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Monday, 27 January 2014

The Legendary Notebook

There are some products that seem to be prerequisites to modern student living. Macbook? Check. An IKEA wastepaper bin? Check. A Moleskine notebook? Check check check! Many people are aware of the myth that surrounds Moleskine, but not as many realize that this has been carefully constructed. For the uninitiated, moleskine have this tale to tell on their website:

“Moleskine is the heir of the legendary notebook used for the past two centuries by artists and thinkers, from Vincent Van Gogh to Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway to Bruce Chatwin. The anonymous and essential little black notebook, with its unique rounded corners, elastic closure, and expandable inner pocket, was originally produced for more than a century by a small French bookbinder that supplied Parisian stationery shops frequented by the international literary and artistic avant‐garde. This trusty, pocket‐sized travel companion held their sketches, notes, stories, and ideas before they became famous images or beloved books.”

Unfortunately, this unnamed French stationer ceased production of his books in the 1980s. The writer Bruce Chatwin was devastated at this loss, and travelled the globe buying up all the ‘Moleskines’ (as he had nicknamed them). Chatwin was a strong driving force in recognising the cultural power these little books could hold, and in 1997, inspired by Chatwin’s writing about the notebooks, a small Milanese publisher started to produce books under the name ‘Moleskine’. At this point in time, the marketing and myth-building went into overdrive, and the books started to be sold with the invocation of names of great writers and thinkers. The implied message is that if you buy one, you too will become part of history.

“Following Chatwin’s footsteps, Moleskine notebook begins its journey once again, this time as an indispensable complement to today’s mobile technology. Capturing reality on the move, preserving details, impressing the unique aspects of experience upon paper, Moleskine is an accumulator of ideas and emotions which are then released over time […] Moleskine notebooks are partners for the creative professions and the imaginary of our time: they are a worldwide symbol of contemporary nomadism, closely connected to the digital world through a network of websites, blogs, online groups and virtual archives. With Moleskine, the ancient (and typically analogical) practice of sketching and jotting down notes finds unexpected connective space on the Web and in its communities.”

There are many difficult points that this PR epic glosses over. Firstly, it is clear that the modern day notebooks are definitely not the same books as used by Picasso, Van Gogh and friends. They are a modern product, produced not by a small Parisian stationer in his workshop, but by a large Italian company, which outsources production to China.

On top of this troubling censorship of design history (with an supposedly nameless originator), it is clear that Moleskine are building on flimsy foundations. Since when did ‘inspired by’ become ‘the heir of’?  By speaking in these terms, the company is establishing ownership of the objects used by great thinkers of the 20th  Century, and inserting themselves into the narrative long before they even started to produce these books.

In the last few months of 2013 I was feverishly researching sketchbooks of the 19th Century, with a particular focus on the division of books used for design and books used for artistic study. Many Victorian stationers’ catalogues make reference to books that sound like Moleskines. One from Waterlow & Sons in 1881 advertised a memorandum book that is ‘bound in fluted roan, with gusset pocket, round corners and elastic band’ (and would cost you one shilling and sixpence each).  I doubt that our romantically lit Parisian stationer was the only stationer producing books like this. It was also extremely unlikely that these artists had such a strong brand loyalty as Moleskine likes to imagine. My own research focused on the artist Edward Burne-Jones. Of the twenty or so books that I examined of his, over ten different producers were in evidence. Was this an unusual habit of use from Burne-Jones? Probably not. I myself have absolutely no preference in books I use for note-taking (although I do currently use a Moleskine), nor do I know anyone who does. Do you? It is fascinating to witness Moleskine profess the apparent anonymity of their product, whilst simultaneously spinning a yarn that is intended to create dedicated fans with a loyalty to just one brand of notebook.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Yo Ho Ho

A Pirate's Life

Fashion isn’t like music or film, it isn’t yet a pirates medium (or if there are any pirates, they are not on our side).  Fashion has yet to become fully digitalized as at this point in time couture still requires handwork and clothes still have to exist in real life. The only people who can copy a garment ‘file’, or create a shoe torrent are the corporations who are all busy feeding off each other. The only part of fashion that has been wholly ‘democratized’ is the consumption of the fashion image. The fashion system as 99% of people experience it has become about the consumption of cool, not clothes.



Ghesquiaga & Balencawang.

This is most likely Balenciaga’s problem. During the reign of Nicolas Ghesquiere over the last 15 years, Balenciaga became the ultimate fashion brand. Every collection was wildly different, and packed to the brim with as many fresh ideas as he could wring out of his team. Season after season, he raced ahead so much that people have built whole careers out of translating what he produced.

I think its fair to say that Alexander Wang, along with others, like Proenza Schouler, has been one of those people. Balenciaga’s blessing has been its curse, as it essentially came to exist to lead the way, and inspire everyone else. It was beautiful to behold, but not the best business model. So the suits chose to correct that error, and the Ghesquiere era is now over. It was only ever a sad glitch, an anomalous mistake on the part of corporate fashion.


