I’ve never seen the UK’s high streets so Christmased out, so spent, so tired and empty. The first few days in early January revealed retailers scraping together soiled goods and jaundiced “end-of-line” rejects in a bid to fill empty shelves, quenching the thirst of the shopaholic with a parody of the January sales. For the first year ever I felt repelled at the thought of more shopping and was duly rewarded by the fact that there was nothing left to buy.
The UK may have the best retail designers in the world, but we also have the most boring high streets. We have the same chains selling the same products from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
Currently, my favourite millennium project would be to promote independent retailers, subsidising their location in British high streets. After all, the high street is the epicentre of our communities, and shopping is the most popular leisure activity in the country. Independent brands and products offer choice and reflect regional differences which may even have a positive effect on locally based manufacturing as well as the tourist industries. I’d love to go on a pilgrimage to Leicester to buy some cheese or go to Arran to buy a sweater or to Derby to buy a donkey.
I’ve had other festively induced, equally profound thoughts on fashion. Originally, fashion must have been about function, such as protection from the elements, and communication. Just as we communicate through language and objects, we tell each other about ourselves through what we choose to wear. So what is the difference between fashion and design?
Fashion is a kind of design. Garments are brought into being through a controlled creative process, albeit one which is often forcibly accelerated to create a constant demand for the next new thing. Today’s fashion is also about function and communication. Traditionally, if we looked along an axis which has communication at one end and function at the other, we would expect to find haute couture at the end of communication and high performance sportswear at the end of function. Marks and Spencer would be somewhere in the middle. However, while much of the fashion industry is still based on this picture, culture and nature have different ideas: fashionable old values are changing and the traditional divisions between the high street and high style have changed forever.
Indeed, if the Nineties are about environmentalism and fragmentation, why do we all need to buy the same new wardrobe at the start of every season? Global warming has blurred our weather and our need for warm clothing in winter and cool clothing in summer. Technology has given us a wide range of new, high-performance materials which are wind and waterproof, breathable, tactile, beautiful and serviceable. The anachronistic “cruise-wear” season, offering hot weather clothing in the winter months, betrays a fashion industry caught in crisis. If we holiday in the winter season we’re as likely to spend time in the Arctic Circle as on a cruise to the Cayman Islands.
TV and magazines conspire to seduce us with a proliferation of new brands, revealing the full spectrum of the fashion world. The old social structures with dreary dress codes are virtually mothballed, except by the very rich who cling to them as a last- ditch attempt to feign social breeding. The result is that average punters develop an opinion, then mix the whole thing up and we get DKNY evening wear which looks and performs like sportswear, and, boy, do I like it!
A glossy media education has empowered everyday folk to make their own social structures formed around the shared ideologies founded on Mo’Wax and Morrow 1. Niche groups produce new hybrid brands of clothing which express particular ways of living and offer exciting and credible alternatives to the Paris catwalk.
Fashion is no longer the sole privilege of the rich. Vacuous questions about whether or not brown is the new black seem irrelevant. It makes me wonder if Britain’s fashion guns, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, are merely historicists who quote, cut, construct and try to shock rather than create anew. Does their work describe the future or does it languish in a mythical, movie-set past which celebrates old money and old ways?
Personally, I prefer the confusion of street- wear which wears its heart on its sleeve rather than in its wallet or on the pages of Vogue.