Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Singapore Fashion Festival Gala: DSquared, Carmen Kass, Audi

Carmen Kass, the Estonian supermodel who has opened for more top fashion shows than I can begin to remember – it would be easier to list the very few, and not very important, designers she has not modelled for – is as beautiful off the catwalk as on (and I can tell you that that's not always the case). I was sitting with her and Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared at the Audi gala event that officially kicked off Singapore Fashion Festival last night.

As you would expect in this city of lots of money and quite a bit of class, it was an elegant affair but Carmen still shone. She did it by going for simplicity. In a room full of women in beautiful jewels she wore none. Likewise with hair – artfully simple. And for anyone who still thinks models are dumb (which is so 1990s, in any case), she impressed everyone with her shrewd business acumen in the property world of her homeland. Definitely not just a pretty face.

Dean and Dan are a complete team, yin and yang. Virtually interchangeable. The twins are so close that they claim they never go anywhere separately. They were in great form, entertaining us with their camped-up versions of what we all expect internationally famous fashion designers to be. They even managed to
outshine the two new models (vehicular, not fashion) presented during the evening (to an accompaniment of longing male sighs) by the sponsors, Audi.

For me, the highlight of the evening was helping judge The Star Creation competition to find talented young designers from across Asia. The standard was so high that we decided to give four prizes instead of three.

That's very encouraging for someone like me who believes that Asia has some genuine fashion talent and will soon be making it apparent to the rest of us.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Irving Penn, Fashion Photography and Fashion Illustration

I was thinking on the flight to Singapore about the Irving Penn exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It has had good reviews. Not that it is any surprise that we have yet another empty exercise in fashionable hagiography at that most shallow of any major gallery. It is entirely appropriate that Penn's portrait gallery of thinkers and creators from the late 1930s until his death would attract its directors. It is equally predictable that critics should feel the need to overpraise it. But, although Penn has left some of the most defining fashion and still-life images of his generation, it only requires a brief look at the portraits of Henri Cartier Bresson (whose work is on show currently at The Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Bill Brandt to realise that what we see at the NPG is portraits by a fashion photographer, not a great portrait photographer … and certainly not a great photographer per se.

It is because fashion is about surface that it is easy to understand. It has no interior monologue, as I remarked in an earlier blog about the new genre of "fashion film". That is why photographs that depict it are popular. But it is an approach that eventually palls. We all know how boring most fashion shoots can be. If we contrast them with the fashion illustrations that animated the pages of the cheap weeklies as well as the top monthlies for most of the 20th century, we see what has been lost. Inherent in the DNA of a brushstroke or a pencil mark is the character of whoever made it. Most fashion illustration of that period had personality because it was almost always drawn from life and was a portrait (admittedly very glamorized) of a woman as well as a garment. Today, fashion drawing - when you can find it - lacks animation because the artist rarely works from a model. What we get again is the feeling of looking at a flat surface rather than something rooted in a seen reality.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Dandies of Lowestoft

Look at these fantastically cocky young men. Out of the blue, I have learned about one of those fascinating historic byways that so easily get lost and forgotten. Not this time, however. I received a letter from Peter Wylie, an East Anglia native, about a research project he's doing with funding from the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Peter is documenting the remarkable off-duty dress of sailors in the fishing port of Lowestoft in the early sixties. He calls the project The Dockside Dandies of Lowestoft, although at the time the distinctive clothes were known as 'fisherboy coloured suits'. When the fishing boats came in after a time at sea the fisherboys (with pay packets bulging) would go to Lawrence Green, the town tailor, and try to outdo each other by ordering highly coloured bespoke suits to be made ready for their next return to port. Dressed in the latest suit, they paraded the town with all the pride and confidence of Beau Brummel strolling down Bond Street arm in arm with a friend, quizzing all the girls they passed.