It’s less of a case of the student becoming the master, than the imitator becoming the imitated. Is it really true that the people at this level cannot tell the difference between Wang and Ghesquiere? If so, it’s clear that to these people it never really mattered whether fashion had anything of worth to say, all that mattered was that there was fresh meat. Less message, more medium please.

Two Steps Ahead

With Nicola’s direction, everyone was scrambling to be the first to adapt his silhouettes. With Wang’s, there's no need to scramble as they're already on his wavelength. That marble influence that shone through in his debut collection? It’s already there. Just go for a wander down Regent St., look in the windows. The High Street is rising, and Couture is stooping down to the wishes of the masses to the point where the two are starting to meet in the middle. Its fair to say the fashion community doesn’t quite know what to make of this development, whether to think well of low fashion and poorly of high fashion, or vice versa.

It’ll be interesting to see this move towards the generic does in fact help Balenciaga’s sales, as expected. I’m sure it will. I’ve stopped believing that the people who can actually afford to wear this stuff have any creative engagement with it at all. I realized this when I saw looks in the Saint Laurent women’s show last year. Here was a designer who has a couple of sort-of interesting ideas over his career (and has failed to move on in any real way from his first success), sending beautifully turned out derivative crap down the catwalk.  Hedi Slimane hasn’t moved on from the early 2000s, yet despite some voices (Horyn), the fangirls that make up most of the ‘critics’ were legion in their admiration.

An Empty Edge

The ‘edge’ of fashion is becoming empty. The 1% are either uninterested in saying anything through fashion, or too afraid of losing money. And the rest of us are just too tired of trying to be creative at the speed of light. We’re freefalling in a cultural abyss, and who the hell knows when we’ll ever get out of it.

Alexander Wang at Balenciaga was nice, and there are clothes there that are beautiful and interesting. But the beating heart of creativity had been ripped out of the house. You could see the references to last season’s collection in this one, and realize that Wang needs somebody, anybody, to copy. Ghesquiere never needed that. I can only hope that sooner or later the suits will realize that the house, just like before Ghesquiere, is running on empty again.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Will the real Margiela please stand up?

(In which I take quote-unquote to a whole new level)

H&M’s new designer collaboration hit stores last week, and you may have heard about it. Despite H&M having collaborated with many a brand in the past, including the equally ‘obscure’ brand Comme des Garcons, there’s something about this particular collection that’s touched a nerve in the fashion community.

I went down to the Regent St branch on Thursday afternoon to stare at the empty shelves and ponder the circumstances that combined in my life to mean I am too poor for ‘fast fashion’. I suppose this affords me a perspective that you don’t hear of too much in fashion commentary, which often takes for granted the ‘affordable’ nature of high street fashion.
There was a new load of stock coming in when I was in the store, and people who already had bags of merchandise were queuing along some invisible line as they waited for their size to come back in stock. These are the ‘masses’ of which we would all be afraid, if the high fashion gods had their way.

As I perused what was on offer (which actually seemed to be of relatively high quality at least in comparison to the lacklustre Marni collection), I came to the conclusion that there was probably something more to this collaboration than simple brand-lust.  I’ve been thinking about the recent article from the Business of Fashion, which essentially took the position that designer collaborations devalued the idea of fashion itself and that appealing to the masses is symptomatic of some kind of cultural rot:

“Underlying commercial motives are often obscured, however, by a ubiquitous but pernicious phrase: ‘the democratisation of fashion.’ Whoever coined the term is surely the marketing genius of the 21st century. On the face of it, who can argue that ‘the democratisation of fashion’ isn’t a good thing?
I can.”

I find this kind of attitude quite scary and, to state the obvious, a little outdated. The writer, Eugene Rabkin of StyleZeistGeist magazine (?) seems to be working with some rather odd definitions of what ‘fashion’ means, using ‘fashion’ and ‘high fashion’ pretty much interchangeably, as if they were the same thing.

“‘Fashion,’ in the sense now being co-opted by the high street, used to mean designer fashion; that is, something made by a creator who puts care and thought into what he or she is creating. It means carefully crafted designs made with attention to detail and aesthetic sensibility.”


Take a weekend stroll on London’s Oxford Street or on New York’s Broadway and witness hordes of teenagers on their weekly shopping pilgrimages courtesy of mass-market retailers.
For this audience, ‘clothes’ are not cool enough. ‘Fashion’ is what lures young people into stores, which is the raison d’être behind these designer collaborations. But make no mistake, what is called ‘the democratisation of fashion’ is really the bastardisation of fashion; that is, taking a designer’s ideas and watering them down for mass consumption.”

Somehow fashion becomes something to be hated when everyone else wants to participate. He speaks of mass fashion as if it were some new phenomenon of the 21 century (it is not, this cycle of innovators/adopters has always been around, its just working a bit faster these days, with the internet facilitating the consumption of fashion imagery) his working definition infers fashion that isn’t created with a couture level of care and innovation isn’t fashion, which is clearly bullshit.

