Saturday, September 29, 2007

Picture for a moment Victoria Beckham in Gucci. Emphasis on her breasts, waist and hips, presenting a classic Italian silhouette despite the design probably having been created by Tom Ford. At the end of Milan fashion week 2008 the distinct curves of the Italian feminine strike me. There appear to be geographical differences in the approach to the feminine silhouette. The shape of the constructed ideal feminine body changes in various countries, Southern Europe contrasts with Northern Europe. Designers who are not Italian tend to be heavily indoctrinated into the specifics of feminine fashion.

At this moment the opportunity to review the runway shows, specifically those of the big designers and fashion houses is presented. The urge is to try and find similarities between clothes, try to spot common trends but this year I have been struck by difference. Italy has a very specific type of femininity that comes across on the catwalk. If you imagine the models outlines rather than the you arrive at the point where you have to start considering the contrast in clothing.

Below are two designs by Marc Jacobs, a ready to wear evening dress and a more casual outfit. The dress is quite diagonal, if it weren't it would have an element of A-line about it. You can see a hip at one side but there's little emphasis of it. There's definitely an A-line element in the shorts but little emphasis on the hips despite their length. The legs of the model are made to look almost continuous, a part of a single structure that is the body.

Matthew Williamson puts some emphasis on the hips, the shape of the purple dresses is clearly influenced by Italian designs but they don't quite have the same bite or emphasis on the waist, the influence is at the thigh rather than any higher.

In comparison are some examples of Spring/Summer 2008 Italian ready to wear designed by Roberto Cavalli, Versace and Prada. The clothes always taper into the thigh and emphasise the waist, almost biting into them.

There are exceptions of course, the Matthew Williamson piece above shows that quite adequately, yet there seem to be two different streams here, working within a set of rules that change from season to season. It is a good guide to what kind of fashion house you would like to buy from, a decision could be made purely on the basis of what kind of silhouette you want. If an extremely feminine construction is your desire than the Italian designers are more likely to provide you with your perfect piece of clothing. The further north you venture the more the A-line becomes the ruling factor of a silhouette, the feminine becomes something different, more focused on the detail and content of the clothing and less on the shape. Italian dress plays more with the structure of the body and less with the presentation of pattern and frill, it is less girly and the trends lean away from the masculine elements of women's garments. Versace plays a little with masculine modes of dress but the vast majority of the clothes still retain the silhouette to some extent, usually by tapering into the thigh and putting some emphasis, however small and seemingly insignificant on the waist. I wonder if this is in some way related to Roman sculpture, the curves of ancient statues, it's certainly a deep vein running through the industry. Regardless of this it's cultural, that isn't really something to be questioned because it crops up in almost all of the Italian Spring/Summer collections despite all of the other trends that are being followed by the designers and fashion houses based in the country.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I had the idea that I would review the fashion sections of the British weekend papers but realised it would take such a lot of time that I rejected it after a bit of thought. It seemed absurd to dismiss it out of hand so after some perusal I picked a few items from two supplements, the regular fashion columns from Saturday's Guardian and an article from The Times.

I really have to start with Alexis Petridis' column from Saturday. I've been reading the Guardian weekend since I was a child so I'm very familiar with their fashion writing and it's never quite inspired me but this specific item was astoundingly bad. He opens on a negative, presumably responding to some criticism: “It seems some writers (I can't think who) don't take fashion seriously enough.” He's lost me with one sentence, I want to read a column about clothes on the clothing page. He insults Galliano who makes consistently original, weird but interesting and sometimes breathtaking clothes because his menswear collection included a “balaclava helmet” and “a knitted kilt with... a vast, distended woollen penis hanging out of it?” I assume Petridis thinks this gives him an excuse not to write about clothes that men who read the paper can wear and instead to write a humour piece in the fashion section. When he goes on to moan that he doesn't know “how this season's jeans are meant to look” it becomes clear that he doesn't know that he's writing a fashion column. I'm not sure if no one bothered to tell him that it was his job to find out what jeans were in, perhaps the assumption is that no one really cares about men's fashion?

