Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Paris: 7 Brilliant Brits at the Hotel Bristol

The dog days of summer have hit London with a vengeance and there is virtually nowhere in the centre of the city to find a cooling breeze. But it's still not as hot as Paris last weekend, when I co-hosted a reception at the Bristol, the French equivalent of Claridges and, like that cool and elegant restful place, the other hotel where I would love to live. Think how easy it would be to live in a fabulous hotel in either of the two most important cities in Europe: linen changed daily, room service 24/7, taxis always at the door and somebody always on tap to take in mail, parcels and, maybe, presents.

I thought of this on Saturday at the Bristol at the launch of 7 Brilliant Brits, a DVD showing the work of British menswear designers Richard James, Domingo Rodriguez, E Tautz, Oliver Spencer, Gieves and Hawkes, Baartman and Siegal and Hart Savile Row.

All the guests decamped into the garden to drink champagne – or pure, cool water – and eat delicious canapes such as macaroons with a foie gras stuffing or eggs stuffed with peppers and served on mini wooden platters, and tried to ignore the temperature. Life in fashion can sometimes be hell.

It seemed natural after all that to set off up Fauborg Saint-HonorĂ© and hit the shops. My two male companions were in crazed must-have-it buying mood and egged each other on to buy … anything as long as it had a scary price tag, which meant everything, in fact. Respectively they bought a denim shirt and a pair of trainers (at a cost of over €700) and a pair of trainers and drop-crotch pants (close to €1000), all of which will be totally out of fashion in a very short time. Which is what being a fashion person is all about. I know what they both earn and I can tell you they cannot afford it, but we all know they will make themselves afford it.

And just in case you think I am being too holy let me say that before leaving Paris I visited my favourite bookshop and behaved just as dumbly, buying three expensive books I neither need nor can afford.

Self-indulgence is in the blood with fashion people.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Menswear in Paris 2010

Two swelteringly hot days in Paris, but well worth the discomfort, including sweat trickling down the neck. I was there to do Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden business, which went very well, but I also managed to see two shows in between. And they made me realise how much I have been missing by not going to the menswear shows now that the Sunday Times no longer covers them.

First up was John Galliano. Entirely briiliant both as clothes and as spectacle. The theme was silent movies and in particular Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The show began with a mighty rushing wind and copies of the newspaper Galliano Gazette swirling across the runway to set the mood of poor urban life when the movies were the only escape from work and poverty for most of the working classes in the early years of the last century.

Out of the mist rose a vast clock (shades of Harold Lloyd), then came a Chaplin lookalike and we were off into a jerky, high-energy show with the models tumbling out onto the runway and dashing down it at fantastic speed. Chalk white faces, huge Caplinesque boots, top hats and moustaches which changed into an hommage to Monsieur Houlot and his famous cinematic holiday sur la plage. It was all rollicking good fun and raised our thoughts well up and away from the unbelievable heat in the venue.

And, apart from that, the clothes....? A brilliantly young and accessible wardrobe, sexy and able to be deconstructed into a range of looks that any guy would like even if fashion isn't his main concern in life.

It was obviously a hard act to follow but Kris Van Assche for Dior Homme was up to the challenge the day after in a venue even more torrid thn the Galliano one – which had a very senior lady of the press complaining birtterly and at some length about her discomfort. Most of us rose above the temperature and were delighted at how convincingly Van Assche has made Dior Homme his own after stepping into the space left by Hedi Slimane when he parted company with Dior. Minimalist, urbane and full of simple but telling details that made a statement as subtle as the very best (I am thinking of the sadly missed Jil Sander, the total mistress of the perfectly conceived and tailored garment that commands attention in whispers).

Van Assche has the same perfect pitch.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Margiela, Couture and the High Street

Popping in to see the Maison Martin Margiela show again a couple of days ago, I was even more impressed with its independence and boldness and yet made sad wondering for how long the honesty and originality of the founder's vision will be able to hold put against big business thinking now that he has moved out of the company he founded in 1989. It is now owned by Diesel. Already key figures, unable to reconcile the aesthetic of Diesel with the sensibility of Margiela, have moved on. And that makes me wonder if independence in fashion is doomed to go the same way it has in so many other areas of life. Is the whole world doomed to become one vast shopping mall, hypermarket or supermarket, where standardisation hides behind a facade of variety and individual choice whilst in reality every one is expected to conform to a powerful Big Brother aesthetic? Is fashion going to end up as bland as the perfectly shaped supermarket apple, with all idiosyncrasies and individuality ruthlessly excluded by the style police?