Without this process of ‘watering down’, designers would simply be preaching to the choir and would soon prove themselves utterly culturally irrelevant. Without this cultural exchange, of high to low, and low to high, innovation would stall, as there would be no momentum carrying people forwards towards the new. After all, Coco Chanel copied her little black dress from the street wear of the time.  Fashion types seem not to be so offended when the price tag is gaining zeros instead of losing them.

“Ironically, such brand worship was exactly what Maison Martin Margiela was against. For years Margiela was a designer’s designer, an intelligent creator and a pioneer of deconstruction who refused to talk to the media, letting his work speak for itself . . . Two opposites have met. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees the paradox. 
By all means, if you are willing to buy into this collaboration, please do, just don’t think that you are buying ‘fashion’ or a part of Margiela’s legacy — what you are buying are assembly-line knockoffs that you will discard by next year. But if this has become your idea of fashion, I urge you to reconsider.”

This analysis of Martin Margiela as some naïve dreamer who preferred to stay away from the limelight completely misses the point of Margiela. The blank labels, the ‘anonymity’, the splicing of iconic garments to each other and themselves into new-yet-old mongrels of iconography, all lead into the most extreme level of mystique and exclusivity and form the perfect ‘anti-brand’. 

I’m of the opinion that Margiela knew exactly what he was doing. If you refuse people exactly what they want, you only make them want it more. Margiela himself is a marketing genius.  He understood the mythic appeal of the elusive genius and worked this into his brand, and most probably made a fair deal of money out of it (one assumes, seeing as he sold his brand to Diesel group).  This cynicism and desire for commercial gain only ever becomes a problem it seems, when it starts to go beyond the anointed few. For twenty years, Margiela has indeed been the ‘designer’s designer’, the ultimate secret.

Now this secret has been blown wide open, so it makes sense to assume that the game is up, and Margiela has in one fell swoop managed to erase all that hard won ‘exclusivity’, right? After all, Rabkin’s article makes it sound like fashion is finally dead. Kaput. Over.

Don’t be silly. People who think that this is somehow a negative thing for the concept of ‘FASHION’ (the caps are soo necessary) are being completely stagnant in their thinking about the whole process. Margiela is about ideas, fashion is about ideas, and the ideas that Margiela proposed have had a massive impact, which we will continue to see the effects of for decades to come. Margiela effectively totally broke down, rebuilt and reaffirmed the power of the brand.  He was a master of deconstruction on every level, including his business. In terms of the power of fashion brands, and the ideas attached to them, I honestly believe we haven’t seen anything yet. The way Margiela took ownership of his ideas by refusing ‘ownership’ of them turned everything on its head.

I think what really pissed people off about this particular collaboration was the nature of the pieces included. All the garments were ‘re-editions’ of past product from the mainline, simply taken out of the archive and put into mass production.


To say that these pieces are somehow separated completely from-not only the legacy of Margiela-but also the fashion paradigm itself, is short sighted to the point of blindness. This is potentially the most radical thing ever done by Margiela (the brand). All the other collaborations with H&M created ‘new’ designs specifically created for the mass market (do correct me if I’m wrong). A ‘healthy’ distance was kept between the ‘real’ brand and the H&M product. The ‘fakes’ were easy to spot. Now the exact same pieces that were being sold for hundreds are going for tens, with only minor edits in the form of a change in manufacture base and a possible re-jig of the sizing and fabric.

so-called ‘fake’ margiela

The real thing huh? (pic from tumblr).
What this collection does, is not explode the myth of ‘fashion’, which is alive and well, thank you very much, but completely exposes the lies of ‘exclusivity’ and ‘rarity’ which are perpetuated by the many-zeroed price tags. My personal problem with fast-fashion knock-offs has always been that the quality of the ideas embodied by the designs does in fact end up being ‘watered down’ to the point where you just get a logo T shirt and a nasty tote bag. And people buy into it, including me (I’ve written about that elsewhere on the blog).

Another thing I have a massive problem with, is this kind of cultural fascism that’s wrapped up in the marketing of ‘exclusivity’. Its representative of a kind of snobbery that simply makes me want to hurl. I don’t care if something is cheap, if everyone is wearing it or if the chosen few look down their noses at it; if I love it I’ll wear it to death. My allergy to the concept of ‘rarity’ I fear makes me somewhat of a rarity myself.

Somewhere in the labyrinth of marketing and branding, the idea of good design, and why we love it, gets lost. People get rich and realize they can have anything, and then they realize they want the one thing nobody else can have. Well I’m not like that, and I like to believe there are other people out there who aren’t like that too. I believe in good design, and believe everyone should be able to have it. I don’t care if that makes me seem tacky and common, and I don’t care that people like Eugene Rabkin think I shouldn’t be able to participate in the wearing and loving of fashion.

I for one am glad that things like designer collaborations exist, and am happy to consume this kind of fast fashion until something better comes along. Perhaps one day high fashion won’t have to water itself down in order to interact with ordinary people.

