THE MARKET : has fashion had its day?

Fashion has contracted a rag trade strain of the Ebola virus and is devouring itself from within. These days, your home says more about who you are than your clothes ever can. Time to get 'cocooning'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
when designers turn into movie stars, when supermodels are shunned by the tabloids and when a Prada camel coat is indistinguishable from the Marks & Spencer version, you have all the makings of a pop culture eclipse.

Depending on who you talk to, fashion, as a pan-cultural concept, gasped its last breath as far back as April 1992 when The Gap dressed a coverful of supermodels for the 100th anniversary edition of Vogue magazine or as recently as the spring-summer '96 collections in Milan, when Gucci unveiled its collection of glassware.

Having been the hub of Western popular culture at least for the last six years of supermodel superhype, it seems that fashion's 15 minutes of fame are finally up, and there are no shortage of contenders jostling to take its place.

This is not to say that the photographers, the magazine editors, the muses and the designers, didn't put up a valiant fight. Indeed, the fashion moment lasted far longer than anyone could have predicted, it's just that somewhere along the way it contracted a rag trade strain of the Ebola virus and eventually started to devour itself from within.

If the driving force behind any significant cultural movement is self- expression, then the fashion industry as a whole has managed to strip that key ingredient from the equation. Through advances in manufacturing technology everyone can essentially look exactly alike, at exactly the same moment, at any number of different price points. Fashion died because it became far too easy to throw yourself together.

If we're out to assign blame, then instant gratification via savvy high street retailers has a lot do with it. When a Balenciaga-inspired evening dress can be bought at Kookai for pounds 75, then why would you go to Joseph to drop a grand on the original? Everyone seems to think they've mastered the art of dressing and once you've mastered something you tend to move on to something new. Recent headlines in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times would certainly support this, as clothing sales in both the United States and the United Kingdom are revealed to be sluggish at best.

The fashion community should have known it was in trouble when one of its most high profile editors proclaimed that "clothes are exciting but housewares are where it's really at," after an anonymous spring-summer show in Milan.

Doing her best to look like a cross between Jackie Onassis and June Cleever in a navy Alberta Ferretti dress, Elizabeth Saltzman, fashion editor of Vanity Fair, had obviously read the same headlines I had, or perhaps she was trying to stir up interest for the imminent resurrection of the American edition of House & Garden, which was closed almost three years ago by its publisher, Conde Nast.

"I think the home is what's really exciting now," said Saltzman. "Everyone is talking about quality of life, so I think you're going to see more emphasis on entertaining and defining your own personal space."

It looked for a while as if Bill Gates and his legions of info-geeks would inherit fashion's position of cultural prominence and bore us for the next five years with sexy stories about the World Wide Web; so be relieved that your next source of insecurity will be your home.

If you used to confuse Shalom with Amber, agonised about having the right label in your loafers or thought Tom Ford was the heir of an automotive company, then you can now put all of that behind you and start to scrutinise your sitting room, because home is where the hype is.

When Conde Nast starts to focus on home interior magazines, when Habitat is once again chic, and when Ikea launches a hip design-driven range of furniture, then you know that the cultural eclipse has passed and fashion is no longer in sight.

"The revival of the home is something that's been in the air for some time, but I think it's started to grab attention now because there is a security issue attached," says Ellen O'Neill, design director of the Ralph Lauren Home Collection. "The end of the century is fast approaching and people want security and the problem with fashion is that it just started to move too fast."

It's certainly not out of boredom that Calvin Klein, Adrienne Vittadini, Gianni Versace and Guess have all launched home collections, one only needs to look at retail sales figures to see that housewares and gardening are the huge growth areas for the high street on both sides of the Atlantic.

A sample of the UK high street reveals that Sir Terence Conran will soon be opening new Conran Shops in Marylebone, west London, and Glasgow; Habitat is looking to open a purpose built flagship in W1; the Sears retail group is testing a new housewares concept called The Source; the successful home store Jerry's recently opened a new branch in Hampstead; and Heal's is opening a huge, new space on King's Road.

"The focus on the home has a lot to do with the recovery of our economy and people are taking stock of their lives in many ways and, in doing so, they're starting to redefine the way they live," says Craig Allen, furniture buyer for the Conran Shop. "People are content to sit tight, renovate the places they currently own and, thankfully, we've moved away from that mindless notion of buy, sell, buy, sell."

If you talk to the trend forecasters like the Henley Centre or Faith Popcorn (publisher of the influential "Popcorn Report"), they'll tell you that the home, as a sociocultural hub, has been ready to explode for a long time.

"When I predicted that cocooning was going to be a major force," says Popcorn, "people should have known that we were going to want to spend on our surroundings. That's why all the publishers are scrambling to get magazines on the shelves because people are looking for information.".

The current lack of information about becoming a better homemaker is also what helps fuel the movement as new talent experiments with design and consumers use new products to redefine their lifestyles.

"Just as fashion became very simple because designers spelled it out for us," says O'Neill, "we started to look for more original ways to define who we are and the last place that truly says who you are is your home. It's harder to make a bedroom come together than it does to dress yourself for the office. At the end of the day, we all have the ability to dress well, but creating a stylish home involves a little more effort."

Which is undoubtedly why IPC Magazines tested Marie Claire Maison earlier this year, in a hope that they'll find a market for a magazine that will carry features about which African tribeswomen throw the best garden parties or "real life stories" about How I Tracked Down the Sofa Where I had My First Shag and It Didn't Need Re-upholstering.

"We have a whole generation of young consumers who have done the fashion thing and now they want something that's a little more meaningful. All those people who read The Face and i-D are slightly older now and their values have changed - and perhaps fashion doesn't have the same mileage for them that it used to," says Allen. "Your kitchen says a lot more about who you are than a new suit ever will."