And then my feelings were lifted by the thought of couture, which I will soon see again in Paris. Having been dismissed as irrelevant for so many years, it has made a sort of comeback, although with no obvious direct impact on the fashion thinking of the millions who turn to high-street chains for the latest look. But its influence is very much there. The high street looks for ideas to couture level and always homes in on the extremists like Galliano at Dior or Gaultier, the ones who are given the opportunity to allow their imaginations to run more or less untrammelled by thoughts of economy.

For me, couture is still the wellspring, the source, of true fashion originality where the eternal verities of fashion – perfection, beauty and aesthetic subtlety (or high drama or outrageous humour) – are kept alive in a way that is impossible in most ready-to-wear, conceived to sell at a certain price and to a very targeted market. As the global depression continues - as it must until the great economies find new ways of generating wealth in the face of the collapse of the old – it seems to me that current fashion must change its ground and take on board at least some of the attitudes that are taken for granted at couture level.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Ara Gallant, Forgotten Genius

Photo from Damianieditore.com

Even fashion followers who were around in new York in the seventies have probably forgotten Ara Gallant, one of the great movers and shakers of fashion at the time. That is why I was so pleased to discover a book about him (Ara Gallant by David Wills, published by Damiani) only recently available in London. He was a bit of an insider's secret even in his heyday but was known as a genius by everyone in New York who knew and cared about fashion, from Diana Vreeland and Richard Avedon to every model in town, all of whom wanted to work with him.

Those were incredibly heady days in New York, the brief period when it was the hippest, coolest and most outrageously exciting place in the world, a magnet that pulled in everybody looking for life at the extreme edge, dangerous, drug-soaked and gay as the proverbial gadfly. Its energy was almost palpable. How, I don't know, because no one ever seemed to sleep and appeared to live for days on nothing other than cocaine.

This was before Mayor Giuliani decided to clean up the city and banish sin in order to make Saturday nights in Manhattan safe for Lutheran families in town from Arkansas, and the Village non-threatening for groups of Boy Scouts from Boisie. Sadly he succeeded in closing down the topless clubs, banished bottomless waiters, banned sleezy strip joints, shuttered the hustler bars – and destroyed New York as a leader in anything, a sorry state it is still in today.

Because, of course, beneath the sin and silliness, the city was bursting with a creativity more vibrant than anything else on earth and, as everyone knows, great cities that lead the world always need sin – and sexual sin at that. Think of Paris in the Belle Epoch or Berlin in the twenties…. Ara, as the greatest hairdresser of them all, once described as a 'fashion holy', was in the thick of it, working almost exclusively for Vogue with Avedon and the superwomen who were models on an altogether different plane from the bourgeois constructs known as supermodels who came later. These were women like Anjelica Huston, Veruschka and Apollonia van Ravenstein, whose energy, sytyle and sense of high drama – they were all larger than life and loved acting – energised the pages of the magazines in a way almost unimaginable with today's suburban teenage models. And the hair Ara sculpted for them was always so extraordinary that it ensured that it was the woman who dominated the shot.

Towards the end of his brief, drug-dominated life (he put a pistol to his head in 1990), Ara became a photographer, doing covers for Interview and L'Uomo Vogue and portraits of stars like Jack Nicholson, Margaux Hemingway and Diane von Furstenburg. But, in reality, he was the star, a creative leader acknowledged by people of the calibre of Andy Warhol and Lauren Hutton as a true original who inspired and motivated everyone he worked with. I am glad this book has saved him from oblivion.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Carnaby Street – Not What It Used To Be

I live right next to one of London's most iconic streets, known around the world as one of the great symbols of the Swinging Sixties, the period that changed not only Britain but the world. It was the street that said, 'This is London; this is now; and youth is in charge in a new classless society.' It didn't quite live up to its hopes - what ever does? - but it certainly changed the face of British fashion from deference to defiance, becoming the home of young, fun, but not very skillfully made clothes for teenagers of both sexes who were hands-on in forming the fashion and changing it with lightning speed when bored.

And that was Carnaby Street in 1960, when it developed from a louche but formless area of mixed and uncommitted social outsiders to a mecca for young male fashion followers, just as King's Road in Chelsea was initially doing for women, although each sex later joined the other to make the two streets the twin axes of cool fashion for the world.