I’d like to think that one day we could have brands that are so strong and so inspiring that they don’t lose anything by appealing to actual people, and not just the 1%. Brands that are affirmed by popularity, rather than threatened by it. How great would it be to have clever, wonderful brands like Balenciaga, Margiela and Comme produce lines at accessible prices within their own brands, instead of being reliant on H&M. I can see it happening, with the rise of ecommerce the geographical factor in ‘exclusivity’ is being erased, (soon everything will be online, no ifs about it) perhaps next to go will be the price factor. Maybe the idea of exclusivity will maintain its strength through timed sales, along the line of these H&M events.

Perhaps our ability to participate in fashion culture will one day not be dependant on our relative richness, or even our location, but instead on our love of good design, and how much time we are willing to dedicate to the brands we love.

So it’s worth keeping in mind, that this ‘fake’ fashion, is for most people, as real as it gets.

Apologies for the font and sizing weirdness, blame blogger, not me!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

NYFW S/S13– first fashion impressions.

YAGH/- Proenza Schouler

This collection nearly ended up on my ‘BLAGH’ list – the first looks were all very nice, very Proenza, but I was sitting there half falling asleep. I believe reviewers refer to this as the designer ‘solidifying their signature’ or ‘re-establishing their house codes’ or something. For me, however, it just felt a little bit like going over old ground and not particularly well enough to make you want to sit through it. Kind of like somebody unnecessarily introducing you to a friend of theirs that you already know all about. Things got interesting in the final looks though as Jack and Lazaro really opened their creativity up and gave us a taste of where they can take this old rust-bucket that is fashion.

Dresses with large-scale singular photo prints were covered with eyelets, grommets and flat studs. Cathy Horyn articulated their inspiration thus:

“On the Internet they found images of protesters, a beach scene, and they were planning to cut them up and combine them in some way with woven leather and maybe studs. The finished garments, in fact, were mesmerizing: couture as Tumblr.”
This ‘couture as tumblr’ idea really grabbed my attention. If you extrapolate that statement out you can start to see the connections between the two things. Tumblr and other photo sharing sites are all about personal involvement and curation. It’s not just the passive consumption of images and garments, but active involvement, just like old school couture.

This feels incredibly contemporary. More like the fashion industry may be taking teensy steps towards approaching clothes as people do, as individual unique experiences. The studs were what really pushed it for me. It’s what took it beyond merely being another digital print. In fact it’s what made these dresses feel truly digital. Each little dot felt like a tumblr note, each eyelet was a reblog. The cumulative effect was almost a hint towards crowd-sourced fashion, as if you could feel each and every viewer’s emotional involvement in the work.

Digital is all about the personal, and these dresses felt very personal. At the end of the day it’s about active involvement in the world around us, and this ‘tumblr couture’ feels like a statement of that.

/NAGH – Rodarte

Rodarte was a double betrayal. Not only did they fail to get back on track after a fair run of bad seasons (which I’ve been desperate for them to do since like S/S11), but they copied other visionary designers so badly and unimaginatively. Firstly, the appeal of Rodarte has always been their pure artistic vision and uncompromising non-trendiness. It’s about the Rodarte sisters’ personal story, and engagement with their work. This season could’ve been designed by anyone. They completely abandoned their aesthetic, and it felt rushed and uncared for. How sad. I honestly believe that they could do their wispy draped distressed thing season after season (just in different colourways, etc) and get away with it, because it’s simply undeniably beautiful.

Unfortunately they seem to be feeling the pressure to become some kind of ‘fashion’ brand – which is not just unnecessary but totally wrong for them. Stick to the art/fashion, would be my advice.  My main worry with Rodarte attempting to ‘do’ fashion is that the sisters simply aren’t cut out for it. They’re clearly quiet, bookish ladies (they studied art history and got into the fashion game sort of by accident) and aren’t trained designers who have been initiated to the pressures of the relentless fashion system. My suspicion is that they can’t hack the seasonal nature of it all, and don’t have the kind of creativity that can be relied upon, as most fashion designers do.

So why bother? Why do the fashion weeks at all? Grow some balls ladies, and become the Alaia of America. It would be amazing to have one fantastic Rodarte collection every couple of years.

 (Just a reminder of how great they can be.)

My second gripe is the sheer badness of the copying. A certain amount of copying is to be expected from the Americans, after all that’s pretty much their thing. And I generally have no objection to sellable designers copying the more avant-garde designers, because the whole point of having an avant-garde is for their ideas to be made palatable by others. That’s just how culture works. But seriously? The clothes were lumpy misshapen literal translations of various Balenciaga designs from various collections, grabbed harem scarem. The colours and fabric were taken wholesale, and mashed up into scary Frankenstein’s monsters. This was less of a caring, thoughtful homage; more of a panicked supermarket sweep. I even saw bits of Dries van Noten’s beautiful fabric clashing in there and as far as I am concerned Dries is the one designer you do not copy. Don’t even go there, I won’t hear of it.

To be clear: If you are going to copy, copy well. Copy with care, and heart, and bring something to it.

