Christina Patterson: The fashion industry that makes us always want more

Something changed when people - and not just very rich people - started wearing their labels on the outside

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The Independent Online

Everywhere you looked, there were sandals. Solid, sensible sandals. Sure, there were plenty of sandals in the ICC in Birmingham, when Nick Clegg tried his new technique of asking himself questions, and then giving the answers, presumably because he prefers the questions he asks himself. There were plenty, too, when Vince Cable told us we were in an economic war zone, told us, in fact, that we're doomed. But these weren't the sandals at that annual convention of comfy leisurewear known as the Lib Dem conference. These were in a massive room in the City, on a strip of shiny floor that people called a "runway".

The sandals, like the declaration of war, created a bit of a stir. "It's so long," said the coverage in another paper, "since the fashion fraternity has seen a flat, cushioned, sensible sole that initial reactions assumed this was a rogue pitch invader." But apparently it wasn't. Apparently, there were "flat, cushioned, sensible" soles all down the "runway". Samantha Cameron, who was sitting in the front row, and who recently wore five-inch heels for a charity walk, perhaps thinking that because it was called "Born to Walk Tall", she had to, must have been quite surprised. So must Tilda Swinton, and Anna Wintour. They must have been surprised because people who know about these things think that "flat, cushioned, sensible" soles are the fashion equivalent of an Arab Spring. But "an ultra-high heel," said Christopher Kane, who designed them, "just looks so old".

To me, an "ultra-high heel" doesn't look "old". It just looks like something that would make it hard to run for the bus. To me, it looks like the kind of thing you'd wear if you wanted to take part in Berlusconi "bunga bunga". I don't think Samantha Cameron does want to take part in Berlusconi "bunga bunga". I think she likes "ultra-high heels" because "ultra-high heels" were, until Kane dropped his bombshell, the fashion. And Samantha Cameron is very keen on fashion. She's so keen on it that she has herself designed handbags which cost £1,000 each. She's so keen on it that she's ambassador for this year's London Fashion Week.

People who know about these things, and who get very excited when Anna Wintour comes to something, and sits in the front row, behind giant sunglasses, even inside, think that the clothes in Kane's show were, as one reviewer said, "fresh and streetwise". I can't really tell if clothes are "fresh" or "streetwise", just as I can't really tell whether "ultra-high heels" look "old", but I could certainly see from the pictures that they looked colourful, and sometimes shiny, and probably very cleverly designed, and probably very nicely crafted. I can see, as far as you can tell from photos when you don't really know what you're looking for, that lots of the clothes that appear on the "runway" in London Fashion Week are cleverly designed and nicely crafted, and that the people who designed them are probably very talented, and that what they produce is a kind of art.

I can also see that the fashion industry creates a lot of jobs (1.3 million, according to the London Fashion Week website) and that it contributes a lot to the British economy (£21bn, according to the same website) and that you need things that contribute to the British economy, particularly when you're in the middle of an "economic war". If cluster bombs, and leg shackles, and other things on display at another big show in London 10 days ago, are so good for the British economy that our Prime Minister can combine a trip to promote democracy in the Middle East with arms-selling to some really quite undemocratic Middle Eastern states, then there's no reason why his wife shouldn't be an ambassador for handbags and "ultra-high heels". She is, after all, the wife of a Conservative prime minister, and one who has himself declared a war on the "enemies of enterprise".

People have always wanted to wear nice clothes, and they have always wanted to change those clothes more quickly than they wear out. They have also always wanted to say something about themselves through the clothes they wear, even if what they're saying is that they just want to look like everyone else. If you want to be "creative" about your clothes, then you probably have to be the person who suddenly decides that the "ultra-high heel" looks "old", rather than the person who buys the "flat, cushioned, sensible" sole because someone tells you to. You can be "creative", if you want to, by buying clothes by the top names in fashion, or buying clothes at Oxfam or Primark. You can look beautiful, if you are beautiful, in a Prada suit, or a sack.

But something changed when people – and not just very rich people – started wearing their labels on the outside. It changed when people started thinking that what mattered wasn't whether the suit looked nice, but whether people knew that it was Prada, and that the handbag was Mulberry, and the raincoat was Burberry, and when even the wives of Labour prime ministers started to think that they couldn't turn up at a Labour party conference without wearing a dress by someone the fashion press could name. It changed when you could ask someone what they were wearing, and it was no longer enough to say, as Boris Johnson did at the start of London Fashion Week, "a suit".

And it changed when even the poorest children in our society, who live on inner-city estates, and often on benefits, think that what matters isn't whether you have clothes or shoes to wear, but what label is on those clothes, and some of them think it matters so much that they're prepared to smash windows, and wreck their future, in order to get hold of them.

When Vince Cable talked about "grey skies" and "difficult times ahead", he wasn't joking. There are "grey skies" and "difficult times ahead", not just for this country, but throughout the Western world. It's a fact of life that most of us won't be able to have the kind of lifestyle we've had, or aspired to, for the past 60 years. As global economic power shifts to the East – an East which keeps workers in semi-slavery to make those clothes with those labels – we'll have to work out the things we think we need to make a good life, and the things we can do without.

If the result is less power in an industry that exists to create a need you didn't know you had, and tells you to throw out things that don't need throwing out, and makes you feel you're never thin enough, or pretty enough, or rich enough, an industry, in fact, that exists to create mass-scale dissatisfaction, then some of us won't be shedding many tears.;