The idea caught on and became a craze with young trawlermen, fresh out of school, putting down deposits and setting out to dazzle in their made-to-measure suits in strong colours such as red and purple, which were a little bit spiv, a little bit rocker, but totally one-off creations. Lapels were wide, jacket backs were pleated, contrasting piping and insets of material were the norm and bell-bottoms up to 30 inches wide were considered very cool. For all the OTT style and colour these clothes were in no sense effeminate. Just the opposite. They were a badge of masculinity because only fisherman were allowed to wear them and their gaudy self-confidence reflected the fact that their trade, a hard and dangerous one carried out in all weathers, ensured that nobody would cast aspersions on their manliness.

It is a fascinating piece of sartorial social history and I wonder how many other pockets of fashion originality are waiting for someone like Peter Wylie to uncover and document them before it is too late?

All photos © Peter Wylie

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Singapore Fashion Festival: Henry Holland, DSquared and Roberto Cavalli

Pic source:

Don't you just love Henry Holland's t-shirt? It made me laugh out loud (although of course there is more than a little truth behind it – I sometimes find myself praying for the future of fashion).

By the time you're reading this, I'll be on a plane on the way to Singapore, where I'm director of the Singapore Audi Fashion Festival, which starts this weekend. I'm looking forward to meeting Henry – and not just because of his t-shirt. Everyone tells me he is a charming, sharp and funny young man. And, of course, he also designs rather accomplished clothes.

Henry Holland is one of three labels I've invited to this year's festival. The other two are crazy Canadians Dean and Dan, whose label is DSquared, and Roberto Cavalli, who is celebrating 40 years in the fashion business – for most of which I have known and admired him. What I like is that we've brought together a young company with Henry and an established company with Dean and Dan, while with Roberto we have a designer who has followed his star despite the ups and downs of fashion change. Although he may be associated with bling, there's no doubt that Roberto Cavalli is now classic.

What's more, these guys are all great company in their very different ways (not always the case with designers) so I'm really looking forward to spending time with them. The ash cloud has caused a few anxious moments about getting designers, clothes and production teams in the right place at the right time, but everything has come together in the end.

For this week, at least, I won't have to pray for fashion – although you might forgive me praying a little that the ash doesn't come back.

Grace Kelly, Edith Head and the American Dream

In a comment on my blog on the Fashion Film, Random Fashion Coolness asks if it is possible to be too perfect. That started me thinking about Grace Kelly, who is being remembered at the moment with an exhibition at the V&A. Although we now know that her off-screen persona was not quite the same as her on screen image, nevertheless her image has survived as the sophisticated, always elegant and confident template of the fifties woman.

And of course it was a total fantasy – just like the pages of American Vogue on which her image was based. Unearthly perfection was the mood of rich middle America in those days, where people enjoyed kitchens and bathrooms of an undreamed of sophistication, and drove cars that were years in advance of those on this side of the Atlantic (I remember after driving one on an extended road trip in America, I picked up my own car – by no means an old boneshaker – at Heathrow and less than a mile later I stopped because I thought I had a flat tyre. I didn't. What I had was British car springs – light years behind those in America).

Grace Kelly and Edith Head. (Pic:

The American dream was a reality and its goddess was Grace, as in film after film her immaculate appearance mesmerised filmgoers across the globe. And in many movies of the time, the genius behind the looks was Edith Head, who in her years at Paramount and Universal Studios dressed nearly all the great actresses of the forties and fifties. In fact she worked with Kelly only twice - on Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) but that was enough to fix in the world's imagination the idea of the elegant, coolly-knowing, high-class broad that her name still conjures today. Her appearance was perfect but she always undermined it by an ironic sense of humour, especially in sex. The trouble with A Single Man and I Am Love is the fact that there is not a hint of irony or self-mockery in either.

When you take yourself too seriously you stop producing something that keeps the viewers' attention and becomes as boring as a flick through a glossy magazine – and as quickly forgotten.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Giles Deacon: Off to Ungaro?

Picture source: My Fashion Life this morning is reporting rumours that Giles Deacon has been approached to take over at Ungaro. That gives me pause for thought. It would be awful to see one of the most loved designers in London, and surely one of the most charming anywhere, get his fingers burned.

