BUNHILL: Designers push the haute out

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The Independent Online
Let's hear it for Sean McGowan, the 26-year-old couture designer who has just been signed up to strut his stuff at the French fashion house Lagerfeld. And what a welcome he received. In a memorable feat of self- contradiction that was more off the wall than off the peg, a spokesman for the company explained that he had made an impression because of "his energy, his being - he is very unpretentious".

Designer gobbledegook perhaps, but McGowan can walk tall as yet another British success story and proud exponent of our resurgent "street life" - the cultural renaissance alluded to by John Major (not that it did him much good) and the "Cool Britannia" described by the American magazine Newsweek.

Music and art have played a big part in all this, but the real draw for tourists this summer will be the latest lines from our fashion designers, who have turned the "Made in Britain" label from a thing to be removed with scissors into a reason for wearing shirts inside out. For the world loves to slip into something British and the figures prove it: total exports of all clothing were worth pounds 3.3bn to the UK in1996, up 14 per cent on 1995, and fashion items contributed around pounds 700m in a rise of similarly eye-popping proportions

Britain has plenty of small fashion houses and they have all helped to stitch up the market, but the momentum has been provided by high-profile names like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. These have been the people stunning exhibitions from London to Paris with their couture collections, and both have been hired to head the design teams of top European fashion companies - McQueen at Givenchy and Galliano at Christian Dior.

So should we salute these style gurus? Absolutely; all non-believers should be forced to wear flares. And should we celebrate their role in making Britain a shop window for the world? No doubt about it, bless their chiffon socks. But notwithstanding this the burning question still remains: who on earth wears the stuff?

Look at the accompanying pictures, and ask yourself the following question: no matter how suave the soirees you attend, and however beautiful the beautiful people with whom you consort, have you ever seen anyone dressed in a purple fitted lace bodice, an Egyptian-style metallic costume or a gold bodice with white cloth? And if you've ever tried to buy items like these, have you ever been met with a response other than, "I'm sorry, madam, but this is a clothes shop"?

If the answer to both questions is "yes" then you must move in very rarefied circles because there can be few parts of British culture that command so much space in the media and so little space on the high street. Instead, these are designs made by the few for the few and, as a spokesman for the British Fashion Council admits, they are past their sell-by date almost as soon as they've been sold. Be they haute couture (one-off) or part of an exclusive ready-to-wear collection, they are worn just once - snapped up, in the best traditions of Absolutely Fabulous, by "ladies who lunch" and then slipped on by God knows who to go God knows where. After that, well they're just too passe to be seen in again.

You might also have asked yourself how the back-street designer shops selling couture lines make their money. After all, if you've ever stood in a pub opposite one of these outlets you will have noticed that hours can pass (days, even, if you're having a really long lunch) without anyone going in bar a few friends dropping by for a glass or two of Bollinger.

Well, the answer here is that if you've got a dress with a cost price of pounds 2,000 and you charge a mark-up of more than 50 per cent, you won't need many sales. And why are these shops always tucked away in side streets? Because they don't need people to know about them; those who need to know already know (if you know what I mean).

So that's the crazy world of couture - a hugely successful industry, but one best described as for people with more money than fashion sense. However, this won't stop me staking my own claim for stylistic supremacy so I hereby launch the Bunhill neglige with lace trims, pleated frills and a Roman centurion's helmet for a nightcap. And how will this item derive its exclusive cachet? Because no one will ever wear it.

Congratulations to Nick Montagu, who was recently appointed as the new chairman of the Inland Revenue in a move that could herald a radically different approach to tax collection.

Mr Montagu used to be a philosophy teacher and later, as a senior civil servant, played a big part in preparing the railways for privatisation. So we can confidently expect that when no self-assessment forms have been returned he will smile stoically, light his pipe and say: "Never mind, life's too short to worry about money ... anyway, there'll be another tax year along soon."

AA's power play

It used to be so simple when your car broke down: you'd just call out the AA and they'd come and fix your vehicle before waving you on your way with a "proud to serve you" salute.

But then those very nice men got tired of sticking their heads under bonnets and decided they wanted to do something different; now they'll fix your car, give you a personal loan, arrange some travel insurance, repair your central heating and, for all I know, explain the cadence and symbolism of metaphysical poetry to your baby and pet kittens.

Are there no lengths to which the Automobile Association won't go to get its hands dirty? No, it seems, because it is now forming a marketing alliance with Scottish Power to sell electricity, gas and AA products to households across the country when the energy market is opened up to full competition next year.

Bizarre though this latest example of cross-selling might appear, it does make strategic sense because the AA has more than 9 million members and that's a much better way for Scottish Power to flog heat than cold- calling. Meanwhile, every time Scottish Power manages to squeeze out a spark, the knights of the road will be in there mending the spark plugs

More important, the link-up raises intriguing questions about the kind of service we can expect with the AA on board. If, for example, your cooker's on the blink, will the repairmen tow it to the nearest gas showroom? Or will they fix it there and then provided it's not parked outside your house? Will you be offered a hire car if your microwave goes wrong? Will you be given overnight accommodation in a hotel if you inadvertently select the wrong pump and fill up your TV with diesel fuel?

Most vital of all, when you ask someone if they can service your boiler, will they reply, "No, but I know a man who can"?