Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Isabella Blow: Why Make a Movie?



News yesterday that there is to be a film about Isabella Blow, the colourful stylist who died by her own hand three years ago, does not inspire confidence. The major excitement seems to be that John Galliano will play himself in the film, which seems to be the brainchild – if that isn't too strong an expression – of milliner Philip Treacy.

Oh dear.

Those of us who knew Isabella, worked with her and found much to empathise with in her life and to admire in her work cannot fail to be apprehensive when nobody as yet has considered it important to announce who will direct this enterprise. Or, indeed, why.

Isabella was a unique character who had many personae, ranging from the grandest of grand – seen only rarely – to the lowlife of London. In this and other respects, she always reminded me of Diana Vreeland. They were both instinctive, could talk with wit and memorable drama and could pluck the essence from cultural and historic moments about which their actual knowledge was hazy to say the least. Both had a filter which screened out the tedious or unnecessary facts and left them with the romantic nugget of gold for which they craved. What if they didn't know their Valois from their Viscontis? Who cared? They always knew what mattered.

Isabella had great zest for the funny, outrageous and shocking, daring herself to go further, to push beyond the limit every time. Her humour was frequently coarse and even cruel and her laugh Rabelasian. She adored extreme fashion, loved to be different and always managed to wear her mainly ludicrous hats with panache. Eccentric? of course not and she was rightly angered by suggestions that she was. Hers was a daily performance, calculated, clever and frequently inspired. Nothing was random or unconsidered. And that was her strength. She was a consummate performer. She needed her public … and she never let it down.

But I think we all knew that there was a terrible vulnerability and insecurity behind it all, something she could not hide. Her self-esteem could dip horribly low. She once summed up her professional life as a stylist as being on a par with working as a trolly-dolly taking food to the captain of the plane. Like a child who cannot grow up, she needed to shock, to draw attention to herself and yet she never wished to be discovered for her real self.

She surrounded herself with young designers, whose careers she promoted with more vigour than judgement in some cases, almost using them as a shield. Their names were a carapace that deflected criticism. Most obviously, she hid behind her costumes and her 'eccentricities', both of which were carefully calculated to obfuscate.

Lightweight and insubstantial as a shimmering dragonfly, Isabella was willful, unreliable and as changeable as the wind, dancing soley to her own inner music, never really heard by the rest of us except as a lingering fairy bell somewhere over the hills and far away. And now this fugitive, vulnerable creature is apparently about to be given 'the treatment', with at least two books rumoured to be coming out this autumn and now the film on the horizon.

Who needs any of them? Certainly not Isabella nor, I would have thought, the reading and film-going public. She should be left in peace, and those of us who have dear memories of her should be allowed to savour them as intensely personal things, to be shared only with those who will understand.

Isabella Blow was a pleasure for connoisseurs, not someone to be shamelessly paraded for the masses to deride.

How Male Fashion Changes

Talking to some menswear designers and models at a fashion shoot a couple of days ago took me back to when I ran shoots in the eighties. I was fashion editor of Country Life, at that time one of the great weekly publications, which covered fashion in a rather bemused way as if not quite knowing how it had slipped into its august pages. The editorial offices were a cabinet of eccentricities as each writer pursued his own obsessions with total disregard for anything else. How it was ever published on time I have no idea.

Fashion was a challenge, an alien … but I am pleased to say that I managed to get two fashion covers - unheard of at Country Life and the cause of much indignant snorting in the grander counties and quite a few cancelled subscriptions. But we stuck to or guns until probably the least suitable editor in the history of magazines took over and destroyed the aesthetic of a unique publication, making it as bourgeois as any other magazine. Country Life never recovered. She retired abroad but the damage she had done was absolute.

One battle I did not win, even in a magazine with a much bigger male than female readership, was featuring menswear. 'Absolutely not us,' I was told. And in many respects the situation hasn't improved much in any publications except men's magazines desperate to keep going by raking in the men's fashion ads that only come if the editorial pages are already there. And in a way I could see why, looking at the clothes being photographed at the shoot.