Ungaro has been in trouble for some time. Indeed, one could argue that its troubles began when the founder himself stopped designing. Emanuel Ungaro had such a strong personality and distinctive fashion approach that, as is also the case with Pucci, it has proved difficult to modernize the label. Giambattista Valli had some success, but Vincent Darre and Peter Dundas both came and went too quickly to have any lasting effect. The house has lost its way. But that still doesn't explain the ill-considered decision to hire Lindsay Lohan as "artistic adviser" to work with Estrella Archs.

It seems that Ungaro is so unsure of its direction that it no longer has faith in its designers. The Lohan debacle did enormous harm to its credibility as a serious fashion label. What it also proved is that no-one designs clothes better than trained designers. They don't need input from celebrities, accountants, the family of the founder, the woman on reception, or any of the other tinkerers who seem to get involved in the creative process at some houses.

That's the challenge facing whoever takes over at Ungaro. They have to move the label forward and for that they must be given control. It was rumoured in Paris before Christmas that Matthew Williamson had been offered the job and had turned it down because he felt that Lohan had too much influence on the creative process. Now it seems that Giles may be about to take on one of fashion's poisoned chalices. If that's the case, then good luck!

Monday, 19 April 2010

A Single Man, I Am Love: A New Film Genre?

Fashion is about surface. That's why it is easy to understand. It has no interior monologue.

It strikes me that we have a new manifestation of fashion surface standing between us and reality: films that seem to have as their main point an emphasis on appearance above all else. Flowers, buildings and, especially, clothes are lovingly portrayed: I begin to wonder if we are on the verge of a whole new genre that could be called The Fashion Film - not a film about fashion, but a film made with the same surface obsessions that occupy fashion magazines and their stylists and art directors.

A Single Man
by fashion supremo Tom Ford was praised for its perfect but very mannered mis en scene, in which every shot seemed to have been contrived to have the unreal glamour and high-gloss perfection of a publicity campaign for a men's cologne. Now we have the film I Am Love by Tilda Swinton (another fashion figure in many ways), which again seems to elevate the photography way above the realities of plot and acting, as if it had been styled rather than directed. It is beautiful to watch but in a very seventies way. What makes me think we may be on the verge of a new visual approach is the praise both of these films have received from visually aware movers and shakers, both in and out of the fashion loop.

Are we going back to the seventies, when films like Elvira Madigan, Bo Widerberg's story of doomed love, ravished our visual senses with blurred close-ups of plants and insects as a means of ravishing our spiritual senses? That movie was criticised for suffering from the 'Swedish flaw of tastefulness' - for which read triteness.

Is the fashion film doomed to be as coldly perfect as the average fashion shoot? Does the medium have to be the message?

Reflections on Christian Dior

I've been reading up on Dior in the sunshine over the weekend (while also wondering how the volcanic cloud must be impacting on Planet Fashion, where it always seems like a quarter of the people are in the air at any one time).

Dior's past rang two bells. One was a tea I had with Joan Burstein, owner of Browns, at her beautiful Hampstead home in the delightfully named Vale of Heath, which has a view to die for. The City in the distance looked like Camelot in the late afternoon sun. I was there to take tea - a gracious occasion with this most elegant of women - and to interview Joan about the fortieth anniversary of Browns coming up this year. Mrs B told me how exciting it was in 1947 for a young woman just married, as she was then, to be able to dress in Dior's New Look, which was unveiled that same year - even though the fabric needed for the huge skirts was way beyond the coupons allowed in those days of post-war rationing. But Joan's new husband sold fabrics, so.... It was the beginning of her love affair with clothes that has lasted for over forty years with her shop in South Molton Street.

