BOOK REVIEW / Must-haves stripped bare: 'The Designer Scam' - Colin McDowell: Hutchinson, 17.99

WHAT has happened to fashion in the 40 years between the acceptance of such a diktat as 'Whether she is entertained in a restaurant or at the home of friends, a woman luncheon guest must always wear a hat' and the appearance on the catwalk a few weeks ago of Vivienne Westwood's bare-breasted and micro-tailleured toppling totsies in plaid, to the strident horror of the tabloids (with a concomitant publicity coup to the canny Miss Westwood)? Incidentally, as no business is more sensitive to publicity than the fashion business, the author of this book managed to get a bit of the splashback from the MacFrock mock-shock on himself, and ran up a tough-

talking, almost feminist 'Why Oh Why' essay for the Daily Mail concerning the revelation of Kate Moss's starter breasts. He is an efficient writer, who thinks clearly and knows rather a lot. These facts in themselves go far to distinguish him in a world where many of the stars have no way with words and most of the journalists are either addled by little corruptions of public relations or no good at writing anything but adjectives and nouns used as adjectives (signature, cowboy, bank manager - anything but recession).

However, fashion journalism at its best has never been better. The eclecticism of fashion and its current insistence on freedom have come to necessitate a certain amount of historical knowledge in those who are paid to interpret clothes to their consumers. If you are going to dress as a time-bandit of five centuries, it helps if the fashion press can give your look the coherence of a name. The over-adjectival accessorising of nearly verbless prose full of hectic clashing imperatives is old hat. There are some excellent young fashion writers of all sexes. There is lots of talent among the bolts and needles, too, even in this country, which traditionally provides inspirational designers, who subsume their names in big continental fashion houses, and a strain of designer lionised by an inward-looking few, but dismissed as uncommercially eccentric by the majority.

In Britain, the fashion industry is held to be too peculiar and too removed from cash to have a place in the lives of any but the very rich and sequestered or the very young and brave. Colin McDowell, with a praiseworthy, almost Ruskinian approach to his subject, contends that the fashion industry is in trouble not merely here, but worldwide. He believes that in its insecurity and greed it exploits woefully the insecurity and greed of consumers, and that this cannot go on.

Having worked throughout the industry one can sense he loves but is exasperated by, McDowell can dish out his swingeing comments and Savonarolan conclusions with a certain authority: 'Fashion has failed because the public have failed'; 'Fashion is a business cyclical, hysterical and insecure'. What raises The Designer Scam above the run of fashiony books is its lack of laziness. Although it is repetitive and sometimes sloppy, repeating anecdotes and recycling stuff known to every rubbish-retaining magazine reader, the book is driven by an intelligent puritanical affront at the airs of designers, their god-complexes and Lucullan social ambitions, combined with a likeable human warmth that can often seem to be excluded by the formalised, neurotic extremes of a business that feeds off sex yet is too mineral and inverted to include its reality.

The Designer Scam tells the story of the trick that makes and moves millions by convincing people that they have not a thing to wear. The genial villain of the piece is the talented Lacroix, who declared the preposterousness of couture. Its hero is Balenciaga, who would not sell his name. The designer of our time whose name will live, says McDowell, is Saint Laurent. There is even a nice tease of 'Kaiser' Karl Lagerfeld, who finds his newest muse, Princess Diane de Beauvou- Gaon, 'deeply spiritual'. It is not often enough that clever books are written about clothes. If only this one had been illustrated, and edited more fiercely by someone with a weeding eye for magspeak, it could have been a wearable classic, a must-have signature piece from a pro.