Nothing seems to kill the strength of male clothing more quickly than overemphatic design. Subtlety is all. Nothing must ever look 'fashion'. So men's fashion change comes not from the clothes but from how they are worn. Teenage boys took the cheap Calvin Klein trick of showing their cool by exposing the waistband of their underpants and changed it by pulling their jeans so low on their bums that only a ludicrous crablike walk keeps them on at all. And we have the nerve to call women fashion victims.

In fact, as that exponent of uber-cool style, Tom Ford, has shown, the secret is to take existing elements, exaggerate some and diminish others and then never change anything. Then you have a style for life – just as all those rangy old aristocrats who loved Country Life did. Even today, thousands of men want to dress like a lord in the thirties. No modern fashionable woman wants to look like his wife, Her Ladyship, from the same period.

Maybe that is why, in the main, male fashion is still so unchallenging.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden update

We're getting toward the business end of the FF@CG process. We've just been through what I've heard referred to as the weeding out process of this year's applicants. I hate that expression. There are no weeds in the creative world – although admittedly, they can't all be peonies (John Galliano's favourite flower), because not everyone can be the tops. But I refuse to accept that there are any real duds at this level.

I only sat in on the event, taking no real part except to offer the occasional biscuit (this was a very British occasion and as all Brits know cannot be decently concluded without a few biscuits). The process of actual selection was in very capable hands. Angela Quaintrell, doyenne of fashion merchandising in London, is the woman who single-handedly made Liberty a major fashion player and a firm supporter of all manner of young hopefuls, all of whom receive sage advice born of years of experience. Professor Roy Peach, dean of the graduate school at The London College of Fashion, also has great experience, having been a designer, trained at the Royal College, and now one of the most respected fashion academics in the country.

Both have that rare ability to understand what is good even when it is not to their personal taste – an objectivity lacking in the totally subjective assessments made in this city by people with not an iota of the knowledge of these two. The task was to reduce the field – very large this year – to the finalists whose work was couriered the next day to Paris to our judge John Galliano and his team to decide on the ten semi-finalists – which they are doing even as I write.

When we were having our breaks – much needed with such a high concentration business (more tea and biscuits) – Roy and Angela were talking about the pitfalls that so often catch out young designers. For example, drawings and fabrics that can't work together, because the fabric can't do the things the drawing assumes. As they said, sharp shapes and soft fabrics never work, no matter how good they look in a sketch. They both felt that digital prints had had their day in all but the most skilled hands because they look so flat and lifeless. The same with engineered as opposed to free-form fashion drawings. Again, so dead and giving no scope for the freedom of the hand gesture that has been the essence of drawing since prehistoric humans first daubed a line on a rock face.

One of the competitors quoted Dali on his application, however, and we all heartily agreed. Dali said, "The world needs more fantasy. Our civilization is too mechanical." So say all of us – and until young designers realise this, they and fashion are going nowhere very far, in my opinion.

I can't wait to learn John's ten finalists.

www.colinmcdowell.com
www.assarahseesit.com

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Graduate Fashion Shows: What's Gone Wrong?:

The Spanish film director Luis Buñuel once said that "The opinion of the audience is conformity", by which I suspect he meant that we all like what we know. That's why virtually every TV drama has the same plot with only the regional setting and accents showing any variety. It's also why Oxford Street and every high street in the land are full of clothes which, if not actually identical, are all the same in thought. Of course, this is built into the fashion system. There has always been THE fashion of any one time since Marie Antoinette at Versailles, where the morning's look was totally passé by the afternoon as the quixotic queen changed her mind and her clothes and everyone was forced to follow.

But originality comes from queens no longer. Instead, it stems from two sources: the young and bold with nothing to lose; and the successful and powerful with all the money behind them to enable risks to be taken. On the one hand, students and young designers; on the other, the likes of Miuccia Prada, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs.