The other thing that occurred to me was how much the influence of a couturier prevails years after he has gone. I am spending quite a bit if time at Dior in Paris researching a book. The atmosphere is still very Dior, even though Christian Dior himself died in 1957. Soft grey was his favourite colour - because he was a great anglophile and it reminded him of England - and it is still the colour of Dior decoration. He loved big armchairs painted white with grey cushions - and they are still there too. I remember a famous story about a young fashion artist in the fifties who went to the Dior shownroom to draw some clothes for her magazine. Dior was the grandest fashion house in Paris, so she was very nervous. As she waited for the first model to appear, she unscrewed the top of her black Indian ink. Her shaking hands dropped the bottle and to her horror the black stain spread across the pale grey fitted carpet.

Don't you just burn for her, even fifty years later?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Male and Female Fashion Divide

I've been thinking about the recent poll in The Radio Times that came up with a discrepancy between men and women in their choice of favourite female screen actresses. In a survey of 2,000 readers, most women chose Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's while the masculine choice was Ursula Andress in the first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962. Apart from what this tells us about the likely age of the readers who took part – Breakfast at Tiffany's is only a year earlier than the Bond movie – it shows the great gap between sex and glamour that dominated fashion in the fifties and sixties. Nice girls didn't; confident women did. Women wanted to be the gamine young lady; men wanted the sexy vamp.

Such a survey carried out with younger men and women would almost certainly have a much closer result in that young women and men tend to admire the same icons, whether it is Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson. Which makes me wonder - not for the first time, even in this blog - if the sexes are drawing closer in taste and therefore fashion than ever before. Certainly, their lifestyles are very much more similar than in the past and so are their attitudes to freedom and sex. The pill, the changes in laws concerning sexual freedoms, behaviour and beliefs have increasingly revealed that women like the male lifestyle, even if men are at this point only beginning to come to terms with the female element in their sexuality. No more hunter-gatherer, weaver and cook divisions, in Western society at least.

I hate to use the word unisex but I wonder if Courreges and Cardin were not on to something valid for the future with their fashion statements in the sixties, even though they were laughed at or simply ignored at the time. At a time when female fashion is desperately trying to grind every last ounce out of styles popular in the recent past, and when menswear is almost totally static, maybe it is time for a little more creative cross-over to kick-start creativity again. We could start by asking what dress is actually for in a modern context.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Buying Chanel in Rue Cambon

One of the nicest ways to spend a day is in helping somebody else to spend money, so they say. And I think it may well be true, having done so in Paris a couple of days ago with a friend who asked me to take her to the holy-of-holies, the Chanel boutique at 31 rue Cambon. Mission: to help her choose a classic Chanel suit, something she has wanted for a long time.

As we popped out of the French end of the Channel Tunnel, the conversation turned to Chanel - and likely prices. My friend had decided on couture. A quick call to the London Chanel office and she thought of couture no more! The basic, standard cost of a couture Chanel suit is apparently around £30,000. 'It can go up much higher, of course, depending on the embroidery', the voice at the other end of the line cooed emolliently. So my friend, a businesswoman and highly pragmatic, did a quick bit of refocusing.

We arrived at the shop – all cream carpet, chrome and mirrors, with black-suited guards placed at strategic points – browsed the racks and at the exactly appropriate psychological moment when we had established our right to be in such grand surroundings, at least to our own satisfaction, a vendeuse glided up as if by magic. She had probably been watching us on closed circuit TV, deciding whether or not we were the real deal or just time-wasting browsers. Although my friend looked very elegant and even soignee, I am sure my beloved old duffel coat and cords probably threw the watchers a bit. But not for long.

As gently and unobtrusively as Mother Teresa, we were taken in hand and gently prepared for the kill. It felt a little bit like a Wagyu steer being massaged with beer to soften it up ready to be a Kobe steak: nice at the time but deadly in the end. My fiend is half my age, so the vendeuse (calling her a saleswoman would be as inappropriate as referring to Jensen Button as a guy who likes driving) assumed that it would be my credit card and included me in everything. Of course, I was slowly – and oh, so gently – cast adrift as 'not wanted on voyage' as it became apparent where the financial power actually lay.

