Hey, here's something to worry about

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The Independent Online
To celebrate London Fashion Week I have decorated my office with barbed wire. It runs right along one wall, from floor to ceiling. Not the real thing, you understand, but the massive 16-sheet Benetton poster seen recently on billboards. I called the PR company and they sent me a copy.

I like Benetton's campaign because many of its images are sly and unpredictable, and you cannot prepare your reactions. I like it because it does not tell you what to think or feel. But most of all, I like it because - in a world where the ultimate sin is to risk alienating potential customers - it is anti-advertising.

It confronts, it mirrors the consumer. Unlike most advertising, it does not pander to public taste, nor prey on vulnerability. There is no appeal to greed, none of the mindless ego-wank typical of car commercials. There is no subtext, no subliminal lie about how Benetton clothes will make you younger, fitter, more desirable. It doesn't pretend to flatter your intelligence.

The Benetton adverts have no text, no editorial line. Their only statement is the one contributed by the viewer. Each image poses the question: "What is your reaction to this, and why?" If you can answer to your own satisfaction, the debate is closed. If not, the problem is yours, and you must deal with it. Many people, it seems, cannot tolerate yet another problem in their lives, which is why there has been such a powerful and hostile reaction against the campaign.

Similarly, there has been a hostile - indeed, violent - reaction to the transportation of veal calves from this country to continental Europe. The opponents of this trade claim that it is "a form of torture" and "inhumane". Their moral outrage over "animal rights" has its direct counterpart in the fashion trade, which has long since proclaimed itself similarly outraged, particularly where fur is concerned. And I suspect that many of those who complain so bitterly about Benetton ads are the same people who lie down in front of lorries carrying veal calves.

But what exactly is their beef? Have they no more pressing concerns? If inhumane actions and torture bother them, why not focus on Indonesia's military junta which, since invading East Timor, has tortured, raped and massacred more than 200,000 people. Not our problem? Year after year, Britain gives millions in overseas aid to Indonesia, and then sells the same murderous regime even more millions of pounds' worth of weapons.

One of our most desirable items is the anti-personnel mine, a weapon designed to maim. The UN has been trying to ban this device for years, but the animal-loving British continually veto such a move. All over south- east Asia, even as you read this, children are having limbs blown off by British mines.

Why, I ask myself, is there not a riot down at RAF Northolt, with protesters throwing themselves on to the runway, to prevent Hercules aircraft loaded with such weapons from taking off? Could it be that we have one standard for British calves, and another for Asian children? A case of four legs good, one and a half legs bad, perhaps?

Many of fashion's biggest names have garments made in Indonesian sweatshops, under conditions not unsimilar to those suffered by veal calves, by women who earn less than 90 pence a day. The factories are riddled with state informants; "trouble-makers" who try to orchestrate union activity are kidnapped and often murdered. The fashion industry thrives on this cheap labour, and in doing so, tacitly supports the regime that enforces it - something to bear in mind when shopping for clothes.

Benetton, however, produces 80 per cent of its stock in Europe, and never re-imports garments made in under-developed countries, selling them instead on domestic markets. But then, its advertisements are in such "bad taste". How much more palatable to have zeal for veal, rather than confront the blooddrenched clothing of another dead Bosnian, right there in your high street.

Hurrah, the fashion circus is back in town! Hurrah for animal rights! Oh, what sport to see fashion's spin doctors giving themselves hernias, as they try to parlay this season's grotesque parody of moral indignation into frock sales. Like you, we really care, will be their nauseating message.

But I shan't be watching. I shall remain in my office, hiding my shame behind dark glasses, cosseted by barbed wire, wearing the rabbit-fur hat that once got me spat at, a pair of leather jeans and a Benetton T-shirt, tucking into a plate of veal salad sandwiches. My bullet-proof mink will be hanging on the door. I suppose you might call that a fashion statement.

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