The big names can look after themselves. The people I am thinking about here are the graduates leaving college this summer. They are just finalising their collections and the invitations to attend the college shows are arriving on the desks of fashion journalists and buyers about now.

How many will attend? Very few.

Why is that, in people who should be eager to seek out new talent at every opportunity?

Once bitten, twice shy, I'm afraid. Most of us working in the business know that most of what comes down the runways at Graduate Fashion Week or in independent college shows will have a deadly conformity and be little more than warmed-over versions of the big idea of the fashion darling(s) of last season – which has probably already been fully exploited by mass manufacturers.

How does this happen? Mainly because so many – but by no means all – fashion departments in art colleges are staffed by second-hand roses: ex-designers, failed PR people and journalists who rarely go to the top fashion shows or have any conversation with the major designers. So, their sources of information are the same as those available to their students: magazines, dvds and gossip. They are not insiders. If they work north of Watford or south of Guildford, they probably don't get invited to press days or presentations – and almost certainly couldn't afford the time to attend if they were (academics are worked like dogs these days). No wonder they so often fail to stimulate boldness in their students and accept the conformity that Buñuel so disliked; the conformity that, sadly, gets their graduates the job in the current conformist fashion world.

It is time for a long overdue root-and-branch rethink, it seems to me.

High Style at Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection

The Costume Collection of the Brooklyn Museum is, I believe, unique in that it was set up (in 1903) specifically to provide inspiration for America's fashion industry by allowing visitors to study the very best of world fashion. It is a great collection but does not get the praise it deserves because, well … it's in Brooklyn (as the name suggests), rather than Manhattan.

So it is great news that the museum has joined forces with the Metropolitan Museum of Art – which is in Manhattan – in a joint show that goes on until August 15 in both venues. "American Women: Fashioning an Identity" is at the Metropolitan; "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" is in Brooklyn. And it is the second one I want to draw attention to, as the Metropolitan will get plenty of visitors because of its location and also because of the high esteem in which its fashion exhibitions have been held ever since the days of Diana Vreeland in the seventies.

What makes the Brooklyn collection unique? Well, it has always had a collecting policy that comes at the whole question of what clothing is worthy of preservation from a pleasingly oblique angle. That means that, along with all the big names like Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Dior, are lesser-known ones whose importance is absolute in historic terms but whose names have slipped below the radar a little. So, in American terms, think Bonnie Cashin, Mainbocher or Elizabeth Hawes; in world terms think Callot Soeurs, Yantorny or the Fontana sisters. Also, how many of us have had the chance to see the clothes of Arnold Scaasi, Geoffrey Beene or James Galanos? Acquainting oneself with these people is worth the visit alone.

But the great glory of the Brooklyn Museum is its unique collection of the work of Charles James, the irascible Anglo-American designer who in his lifetime was seen by many as technically superior to Christian Dior and certainly the equal of Cristobal Balenciaga – a judgement James would have grudgingly agreed with. The other great strength of Brooklyn's collection is Elsa Schiaparelli, who is well represented and who, along with James and Worth, is central to the show.

Try to get there, but if you can't, you can buy the supporting book, High Style – beautifully produced by Yale to their usual high standards.


Charles James gown and stole from the Brooklyn Museum (pic: NY Times)

Singapore Fashion Festival, DSquared, Henry Holland, Robert Cavalli, Carmen Kass, DSquared, Vivienne Westwood

Someone sent me a link to Henry Holland's blog on style.com about his visit to the Singapore Fashion Festival. I'm pleased that the reaction to this year's festival has been very positive.

I thought it would be, I have to say. It's my job to choose and bring international designers to Singapore, and I knew we had a strong team. The first up were Dean and Dan of DSquared, who were a lot of fun and gave us a great show. Carmen Kass, their star model, received a hysterical reception – well deserved,

Henry Holland was … Henry. Full of practised charm, he was a great hit in the clubs where he deejayed.