Ninety minutes later, we were drinking a glass of champagne (on the house) whilst my friend's credit card was being processed for a bill just slightly over £10,000. For that giddy sum she had bought a Chanel tweed suit (not couture), a black Chanel jacket and a Chanel tweed sleeveless dress. All of them were classics … as were the black shopping bags. The stiff black Chanel version carries not only one of the world's most prestigious names but, at this level, is actually decorated with a famous white Chanel gardenia.

Over lunch, we agreed that we had not been shopping but, rather, performing in a one-act play in which we were briefly the stars, the vendeuse the director, and the author none other than Mademoiselle Coco herself. And there were at least six other plays being performed around us at the same time. No wonder they don't give discounts – as if anybody would dare to ask!

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood

When the history of the cultural development of the last fifty years is written, will there be a mention of Malcolm McLaren? And how much? A chapter? A paragraph? A sentence? Or a footnote?

My view is that it will probably be the last. Reading the obituaries makes me realise that his own creative achievements were very slight; his talent was in enabling others to achieve rather larger things. He was a catalyst, not a creator; a Max Clifford rather than a Diaghilev; a fixer more than an originator. His antecedents were the fly-boy and the spiv, guys who would sell you anything and had the patter to convince you to buy, if you gave them enough time. More importantly, he had the self-belief that convinced him that every idea he had was automatically a good one. And he persuaded a lot of people he was right.

The most important thing in McLaren's expression of his own creativity was his well-known association with Vivienne Westwood, to whom he was the fairy godmother whose magic wand (or was it the Prince Charming kiss?) transformed her ambitions if not her creativity. When she was with him, she assumed the same raffish cockiness and embraced the enthusiasm he felt for shattering 'the system' and pretending to be an anarchist. In fact McLaren was behaving like a cultural barrow boy. He was happy to compromise and conform in order to sell his wares (pre-eminently the Sex Pistols and Westwood, and later hip-hop) not on ideological grounds but on the traditional capitalist principle that the only thing that matters is finding a way to convince the punters to buy (it's revealing that Glenn Matlock of the Sex Pistols says that McLaren was never really interested in the music, and that others report that most of the records he actually owned were of show tunes). His methods were the traditional ones of shocking the timid and exciting the inexperienced.

Vivienne Westwood survived the break-up with her Svengali and, once free of his influence, blossomed with a creative strength that he could never have matched. Her triumphs over the past twenty-odd years have served to demonstrate just what a minnow her one-time creative support actually was by comparison. More idealistic and principled, although just as intellectually eclectic, she has soared like an eagle on the currents of her own convictions to become a serious figure in a field still considered by many as trivial. He, left behind like an eager little sparrow, popped up occasionally - and, to me, each appearance seemed sadly more trivial than the last.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Fashion Fringe: Weekly Update

So, the general election campaign is underway – and so is this year's FF@CG search for a new designer. Since we made the announcement that John Galliano is going to chair and judge Fashion Fringe for the next two years our website has had 228,000 hits and more than 1,300 application forms have been downloaded. The closing date for applications is April 30th and I am hoping that from such large numbers we will be able to give John a good shortlist from which to choose the finalists and then the eventual winner, who receives £100,000 to start a business.

I can't help you win FF@CG – the final decision will be John's alone – but I can help you not to lose before you even start. I hope that we have made it clear that we are not looking for fantasy but for flair; not craziness but originality; not costume but entirely new forms of cutting and shaping that can be used as the basis for looks that can eventually be worn at high-street level. We don't want to see hundreds of outfits only suitable for Lady Gaga. As John, Hussein Chalayan and Vivienne Westwood have shown – not forgetting Rick Owen, Helmut Lang, Azzadine Alaia, Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe – great clothes with real ideas come from a philosophy … and young designers can't start figuring what theirs is soon enough. Otherwise they become, not leaders, but followers; part of the flock that spews out of colleges around the world every year and has no affect on fashion at all.