BLAGH – Alexander Wang

I usually like Alexander Wang, but this season I have very little to say, apart from … meh. It was all very clean, and polished, and refined, and whatever. The looks all blended into each other, and I felt as if I was trapped in a prison of white and seethrough style lines, desperately trying to count the days.

I’m pretty sure any old sod could have had that idea and done what he did with it. Nice but, oh god, DULL. I’ve seen all these ideas before. In fact, I think I may have had these ideas before myself and discarded them for being too ‘meh’ before beating myself for being so generic and unimaginative.

Liked the knits though. Some lucky graduate has gone and got themselves a nice job.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


An interesting article by Maya Singer popped up at the end of the new (sadly underwhelming) edition of POP magazine. The piece takes a lot for granted and makes a few questionable assumptions, but really made me think. It suggested an alternate view on the issues with fashion criticism, and for that I am grateful. It’s a tiny nugget of genuine fashion commentary, and we all know how rare they are.

Heres the intro:

“Fashion reviewers are diplomats. They trade in doublespeak. The best ones couch their arguments against a collection they’re not crazy about in silky tributes to the designer’s technique, the clothes detail. See, see, the reviewers imply, I looked hard, I tried. But it just didn’t work this time. You have to read between the lines to get the point. And the surest way to know that a reviewer was utterly perplexed by a collection is to note how much he, or she, talks about things like set décor, or that season’s inspiration. It’s a way of begging the question of the reviewer’s own feelings about the show. Another sure way to understand that a collection was confounding is to clock how often, in the blogosphere, it’s referred to as ‘controversial’.”

One of my main issues with fashion commentary is this doublespeak, which Singer seems to admire. I’ve never really approached it from this angle before, where this ‘subtlety’ is a complex technique, a skill.  Now that I think about it, I see that fashion criticism does in fact have an element of polite double meanings, as if the critics live in fear of some great oppressor and can only speak their feelings in code, lest they be punished.

This is not inherently a bad thing as it could lead to fashion criticism developing its own language, history and mindset. Fashion criticism has the potential to become a genuine, independent aspect of culture, self reliant in style and subtext.

But then my  (perhaps overdeveloped) sense of injustice kicks in. Why should fashion critics have to hide their criticism? Why can’t they just do their job, free from the fear that if they upset one person, they may be blocked from following their profession? It’s a sad fact that fashion critics simply can’t do their job without going to the shows, showrooms or studios of the designers they’re writing about. Because writing about clothes is an inherently embodied experience.

I can analyse the mediated fashion image from my armchair quite easily, (and I do), however I cannot analyse actual clothes without feeling their fabric, seeing them in 360 degrees, experiencing them in real life. That’s why, no matter how big I or any other blogger may get, you cannot call yourself a fashion critic until you get invited to the fashion weeks. Its just such a shame that an aspiring fashion critic can only get to that position through flattery, as flattery is the exact opposite of criticism.

Another issue I have with Singer’s analysis is her interpretation of critic’s use of this doublespeak, as being in response to being ‘perplexed’ or ‘confounded’. Here I suspect Singer may be using her own doublespeak, as she doesn’t want to suggest that critics didn’t like the Chanel show that the body of the article is about. How deep this fear of Chanel runs! Maybe they kill off rogue critics, Zoolander-style.  Its also quite insulting to suggest critics didn’t understand Chanel. From where I’m standing there isn’t really much there to be confused by. Singer implies that critics have developed this complex code to cover up their inability to process the fashion in front of them, whereas I would argue they speak in this code out of fear.

I really wish that one day we will be able to have in depth, honest discussions in the public sphere, without fear of being silenced. I am tired of these discussions happening behind closed doors, ‘confidentially’ and ‘off the record’. The ability to analyse fashion in real time (and not 20years after the fact, as academics do), is not only important for the fashion industry, but for wider creative culture.

Fashion designers have a wonderful opportunity to respond to and create culture at a much faster rate than, say architects or artists, as they produce work every 3 months, again and again like clockwork. Often designers are working so quickly and instinctively that they don’t have the time to step back and analyse their own work. This is where the fashion critic steps in. Unfortunately this shroud of secrecy means that not everyone can benefit from these discussions, and we cannot learn as a community from each other.

So it seems that until my utopia arrives, I will have to heed Maya Singers wise words, and continue to read between the lines.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Never judge a book by its cover?

Hearing about the death of Anna Piaggi last month got me thinking about the legacy of fashion people and ‘style icons’, and how wider society remembers these figures.  Reading through the obituaries of Piaggi, much is noted of her extensive wardrobe, singular style and standing in the fashion world. Almost as an afterthought comes details of her work; she had a prolific output at Vogue Italia, where she put together collages she called her ‘doppie pagines’.  These pages reflected her encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of costume, and drew parallels between couture and wider culture unseen by many others.

This depth of knowledge was not the source of Anna’s acclaim, however. She took on the greater, vague-er role of ‘Style icon’, and was loved the fashion world over for her theatricality and for never wearing the same outfit twice. It can be argued that her personal dress took on such a higher profile than her ‘real work’ that in fact her style of dress was in fact her life’s work, with hr other endeavours building up to and feeding into a great live experiment – 81 years in the duration.

