Style: Marx comes to the aid of the party: Philip Sallon, impresario of style, explains fashion's material base to fellow-clubber John Windsor

In the Seventies, to gain an alternative interpretation of popular culture, we harkened to pop groups: the Sex Pistols detected anarchy and gave us their observations about the future of the monarchy. In the Eighties and early Nineties, we looked to the catwalk: Vivienne Westwood paraded de-constructivist inside-out garments. We nodded sagely.

The Nineties look like becoming the decade of the nightclub, which, for the past two decades, has been the unacknowledged inspiration for both the look and sound of alternative culture.

Punk culture was partly inspired by Seventies performance art at freaky London alternative clubs such as Louise's, Billy's and Blitz. Westwood's original inspiration was proto-punk. Today's young trend-setters, instead of trawling pop music or commercial fashion for emerging styles, are increasingly consulting their source: the club.

Philip Sallon is impresario of London's biggest, the Mud Club, a seething hothouse at Bagley's Film Studios in King's Cross goods depot where trends incubate in a culture of perspiration. The packed-out Saturday 10pm- 6am parties, with lavish theatrical theme sets, are now staged weekly instead of monthly.

Sallon's rewards for continuing to trend-spot accurately will be an even bigger box office and mesmerisation by wads waved by fashion designers and manufacturers. If he loses his touch, he will at least merit a footnote in history as the raving freak who used to roller-skate round Louise's in a wedding dress, was the first to wear men's skirts, bin liners, plastic bags and crowns (though seldom at the same time), and who inspired a pop star called Boy George.

Apart from Saturday nights, Sallon's lifestyle shows no obvious signs of freakiness. He is Jewish, 42, lives in a small flat in St John's Wood, has a drawer full of vitamin tablets and is into psychoanalysis. Like Vivienne Westwood, whose catwalk shows he staged in the Eighties, he is an intellectual and a didact.

'Culture is a reflection of what is going on at the material base of society,' he said. 'Do you understand?' I nodded. 'I wasn't the first to say that. Karl Marx was.

'I don't believe any particular person ever really invents anything. It is all a product of the mood of the time. Maybe Gutenberg did invent moveable type in the 1440s. But did his invention alone make printing widespread? The point is that the Renaissance was happening at that time, scholarship was becoming fashionable, so there was a material basis for the revolution in printing. It was 'invented' only because there was a need for it.'

I had joined the throng the previous Saturday at his 'Slumber Party', inspired by this summer's popularity of the colour pink and by young women he had spotted wearing baby-doll negligees. My name on his guest list gave me protection from the club's notorious bouncers, trained to deny entry to anyone showing vestiges of normality. That includes men with suits and ties; Eighties bimbos with ra-ra skirts, Sharon hair-dos, stilettos; and, particularly loathed, women with padded shoulders - it's the Hippodrome for them.

Only once, in January, was the anti-naff rule suspended. That was for the Good Riddance Diana Eighties Ball, to mark the Princess of Wales's retirement from public life. The set was a 30ft-high Chanel handbag with a dozen Essex girls dancing round it.

The Slumber Party set consisted of a couple of Fragonard- style garden swings with damsels in 18th-century rococo dresses and powdered wigs kicking up their petticoats. Not the easiest image to relate to popular culture, I thought.

At least Sallon's music theory was more accessible. 'When would you say the recession really deepened?' he asked me.' Eighty nine, ninety?' I ventured. 'Right, that's just when the garage music you heard on Saturday started to creep in. It's got human voices in it, which makes it quite different from the un-human, electronic sound of the early Eighties, or the acid house that began in 1987 - all computers and beeps. They belong to the boom.

'In boom times the mood swings away from humans towards machines - more readily appreciated as the basis of material survival, as films like Metropolis in the roaring Twenties show.

'Also, garage music is slower, not so manic. I'd call it the John Major of the music world. Margaret Thatcher was like a machine person. In the Eighties it felt as if she and Robocop were standing shoulder to shoulder. As the recession eases, the music should get more mechanical again. Not because someone like me or Vivienne Westwood decrees it. There's a reason for everything.'

