Intelligent Consumer: The fashion month

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January saw the Spring/Summer shows - fresh looks and new ideas (hurrah!) to gladden the heart of fashion-watchers everywhere. We witnessed the triumphant return of Alexander McQueen to top form, Ena Sharples' first appearance on a catwalk and unabashed (some thought tasteless) fur from Valentino. Elsewhere, 'Red' hit the newstands in hopes of a 'middle- youthed' readership and 'The Face' reckoned the Spice Girls were about to achieve kitsch cool

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Alexander the Great conquers all

IT'S OFFICIAL. Alexander McQueen, the bad boy of couture, has finally settled into the House of Givenchy. His Spring/Summer 1998 haute couture show surprised and delighted the French fashion establishment, after many thought his brash, British style too much for Parisian tastes. McQueen's last couture outing for Givenchy - a darkly creative, raven- obsessed happening - confused loyal clients immeasurably, and it was suspected that Givenchy's client base dwindled. Matters weren't helped by his Spring/Summer 1998 ready-to-wear "trailer trash" collection last autumn, which looked in danger of reducing one of France's finest fashion houses to a caravan park.

The founder of the 46-year-old house, Comte Hubert de Givenchy, could take no more. On 15 January - a few days before the McQueen show - he gave an full-page interview to Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph, describing the latest offerings from the House of Givenchy as "a total disaster". It's hardly surprising that McQueen isn't to Comte Givenchy's tastes. If the 28-year-old McQueen is the Johnny Rotten of haute couture, the 70-year-old Comte Givenchy is the Sacha Distel. The latter's style is defined by the film Breakfast at Tiffany's while the former's is more "Bulimia at The Bat Cave". "These young people, with their weird ideas," says the Comte, sounding dangerously like an old git, "they think they know everything. They think they are geniuses."

But the Comte has a point. There are few enough women rich enough to wear couture, and those who are sufficiently young, skinny and daring to wear McQueen must be very rare. The Comte must be getting twitchy, and no doubt the interview was an attempt to distance himself from McQueen's very un-Parisian antics. According to the Telegraph, Givenchy is prohibited from designing clothes, a condition of the contract he signed in 1987, when he sold the House of Givenchy to Louis Vuitton for pounds 28m. Last year there were some who were wishing he'd stayed in the business. "Heaven knows, couture needs energising," said the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes of McQueen's last couture collection, "but its fundamental point is to make women look wonderful, not weird".

So when McQueen unveiled his latest collection last week, you could hear the sighs of relief. His refined, Zen-like Japonisme show made it clear that he could do Parisian restraint just as well as the Parisians. "The overriding impression was how hard McQueen had worked to turn his signatures - sleek tailoring, jump suits, linear dresses and cowl necks - into something special," glowed Menkes. McQueen had obviously listened to the powers that be at Givenchy, and cleaned up his act. The British press were euphoric. The Guardian ran a front page photograph with the caption "McQueen bounces back". Mimi Spencer in the Standard brushed off Givenchy's comments as "simply passe" and observed, "For the most part, McQueen had left his past-its-sell-by-date trickery behind, and in a show 'dedicated to the client' probably won over hearts and purses across the vast room." This rather gave the impression that his last shows weren't up to much, but where had been the voice of impartial reportage? Muffled in a rather large Union Jack, one assumes. The Independent's Tamsin Blanchard proclaimed that McQueen "has stopped wreaking havoc at Givenchy. Even Hubert de Givenchy might have eaten his words if he had seen the collection." Poor Hubert must be wishing he hadn't opened his big mouth.

Finally, Hilary Alexander summed up the international mood: "Many in the fashion business feared that the brash son of a cab driver was not equal to the refined atmosphere of a Paris couture house." An observation which proves that the French fashion establishment is still as snobbish as we all feared. It makes you wish that McQueen would keep rattling its cage.

the shows the shows the shows the shows the shows the shows

DIOR'S John Galliano is still the British fashion press's darling, but this season there were some doubters among the faithful. It seems that couture's modern-day saviour is leaning a little too heavily on the history books. "There are murmurs abroad that John Galliano is becoming just a little too self-indulgent and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find any modern-day relevance in his designs," whispered Susannah Frankel. Even Suzy Menkes, the doyenne of fashion journalism, expressed weariness with "the overriding impression that Galliano is living in the wrong century". Show spectaculars are all well and good, it seems, but something a little less derivative wouldn't go amiss.