Through dedicating oneself to being fabulous, and to encouraging the fabulousness of others through visual means as stylists, editors and mediators of the fashion image, do we need our fashion tastemakers to really write anything? We all know we largely only buy fashion glossies for the images; flicking through we only give each page a half second to grab us before we move on. Vogue is just like Playboy in this regard, saying you read it for the articles is a joke, regardless of how high the quality of the journalism.

Many of our fashion greats have a largely silent (but no less powerful) influence, from Diana Vreeland to Anna Wintour and beyond. The real conversations are happening behind closed doors, and the public is faced with a silent yet screaming wall of pure visual style.

I guess it would be fitting to look at the polar opposite of this attitude, to balance it out.

Amy Spindler was a fashion critic at the New York Times from the late 90s to the early 2000’s, sadly dying of a brain tumour in 2004. Here’s a short but sweet obit (from 10 magazine’s tumblr).

“Fashion editors going to fashion shows is a little like high-school kids…taking drugs, drinking, wearing slutty clothes, or jumping off bridges: they do it because everybody else is doing it.” So starts a fashion-week diary Amy Spindler wrote for Slate magazine back in 2000.

 She went on, in that first entry, to state that fashion editors look forward to death, because, among other things, “they can wear the back of their dress open for the first time in public”.

But then, she never was one to wrap things in cotton wool. More a shoot-from-the-hip kinda girl, making sure designers knew when they hadn’t delivered their best. She wasn’t venomous but honest, her opinions gathered from her observations, backed up with knowledge and intelligence.

She started out writing press releases for Brides magazine before moving on to The Daily News Record, then W before finally ending up at The New York Times, where the role of fashion critic was created for her. Her presence and fierce views soon established the fashion industry as a force to reckoned with, not a frivolous indulgence that had, up until then, been merely, for want of a better word, humoured.

Sadly, Spindler died in 2004, at the age of 40, from a brain tumour. Cathy Horyn, who had become her successor at The Times in 2003, summed her up in her obituary perfectly: “Ms Spindler was never interested in simply putting a dress on a page or talking about hemlines. She recognised that fashion was as important a cultural barometer as music or art and that it should be – demanded to be – covered as rigorously as a political campaign.”
(by Natalie Dembinska)

Upon googling Spindler, you mostly get obituaries of her, and photos of Cathy Horyn. She seemed to dress in uniform black, never attention grabbing. From the few relevant results you can glean that here was a critic who took her job seriously, and was well aware that she had an important job to do and was going to do it. Finding her work requires some actual effort (i.e. searching the archives of the new york times online), so heres a few articles I’ve pulled out of the pile:

Now I’m not attempting to actively compare these two women, as they clearly occupied wildly different roles in the industry, and its fair to make a distinction between the two. Its disappointing to note however that Piaggi died a style icon while Spindler was amazingly prolific as a writer over a rough 10 year period and what people only seem to note is that she died young.

Clothing can act as an abstract expression of complex attitudes and opinions; and it is this abstraction that leads to people of all intellects being able to appreciate Anna’s brave style rather than Amy’s . Even if you do not ‘speak’ fashion, and understand that an outfit can be a biting comment just as much as an article can, (or analyse the parralels that Piaggi drew), you can still see a brave, colourful lady and be inspired.

We do, however, need more people who speak fashion and are willing to translate to the rest of the world. And it would be brilliant to see more people blur the lines between the ‘style icons’ and the critics of the world. Why not express your views through writing AND visuals? That way, perhaps, you can create a double whammy sucker punch that’ll make sure the world has no choice but to pay attention.

As an end-note, a fair few people paid tribute to Anna Piaggi as ‘one of the last great style icons’. This annoys me. It’s the same as when an old movie star dies, and people say ‘the last great bombshell’ or whatever.
A) Its insulting to the ones that are still alive, of which there are many, and
B) Stars are always being made and dying, what will people say when Susie Bubble dies in like 60 years or whatever, will she be ‘the last great style icon’ too?

To prove that point, heres a selection of great fashion people who are either still writing great fashion, wearing great fashion or combining the two.

Susie Bubble

Lynn Yaeger

Alexander Fury

Cathy Horyn

Suzy menkes
(interviewed by Alexander Fury – 2 for 1 deal!)

Apologies for the weird sizing and fonts, blogger is being a tad eccentric!

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Hi-viz or stealth?

Browsing style.com, I came across an article that reminded me of something I’ve wanted to explore for a while now.

Figure 1: reflective yarn, which along with the classic fluorescent yellow and orange manmade fabrics, comes under the category of hi-tech fabrics that have traditionally been limited to being worn as safety uniforms.

I’d heard about reflective yarn before, and spent quite a bit of time fantasizing about the perfect reflective knit jumper a couple of years ago. It’s nice to know it’s in existence now! Back then I actually found some hi-viz men’s salopettes in a charity shop. I wore them all winter 10/11, (or was it 09/10?) I suck at remembering dates, which is why I refer to fashion collections as, ‘eeerrrrr,…. you know, the one with the pompoms and leopard print? You know what I mean?’