The climax was Roberto Cavalli's show, which was part A/W 2010 and then ended with a bang as his greatest evening gowns over the years, as chosen by his wife and chief designer Eva, brought the night to a close. But not quite. The actual climax came when I presented Roberto with the Singapore Fashion Festival Visionary Fashion Award, which last year went to Vivienne Westwood.

I am already working on next year's event.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Thoughts on Fur

I have just written a short piece for British Elle about fur in fashion and it has made me start to think (again) about the question of fashion morality – or, as some might think, the lack of it.

A few weeks ago, the popular press was shocked to learn that padded bras and 4-inch heels were being pushed as suitable dress for sub-teen girls. Fashion haters – and there are a lot of them – immediately climbed to their self-created moral high ground, whilst the fashion lovers crassly pointed out that little girls love clumping around in mummy's shoes whilst wearing lipstick. Where's the harm in that? they asked, with that true fashionista lack of ability to think clearly. But most people who are not haters or lovers were able to separate the significance of doing so in mummy's bedroom or the living room from going to school or even a party in heels and a padded bra.

But of course it is the majority – neither fashion haters nor lovers – who are to blame. All those people who sit in front of TV whilst children ape grown-up emotions – love, loss, despair – whilst singing songs the words of which should mean nothing to them, coached and exposed by entertainment entrepreneurs who are interested only in money … and innocence be damned.

Back to fur. Is there anything more sensuous to the touch than mink or, even more so, sable? What is softer than chinchilla, even though it is the fur of the ubiquitous rabbit and in no way exotic? But it isn't the feel of fur that we should be thinking of, but the way it gets to us. As we all know, animals must be killed and then flayed for the process to begin. And, as we sit on our sofas stroking our cats, we need to remember that when we send in an on-line order for a fur trimmed dress.

The same is true of feathers, foisted onto the gullible as the new fur – and without the cruelty. How do we think they are obtained, for God's sake? From a live creature, perhaps, but in most cases from a dead one.

We are very partial in our attitudes to animals. We stop the traffic for new-born ducklings to cross the road. We coo over baby lambs although in both cases we know unless we are very stupid that they will be killed and served up on our tables eventually. We also know how inhumanely they are killed - and some of us remember that even ducks and lambs know fear and pain. And so do rats and mice. But for them we are ready with our double standards immediately. They are vermin, so anything goes. And who would wear a rat-skin trimmed coat? And yet why not? Only, I suspect because the Simon Cowells of the fashion world – and they are there – have yet to find a way to make them palatable to us.

www.colinmcdowell.com
www.assarahseesit.com

Monday, 3 May 2010

Singapore Fashion Festival: Fashion Asia, all dressed up, Henry Holland

A stimulating day started with a breath of fresh air blown in from Pakistan. Four very different talents under the umbrella title of Fashion Asia came together to show in Singapore. They made me realise yet again how vibrant and original clothes from this part of the world can be when they are not too linked to a stereotype of a national costume. They are absolutely not to be compared with the tired western copies put out by designers who have had an exotic holiday somewhere, and return with surface ideas they've nicked. The point such western designers so often miss is that, just as in the west, good eastern fashion is based on a philosophy of life, not a few pretty primary colours and some beading.

After all, we are all conscious of the fact that all creativity stems from a culture – and often a mix of more than one. In fact, the clothes shown by Maheen Khan, Shamaeel Ansari, Deepak Perwani, and Nomi Ansari with Fashion Asia were far too sophisticated to have the tag of ethnic stuck on them. These were clothes that could fit in many sophisticated women's wardrobes. Not all; not every wardrobe; and probably not in their entirety – but, then, who ever buys a total wardrobe from one label, in any case?

The same is true of all dressed up, a collection of super-sophisticated big city looks created by Tina Tan Leo, famous in fashion for her shop The Link and possibly Asia's most powerful retailer. Like Joan Burstein, she is rightly acknowledged as fashion royalty. Her internationalism shone out in this collection for its Audrey Hepburn minimalism and very cool colour palette … although there were a few wavy numbers and lumpy embroidery in the middle that I could have done without.