But on to wildlife. Valentino may have solved the problem of what to do with the Tamworth Two: he'd have Butch and Sundance stuffed and slung around the shoulders of supermodels. This is just what he did with fox furs this week, except he fixed diamonds in their eyes, noses and whiskers. "This is dead fox wrapped round the neck of catwalk model for the amusement of rich bitch," said Ollie Picton-Jones in the Mirror. The Guardian's Susannah Frankel was also shocked, in a blase kind of a way: "Suffice to say that this final touch would be more than enough to put [ladies who lunch] off their food - sorry, double espressos."

And on to soap. It would seem that Amanda Harlech, Karl Lagerfeld's new muse at Chanel, is a Corrie fan. "Chanel chic draws on the Ena Sharples look," said the Daily Telegraph, beneath photographs of Chanel models wearing hairnets and looking remarkably similar to the late Coronation Street character. The Mirror also spotted an uncanny resemblance, and referred to a rather morose-looking Eva as "Ena Herzigova". Could it be that milk stout has surpassed champagne as the fashion world's back-stage tippler? Or is it the campaign by Karen Elsen, Lagerfeld's favourite model, that's made all things Manc even more fashionable than they already are?

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Honourable mention: from 8 February, readers of Spectrum, Scotland on Sunday's magazine, will gain an insight into the catwalk from Honor Fraser, the Inverness-born blue-blood model. According to the Evening Standard, Honor has turned back-stage boredom to her advantage by investing in a laptop.

Blot your copybook: the on-going battle between designer and plagiarist has reached new levels. Dolce and Gabbana "two of the most counterfeited names in fashion", according to the Standard, have introduced a hologram label to deter their imitators. It will be sewn into their collection from this spring.

Gold dust: the Sunday Times reported that Jade Jagger has launched her own jewellery range. Influenced by her paintings of organic flowers her pieces are hand-painted and dusted with gold leaf. It appears that Paul Smith was so impressed he put in a substantial order, now on sale in his Floral Street store.

Mini Ha Ha: talking of Mr Smith, he's designed a special limited edition of the Mini (the car, not the skirt). According to the Evening Standard, 300 Paul Smith Minis will be available from April in Old English White, Paul Smith Blue or just plain black. The interiors, however, will be lime green. The cost? pounds 10,000.

Table manners: The Daily Telegraph reckons that table tennis is the latest indoor game for the achingly fashionable. The reason for such folly is that Iris Palmer has become an enthusiast. "I started just before Christmas," she breathes, "and I've really got into it. It's a brilliant way to keep in shape."

Changing Chalayan: the Evening Standard added fuel to the rumour that Hussein Chalayan is about to be snapped up by US label, TSE Cashmere. Come clean, Hussein.

Lord love 'im: on the subject of Honor Fraser (see above), the Lois Lane of modelling appears to have instigated a romance for her brother, the 20-year-old Lord Lovat. The Telegraph reported that he is struck by Honor's chum, the Spanish Lancome model Ines Sastre.

Join the club: Big Breakfast presenter Denise van Outen has endorsed a range of clubbing gear for Grattan, but not before "haggling over fabrics and styling," according to ES. Good for her. Some of us are still haunted by memories of Linda modelling espadrilles and track pants for mail-order during her unpopular phase, and it wasn't pretty.

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"Think Titanic, hot knife in butter silhouettes and no surface embellishment..."

Galliano explains his latest haute couture collection, International Herald Tribune

"Alexander McQueen seems to have stuck a chest wig to a body stocking."

McQueen's strategic glitter-on-sheer look, Vogue

"Whatever happened to feeling the quality of a garment, poring over its beauty, scrutinising the carefully crafted stitching and analysing the authenticity of the knicker elastic?"

Vogue on how London Fashion Week was big on marketing concepts, low on details

"Veteran snapper David Bailey, who has taken to haunting the front row... looks as if his last port of call was Cardboard City."