I seriously loved those salopettes. I also toyed with the idea of buying an entire hi-vis builders outfit, and I stocked up on as much hi-vis fabric as I could (I collect fabric, mad old hoarder that I am, how could I not?).  Those were the days. Anyway, in the midst of my fluoro-mania I did my fair share of pondering about the deep philosophical meaning of high visibility fabrics.

Figure 2: I even styled (with my friend Bob) some of my designs with a hi-viz vest in a photo shoot we did in 2nd year. I like the way it shows through the jumper.

From: You can see more from this shoot right at the bottom of my tumblr (see sidebar widget/link).

Wearing those trousers certainly made me stand out; it may have been too much for some people. Even in the fashion studios, where it was pretty much ‘anything goes’, I remember a number of strange looks. I don’t have any pics of when I wore them, but here’s some retro 90’s ski fashion to give you an idea.

Figure 3: snazzy 80s/90s ski fashion. Skiers ned to be as colourful and eye catching as possible so that if they get lost or hurt on the mountains they can be spotting from rescue helicopters.

It makes me wonder about what its like for people who are made to wear hi-viz on a regular basis because of safety regulations. A group that includes skiers, motorcyclists, and builders; hi-viz wearers are made to wear the most attention grabbing clothes available, by law.

Figure 4: I'm loving the styling on this shot. 
From:  http://www.priceinspector.co.uk/i/yellow%20trousers/f/desc,True/

We’re all used to it, and we all accept it because it’s ‘normal’, but if you think about it, it upsets a lot of notions about clothes and fashionable dress. 

In the case of builders; lets assume they’re just normal blokes, who spend their days in jeans and slogan T-shirts, minding their own business, and happily blending in. However, when they get down to business, they have to adopt entirely different modes of dress, and become by definition attention seekers. High fashion models aint got nothing on these guys.

However, hi-viz does not take into account the usual civilized considerations of clothes. It’s nothing to do with fashion; it is pure practicality, pure uniform. It’s not about looking good, or rich, or impressing your peers. There is no social rank being expressed (its not like the more important you are, the more you wear). As a uniform, it disregards identity. Such attention grabbing garments can in fact make people ‘invisible’.

 Figure 5: Builders look sheepish.

So whenever I see a builder walking about in his hi-viz suit, all covered in paint or plaster or whatever, I’m think A) I wish I looked that good and then B) I wonder if he hates it?

Maybe the more painty and dirty he gets, the happier he is, because it means he isn’t so garish anymore. Or does he simply not give a shit? Does the fact that he’s being exempted from the codes of fashion in such a obvious way, release him or freak him out?

 Figure 6: Builders in the mud. From http://www.flickr.com/photos/33563017@N06/3142435418

It’s something I’d love to do loads of interviews and surveys about, but I don’t know many builders socially, and whenever I see them out and about, I figure they wouldn’t have the time to philosophize about the meaning of clothed identity with a mad fashioner like me, seeing as they’re, you know, at work.

In the case of bikers, I have been doing some actual research (say what???), i.e. stalking around a couple of biking forums on the internetz and googling ‘hi-viz head-to-toe’.

It seems it’s quite a debate in the biking community, as lawmakers have started making it compulsory for bikers to wear a certain percentage of hi-viz  on the road. Which is interesting, because as we all know, some bikers bike because they like to bike, but some bikers bike to look cool. The argument on the forums boils down to “hi-viz or stealth?”, which isn’t fair because stealth just automatically sounds more cool. It’s like asking a man if he’d rather be a spy or a clown.

Figure 7: I would wear this. All. The. Time. 
From: http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=2393894&userid=0&perpage=40&pagenumber=232

Hi-viz has its dedicated followers too. There’s a mentality out there that approaches hi-viz as a test of true bikerness. The idea being, if you truly care about biking and biking only, you’ll pile it on in a bid to, yes, be safe, but also prove you’re not a poser. Only the truly committed and pure of heart biker will brave all out fluoro. In this reasoning I start to see an attitude that makes my heart sing, which is the idea of hi-viz being punk. Not silly tartan and safety pin cliché punk in aesthetics only, but a real punk mentality. By taking something that actively hurts the eyes, and provokes such a physical reaction in people, we can rebel against the impulses that encourage us towards beigey tastefulness.

Figure 8: you can work your hi-viz look by artfully draping yourself in rope and wire, and contrasting with a nice harsh grey.
From: http://www.flickr.com/photos/binmen/3144838058/in/photostream

It really makes me think about the dual meanings of visibility and invisibility. Do we become invisible when we don a uniform and opt out of the social context of clothes? If I went out in head-to-toe hi-viz, would people automatically assume I was being forced to wear it, and ignore my statement as they would with a builder at work in a public space? Or, alternatively, do I become the definition of confrontation, by reflecting light right back at the status quo and blinding the small minded with my vomit yellow trousers?

