Debate: Is fashion a cultural force to be reckoned with, or just a sophisticated con?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
This week is London Fashion Week and every new frill and flounce will be eagerly reported in the press. It's easy to scoff, says James Sherwood, but underneath all the hype, fashion is an art form that speaks volumes about modern culture. But Lorna Vee argues that, when you buy into fashion, you're leaving your individuality behind

AS WE approach London Fashion Week, the industry's biannual general meeting, I can only heave a weary sigh at the crass coverage the rag trade will receive at the hands of over-familiar breakfast television presenters and tabloid newspapers. You can set your watch by the number of times a smart-arse anchor woman wearing a cerise cardie will face camera one and say, "Honestly, viewers, who would wear that!"

There is a bitter streak of inverted snobbery in the criticism of designer fashion. It isn't "real". It is exclusive. It is lampooned by people who, were they to have lived 200 years ago, would have been knitting underneath the guillotine. It is a very natural human reaction to laugh at or attempt to humiliate what we fail to understand. Just because the works exhibited in the Tate gallery are beyond the average person's price range this doesn't stop hoards of tourists appreciating them.

Not that I am suggesting fashion is fine art. Even the couture is designed to be worn; granted, by that elite cabal of social X-rays who can afford tens of thousands for one couture confection. The catwalk shows are the only opportunity for the designers to present their vision totally in their own language, before the fashion editors and - ultimately - the public reinterpret their work.

Fashion is a food chain. You may expect it to work like a pyramid with designer fashion at the pinnacle and high street below. That is no longer the case. When you see Versace couture include combat pocket detailing on a sugar pink satin skirt, then you understand the all-pervasive power of street style. Where do you think the designers find inspiration? Fashion is fed by contemporary culture. Fashion is, in fact, the most accurate litmus test of the now. Ephemeral it may be but, like photography, fashion captures the moment more swiftly than art or architecture ever could.

I wouldn't be so coy as to suggest fashion doesn't invite attention and even ridicule. The catwalk shows are theatre. They have to be interpreted in that context. To criticise fashion on a purely practical level is like attending a performance of Macbeth, and walking out because you don't believe in witches. If you work in fashion, then you know witches do exist and convene on the front row at every international catwalk show.

For all the bitching and backbiting in the fashion industry, none of us would work in this business unless we absolutely, passionately loved it. From the outside looking in, this is an industry dominated by gay men and vain women. It is the gloss menagerie. In reality, fashion contributes a vast sum to the global economy. The bottom line, as with every business, is money. What critics can't seem to bear is how much fun it looks like we're having.

You may be of the opinion that clothing is trivial, frivolous, incidental. The world would not stop turning if catwalk shows were banned tomorrow. Let me ask you this. Think back a decade. What really puts that memory in context? Is it the significant architecture or interiors? In part. Is it a love affair? Hopefully. Now think about what you were wearing. Fashion profoundly, vividly, evokes the year, the month, the day. You may have forgotten the man you were with but not the dress you were wearing. And as Dorothy Parker once said, "Where's the man who can ease a heart like a satin gown?"

TAKE A walk down the high street, follow it up with a round trip of designer shops, and flick through a glossy mag en route. And there you have it, the sum total of fashion freedom: grey, long, hoods, pleats, dashes of red and Mary Jane shoes.

This time six months ago, when the autumn/winter catwalk reports filled the column inches, all the above were touted as revolutionary. Now that even Top Shop has copied the Marc Jacobs pleated skirt for less than a night out, it all amounts to a uniform. They might as well dish it out to us, price it according to our means, and save us the trawl.

There are several myths about fashion; that it comes from real people on the street; that the British high street is fantastic; that designers can no longer dictate hemlines (because individual looks are in), and that fashion is fun.

Designers from Donna Karan to Jean Paul Gaultier, and fashion retailers from the girlie Warehouse to hip Diesel scour the world for trends. All this means is that they're looking for new ideas to sell us. If they are influenced by street wear, it'll be by a select, small band of creative people (musicians, stylists) who set trends because by nature they want to stand out from everybody else, and because professionally they're in the business of being different.

The reason you don't need to go to an outdoor shop to buy a fleecy hooded top is not because real people have democratically demanded this, but because smart retailers figured that if they made this a fashion item, available absolutely everywhere, they'd make pots of money (ditto flip flops).

Which takes us to the British high street. Yes, it's cheap, and yes, there's plenty of it - if you want grey, long, hoods, etc etc. These days you can even get designer labels courtesy of the likes of Dorothy Perkins, Top Shop and Debenhams ... if you want grey etc. If you think I'm repeating myself you haven't looked at a fashion mag or been shopping. When even high street shops like Office have waiting lists for "directional" items, this amounts to retailing dictatorship. Designers can no longer dictate hemlines, because they've been overtaken by a mightier force - the retailer who decrees availability. Try buying lemon yellow when it's not "in".

You can find some individuality at designer level (that is, if you can afford it). Otherwise you have to work a lot harder. You could go the second hand way, only fashion has infiltrated the humble charity shop. With every aristo model and trustafarian raiding supplies (while the rest of us are at work), and with even high street shops and designers like Anna Sui "copying" the thrift look, second hand is no longer sacrosanct.

The easiest solution is to opt out. You could choose to look a mess, and whinge non-stop. Or you could confine yourself to the safety of M&S and the exclusivity of "non-fashion" fashion designers like Agnes B. If you love clothes, and if you want to look good, individuality has to come from personal quirks. You need time to work out how not to wear what everyone else will be wearing.

Or, what the hell, you can save yourself the bother, wear it, and wear it better. Yep, I've been shopping: grey, long, hoods...