Soho, where Carnaby Street is, has always been a male area, enjoying its notoriety as a place of brothels and its fame as a haven of acceptance and tolerance for all the byways of social nonconformity, skills and craftsmanship, as it still is today. But go back a century or so and we find that it was also a place where cultural giants lived happily. When I walk out of my front door I am very conscious that William Blake, Canova and Handel were just some of the great figures who lived less than a dozen steps from where I do now.

In 1960, Carnaby Street had a jack-the-lad confidence, even cockiness, as the first place in London to be working class in everything it stood for and yet having a universal appeal. It was also first to take menswear away from the grandeur of Savile Row and create its own look, initially aimed at gays but soon spreading its influence over all mens - and womens – wear.

This summer Carnaby Street is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding and especially its first ten amazing years as a valhalla for youth, freedom and nonconformity; the place where for the first time youth was in charge, the new buzz word was 'gear', and every young guy wanted it. We have had jazz bands, an exhibition and a good illustrated book (Carnaby Street 1960-2010) but nothing that can raise the creative temperature of Carnaby Street to anything that might represent life, let alone the pulsating energy of its brief past as a fashion crucible. Now Carnaby Street is all about cheap conformity with an emphasis on cheap jeans, T-shirts and trainers and is full of tourists hooked on a name long dead in real terms and really barely knowing what has drawn them there.

Carnaby Street now is famous for nothing more dynamic than once being famous. Sad really, I avoid it as much as I can, although it is less than two minutes' walk from my home. AS The Jam sang in 1977, 'Carnaby Street, Carnaby Street, Not what it used to be'. Even less so today, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Fashion Fringe finalists; forum with John Galliano, Amanda Harlech and Nick Knight

So the launch party for Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden came and went – and went off extremely well last Friday, on the first really hot night we have had in London this summer. The proceedings, held at the St Martin's Lane Hotel, began with a forum to discuss the question of the coexistence of creativity and commerce in fashion. To debate the pros and cons we had Nick Knight, Amanda Harlech and, of course, John Galliano, our chair for the next two years. Even though the air conditioning was on the blink (it was supplemented by lots of fans) the comments were lively and there were many questions and comments from the floor – which I always see as a good indication of how things are going. Everything was streamed live and lots in the audience were busy tweeting, which pleased me very much. We are still correlating all the hits etc but I gather we were quite a topic last Friday

Yesterday's Evening Standard had a great picture and a very positive piece about the second part of the evening, which was the all-important announcement of John's choice of the three finalists at our party at The Ivy Club, complete with specially created cocktails and fabulous things to eat.

Although those of us who work on Fashion Fringe – including the pre-selectors – didn't have any say in the final selection this year we did make our own unofficial choice … and we came up with exactly the same three as John. A good omen, I would think. They were Alice Palmer, Corrie Nielsen and Jade Kang. Although they richly deserved to reach the final, I have to say that this time the field was really strong - and that is not just a cliche to please those who were not selected. We saw some very impressive talent this year and, as always, it made me sad that we do not have the funds to be able to help more people. Every year I feel this, of course, and it is mainly because in a fashion field that seems contented to produce endless simple little dresses I know there is so much more diversity and originality than one would ever imagine at fashion weeks or by looking in the shops.

So now we start our mentoring program for the winners and help them to get their collections ready for the show in September during London Fashion Week.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

London: St Martins graduate show, Maison Martin Margiela exhibition

This has been a good week for fashion in London.

Central St Martin's held their graduate fashion show and, as always, it was zany, impossibly over-imaginative and the greatest fun. But this time it was more. As the wild and wacky clothes (concoctions might be a better word) came down the runway, our spirits lifted as we were taken away from thoughts of the lashing rain outside into a world of pure Dada, with wit and challenge put well before any suggestions of practical wearability.

Exactly as it should be at this level… and a timely reminder that there is more to fashion than creating clothes for high-street chains – an approach currently too prevalent in MA courses. The results of this approach are currently being seen across young London designer fashion, which is awash with dumb little frocks and nothing much more. In my opinion, London designers are being encouraged to be over-commercial in the hope of receiving sponsorship and it is killing what this city's fashion should be about. The honest figures for sales of young designers' work are low and their hopes of survival very problematic in many cases. But at least we have St Martin's BA course to give us hope. What I want to know is why all this exuberant creativity so often evaporates on so many MA courses.