I'm not quite as interested in men's fashion. I don't aspire to wear it but when it's functional and aesthetically pleasing, interesting or outrageous I'm as interested as I am in women's clothes. This column tells me nothing about designers, designs or fashion. At the end of London Fashion Week Alexis Petridis tells me almost nothing about male fashion in 2007. He doesn't like Galliano because he can't wear it and he doesn't know what jeans to buy if he wants to be “in”. It's true he doesn't take his column seriously and he writes as if he doesn't like clothes. In distinct contrast my brother loves clothes, he buys them so that he looks good and feels good and every Christmas I buy him vouchers so that he can buy clothes that he likes. I don't understand why Petridis can't describe the clothes that he buys that he likes and explain why he likes them instead of whining about fashion. Presumably people read the fashion section in a newspaper supplement because they're interested in clothes, if they don't then why would they know who John Galliano is? Fundamentally his column seems to be useless, it doesn't help anyone who wants to look fashionable, it doesn't relay any positivity about clothes, it's just a column about the man who's writing it and it shouldn't be in the fashion section.

Above Alexis Petridis is Jess Cartner-Morley's column. She begins by talking about fashion concepts and I can certainly get behind her as she welcomes Lanvin's introduction of zips into high fashion. “When stylish women have been be-ribboned to the point of Little Bo Peep, fashion has tired of the look and moved on to zips.” This is a significant change on the catwalk and as she remarks it's rare for any haute couture designers to use zips on their garments. Unfortunately there are two problems with this article; She suggests that Amy Winehouse is crazy because she wears straps in different colours at the same time, something that is quite in line with the trends of the past year. She then goes on to suggest that the entire front row of the Lanvin show had botox injections very recently. I could do without this kind of insidious social frowning in a fashion column. Clothes are cultural constructs, which means that to criticise celebrities and fashionistas for their cultural construction is to miss the point of analysing fashion. It doesn't make the writing more accessible or more interesting, it just betrays a journalist as having a bias towards one group or another, in this case a bias towards the middle classes and the centre ground. My interpretation is that Jess Cartner-Morley thinks Amy Winehouse is a crazy member of the lower social classes and the women at Lanvin, with all their money will necessarily freeze their faces just because they can. She's engaging in cliches, indulging herself and her readers because it's uncomplicated and easier than discussing the complexities of fashion, clothes and the deeper meanings of our dress codes.

I really think that fashion writing in the Guardian needs an overhaul. If it has to continue I wish they would drop the constant jibes, the belittlement and start treating it either as a good, in depth consumer section about clothing on the high street or as an artform. Around this time of year there's plenty of scope for that as fashion week after fashion week takes place and haute couture lines start to appear.

I chose to look at a feature article in The Times. It's a piece on women's clothing, specifically sizing by Melanie Rickey. It's a bit more sensational than it needs to be, this is a standard subject that comes up in women's magazines and style supplements every now and again and it doesn't really need to focus on vanity. It's quite a technical article and I appreciated that, there's a lot of discussion about measurements in different shops, the way they differ so that a size 12 from M&S is larger than a size 12 in Topshop. The biggest problem is that she doesn't seem to understand how measurements actually work so she discusses the difference between a 10 and a 12 in shops and seems to desire standardisation. That would mean that a lot of clothes wouldn't fit anyone. My waist and hip sizes when taken together are different to other people I know who are vaguely the same dress size as me because my proportions are different. If every shop sold exact size 10 trousers at a standard size than most people would need to have their clothes made for them. Oasis is lauded because all of their trousers use the same measurements but I have tried on a size 10, 12 and 14 in Oasis and none of them fit me because I don't fit the ratios that they work to. This is alluded to in the article but it takes Rickey a long time to get there and that means she doesn't get to the crux of the problem, that sizing needs to be less general and more specific. Despite the flaw the article was at times quite practical, I learnt a lot from it and I appreciated that.

