Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Fashion’s Future: A History

This is a slight departure from typical postings to reflect on this year’s London Vogue Festival that I visited over the weekend.

imagesCAY7A7UYI fear that the dialogue I am about to paraphrase might weaken my argument, but it shouldn’t and I hope it doesn’t. The dialogue comes from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park; more specifically, from the scene where the ‘blood-sucking’ lawyer, bolshie mathematician, bemused palaeontologists and boggle-eyed grandchildren are being shown around the Park’s laboratory by the ebullient entrepreneur, John Hammond. After watching a Velociraptor hatch, the bolshie mathematician, effortlessly played by Jeff Goldblum, observes that Hammond’s company has been preoccupied with thinking about what it could do and has not thought enough about what it should do. Breeding dinosaurs in the twenty-first century has ethical, and all manner of health and safety, implications.

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I was reminded of this remark as I listened to Natalie Massenet and Paul Smith at the Vogue Festival. The connection between long-dead lizards and two ‘living legends’ may seem spurious, although the ferocity of carnivorous sauropods may rival the temper of some of fashion’s grandes dames and messieurs. But Goldblum’s retort chimes with one of the key messages from Massenet’s and Smith’s talks, as they urged want-to-be designers, stylists, journalists and photographers to reflect critically on their motives and to think what they can contribute to an already crowded industry, the small size of which is grossly disproportionate to its enormous economic and social clout. A desire to work in the fashion industry and a belief that this should be the inevitable outcome after studying at one of the UK’s many fashion colleges, is as sound as it is increasingly difficult to realise. Much of the difficulty lies in the fact that aspirant fashion entrepreneurs harness social media, follow incipient trends and base their oeuvre on established designers and brands. Students focus on what they can do with existing concepts and technologies. They devote too little time to thinking about what would really work best for them and their ideas, which is what they should do.

Look & See

Before his interview with Alexa Chung, Paul Smith talked about the importance of Looking and Seeing, a mantra he must have repeated at least twenty times within ten minutes. He mentioned a photography book, The World in 1900, which provided colour inspiration for one of his collections. He spoke about visits to libraries, holidays around the world and taking pictures – with actual cameras, rather than hand held-devices. He gave a mini lecture about Henri Matisse’s The Snail. Throughout his introductory excursus, Smith’s tone was genial, but he made a dismissive remark about the knowledge that is lying shelved, dormant and dusty in public libraries. He stressed the need to have a point of view. The urgency and pleading in his voice indicated that he has met many vacuous and bland designers and stylists. As British Fashion Council chair, Massenet was more diplomatic, but she emphasised the importance of studying hard, in a manner reminiscent of Michelle Obama. And there were more references to taking photographs, which Massenet did as a child, and the reading of books. Two titles were mentioned and recommended, Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualisation and Faith Popcorn’s The Popcorn Report.

The Snail 1953 by Henri Matisse 1869-1954

The Times, They Have Changed

They did not say so explicitly, but Massenet and Smith seemed to suggest that the fashion industry, like so many others, could easily become bland and homogenised. Smith used the example of weekend supplements in newspapers to show how quickly innovations now become incorporated into the norm. The Times was the first British paper to offer a coloured weekend supplement, but competing papers followed suit and cancelled out the The Times‘ briefly attained USP. A few weeks earlier, photographer Liam Bailey had made a similar point to soon-to-be graduates of the London College of Fashion. Reflecting on the ubiquity of social media in the industry, Bailey suggested that the volume of tweets, images and tags has become so great that they produce only an annoying white noise. Familiarity has truly bred contempt.

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This is a far cry from the Sixties and Seventies, the era of Massenet’s and Smith’s youth and inspiration. But the fashion innovations of this period, much lauded as they are today, were not necessarily borne of a Golden Age, although this is how the story is usually told. The opportunity for global travel certainly increased and although prohibitively expensive for many, television, movies and magazines, notably Holiday, brought the world closer through glossy, dream-like images. But the swing of the Sixties was largely a response to significant social unrest. Wartime conscription had not long ended (1954 in Britain) and the confusion and suspicion that developed after the defeat of Germany led in to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, which still lingers today. Within America, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, not to mention the protests about escalating troop numbers in Vietnam, caused extreme disillusionment, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Throughout the West, increased debate about racial and gender inequalities made it clear that long-held notions about the structures of society were changing. This social upheaval precipitated the fall of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who seemed stubbornly out of touch, but it could be a boon to fashion designers like Mary Quant, models like Grace Coddington and ambitious academics like Roy Strong, who became director of London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1967, at the age of thirty-two (the same year that the thirty-six–year-old Thomas Hoving became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1973, at the age of thirty-eight. The social upheavals of this period caused problems, but in so doing they created opportunities. In some respects, then, this may have been a Golden Age, for although the thirty-year-old Alexa Chung may sit on the Vogue Festival stage and attempt to interview Paul Smith, it is doubtful that the next director of one of Britain’s august national institutions will be at the beginning of their fourth decade.

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Dealing With Democratisation

This is not to say that the twenty-first century despises youth and that all has been done, although Cristóbal Balenciaga claimed something similar when he retired in 1968. Natalie Massenet’s successful concept for Pret-a-Porter was made possible by present technologies. Paul Smith’s company is expanding globally because of increased global connectivity, facilitated by technological innovation. The point is that the rise of social media, which has made our global community at once bigger and smaller, has levelled the playing field enormously. Opportunities now exist for all and not just a few. The inevitable consequence is that standing out, seeming unique, is almost certainly more difficult than when Quant, Coddington and Strong were starting out, especially in a world that now fosters the notion of democratisation, an ill-defined but widely used term that I understand refers to the lifting of barriers to entry.coam-381a-f70-x-97084The message from Natalie Massenet and Paul Smith was far from bleak. They did not tell the fashion students to go home and change focus, consoling them for being born three decades too late. What they did was to make a clarion call for increased integrity. Within our small global community, and our even smaller fashion industry, they said that it was vital for designers, stylists, photographers and writers to foster a greater sense of individuality by reflecting more critically on their experiences and by seeking knowledge – Looking and Seeing, as Sir Paul would say – all of the time. In effect, this means acknowledging that our personal stories – our past – and the heritage of the people and places that we encounter, play a crucial role in who we are and what we do. Paul Smith socks have vibrant stripes and appear remarkably contemporary for this, but they are as likely as not inspired by colours from a weathered beach house and the interior of gothic church that Smith snapped himself using a pre-digital camera. Other fashion brands embrace their heritage and craft more explicitly, whether it be long-established companies like Burberry or new entrepreneurs like shoe maker Justin FitzPatrick. Recent fashion trends in (men’s) fashion have all shown a studied regard for the past, as previous postings have tried to show.

Smith – certainly not Massenet – did not suggest that technology should be shunned and banished, but it should be tamed and used when appropriate. Smith would probably say (I don’t think he did) that technology should be used more to See, rather than Look. As with most things, it is about getting the balance right. According to the chair of the British Fashion Council and one of Britain’s most revered fashion designers, this means we all need to understand the importance and benefit of harnessing the best of the past and present in the work that we do. To demonstrate the creative synergy of the present and past, and to make a seamless concluding segue, it seems entirely appropriate to end by citing one of the last tweets of this year’s Vogue Festival from Sasha Wilkins, aka Liberty London Girl:

Overriding theme of #voguefestival reiterated by Mario Testino is that you must have a super defined point of view to succeed creatively.

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