Book review: Dressed for success?

British Fashion Design: rag trade or image industry? by Angela McRobbie Routledge, pounds 12.99
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John Galliano has got a lot to answer for. While British fashion is currently flaunting the unprecedented success of a few luminaries, it is also disguising a million untold failures. Angela McRobbie wants to find out why so many young designers are forced to abandon their dreams in debt and despair. Financial hardship proliferates among her sample of female fashion-design graduates of London art schools, all of whom completed their studies between 1984 and 1985. Most of them have also tried to set up their "own labels", after completing exploitative apprenticeships in the couture houses of Europe.

A number of factors contributed to their difficulty: among them, the incentives that the Enterprise Allowance Scheme gave to designers without secure finances; the colleges' fear of compromising fashion's "fine art status" by offering guidance on manufacture; the students' tendency to operate in isolation and so get fleeced by intermediaries; and the fashion magazines' habit of selling images rather than garments.

McRobbie intends to reach a fuller understanding of the students' working practices by "unravelling" these disparate strands - though later she envisages herself as "weaving a tapestry of argumentation".

It is as if, sensing complication, her metaphors too have become hopelessly "meshed" (to use another of them). There is a danger throughout of her rhetoric taking over, as when it leads her to daft generalisations. "Is the designer label a viable business proposition in the context of the designer rip-off?" she asks at one stage. After all, Giorgio sweatshirts don't seem to have bothered Armani.

Oddly, since one of the book's aims is to encourage "comfort" (for fashion education with its arts and craft heritage, and as a quality of life for the struggling students), McRobbie often seems uneasy herself. She fears that, for fashion, the "input of sociology can only be unwelcome".

She feels a stranger in this field, and at times her accent is more fascinating than what she is saying She also has odd benchmarks. Jasper Conran, one of the homegrown success stories of the 1980s, receives more mentions in this book than he has elsewhere all decade.

Possibly the most entertaining chapter comprises extracts from students' manifestos, written to accompany their degree shows. "For this collection, I have gained my inspiration from the unique formation and flow of a melted candle," goes one. To most people, that is probably linguistic posturing, but McRobbie finds that "the poetry of [this] statement" makes the work "immediately recognisable as artistic".

Indeed, she has a "manifesto" for her book. "The image of the fashion design sector, throughout this research," she writes, "is of a skimpy, silky dress, carelessly tossed between two pillars of support, but always threatening to slide to the ground into a crumpled heap. The dress itself is the underfunded, underrated design industry, a fragile, flimsy thing of some beauty and importance. One pillar represents the world of the art school and the other the commercial world of women's magazines."

It is an odd moment (though not the only one) in a book which variously displays supreme rationality and bewildering ostentation. For a start, it is impossible to visualise how a flimsy dress can be tossed between two pillars, and at the same time "threatening to slide to the ground". When the image is re-evoked later, it is no longer a dress but "a gossamer-fine piece of fabric", as though it too has been subjected to the relentless "unravelling".

McRobbie hopes that her book will "contribute to the improvement of fashion as a place of livelihoods". She recommends that students collaborate with each other and with casual "hands" to increase their power in the market place (this would be "a new kind of rag trade").

Helen Storey, the British fashion designer who enjoyed considerable success in the early-1990s before going bankrupt, made a similar plea at the end of her 1996 autobiography, Fighting Fashion. It is a fairly straightforward conclusion, and as such seems disproportionate to the convoluted arithmetic that has led us to it - like following an intricate pattern step-by-step, and somehow ending up with a plain old navy V-neck.