Mao and Lenin are the latest T-shirt logos - but they've got nothing to do with politics, says DOMINIC LUTYENS
Kate Moss a political firebrand? Well Vogue featured her in a Che Guevara T-shirt recently. It wasn't exactly a political gesture though - Moss had slashed the neckline in a deep decollete, while the T, by clothing label Hysteric Glamour, depicted a camp, doctored image of the revolutionary leader. And it was Moss's customising, not the Che reference, that was hailed by Vogue as "anarchically edgy". Rad!

Moss is not alone in saluting the bearded agit-god - a result of the 40th anniversary, this year, of Cuba's revolution. Duffer of St George is showing Cuban political and film posters, from 1965 to 1974, including the seminal Che image, at London's Sho Gallery. Then there's new bar Che, with its cigar lounge, in that hotbed of revolutionary ferment, St James's, London.

Che is just one of many politicos being exhumed as icons of retro- chic cool, particularly by streety fashion labels. Born Free has created a T-shirt showing Jose Marti, Cuba's first revolutionary. Red or Dead is touting a tote bag scattered with portraits of Lenin, Mao and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. People's Wardrobe pays tribute to Bobby Seale, who wrote Seize The Time - The Story Of The Black Panther Party, in 1968. Professor Head sells tops featuring the suicide gun of Baader-Meinhof martyr Andreas Baader, as well as images of the White Panthers, the hippies who believed everything should be free, including marijuana.

Not that this trivialisation of once-potent imagery is peculiar to the Nineties. Tom Wolfe's book Radical Chic, published in 1970, lampooned the lip service paid by New York liberals to the Black Panthers. In the punk era, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's Seditionaries T-shirts juxtaposed graphics produced by anti-consumerist anarchists, the Situationists, with gay porn.

Still, in our current climate of fashionably flip post-modernism, today's designers and ad agencies seem flagrantly apolitical in their plundering of guerilla chic imagery. "I'm not interested in politics, I've never voted," declares People's Wardrobe designer, Barnsley, cockily. "I just love different imagery. In the Eighties, there were those bootleg Chanel logos and Smiley Ts. Different imagery catches on at different times."

If today's rad chic imagery seems devoid of political meaning, it's partly due to an enduring fascination with the anarchic (and so apolitical) Situationists. Fashion label 6876 (which refers to the 1968 riots and punk's heyday, 1976, and purports to be relatively anti-consumerist by refusing to feature logos), is inspired by Situationism. And recent Central St Martin's graduate Anne McLoy prominently featured the Situationist slogan, "La Beaute est dans la rue", in her degree-show collection.

Even so, it would be oversimplifying things to state that today's designers are indifferent to politics. Alex Barnes, of Breed, which has produced a T-shirt featuring a militant Jane Fonda, sees it as empowering: "I've always admired Fonda's feminism - until she cocked things up with her fitness video." "Hysteric Glamour's pillaging of imagery is all about irony and kitsch," says Willy Walters, course director for fashion at Central St Martin's. "But some streety labels, such as 6876, nod wistfully towards an era when youth had power, which, sadly, they don't now."

Yet the fact that many designers are too young to remember the contexts which spawned such imagery inevitably dilutes its political potency. "Many designers don't have a memory of these events," says social commentator Peter York. "Most fashion people are omnivorous scavengers. They just see an image they like and scan it, often without a doubt."

Scott King, founder of self-styled anti-lifestyle magazine, Crash, is more optimistic: "Designers yearn for an edgier aesthetic lacking in today's bland climate of New Labour." Still, King was unimpressed by a recent issue of Dazed & Confused, in which designers interpreted Situationist slogans. "You had the words `Beneath the paving stone's a beach' and a fashion photograph next to them."

As for bar Che, does proprietor Hani Farsi see any irony in an establishment where yuppies chew on fat cigars beneath a portrait of Guevara, one-time scourge of high capitalism? "No. I think a lot of people with a capitalist background respect what Che stood for." The bar, he says, was so named because it's in a listed Sixties building, and, for many, Che encapsulates that decade. "Another reason was that the building was once a bank, and Che was once head of Cuba's national bank."

"Viva la revolucin"? "Viva el capitalismo", more like.

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