And then there was Henry Holland. What does one say about Henry, the cheeky little robin of London fashion, except that his one-stop, one-size-fits-all approach went down a storm with cool young Singaporeans. Likewise his "spinning' at a club later, well into the night.

Singapore Fashion Festival: Musings on Class

Every time I return to Singapore – on average, twice a year – I am impressed with yet more new buildings, more new top international names in the already exceedingly sophisticated and swanky shopping malls and even more sophisticated places to eat some of the very best and most refined food in the world. This is a totally modern and virtually new-build city that lives on air conditioning and the privileges associated with extreme wealth. So I was amused to notice yesterday a car with a slogan in its window that read 'This car runs on … money!' It seemed a nicely ironic corrective to all the high spending and a gentle reminder that, as in other wealthy international cities, the privileges are for … well, the privileged.

I was reminded of an exhibition I saw last year in Sunderland, in the north of England. It was called Rank and demonstrated how English society had developed as a cohesive policy based on the assumption that everybody had a place in society and should largely remain there. A complex system of checks and balances was evolved to keep them there. But the exhibition showed most clearly that there are no pre-ordained slots if people believe in their worth and are prepared to fight for their place. The exhibition was an engrossing survey of values and beliefs fought for but, just in case it was a little too serious and heavy breathing about individual freedoms and the fight to preserve them, it had a nicely ironic sting in the tail, with car stickers available at the exit reading 'I love Inequality'.

Only for the brave and I didn't stick one in my window, I'm afraid.

All of which makes me think of fashion's split personality as it tries on one hand to keep its distance and create an aura of exclusivity while at the same time breaking its neck trying to find new ways of pulling more dedicated followers into its world. Can a universal force retain any exclusivity apart from that imposed by cost or should fashion, like sport, just accept that making money and being exclusive simply do not tally in these high turn-over times where demand for the ephemeral has never been easier to activate? A couple of top models, a few celeb friends (preferably from the music business) and you are in business as a designer. Or is it rather more complicated than that makes it seem?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Singapore Fashion Week: Men in (Scruffy) Shorts

Someone once said that if you sit in a hotel lobby long enough, everyone you ever knew will pass by. I don't know about that but I do know that any hotel lobby will give you an instant snapshot of how fashion is actually worn by all the myriad shapes and sizes of men and women who are so far removed from the designer's idealised dreams – and that includes the swanky, expensive people too.

And it is quite a shock.

I thought about this sitting in the lobby of the St Regis in Singapore waiting for Roberto Cavalli, whose private jet had been delayed by bad weather. He and his show are the stars of this year's Singapore Audi Fashion Week at the grand final gala night on Sunday. It will be a high-glam occasion of course – how could it be anything else, featuring as it does Roberto's personal selection of great evening gowns from the past as well as his current collection?

What a contrast to what walked through the lobby in the short time I sat there.

Let me say immediately that, as you might expect, it is the men who are the most criminal offenders. We all accept that America did a lot to casualise men's dress and that it was something well overdue but sadly, the rest of the world – preeminently the Brits – have turned casual, non-status clothes into something so ugly that scruffy is not a strong enough word to describe it. Hideous shorts – and even more hideous legs – reinforce the old saying that men never dress to attract women but only to display a crude contempt and power to other men. The result is that they have all the glamour of a hyena.

The sad thing is that, instead of fighting this movement, designers have followed it. But although their versions are better cut than the cheap ones most men wear (which are probably made under appalling labour conditions), they still flatter perhaps one in thirty men under thirty and nobody older.

I had hoped for some visual respite in London this winter as it was very cold and all normal adults would have changed into trousers. But it didn't happen. Men of all ages continued to dress as if they were postmen and wear shorts even in the snow. I can't help hoping that the cold effects their sperm count so that this particular form of idiocy is eradicated by a process of natural selection.