Surrogate statements

It can be rather too easy to tell a designer by their dress, whether they opt for black or more frivolous attire. David Bernstein on the perils of fashion

‘And what do you do?”I’m a designer.”You look like a designer.”Look?”Well… dress.’

Surprising how conservative creatives can be. Go to their conventions and you’ll be immersed in the conventional. Not the conversation, the apparel. Why should that be? As William Shakespeare said, ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man.’ But do you need appropriated proclamation? Don’t what you say reveal what you do?

But convention remains strong in the world of marketing communication. Why should a corporate ad look like a corporate ad? How come that mission statements resemble each other, become almost interchangeable? Why should design solutions to previous and different problems (often in a different product category) be anything more than a stimulus to a new solution and not, as is so often the case, a template? One downside of awards is the fashion they generate, the temptation to imitate.

Fashion brings us back to dress. Does it matter how a creative dresses? ‘A man becomes the creature of his uniform,’ said Napoleon. But who hires a designer – to create, say, a distinctive corporate identity – on the basis of their uniformity? Do creatives need to look creative? All we ask is that they be it.

‘The worse their rhymes, the more picturesque they look’, observed Oscar Wilde of inferior poets. I had a superior poet as a client. He dressed like a businessman, but then his day job was secretary of the Woolwich Building Society. Philip Larkin and TS Eliot similarly had day jobs and dressed, respectively, as a librarian and a publisher.

Doctor Johnson was suspicious of clothes as surrogate statement. ‘Fine clothes are good only as they supply the want of other means of procuring respect.’ Not that the designer’s clothes are necessarily fine – just unnecessarily black. Simply glance at the guests at the annual Podge lunch or look at our illustrator Louis Hellman’s cartoon of James Dyson (DW 6 March).

I had the privilege of working with the American designer Robert Brownjohn. He invariably wore a white button-down shirt and a narrow black tie. One day I asked him why. ‘One less decision’, he replied. He had a rack of black ties. I owned a few bow ties. I hoped they said something about me.

Bauhaus director Walter Gropius declared that the designer ‘has the power to give the lifeless machine-made product a soul’. So how do you dress for that – as a machine-minder or a priest? His colleague László Moholy-Nagy had no doubt. He wore a workman’s overalls to reinforce his ‘vision of the designer as technician’. A vision is all very well, but it doesn’t make you a technician. Similarly, I required more than a bow tie to become what I proclaimed, a creative director.

On the other hand, I had been wearing bow ties ever since I inherited the predilection from my father. I thought they would say something about me, or rather my intentions. It was only later that I discovered what the 18th century writer Laurence Sterne had said, ‘A man cannot dress but his ideas get clothed at the same time’. And then, as I became involved in corporate communication, I discovered the key to corporate identity in the words of a stoic philosopher of the second century, Epictetus, ‘First know who you are, then adorn yourself accordingly’. Note – who you are, not what you are.

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