Hilary Alexander on top photographers' dress sense at the shows, Daily Telegraph

"Minimalism doesn't work any more. Women want glamour, but that's a problem too. Glamour is an old word. It's not an old thing, but the word belongs to the Eighties."

Donatella Versace, Harper's Bazaar

"If you've spotted the white-faced, ostrich-feathered, red-lipsticked, Manolo Blahnik-ed stylist Isabella Blow waving a benediction over the proceedings, don't even bother asking. It's a cert."

Sarah Mower in Harper's Bazaar on how to spot the latest British fashion talent

"The other models think it's really irritating. Of all the fashion accessories - babies, dogs, boyfriends - it's by far the most annoying."

Honor Fraser on her backstage lap-top, Evening Standard

Business News

THE ITALIAN fashion designer Valentino Garavani announced the sale of the Valentino Group to Holding di Parecipazioni Industriali for pounds 167m. The latter, an industrial holding company, is run by Maurizio Romiti, son of Fiat boss Cesare.

(Source: The Daily Telegraph)

The chairman of Monsoon Peter Simon will float his fashion retail company next month for pounds 350m, earning himself pounds 84m in cash. Monsoon disclosed that sales grew by 5 per cent over the pre-Christmas period. The company is quietly confident that it will get its asking price because of its unbroken track record.

(Source: The Times)

Marks & Spencer opened its first store in the Gulf Arab region, in the United Arab Emirates, on 12 January. "Many customers from the Gulf States do their shopping in our Marble Arch store so we know the kind of things they like to buy," said the company.

(Source: The Daily Telegraph)

The Next chain of shops were among those retailers who saw a sharp rise in sales after Christmas, from 16 per cent for the 21 weeks to Christmas Eve to 23 per cent for the 23 weeks to 10 January.

(Source: The Evening Standard)

who shot what

Rag to a bull? Red, the magazine for "middle youth" has arrived. And just to prove the point, two luvverly thirtysomething ladies posed in tasteful separates. Carre B Otis (looking like she had a hangover - was this deliberate?) and Yasmin Le Bon (looking about 12) proved that life (or at least, a second modelling career) begins at 30.

Know your country code: Vogue decided that New Rustic should be done with an urban twist; the Sunday Times said we should all wear plaits, while the Face thought it thoroughly feasible for us to dress like Russian dolls (with ruddy cheeks, of course).

Rock on: Official Britpop couple Patsy and Liam modelled Versace for American Vogue and snogged with tongues; Patsy showed some self-control when she sported Etam (how long will this story run?) for the Evening Standard. Meanwhile, ex-Stone Roses John Squire of The Seahorses modelled for GQ.

Fairy's fair: New Vogue icons were Snow White & Cinderella; Elle reckoned we should go for cobwebby clothes, and the Sunday Times thought that gossamer knits and chiffon wraps were magic.

Girls up-front: Cover girls included Gwyneth Paltrow for Vogue (above); Carre B Otis for Red; Sophie Anderton on New Woman; Kate Moss on Harper's Bazaar and Claire Danes for Vanity Fair.

All spiced out? The Face thought that the Spice Girls have latent kitsch potential and predicted a "backlash backlash". Meanwhile, in the States, they made the cover of American Vogue (shot by Mario Testino) but, unfortunately, were also voted the world's worst-dressed women by some dodgy bloke wearing a signet ring and pink-tinged sunglasses. So it's anyone's guess, really.

In profile: Matthew Williamson in the Independent on Sunday, Antonio Berardi in Vogue and the Independent, Peder Bertelsen in this paper; Italian clothing company Sportmax in the Times; Donatella Versace in Harper's Bazaar and American Vogue.

Cool colours: Red's money was on lilac, grey and navy; Elle plumped for pink and grey or black and white together; American Elle went for sea-blue, lavender and coral, while the Daily Express rather sensibly pointed out that black is back, and it never went away.

Daftest fashion trend of the month: The lab coat. Yes, as in those nasty white stiff things they wear in Casualty. We have American Elle's eagle eye to thank, which spotted this new fashion look at the Gucci and Jean Colonna shows.