No evaporation of challenge and excitement in the Maison Margiela exhibition that opened last night at Somerset House. This is a fashion house that has remained a trailblazer for over twenty years, forcing us to ask all the questions that matter in fashion. What can fashion be? Why do we have fashion? How bold can it be without leaving people behind? Is a place for intellect in this form of creativity?

The extreme originality and bold risk-taking in this company's DNA answers them all with total conviction. I would like to think that the team at Maison Martin Margiela start every day with the basic question, 'Why are we doing this and for whom?' Every time they sit down to design they give form to ideas that take us on an intellectual and spiritual journey that lifts clothing to a level far above the London norm, a journey that feeds our souls.

The exhibition should be seen by everyone who feels that fashion can be much more than merely selling a few tacky little dresses, and should be compulsory for everyone involved with MA fashion courses.

And, in case you are wondering, Mr Margiela did not show – at least, as far as all the guest were aware.

(Maison Martin Margiela The Exhibition continues at Somerset House until September 5th)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Fashion at the Time of Fascism: A New View

We all love a blockbuster exhibition, conceived as the last word, the definitive statement on a subject. We get them all the time as the major galleries and museums of the world - especially in New york and London- vie with each other to be the biggest, with the largest visitor figures and ticket takings.

But small can sometimes be beautiful, too, as we all know.

And London currently has an exhibition that ticks all the boxes – and at a fraction of the cost of most fashion-related exhibitions. Fashion at the Time of Fascism is based on a book with the same title. Both are a revelation. The book is the first English language examination of how fashion fared in Italy from the twenties, when the country came under under the control of Mussolini, to his downfall in 1943. The exhibition is a sophisticated developments of the book's points and even more strongly its illustration, most of which will be entirely new – and stimulatingly fresh – to most visitors in what is described as a pop-up display, clean and sharply focused to highlight this new ground. One of the most riveting aspects is the video of contemporary footage of fashion shows and the denizens of upper echelon Italians in this shameful period of Italian political life.

Well worth a visit – and entirely free.

The exhibition, in the Fashion Space Gallery of The London College of Fashion, John Princes Street, continues until June 17th but is not open on weekends,

(Fashion at the Time of Fascism: Italian Modernist Lifestyle 1922-1943 is published by Damiani.)

Fashion Photography - We Are All Voyeurs Now

Exposed, the new exhibition at Tate Modern, is subtitled "Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera". It examines the various ways in which our lives have been influenced and society changed by modern uses (many would say misuses) of the camera as the often-undetected eye spying on us with the full of approval of the governments elected with the mandate to protect our freedoms. Worryingly, we only occasionally feel unease at its ubiquity.

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are a powerful statement of the dangers of complacency and the impossibility of turning back the clock when the full implications of a situation are – too late – revealed.

But it is the section devoted to fashion that will most interest all but the most deeply political. The camera is now so enmeshed with fashion that the image of the garment is frequently more potent than the garment itself. In fact it is the first point of call on the path of buying that starts with each month's new magazines and their beguiling pages of slick, tightly focused pages advertising the seasons's must-have objects of desire. And we do not seem to become bored even by the fact that it is largely the same image in all the magazines.

Editorially, there is fractionally more visual variety – and this again, is about the image, as each desperate editor tries to find a new way of arresting the attention of the casual "flicker" at the newsstand, trying to decide which magazine to buy – or whether to even bother. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to force oneself to do so at this point in fashion, where the art of designing clothes has generally fallen so low that editors believe clothes can only interest us if they are worn by this month's fleeting celeb - catch her before the sun goes down or you've lost her for ever.

No wonder that aspects of femininity other than dress are being resorted to by frantic editors ordered to take desperate measures to keep the readers on board. What could be more postmodern (or weeping in the darkness of the night despairing) than to feature nudity on the cover and featured in the pages of a magazine published with the major purpose of selling clothes. You couldn't make it up, you might think, but you don't have to. It is here and now, on a newsstand near you.

But it gets worse – or rather has been worse for some time – with editorial of nude or seminude pictures of models debased and violated for the camera, with the clothes barely in evidence; if they are, almost certainly will be half torn away. Strange antics for magazines meant to make women feel good, confident and empowered. And if you think photographers, stylists and art editors have reached the point when some of them might well be ready for sectioning, I am sure you would not be alone. But, as the Tate exhibition reminds us, we are all voyeurs now – whether we want to be or not.