Fashion: Why fashion will always need shock treatment

British designers continue to shock. Tamsin Blanchard, Fashion Editor, asks what's the point of London Fashion Week without the semi- nudity and dead flies.

To succeed in life at London Fashion Week, all you have to do is shock. Bare breasts, full-frontal, no g-strings nudity; a portly Marianne Faithfull in a Latex corset; four- letter words projected onto the catwalk; and 500 flies swarming out of a jacket.

All of this and more was part of the rich diversity of British fashion over the past five days. Clothes? Who needs them when you can grab the headlines with a good old-fashioned dose of shock factor.

Some call it creativity. Others call it sensation. "Who bares wins" ran the headline in the Mirror yesterday alongside a picture of Jodie Kidd in sheer chiffon and Helena Christensen in a dress cut to her belly button. "Does British fashion really need stunts like this?" screamed the Daily Mail next to a picture of a larger than life Marianne Faithfull complete with surgical corset and see-through knitted dress.

The answer is a resounding "yes". Without the shock tactics, who on earth would bother boarding a plane to come and see - and hopefully buy - London's collections?

Andrew Groves, 29, the latest pretender to Alexander McQueen's throne, presented his catwalk debut in an old bus shed in Victoria on Sunday night. You will not have heard of him yet, and few fashion editors had seen any of his clothes, but the front row included Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune, Kate Betts of American Vogue, Amy Spindler of the New York Times, Andre Leon Talley of Vanity Fair and the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. Saffron Spanckling of the rock band Republica turned up to see it too.

The reason for all the interest? Andrew Groves' graduation from Central Saint Martins last summer included Hellraiser-style suits studded with six-inch nails and a hangman's noose. He said the nails were supposed to represent "inner pain".

The audience was there to be shocked. Instead, they were disgusted when a model stalked down the runway and tore open her jacket with ridiculously exaggerated shoulders to free a storm of flies into the front row.

The fashion press is so jaded with wearable suits and slip dresses, they are in search of something to make their spines tingle. Groves is just one of the new breed of British designer who, like the new breed of British artists showing as part of the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy, sets out to provoke a reaction - good or bad - from the viewer.

As Alexander McQueen said in Time Out this week: "I don't wanna do a cocktail party, I'd rather people left my shows and vomited, I prefer extreme reactions."

Rumours about human remains used as accessories at his last show for Givenchy in July caused revulsion. But his show on Sunday night did not provoke nausea or even outrage. Naked girls walking down the catwalk in leather harnesses provokes little more than a second glance by the fashion pack these days. He opted instead for a Hollywood rain storm and instead raised the hackles of his sponsors at American Express by trying to call the collection "Golden Shower".

Shock and horror on the catwalks is nothing new: Vivienne Westwood, who showed her Red Label yesterday at the Globe Theatre in Southwark using Page 3 girl Melinda Messenger, has been at it since her days with Malcolm McLaren and their shop, Sex, in the early Seventies. Masturbation, bondage, fake fur knickers designed to look like pubic hair, S&M harnesses and other paraphernalia are all part of Westwood's fashion vocabulary.

True to form, Westwood chose this season to go against the grain. She showed the collection of traditional tailoring and dresses fit for an Elizabethan milkmaid to the sounds of olde worlde pastoral pipe music. Even Ms Messenger looked anything but sexy, more like the village idiot. They wore prim suits, Sunday bonnets and ruddy cheeks. The collection was entitled The English Girl Abroad.

In the show notes, the mother of punk wrote: "These girls who think themselves classless are prepared to be spontaneous and artless in a way that the upper-class girls wouldn't normally dream of, though the odd one of these may land herself as a punk till such time as she wishes to return to the safe haven of her background." The days of anarchy seem a long way off.

Philip Sallon, 45, long-time fan and one-time fellow punk, was watching the show in vintage Westwood. "The only innovative thing was the haircuts. But she hasn't run out of ideas," he said. In October, he will host his "Never Mind The Bollocks twenty years of punk anniversary party".

Meanwhile, Westwood looks more and more like Margaret Thatcher every day.

Alexander McQueen and Damien Hirst, the controversial artist, share a bad boy reputation as well as an unhealthy fascination with death. Andrew Groves' Flies Trapped Inside a Jacket, shown on Sunday night, are another inevitable common thread.

It is not just on the catwalks that fashion pushes the barriers of taste. The cult art and fashion magazine Dazed & Confused has spearheaded the debate about "heroin chic" - the use of models that look like corpses - and has featured more blood and gore on its fashion pages than the average splatter movie.

Experimentation is what is expected from London's designers. They have a lot of hype to live up to. And without extremes of nudity, aggression and bad behaviour, what would we have left? A bunch of jackets with pointy shoulders and some very pretty frocks.

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