So, to potential applicants I would give this advice: Remember what the job of a leading designer actually is and study the approaches that put the ones listed above where they are today.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Erdem: What's Next?

All of us at Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden are thrilled with last week's announcement that the first British Fashion Council Vogue Designer Fashion Fund award has gone to Erdem, who won our second Fashion Fringe competition in 2005. Since then, it has been gratifying to follow his progress not only as a designer but also as a fashion businessman growing his own label with a single-minded sense of purpose. The injection of £200,000 that the award will give his business will enable this talented and ambitious young designer to really develop a business plan to enable him to survive over the next few years.

If 'survive' seems a rather apocalyptic word in this context, it actually isn't. It may seem paradoxical, but it is when fashion careers are in their third or fourth year, with a degree of sales success and press loyalty behind them, that they are at their most vulnerable. It is then that possible cracks begin to show and serious questions are asked. Is this designer a one-trick pony, doing the same thing over and over? Is he only a scrabbler after the new thing without any firm design base of his own? Has he got the staying power that will eventually truly reward the loyalty of press, stores and customers? These awkward questions demand answers when a fashion business is at the delicate point that Erdem has reached. As nearly all questions and cavils can be answered by money and the opportunity it brings, I have no doubt at all the Erdem will use this award to take his talents to increasingly higher points in the years to come – and I look forward to enjoying it.

Platform Shoes: A Fashion Fixture?

When something in high fashion is out, it isn't just out, it is damned-to-perdition out to such an extent that nobody can bear to think about it a moment longer. In normal worlds that would be considered a sign of shallowness, but not with fashionistas. Look at how quickly the grotesque shoes of last year have bitten the dust. No regrets, no mourning, no sentimental looking back.…

Or so we might hope. But there is a nagging thought in the back of my mind that says,'Wait and see'. It is over twenty years since Vivienne Westwood first showed her platform soles and 7 inch heels to great applause and laughter from audiences who never dreamed that such extremes could have a life away from the catwalk and be actually worn in all seriousness by women who were not supermodels. But it happened … and I am just wondering how long these shoes will be in eclipse before they return and join denim and jeans as perennial fashions that most women have in their closets, to be worn not when fashion says but when a woman feels like it.

If we were talking about men, the answer would be 'never'. But then again, something as grotesquely dangerous and uncomfortable would never have become a male fashion in the first place. Women are much more inclined to put up with pain and discomfort than men would ever be, as long as they are part of the coolest, latest fashion. As a fashion editor who is known as London's greatest shoe fetishist once told her husband, 'You just don't get it and you never will because you are not a woman. They are my blisters and bunions, my backache and sore ankles, not yours. So just shut up. You are a man and couldn't possibly understand how important fashion is to women!'

Monday, 5 April 2010

In Milan With Dolce & Gabbana

The hangman's knock, traditionally just before dawn, was replaced by a strident alarm ring to start my long day in and out of Milan in order to interview Dolce & Gabbana for The Sunday Times Style. But this time it was slightly different. This was an interview to camera, ready for the Style website that will start in May. So it seemed that it might be worth travelling for eight hours for one hour of chat.

And, of course, it was. Just to be in the baroque scarlet and leopard-skin room furnished with imposing 19th-century Sicilian furniture and lots of large, sloppy dogs was worth any early call for its tongue-in-cheek high-camp kitsch, quite apart from a heavy gilt frame containing a black bra and a red rose that I found strangely compelling. Operatic is the word for this stage-set of a room, which is referred to in D&G parlance as "the Office".

But it was the Boys, as Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce are always called, who were the real enchantment. Sitting close together, their body language and the way they included each other in every answer, both by gesture and comment, made it clear that this partnership, despite the fact that they now go their own ways sexually, is still the love relationship that began so long ago when they first met as young men. Stefano, tall, angular and voluble; Domenico, smaller, more considered and less dramatic. Together, they spun a fine story of their work, pleasures, problems and triumphs. I wish all hours went as quickly. As you'll be able to see for yourself in the early summer.