by an Englishman, at that. I accepted the edict, of course, thinking all the time of Crécy, Poitiers, Honfleur, Agincourt and Waterloo. But, above all, I was thinking of Cristobal, and how he must have been smiling down on them. It was a curiously satisfying situation for me, because they had done exactly what he would have in the same circumstances. Instinctive genius as he was, he wasn't always so hot at personal relations. He was notorious for pursuing vendettas with other designers, cutting clients off without a word if they displeased him, refusing to meet all but the most carefully chosen members of the press and even closing his firm down – with the immortal words,"It's a dog's life" – without informing any of his devoted staff that they were instantly out of a job.

So, who said the spirit of a great design house dies when the designer does? No such thing. It just waits for the perfect reincarnation to come along and then starts all over again.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

What's Wrong With Fashion Journalism?

A piece in my newspaper about a dress that has proved very popular this season is illustrated not by a picture of the designers or the dress on a professional model, but with paparazzi shots of celebs wearing it. They include the usual suspects from popular, transitory culture: Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Cheryl Cole, Rihanna...

We seem to have reached the point where the dress itself is almost irrelevant and the only credibility it has comes from the wearer. This is nothing new, of course. Without the wearer, the wedding dress of the Princess of Wales would have been of no interest in itself, any more than the one worn by Wallis Simpson for her wedding to an earlier Prince of Wales. Even people who make their living from writing about fashion would probably have to think a bit to remember who designed the first and go to the history books for the second (the Emanuels and Mainbocher, respectively).

Fashion writers, like any other commentators on artistic work, should be critics rather than popular cheerleaders. Loving frocks and the world of showbiz personalities are not enough. A fashion journalist needs to have the knowledge to differentiate between the good, the average and the bad – and to know why each one is what it is, just as a book critic can tell the difference between a Nobel winner and a Mills and Boon romance. But, sadly, you don't even need the fingers of one hand to count the number across the globe who do.

That's why fashion journalism as we have known it is dying, as new graduates from modern courses bring different agendas to the job and bloggers take over the field of immediate reaction. Things had to change, because journalism has allowed itself to become dependent on advertising revenues – which can, of course, be withdrawn if comments displease. Result: all commentary on any label with an advertising budget is now totally anodyne. Thank God for the bloggers who give an immediate and honest reaction which, let's hope, might some day also be an informed one (not always the case at the moment).

Meanwhile, if you want to see 'the star in the frock', cancel the newspaper and start reading Hello! and OK.