Editor-At-Large: Fashion needs a good handbagging

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The Independent Online

Spending the past eight days sleeping in a tent in the desert about 200km east of Alice Springs is wonderfully focusing. There are things you miss, like a hot shower and a thick mattress, and things you don't, like London Fashion Week. This apology of an "event" trundled into action with all the pizzazz of cold pizza, or a double helping of Jamie Oliver's ludicrous £7 beans on toast (now reduced to £5.95 because of the publicity). It's an excuse for a bunch of journalists who couldn't describe the contents of a box of Elastoplast to file reams of newspaper copy about the latest offerings from the raggle-taggle bunch of designers who still make London their base, when most of the top talent has decamped to Paris, New York or Milan.

Spending the past eight days sleeping in a tent in the desert about 200km east of Alice Springs is wonderfully focusing. There are things you miss, like a hot shower and a thick mattress, and things you don't, like London Fashion Week. This apology of an "event" trundled into action with all the pizzazz of cold pizza, or a double helping of Jamie Oliver's ludicrous £7 beans on toast (now reduced to £5.95 because of the publicity). It's an excuse for a bunch of journalists who couldn't describe the contents of a box of Elastoplast to file reams of newspaper copy about the latest offerings from the raggle-taggle bunch of designers who still make London their base, when most of the top talent has decamped to Paris, New York or Milan.

Fashion is fun, but the joke is wearing thin. Maybe I'm jaded, but sitting on a plane leafing through the glossy fashion magazines produces one sensation - nausea. High fashion seems trapped in a time warp, where the real world is simply ignored, and style is measured in how successfully you can conjure up the past, or use obscene amounts of fur and leather to tart up your "ideas". We read that girls as young as five months are being raped in Africa, including the little girl photographed with Prince Harry, and I've just come from a place where the indigenous population wanders through town shoeless, jobless, ignored and drunk, so it seems just plain weird that the one thing fashionable women the world over want to make love to is a handbag. Turn to Vogue, Harper's, Marie Claire, whatever, and you see stick-thin women clutching extraordinarily elaborate bags by Fendi, Hermès or Dior to their flat chests as if they were indulging in some new form of non-penetrative sex.

Don't get me wrong, fashion is enriching and can make anyone feel good. In Britain we have the best high street clothing in the world - with ingenuity it's possible to look stylish and well-dressed cheaply, regardless of your age. Against that, most designer fashion is ridiculously overpriced, and the mantra that the name on the label is worth paying for is just wearing thin. The fact is, most luxe labels exist only to flog perfume, accessories and wallets to time-rich tourists whiling away hours in transit lounges from Singapore to Barcelona. How many women the world over will shell out to toddle about in comic-book Prada wedge-heeled shoes or shredded tweed from Versace? It's crunch time for high fashion, and unfortunately London is where the gaps in the fantasy really show first. In Paris and Milan you get big money spent on flashy shows, great freebies for all those buyers and journos, and, most importantly of all, big stars sitting in the front row.

All the big swanky stores emblazoned with designers' names in central London cannot make a profit selling clothes alone. They exist to prop up the image that sells the smell, the undies, the bed linen, and the monogrammed trinkets and T-shirts. The snooty shop assistants are all part of the smoke and mirrors illusion that we are participating in something gorgeous and special by purchasing a frock that costs as much as a normal family's monthly income. Over the coming weeks you'll be seeing the ritual played out on the catwalks as the circus moves from city to city - but remember, what you are being shown has absolutely no relevance to the practical needs of modern women. And as for that insane idea that there's a "look" this season - when fashion "writers" start telling us we have to look ladylike and demure, you know the whole caboodle is really on the skids.

What few fashion journalists (brainwashed by the pressure of PR hype) are brave is enough to own up to, is that working women in the 21st century choose for themselves what to wear and it's not really predicated by events on the catwalk over the past few days and the next couple of weeks. I expect a lot of luxe brands to go bust before too long - there aren't that many rich airheads around.

Blood sport

It's fitting that hunt protester Lucy Ferry's comment about bringing down the Government, when she was fined for blocking Parliament Square with her car during the pro-hunting demo, coincided with London Fashion Week. Lucy brings all the depth of a well-cut pair of culottes to the argument about the killing of foxes by people in red on horseback. I adore her long-suffering ex-husband, Bryan, and cherish the memory that I spent a couple of holidays coinciding with them in the Caribbean. I shall never forget the sight of Lucy in a Chanel cardigan, toting a long cigarette holder, overseeing her sons paddling in St Lucia. Surely the best way to resolve the debate over fox-hunting is to televise live a gladiatorial contest in a public arena between two top fashion queens - Mrs Ferry vs Stella McCartney.

Once again the Lib Dems have come up with a winning idea - instead of jailing car thieves, take them go-karting. Our Home Secretary seems hell-bent on demonising young people who do not conform. Tagging, Asbos, detention centres. Twenty-five years ago I made a documentary about young people who persistently stole cars and the way a pioneering scheme that let them build go-karts and learn to be mechanics had changed their lives. It's truly depressing that many decades later, politicians are still so quick to dish out punishment rather than build on all the enthusiasm and spirit latent in the young. Training young criminals to become engineers and motor mechanics isn't being "soft" on crime, it's being intelligent.

Mark Oaten, the Lib Dems' home affairs spokesman, unveiled a whole heap of constructive proposals to deal with recalcitrant youth at the party's conference last week, including the setting-up of local panels to decide how offenders should be punished. The guilty would have to apologise to their victims and carry out repairs. The process would see young people confront those whose lives they have disrupted. It's definitely worth a try because we cannot afford to create a generation of undereducated young people, in particular young men, who have no sense of belonging and no social values. Tony Blair should be paying attention to these proposals because, for a lot of voters, they will make sense.

The treatment of Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) by the American Immigration authorities is crass in the extreme. It only confirms that the US is fast becoming a racist society where anyone who doesn't conform to an approved simplistic stereotype is weird and therefore dangerous. The man has condemned the 11 September attacks publicly. He has opposed the war in Iraq, but has also given a considerable amount of time and money to charitable educational causes. If ever there was an acceptable face of Islam surely it was his, but not apparently to the morons in the Bush administration. All of this is particularly depressing for relatives of the detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay.

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