There's only one other thing that is really questionable about her article from a social perspective and that's when she criticises the choice of a store to sell size 6 clothing while commenting that “the designer world is harsher on larger women.” Some women are small, some women are big and some of them can do absolutely nothing about those things, they're just big or small. Women should have the choice of small and large clothes in every part of the fashion industry, it would make for a happy and more satisfying world.

In conclusion I didn't really manage to make a comparison between the two newspaper supplements because the pieces were so different. What is abundantly clear is that fashion writing in the cultural sections of our papers is riddled with cliches and critical statements about people's bodies and choices. It leads me to think that fashion journalists haven't been reading around their subject. There is so much work on the way that clothes work psychologically, practically, historically, sociologically with people's bodies and the best way to avoid using stereotypical statements about culture is to read some of the academic work that is rigorous and enlightening in relation to these issues. I know people who encounter the same problems when they read about music and films, the writer allowing their pre-conceived notions about class, race, gender and all number of things to intrude on the art that they're discussing. Often this passes as light hearted banter or humour but I already like the subject and when people write about it I want them to express their like, their love. It's a problem with talking about culture, your subjective perception of it always intrudes but I wish, with all my heart, that people would just write about clothes and fashion with an open mind and an eye for aesthetics and if they don't like something it should be because it's a top that doesn't appeal.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“The end of haute couture's symbolic preeminence has as its corollary the loss of its clientele.” In the October edition of Vogue there is an article on haute couture in conjunction with the exhibition currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is much discussion surrounding the loss of handmade, fit to client garments as common. The emphasis is turned away from the growth of industrialised, ready to wear garments that have allowed all people to dress well in interesting, exciting clothing and although that's usually my focus I find the mourning of couture as a large industry easy to understand. It is right to mourn the loss of couture but foolish to forget the benefit that led to it becoming less common and unfortunately to couture becoming more expensive. Writers like Gilles Lipovetsky, who wrote the sentence quoted above for The Empire of Fashion do not forget such things. Beauty should be available to all people, not just the rich or the famous who wear such dresses to film premieres and award ceremonies. Haute couture will never be accessible to the majority of us.

I am watching The Secret World of Haute Couture on BBC4 and it opens with women discussing the wonder of wearing a dress that fits like a second skin. Those types of dresses are complete outfits, you wear no underwear because it is built into the dress. They are often boned and it takes many fittings to truly build a costume for a woman. Only lucky women with huge amounts of money can afford such luxury, internationally there are only around 2000 clients.. It costs approximately $100,000 to purchase a dress. Haute couture has to be made in Paris and it is rare.

Karl Lagerfeld talks about his experience of falling in love with a Christian Dior outfit as a child. He sketches clothing designs with ease, talks about the dreams that give him his best ideas. The women and men in the atelier have the most astounding abilities in their hands that are so precise and skilled. They are artists, creating unique, wonderful pieces. Coco Chanel criticised haute couture in a 1953 issue of Vogue: “I am no longer interested n dressing a few hundred women, private clients; I shall dress thousands of women. But... a widely repeated fashion, seen everywhere, cheaply produced must start from luxury.” It is interesting then that Chanel with Lagerfeld as its Artistic Director is buying up ateliers in order to ensure their survival and the continued presence of haute couture. I do not think it is a mistake to preserve an artform but I understand why Coco Chanel wanted to broaden her influence, ensure that thousands dressed well and importantly she backed up her statements and ignored the copying of her couture items by others. While designers like Paul Poiret tried to stop copies, Chanel appeared to do nothing in this area.

While I am tremendously jealous of the women who can afford these items and a part of me disapproves of this inequality of dress, the fact that very, very few people can afford to purchase haute couture clothing, I do not want this artform to die. My feeling is the same where other arts are concerned, I don't think painting should die because prints are available yet I cannot afford to purchase paintings. Mass production remains a current innovation in the span of history, it allows us to own interesting things yet couture should not die in the face of that, even if it is limited for good reason these days.

