Don't be distressed, it's chic fatigue

Sally Williams visits Voyage, a shop that caters to the peculiarly British love of expensively scruffy clothing
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The Independent Online
Rose was given a new jumper for Christmas. "Darling, it looks wonderful," said her mother, "it looks at least five years old." Pale pea-green, V-necked, elegantly shaped and made of the softest wool, it was covered with burr-like bobbles, The sort of bobbles which all pure wool (or angora or cashmere) fall prey to with age. The sort of bobbles that made this particular jumper cost £90.

Distressing fabrics - making them look worn, is a speciality of Voyage, a clothes shop for men and women on the Fulham Road, west London, where the jumper came from. It is owned by designers Tiziano and Louise Mazzilli; he is Italian, she is from Belgium. It opened four years ago and despite the trend for glamour, glitz, grooming and sharp edges, it is doing a healthy trade in bobbly jumpers, matted wool jackets, bleached velvets, crumpled cotton and stained corduroys.

So much so that they are about to expand from one to three floors. Voyage does not only sell distressed clothes, there are plenty of spanking new T-shirts, dresses, shirts and trousers; but, as Tiziano and Louise have discovered since moving here from Italy four years ago, old sells. The British, it seems, like their clothes worn. Even their new ones.

"In Italy," said Tiziano, where he and Louise were a successful designing team for many years, "if it's not new it's not good. Clothes have to be new, very clean, very perfect and very pressed." Even the Barbour - which Britons like best covered in mud - is worn ironed, washed and immaculate by fashion-conscious Italians. "The Italians need to show off," said Tiziano, "and that means labels and flashing your wealth. If you haven't got a Rolex, forget it." And the Belgians? "Just boring," said Louise. "Dark blue, grey, boring and conservative." The French, according to Colin McDowell, fashion journalist and author, are "terribly bourgeois, which means being terribly neat and tidy", and are as baffled as the Italians and the Americans by the British love of the crumpled and faded. No other country has as many secondhand shops as we have, and in no other country does wearing scruffy clothes mean that you are, in fact, very rich indeed.

For class is at the bottom of the British taste for the worn. "We have inherited this old aristocratic notion that you don't wear your wealth on your back," said Jane Mulvagh, fashion journalist. "You have it in your home, in your land, in your furniture and in your art and it's very socially frowned upon to wear glad rags."

Elegantly tailored faded tweed, cashmere, velvet, satin and silk - for it cannot just be any old material cut into any old shape; worn Crimplene slacks do not have quite the same impact - are not only comfortable and easy to wear, but imply a certain social standing. Old clothes can equal old money, new clothes equal no money or even worse, new money.

"It is considered very nouveau riche to dress in flashy clothes. They attract too much attention and imply you are trying too hard," said Mr McDowell. "The old dukes of days gone by didn't care how they dressed. They felt so superior to every one else they deliberately dressed down."

Hardy Amies is reported to have said that one of the smartest weddings he had been to recently was on the Borders where all the ladies were wearing outfits he had made for them at least 10 years ago. "This is all part of an Englishman's dream," said Mr McDowell, "to live in the same house for 400 years, to wear virtually the same clothes for 400 years and to have the same dogs as your father and grandfather had."

Oxfam, stone-washed jeans, and my particular favourite as a schoolgirl, scuffing new shoes, are all part of the same desire for chic fatigue. Even Lady Diana Cooper, when she moved into her married home, laid all her new furnishings and curtains on the lawn to fade in th sun.

To the tutored eye the signals are clear, but from the outside the messages can be confusing. When Tiziano and Louise opened Voyage, despite their love of British style, hatred of ironing, and their own wayward clothes sense, they also brought their European prejudices.

Tiziano said, "Some people came into my shop and they didn't look right. They looked rough, I thought: they will never buy, but then they showed me gold cards. I began to understand: the more scruffy they are, the more money they have."

We do not like to look as though we spend much money on clothes, but we are prepared to spend a lot to look as if we have not spent any, which is where Voyage comes in. By over-washing, over-drying, bleaching and staining their velvet, chiffon, silk and taffeta, and by keeping a close eye on their clientele - the stained velvet jacket was a customer's idea - and by charging a fortune for the process, Tiziano and Louise are unwittingly cashing in on British snobbery.

Nevertheless, Amy de la Hayes, curator of the 20th-Century Textile Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, still thought the clothes, bobbles and all, were good value. "They are expensive, but you are in no doubt that they are top quality clothes," she said. "The fabric is exquisite, the colours are wonderful. Actually, I'm wearing one of their waistcoats, although I did buy it in the sale."

There is certainly one good thing about brand-new clothes that have already seen a good few cycles of the washing machine. As one enthusiast said, "At least there are no surprises when you wash them."

Voyage, 115 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RL (0171-823 9581).