Perhaps I will buy that high-viz jacket, dig out my old salopettes, and go find out.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Trash Vortex

Being short of money and sadly employment-free, I am reduced to sating my lust for designer clothing by finely combing the cheap end of eBay, and on occasion charity shops (when I can be bothered to leave the house).

I have spent many an hour filtering through the hundreds of Comme des Garcons ‘play’ T shirts and perfume; putting out my feelers for something, anything, that I might be able to realistically purchase. I consider it my duty as a paid up member of the entirely fictional ‘avant-garde appreciation society’, to at least attempt to get one item of interest from each of my favourite labels.

So far off eBay I have, for example, a weird mesh vest from Balenciaga that always rides up and shows my belly button, a Junya Watanabe harness T shirt that always makes me feel like Junya himself is giving me a passive aggressive hug, and a Dries Van Noten jumper that makes me look the size of a bus.

When one is a monetary invalid, one is reduced to wading through the scuzzy part of the retail landscape, of second hand not-quite-vintage. The odd piece of quality might find its way down by mistake, but in my haste I become willing to ignore my usually strict filtering process, and am tempted to overlook considerations such as sizing and fit, for ‘a real bargain’.

I was discussing these dirty shopping habits with a friend, who was selling her paltry collection of Margiela t shirts and jumpers, and we sadly came to the conclusion that these things are usually for sale because people don’t want them. And people usually don’t want things for a reason. They’re the not-quite-right fitting forgotten purchases that through a process of elimination, end up sad and squished at the back of the wardrobe (or in my case, gathering dust in a holey bin bag under the bed. Classy girl, moi.)

Said friend has found the strength to sell up and move on, to wait for the day when she can walk into Dover Street Market and buy things because she actually wants them, rather than because the price is good.  I, however, am not ready, and desperately trawl the web looking for cheap Balenciaga, rocking back and forth, and clinging to my moth-eaten Comme.

There is something to be gained from this sad situation, though. In the midst of my fevered scrabblings through the retail backwaters of the internet, a thought occurred to me.

We all know designers produce a lot of crap, but what if we judged these designers wholly according to said crap? It’s kind of like judging a girl on her perceived sluttyness.  It by no means presents a whole and balanced picture of the person, but it can throw up some interesting observations.

Different designers produce different quantities and qualities of said crap, and it all seems to gather on eBay, like the Pacific trash vortex, but slightly trashier.
Marc Jacobs, for example, only ever seems to produce tote bags. Forget his grunge era, forget the awesome ads with Juergen Teller. It’s Tote bags, skanky little purses and cheap, nasty looking ‘flirty skirts’. From the view of the bottom of the pile, looking upwards, that is all we see. That is all that filters its way down the pyramid to your run-of-the-mill indentured consumer.

Lets aim a little more ‘conceptual’ – Margiela, henceforth shall only be known as a purveyor of quite nice haute-sneakers, and of course the aforementioned jumpers and T shirts (most of which I am sure are being flogged by my mate). No Tabi boots, no found object couture, all Margiela is and will ever be to me is a creator of nice but boring casualwear. Next!

Lets look somewhere big, shall we? Dior, Dior, Dior, how we all love you. The New Look, Galliano, now Raf! (I was going to do a review of the show but just got so sick of everyone else’s opinions I rebelled by deliberately not forming my own.) But no, according to what I have now christened the eBay-trash-fashion-vortex, Dior is just a cheap Sunglasses brand, with the occasional pleather mini-purse thrown in for good measure.

Don’t even get me started on McQueen – if I see another skull print scarf I will vomit.

Joking aside, there is something interesting about this filtering process. By judging brands by their very worst impulses (Yves Saint Laurent licensed ties, I am looking at you), we can start to analyse their impact, from the bottom up. Here we can see the goods that people can genuinely handle, and live with. I wonder if designers really consider this, when they lend out their names.

Apart from the 1%, people don’t wear the clothes they see in the magazines and on the runways. They consume these clothes as images, as they compile their wish lists. Vintage 90’s Margiela will only exist in 2d form for me, and most fashion lovers out there. We might one day see it in a museum, behind glass (if lucky). Designers might do well to put more thought into the long-term consumption of their products, and start to see that the ‘cheap tat’ can build a much more significant legacy, one with genuine impact on the way we live, not just our aspirations.

There are exceptions of course. Most of what I have seen cheap by Hussein Chalayan, has always seemed very considered. This is maybe not so surprising, as Chalayan has always been a very quiet, free thinking sort of designer, managing to extricate himself from the circusy side of things, as much as is reasonable. His extended work with Puma and J Brand has always been very interesting to me.

One last note on this phenomenon (and this is something I touched upon in my DSM post) is that the designers can’t control what will end up on eBay. Their power to control and edit their brand image over time is useless here.  No amount of marketing and visual merchandising will save you from the eBay vortex.  More so, the powers of good design take over. Certain truths float to the surface, and a crappy bag that’s on its second, third or fourth hand has a truth all of its own. 

Images: collage (top) created by me (image source here). All others screencaps straight off eBay.