Why it's in to be out

Cool is dead, even geek chic is history. The truly hip toy brazenly with style disaster, says Eleanor Bailey

"There are people who do it consciously, there are people who do it unconsciously and there are people who do it consciously but pretend to do it unconsciously."

Richard Benson, editor of The Face, demystifies the sociological dilemma of our time; how to look cool when uncool is the new cool. For if the only way to achieve cool is not to give a damn, then what are you supposed to do?

The issue has been brought to a head by the imminent release of Trees Lounge, the latest ice-cool film offering from the coolest girl in New York, Chloe Sevigny (zeitgeist star of Larry Clark's controversial movie Kids). Fashion cognoscenti agree that with her artless anti-style (she carries her possessions in a blue plastic bag, she wears American Tan tights) she is the epitome of Nineties uncool chic.

Uncool cool is about more than just clothes, it's a lifestyle thing. It's about (genuinely) preferring a fry-up and instant coffee to the sophistication and so-called chic of expensive restaurants. It's about not caring what you look like but throwing any old thing together and looking good because of it. It's about savviness and rejecting the old hype of status and celebrity. That's why Dennis Pennis, comedian Paul Kaye's alter ego who trips up self-important celebrities, is held up by many as the uncool cool icon. Not only does he look terrible, in his thickly bespectacled, geeky garb, but while looking thus he exposes celebrity vanity. Perfect.

Dennis Pennis producer Lucy Robinson explains: "Cool is confidence - the confidence to flirt around with bad-taste clothing, listening to whatever music you want, not following the crowd. Dennis is cool because he is irreverent; he has the upper hand despite looking like that."

"It's becoming more and more popular for women, particularly, to be uncool," says Melissa Thompson, PR at Savage and Best, the company which represents the uncool prototype Jarvis Cocker. "You can and should wear anything and be and say what you like. There are fewer rules, it's very liberating."

Uncool cool is anti-establishment, against the stranglehold of celebrity, wealth and power. Jethro Marshall, marketing director at Diesel, the clothes store which has latched on to uncool like it is the meaning of life, explains: "Everybody wanted to disassociate themselves from the uniform anonymity and excess of that designer consumerism. Diesel is a subversion of the 'exclusive' Eighties."

Models for Diesel clothing are often, appropriately, plucked from the Job Centre because in the art of don't-give-a-stuff-about-cool understatement, celebrity and beauty is nothing and talent and character is all. The trouble is the talented ones get famous anyway, continue with their attitude and get accused of self-consciousness.

And the problem for the would-be uncool is that it has to be natural. You can only fake so far, says Richard Benson. "You have to genuinely like the stuff you're wearing. You can't just try and copy others." Chloe Sevigny is so adulated because she is natural. Unlike someone like Courtney Love who went for the trash look but in a very self-conscious, media-manipulating fashion, Sevigny, pundits believe, is genuine. As the Face article notes: "If the cool of our times is the cult of uncool, then no wonder: Sevigny's cool is so uncool it makes Jarvis' cool-uncool look like he tried really really hard to be cool." (And Jarvis doesn't try. "Jarvis Cocker spent 20 years having the piss ripped out of him," says Richard Benson. "He always looked like that.")

In focus groups with young people, Mark Ratcliff, owner of Murmur, the under-35s research consultancy, has noticed a shift in attitudes. Today's role models tend to be people who have got somewhere by dint of their own achievement rather than through good looks or privilege. "Dance music producer Andy Wetherall, is thought of as very cool. He's an ugly bugger but he has a lot of integrity. He hasn't sold out."

You must, of course, look unattractive in the right way. The best uncool clothes can be found in flea markets. The look is urban, careless and cheap. Julie Allan, 21, has given up Prada and gone back to her natural look. "I feel much more me. Very comfortable. It's good for clubbing and daytime as well. And bizarrely people seem to think I'm cool now. It's odd; maybe it's because I don't care. I'm kind of aloof from it all. Someone complimented me on my trainers the other day. I've had them six years. No one ever liked them before."

Next week in Real Life: Chloe Sevigny interviewed.

TOTALLY UNCOOL: THE COOL LOOK

Perky hair tops your look, which is designed to show the world in an understated way that you are in control of your looks and your wardrobe and are really good in bed. Think sassy - cultivate a pout. Never carry a bag worth less than pounds 150. Wear plenty of make-up, particularly Mac or Bobby Brown like your supermodel idols

THE NEW 'UNCOOL' COOL

Old, chewed trainers should be worn with the odd designer item (say, a Versace t-shirt) to show that you understand the language. Mix an old heavy overcoat with unpleasantly shaded tiny pseudo-undergarments. Keep hair straggly, thin and lifeless, and use make-up sparingly to emphasise quirky, conventionally unappealing features

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