Swathed, slashed and pleated - wrapping up the fashion industry

Radical Fashion - The Fashion Book, Mini Edition - Fashion Today - Visionaries
January 11, 2002

Described by Vogue as "The fashion bible", The Fashion Book should have been in every fashion student's Christmas stocking last month. This is the ideal pocket reference book, listing more than 500 influential designers, photographers, illustrators, models, editors and fashion icons. Anyone who is or was anyone in the fashion business, "that lives somewhere between art and commerce", has their own illustrated page with cross references to their influences and contacts. The reference value is completed with a glossary of major movements from dress reform to grunge and punk, and explanations of technical terminology, be it aniline dyes or the obi sash.

The Fashion Book puts into historical context the fashion business that today's student might think was born with John Galliano. I tested its usefulness when researching designers' education and discovered how many of the famous names initially trained as architects, including Pierre Balmain, Romeo Gigli, Paco Rabanne and Gianni Versace. Looking into how the work of fashion designers was influenced by fine art and contemporary painters, the book covers Schiaparelli's fixation with Dali, Yves St Laurent's masterly translation of Mondrian in his 1960s shift dresses and Jean Charles de Castelbajac's witty use of pop-art images.

Initially published in a full-size hardback edition in 1998, the new miniature format's illustrations occasionally suffer from the reduced scale - but what a relief compared with the coffee-table size of the other three books under review. At £6.95, there is simply no reason for even the most impecunious student not to include The Fashion Book in his or her portfolio.

Susannah Frankel's Visionaries includes interviews with 23 influential designers over the past five years, originally published in The Independent , The Guardian or Dazed and Confused . Frankel's work is disarming, informed and entertaining. She does her homework, and each interview is backed up with career details and descriptions of the designer's work, history and place in the lexicon of world fashion. Her personality shines through in most of the pieces; her sympathies and dislikes are clear. The sheer enjoyability of her interview with Alexander McQueen, her susceptibility to the charm of Manolo Blahnik and her keen appreciation of Issey Miyake and his Arizona exhibition in Marugame in 1997 provide particularly vivid writing, as do her in-depth conversations with Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith. Where this collection falls down is in the inclusion of interviews conducted by fax or telephone, for example with Martin Margiela, Junya Watanabe or Helmut Lang. These lack vitality, leaving just a well-researched history of the designer and his work plus a straightforward question-and-answer session, with little comment or Frankel's own reactions that make the more successful interviews so delightful. A more ruthless editor might have thought twice about their inclusion in this collection, despite the importance of these designers' work.

This is a book to be dipped into, savoured in small slices and appreciated by anyone interested in fashion, from the general reader intrigued by designers as personalities to those involved in fashion education and the industry. Although not required reading for the professional, it is a pleasure to read and discover the occasional gems of indiscretion.

Frankel is also one of five contributors to Radical Fashion . To describe this as "the book of the show" would be misleading. It is rather an accompanying commentary on the work of the 11 designers featured in the recent V&A exhibition of the same name. With the exception of Frankel (by far the most readable of the contributors), the book's academic authors are all curators of various exhibitions featuring aspects of fashion or historical dress.

Curators tend to write for an academic readership and none more so than Judith Clark. Her lead chapter, "Looking forward to historical futurism", is scholarly, if opaque, and its connection to the other contributions is tenuous. The futurists, in the early years of the last century, were not dress designers but painters, sculptors and poets. Influential maybe, but not crucial in the development of radical fashion design.

The other contributors choose to concentrate on a small selection of the featured designers rather than the whole group selected for Radical Fashion . This allows for a specialised approach to the individual grouping of designers who fall naturally under particular banners, from the Paris-based radical traditionalists - Azzedine Alaia and Jean Paul Gaultier - to the four revolutionary Japanese designers who overturned the European approach to couture (where cloth was cut to follow the contours of the body) by their creative use of fabric, be it swathed, slashed, wrapped or pleated.

Radical Fashion curator Claire Wilcox quotes Roland Barthes in her introduction: "Every new fashion is a refusal to inherit, a subversion against the oppression of the preceding fashion." A sweeping statement that does not explain the work of Westwood or Gaultier who both exhibit strong attachments to history and to classic clothing, adding their own very special twist and unexpected shock to their sometimes derivative inspiration. Margiela's work is cerebral and deconstructive. He plays with scale and the re-presentation of existing fashion such as a 1960s cocktail dress slashed and enlarged by insertions to twice its original size. He and Lang could be said to use clothing and the body as canvasses for their own personal artistic visions. Each of the featured designers has art-directed an eight-page visual essay with uneven results. Few of the designs photographed were on display in the remarkable parent exhibition. Designers such as Watanabe and Lang have chosen painterly reference images rather than finished designs. At the other extreme, Westwood simply puts together a selection of catwalk action shots. Miyake and Hussein Chalayan provide the most satisfying visual mix of inspiration, development and final design in their well-chosen selection of photographs.

Radical Fashion is a series of very loosely connected essays on a fascinating selection of highly creative designers. It should be read for its own merits rather than as a complement to the V&A exhibition.

Now to a book I could not put down - having only just been able to pick it up. Colin McDowell's elegant Fashion Today weighs in at a little over 7lbs and needs a lectern, so it is not one for bedtime reading. The format is larger than most glossy magazines and some beautiful full-page, close-up photography can best be registered at arm's length. The text, however, is printed in a sans-serif typeface, so small and pale grey that reading glasses are almost obligatory.

McDowell is a writer difficult to put into any category. He is a fashion historian, a journalist and a social commentator. Above all his writing is a delight. Erudite but highly readable, he makes connections for his readers between sociology and historical context, ethnic influence and technology, plotting the progression from power to protest and from fashion for the haute bourgeoisie to the kids in the clubs.

In this book he examines the past half-century of fashion in a series of themed studies on the postwar New Look, the youth revolution of the 1960s, ethnic influences and fantasy, the role of the media and fashion magazine, the designer as superstar, music and entertainment, pop culture and consumerism, culminating in the anti-fashion democratisation of fashion in the street. Expanding his history, he also examines the influence of the media reflected in the cult of personality from Dior and St Laurent to Gaultier and Galliano. The presentation of fashion as entertainment and fantasy is not new, dating back beyond Paul Poiret, but it has been taken to new heights by fashion photographers from Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin to Nick Knight.

The glorification of the fashion model from walking clothes hanger to filmstar icon status is another result of media attention. The fashion show is now a media and theatrical event - far removed from the original calm presentation of a designer's newest range. It epitomises the designer's dreams. It aims to shock and even to make a philosophical or political statement showing clothes that seldom reach the shops, other than in severely edited form. McDowell explores this urge to shock with his examinations of role playing from the teddy boy, the hippie and the punk to heroin chic. Designers have plundered the past, "cherry picking their way across the centuries" from Dior's New Look to Westwood. Womenswear has stolen elegance from menswear, from smoking jacket to sportswear, and lifted ethnic costume almost wholesale. The impetus has always been to reject the recent past even though what replaces it is only too often yet another revival capitalising on nostalgia.

Fashion is subject to many influences but, unlike some authors, McDowell never forgets the essential business of clothing the human body in all its guises. Complete with designers' biographies and a calendar of major events, Fashion Today will become essential reading for all those who want to understand fashion developments of the past 50 years.

Lindsay Rosenhead is a design consultant and formerly head of fashion, University of Westminster.

Radical Fashion

Editor - Claire Wilcox
ISBN - 1 85177 341 X
Publisher - V&A Publications
Price - £30.00
Pages - 149

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