Falling off the bottom line

E. Jane Dickson enjoys an embroidered tale of fashion and fortune; Fighting Fashion by Helen Storey, Faber, pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
In 1995, when the designer Helen Storey sent her models down the catwalk with bare bums, it was the most talked about collection since the legendary Emperor's new look. The international fashion establishment sprayed superlatives. The tabloids couldn't believe their luck. Desmond Morris was wheeled on to explain the cultural relevance of the buttock and John Major made an uncharacteristically cheeky showing in cartoons. Three weeks after her succes de scandale, Storey, hailed on all sides as the decade's most original fashion talent, was on the dole. Fighting Fashion, the designer's autobiographical account of her career, is a commendably dry-eyed analysis of the complicated relationship of rags and riches.

There is a strong sense of release in Fighting Fashion, as if Storey sat down to write one day, just to sort things out in her head, and found herself unable to stop.

Autobiography as therapy is a doleful prospect for the reader, and Storey's reflections on her early life, complete with diligent acknowledgement of best friends from the age of five, are sometimes surplus to requirements. The daughter of the playwright and novelist, David Storey, she conjures up the liberal Bohemia of the 1960s and 70s with the deadpan cool of an unimpressed teenager but the occasional, irresistible flash of remembered excitement, like the day Elizabeth Taylor appeared in the passenger seat of her dad's Mini, breaks through. Hampstead Comprehensive was a daily gauntlet to be run, a place which "smelt of pencil sharpenings and feet", where boys lay in wait to flick at girls' breasts with their rulers, but the nights were for clubbing and roller-skating home from Shagaramas with six hours-worth of make up running down her face and the wind in her dayglo hair was Storey's first intimation of glamour.

Later, as a fashion graduate on work experience with Valentino in Rome, Storey was properly inducted into the mysteries of haute couture and she describes the quasi- mystic processes of the fashion industry with a kind of appalled reverence: "There is a force in fashion, at the very top level, that invents it's own manners, sensitivity, standards and rules. They bear no relation to the real world. Untouched by recession, they went unchallenged."

For Storey, however, the real world would constantly disrupt and indeed define her creativity, and as she acknowledges, "to express an instinct outside the arena of clothes on a catwalk is a dangerous thing, or if not dangerous, then pointless." In the final annus horribilis leading up to insolvency she nursed her husband, the architect Ron Brinkers through a brain tumour; designs for the spring/summer collection were sketched at his bedside: "Having a pen in my hand made me feel normal, but I couldn't relate to the fabrics, I couldn't feel them, and in feeling nothing for them I was aware how numb I was. The barometer of my feelings was registered through a lack of spontaneity to cloth."

It is doubtless the hellishness of the cancer ward, evoked in a chapter that is properly painful to read, that allows Storey to maintain her apparently dispassionate view of her professional nemesis. This is not a woman innured to fashion fever - she can write with absolute unselfconsiousness about her "Journey of challenging the expected use of trims", but she has ultimately succeeded in channelling creative energy into an ably concerted campaign for better "fashion management." In an industry fuelled by outsized egos, she is generously concerned that others should profit from her unfortunate experience. "It should be accepted that designers should not be running the day to day, or for that matter any other area of the business other than design.''

Fighting Fashion is required reading for anyone in, or hoping to enter the fashion industry. As a general interest autobiography it is less appealing. Storey's indiosycratic style can at times verge on the incomprehensible. The assertion that "The word 'remission' does not allow a bare arse to its brickwork" is rather more arresting then enlightening, and there are plenty of these teasers sprinkled through the narrative. Storey's extraordinary artistry is there to see in the beautifully produced photos of the collections, but she is not a writer, and this is not a writer's book. And why should it be? No one ever expected Flaubert to challenge the use of trims.