As the autumn/winter 14 circus edges nearer, Lou Stoppard questions how the preening and posing amongst fashion's fanfare are to be perceived.
At the last set of London Collections: Men shows in June, I found myself playing an amusing game with some other weary fashion journalists. There was a Fun Run taking place right next to the BFC showspace, so - as the street style set strode past in their ridiculous studded beanies, ironic socks and statement trainers - we challenged each other to work out if passers by were attending LC:M or Fun Run. Still, fashion and style don’t go hand in hand, as Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and all those other BrainyQuote.com experts have observed.
So, it comes as little surprise that once (we heard) on a big budget shoot, an irritable fashion photographer - probably tired of indulging the whims of some ironically dressed stylist - loudly declared, “Fashion makes you look like a c*nt." Not to come over all David Gandy (the suited-and-booted BFC ambassador who controversially bashed brilliant young talent Craig Green live on camera, or the naked D&G guy for those of you wise enough not to tune into Alan Carr: Chatty Man), but you can kind of see the photographer’s point.
Fashion’s got a little brighter recently. As acclaimed critic Suzy Menkes observed in her article, The Circus of Fashion, gone are the days where the fashion pack shuffled around the shows in head-to-toe black, eager to focus on the fashion on the runways not on their front row neighbours. Now it’s the battle of the boldest. As Menkes put it, “Today, the people outside fashion shows are more like peacocks than crows. They pose and preen, in their multi-patterned dresses, spidery legs balanced on club-sandwich platform shoes, or in thigh-high boots under sculptured coats blooming with flat flowers.” As the vogue for “ugly” shoes proves, fashion’s moved away from focusing on appealing to the opposite sex and has become about appealing to an impersonal, silent camera lens. Tiger logos, comedy clutches and Brian Lichtenberg T-shirts are brilliant Instagram fodder, but put them in front of a boy or a non-fashion person and you’re likely to be dubbed a freak. Evidence: one of my most recent purchases, a sumptuous (and, in my opinion, beautiful) teal Shrimps faux-fur coat, was the toast of the town at a fashion party. “Divine,” the attendees all cooed. My best boy mate, who works in finance, recoiled in horror when he saw it, “You look like you’re in Monsters, Inc!” he gasped. Similarly, the developers at work had a good laugh asking if I was now channeling the Cookie Monster.
But, from a feminist’s perspective, there’s something pleasing about fashionistas not caring about looking sexually appealing. Meadham Kirchhoff's spring/summer 11 Riot Grrrl collection probably does look pretty ridiculous to your average Joe, more accustomed to seeing girls in skinny jeans and Abercrombie hoodies, but isn't this all part of women reclaiming their wardrobe as something to express their personality rather than an advert that they'd like some guy to try and get into their pants? After all, in 2013 there's nothing more c*ntish than dressing for a man. The best fashion right now, be it Claire Barrow's painted bikers or Mary Katrantzou’s bold shoe-print frocks, certainly errs on the side of theatrical, but it’s not built for impressing the people around you, it’s built for feeling good about yourself. Cool young stylist Kim Howells, who can usually be seen in Piers Atkinson hats and bright blue vintage pieces doesn’t care what other people think of her ensembles, “Sometimes people stare at me. Yesterday, I got “Kris Kross” shouted at me from two businessmen, which was a bit weird. It doesn't bother me, I think it’s funny. I grew up in Wales - more people stared then! I just wear what makes me happy.”
The same carefree attitude can be seen in menswear. Those frilly feminine elements we've seen in recent years signal a move away from dressing like an Iron John as a means of proving your masculinity and strength. Today, the coolest boys are the ones who seem completely at ease with themselves. They’re not fashion plates, but they’ve got enough confidence to rock a Christopher Shannon liberty print or a Lou Dalton tartan trew with their Uniqlo, should the mood take them.
The kind of photographer that says fashion can make people look stupid is exactly the kind of guy who's probably still using his clothes as a prop, wearing overpriced nondescript T-shirts or investing in a pair of understated Prada trainers to feel powerful and “above it all”. Indeed, that’s the bad side of fashion – the side that’s about making people feel like they’ll fit in if they just part with their credit card enough times. As Carri Cassette Playa Munden puts it, “I’m not interested in fashion, I’m interested in personal style and dressing for expression and communication – that’s pure, whereas fashion just dictates.” Look around at the sheer number of people sporting print, or even the return of logomania and it’s clear that while people are keen to look “kooky”, they’ve also never been as eager to fit in. Eccentricity has been commercialised. “I think culturally things are changing, there is less individualism but the mainstream is more accepting of weirdness,” Munden explains.
So did this grumbling photographer have a point? Well, you can bet your bottom dollar that he was referring mostly to fashion people who blindly follow trends rather than those who express their personal style. That’s the real problem here. Sure you might look a little off-the-wall in your vintage Vivienne Westwood or your Ryan Lo tutu but the real c*ntishness comes when you start buying things because bloggers or magazines say they’re “cool”. Equally, you’re on a downward spiral when you start describing everything around you as #dreamy or #amazeballs (with or without “hilarious” irony) and start subjecting your friends to thirty selfies a day of you in your new designer purchases and your brunch activities in Shoreditch to prove how “lolz” your life is.
The real c*nts in fashion aren’t the editors dressed in their favourite designers, but the hangers on. Those in it for the parties and free invites, the ones who think knowing where the good samples sales are equates to a good fashion history knowledge and who buy designer pieces just as a means of proving their self-worth. Proof in the pudding is the late great Isabella Blow – perhaps the most outlandish dresser in recent fashion history and aptly the subject of a Somerset House exhibition opening this month. Recently, a very brilliant journalist told me that Blow had a penchant for reading on the front row if the frocks on show didn’t impress her. You can bet she’d have had no time for taking group Snapchat shots with her girlfriends, or striking ironic peace signs outside the shows with Alexa Chung. Instead she’d swan around town in her giant Philip Treacy hats and McQueen dresses – two designers she not only wore but also supported and championed from when they were still at college – dressed with complete authenticity and integrity. That’s a very different kind of C word – classy.