Heavy, over-large design - modern baroque - is very fashionable, he said. 'Look at Vivienne, she's doing everything oversized - giant leopardskin prints, giant polka dots and checks.' But the first expression of modern baroque was his - a Christmas Baroq'n'roll Ball at the Empire Ballroom, Leicester Square, in 1987, weeks after the Black Monday stock market crash.

'Baroque is heavy. We have so many dark things hanging over us: recession, Aids, nuclear war. It's like the darkness of the 16th and 17th centuries after the lightness of the Renaissance. Where is the laughter of the Sixties and Seventies?

'There is a language without words in which we think unconsciously. We think of things that are making us secure or insecure economically and transpose them into everything around us. That's how fashion and culture arise. Every scrap of clothing, every bit of a building means something. I'm trying to unravel that language. That's my life's work, not the clubs themselves.'

The Mud Club opened in 1983 festooned with hammer-and-sickles and images of Stalin and Lenin - a trivial but genuine coup by Sallon, who had judged it time for young rebels to stop sporting swastikas and Confederate flags and adopt a fresh set of 'anti' emblems. The place was packed. Months later, manufacturers weighed in with Commie T-shirts and badges.

'Anti' images of the future? He is toying with Iraq and the IRA. The Mud Club held a 'Saddam Hussein's Barmitzvah' in September with a giant oil well spouting oil. 'The IRA is still a bit too close. When it becomes less menacing, perhaps.

'Of course, wearing Nazi, IRA or Iraqi emblems doesn't mean you support the Nazis or terrorism, or even that you want to annoy straight society. It just means you are anti the system. I can imagine people isolated from the rest of society in a commune in Wales wearing such things, just for the sake of identity.'

Talking of Wales, his St David's Day Pagan Rites in March featured Welsh cottages and a dozen old people in Welsh costume at spinning wheels. Not the sexiest of images, I told him. I was wrong. According to Sallon, old people are freaky now. And that means fashionable.

'I actually think we're living in a period when brains are back in fashion and that wisdom partly goes with age. When we had 20- year-old girls at the spinning wheels they looked like nothing at all. But it felt right using old people. The older the better. Old fat people. Old fat women. Fat old bags with real character in their faces. Thank god there are loads of them on my friend's council estate. They're brilliant.'

Similarly with the worlds the old inhabit - Blackpool, for instance. As 'British ethnic', Blackpool is as trendy as Wales. Expect to see Mud Club invitations on Blackpool rock next month. 'Cheap and tacky: there's beauty in vulgarity. We'll have a replica of Blackpool Tower, the shitty English version of the Eiffel Tower, all lit up. And old landladies, donkey rides. Really naff.'

Scottish ethnic (the Mud Club regularly celebrates hogmanay) is particularly trendy because Scotsmen wear men's dresses. Why are men's dresses 'in'? 'That's my business. But it's not in order to look like a woman. It's not drag. If a man starts putting fake tits on, that's drag. But wearing skirts or extra-long T-shirts isn't - because it doesn't make a man's shape look like a woman's. The real drag queens of the Eighties were the women with padded shoulders.

'Aids has had a huge influence. Casual sex is no longer something beautiful that you can play around with. It's associated with death. Girls don't show their bare legs and stuff any more, they put on dark or coloured tights. Bare legs are very pre-'85. That's because of Aids.'

He will give neo-Cubism a whirl, and then there is post-modernism to be grappled with. Not to mention post-feminism. I noticed that females, though in the minority, outshone the males at the Mud Club. Towards 6am, when the garage music reached a climax, the most brilliantly costumed of them, confident young professionals, dominated the stage, elevating themselves above the less garish, more baroque males - every one a goddess for the night. When is that likely to hit the mainstream?

Before it does, being of a retiring disposition, I intend to become a trend-setter the easy way. If you see men at the Mud Club wearing fluorescent figure-hugging knee-length T-shirts with a protruding cod-piece, remember I thought of it first.

(Photograph omitted)

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