Obituary: Louis van Praag

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The Independent Online
ONE of the least apparent aspects of Louis van Praag's career, yet probably the most profound, was his extraordinary influence on a generation of designers and merchandisers in the garment industry; 'the troops' in other words, writes David W. Harvey (further to the obituary by Michael Davie, 7 June).

The besetting sin of British management in ignoring design, so vividly defined by Michael Davie, is its apparent contempt for the foot-soldiers and their point of view. That is one reason why they have to march off to Italy, Germany and elsewhere to get decent jobs and respect - and thereafter design the desirable imports which mock our balance of payments. Louis van Praag fought their corner, inspiring and convincing them in his 12 years as a lecturer at the Royal College of Art; adding practicality, by himself launching squad after squad off to bigger fields from his own organisation, so that today there is hardly a high-street operation or design school without its own van Praag disciple.

His own credentials were based on the startling growth of the Sabre company, as it became a by-word for innovation in the Carnaby Street/King's Road atmosphere of the mid-Sixties. Retailers then needed as much education as anyone. Merchandise was religiously bought on the store buyer's authority without any criteria beyond the words 'price' and 'classic'. Louis van Praag sales conferences became 'teach-ins', not only for his staff and agents, but for retailers.

It is appropriate to recall that such ideas as the 'designer' pullover and the merchandise conference were total novelties in British garment retailing before van Praag went to work. That his own label should collapse was not entirely his fault. His flair for communication and industrial experience made him a vivid contributor to educational debates and inquiries, culminating in his chairmanship of the 'Managing Design' committee and the Council for National Academic Awards.

Van Praag's abiding testimonial is the force of dedicated, enthusiastic workers and teachers in the garment industry. They took his precepts to heart, and have held the ground and continue the uphill battle to convince those in charge that good design is crucial to commercial survival.