At the end of The Secret World of Haute Couture I watch as the journalist who has been interviewing women who buy these unique, original garments finally tries on a coat. Her stance changes, her shoulders go back, she feels beautiful and that is lovely to see. The power that clothes have to bring out all the best things about us into our physicality at times feels unmatched. I hope that one day I will have the same opportunity and will feel that second skin.

Monday, September 24, 2007

I’ve been trying to write about charity and fashion for the last few days but I keep moving into the topic of consumerism rather than clothing. The two issues are entwined with each other, particularly in the case of Red, the charity founded by Bono and a number of other people. His work with Red is a perfect example of the move towards ethical charities that work within the consumer market and use fashion and celebrity as a means to an end. Gap, American Express and Apple all produce items that allow sales proceeds to go to the charity and appear to be engaging in these activities to show that they understand these problems while going about their daily practice in every other area. Bono also has other ties with ethical fair trade consumerism and the fashion industry.

Charity and fashion is a complicated subject because the vast majority of questions that arise from it can only be directed at individuals. The motivation behind fashion and celebrity involvement with these issues is often unclear, it’s rarely explained in interviews and the cause tends to be the focus. It can be argued that individual’s motives don’t matter and yet it would probably bring it home that people live in a global rather than local environment. Charities need to make money, people don't give enough on the street, they often don't stop for people with clipboards but they do use American Express cards, they buy T-shirts. Generally if people are getting something they'll give something. Everyone who gives to charity admits other people need help but they're exercising their judgement about who to help, I don't necessarily think the right to choose a cause is realistic, would prefer it if funds were more centralised but we live in a society that currently needs charitable donation. Every tool may as well be used to achieve those donations.

The first real utilisation of the fashion industry in charity circles that I can recall was the big PETA campaign. Most people in the western world will be able to recall either seeing one of the anti-fur ads featuring a supermodel or if not then reading about the campaign. There has been a huge amount of criticism of models stating that they were anti-fur and then wearing fur years later on the catwalk. I don't have to approve of my workplace and its actions to work there, very few people actually work in line with their ethics so it's difficult to criticise without talking to a specific model about their motivation.

My desire to write about charity has been motivated by The Fashion for Relief campaign espoused by Naomi Campbell. It is perhaps the least complicated example of the fashion industry raising money for people in difficult circumstances. Its methods of raising money are quite straightforward and less branded than most of the recent charitable causes that I've mentioned, despite a T-shirt design by Christopher Bailey, the Creative Director of Burberry, however the lack of involvement of huge monolithic companies makes it easier to think about from a moral point of view. It seems like the simplest thing on earth to use fashion to make people's lives better and yet in a sense it doesn't create awareness. Very few people like the speech that comes before a concert or the ethical advice that is printed on a CD sleeve because it mixes art, pleasure and guilt. If you acknowledge the cause it takes the art and fun away to an extent, if you don't acknowledge the cause you're wilfully ignoring the origin of the product. In a sense it also makes ethical work out of the ordinary when the ethics shouldn't be something that need to be emphasized. Designers, labels that make so much money should be sourcing their products and working in such a way by default.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I find the clothes designed by Diane Von Furstenberg intensely boring. Often when you observe designer's clothes they're incredibly characteristic of the person, you can see what they like, what drives them to design. My favourite designers, not because I want the clothes necessarily but because they are consistently awe-inspiring and full of personality are people like Galliano, McQueen, Demeulemeester because to an extent they're dancing to their own tune. This is exactly the opposite of my impression of Von Furstenberg.

Diane Von Furstenberg seems to copy clothes and styles from other places without adding any of her own flair. Her ability to make outfits so anonymous is probably a strength in selling but from an artistic/creative perspective it's not interesting.

Here are two photos from her A/W 2007-8 collection and I just don't see anything unique in them, you can't fix on the shoulders so they're not truly of the '80s but the clothes still strike me as period clothing. They don't display any kind of contemporary reference to draw you in and they're extremely conservative:

Conclusively she's got to be the designer I am most bored by because it's not that I don't like her clothes, it's not that I find them interesting but wouldn't wear them, it's that they honestly don't grab my attention.