The best possible taste

In the style stakes, it’s the not the Italians, not the French, not even the Greeks, but the British that lead the way. Janice Kirkpatrick celebrates that elusive Brit cool

What is it about the Italians that makes the world fawn at the feet of their alleged aesthetic pre-eminence? Year on year hoards of aesthetes flock to Milano to feed at the trough of creativity. No matter where in the world you go, Italy is vaunted as the natural source of tasteful things.

The only comment visitors to the UK have is: “Where can we buy the Barbour or the Burberry?” This is all very well, but what the foreign consumer sees in brands like Burberry is only a tiny fraction of the real design legacy of our inventive little island: not merely the natural evolution of a stylish and practical product, but a carefully packaged lifestyle statement which is more knowingly contrived than any Gucci handbag.

Peculiarly, you don’t have to squint too ferociously through the front windows of common or garden Italian homes (I don’t make a habit of it) to see the most awful chintz and tack. The glitziest bad taste Italian shops (in Glasgow they’re called Versace and The Italian Connection) proudly display gilded buttons and smoked glass; cheesy features which epitomise these emporia of conspicuous consumption.

Come on all of you shrinkingly modest British designers, we all know that it’s you guys who have all the really good ideas and the Italians just manufacture the stuff. Look at Jasper Morrison, Ross Lovegrove and James Irvin’s work, or Cappellini, Ron Arad with Moroso and Claire Brass with Alessi. And that’s just for the upmarket stores – it’s not even getting near the volume of design talent we’ve got on the street with all our fab labels like MoWax, Raggy, Dosse, Warp, Daniel Poole, Burro, Subbuteo, Insane, Holmes, Maharishi, Conscious Earthwear, Larache and Rap. Talking of the style we find on city streets, the stuff I regard as the only true barometer of the state of a nation’s cultural health, let’s see how some other countries fare…

Take Finland, that most exotic and civilised of Scandinavian nations home of Aalto, serene lakeland landscapes, crisp winters and freshly picked arctic berries. On the street there is precious little evidence of anything which might pass for urban style, only a confusion of MTV-induced heavy metal and Dallas shoulder-pad-Americana. In Helsinki there’s a theme bar which is owned by The Leningrad Cowboys (a self-styled eastern block rockabilly band). The bar is Zetor, named and themed around a well-loved Czechoslovakian tractor – the Massey Ferguson of the Steppes.

Sadly, the students who hang out there would be too deeply ungroovy to get past even the doorman of a less than choosy northern disco. The student union is the second largest landowner in Helsinki so maybe there’s something to be said for keeping students poor and angry.

The French… well, we see them differently up here in Scotland. They’re chic in Paris because they’ve got our Johnny Galliano and Alexander McQueen but they’re also MTV’d to death, which is a shame because MC Solaar is alright. And Dutch style? Well, it’s a bit like Edinburgh – all rainbow handknits and patchouli oil. The streets of old Amsterdam are paved with Essex yobs on stag nights and people with virtually no clothes on. The Germans are too interested in teutonic values, and are too far from any Latin or Celtic nation to be influenced by the kind of bad behaviour which makes life fun. I’m excluding Greece from the list because they’ve got Nana Mouskouri and she’s really cool.

So why are we just so damn fine? Just where are the connections between MoWax and Raggy and Burro or Subbuteo? What exactly is UK style? It was Ariel, Austin Healey, Heal’s, Wolsey (underpants and cars), Bernat Klein, Misha Black, Ralph Tubbs, Robin Day, Hardy Amies, Daks Simpson, Dennis and Robinson, Beswick, Wedgwood, Terence Conran, Jessie Tait, Maxwell Fry, the Smithsons, Edwin Lutyens, Mary Quant, Stanley Morrison, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ridgeway, Pilkington, Hugh Casson, MG and on, and on, and on. And it showed: irony, irreverence, humour, history, the eclecticism of dissent, poverty, bloody-mindedness, downright non-cooperation and selfish egotistical behaviour.

I’m not even slightly surprised that politicians are courting us designers in the run-up to the election because we’ve lots in common and our future is safely assured.

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