Books: Snakecharmers in Texas : Dedicated Follower |
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Dedicated Follower

For the reporters and photographers of the international fashion circus, London comes between Milan and Paris. Once just an interlude, in recent years British Designer Week has taken on an importance all its own, and this year it promised to be a relief after Italy, where the big names had drowned their models in gold lamé. Choked by ostentation, the fashion circus fought to get on the planes to London, where the young designers, having less to spend, must perforce try harder to be fresh.

The first show I saw was by John McIntyre, who a few days previously had been broke to the wide. His backer had dropped out. Then a new backer stepped in. This was heavy drama, which the collection duly reflected. Inspired by Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis and their passionate alliance, the clothes emphasised discipline. The riding coats were severely cut and the riding crops meant business. Jodhpurs made of unlikely materials looked floppily soft, but the high boots came down hard. It was made clear that Sissinghurst Sapphism took no prisoners.

Pretending to be either Vita sizing up Violet or vice versa, the models glared hungrily, their diamanté beauty-spots sparkling in the photo-flash. Their lips were bruised purple. Female Wehrmacht officers had met the Lesbos Olympic riding team and pitilessly kissed. Most of the outfits looked fairly unwearable by any woman not planning to invade a Polish monastery on horseback, but there were some handsome long coats with crewel-work lining on the outside and the furry outside inside.

I was able to watch the next show with my legs uncrossed. Wendy Dagworthy favours a lot of lighthearted skipping and jumping by the models. The clothes, when they weren’t moving too fast to be visible, seemed mainly to consist of Yugoslavian army surplus, eked out with some Korean War-vintage kapok-quilted combat jackets. The girls wore men’s shoes of the type that you see despairingly offered on the bargain racks outside the shop — size 11½ yellow leather casuals with elasticised gussets to chafe the instep. The occasional ensemble of Kandinsky cotton smock over banana plaid, or tricoteuse cap plus 38th Parallel pyjamas, had the same allure as the layered look which has recently been brightening the streets, and which certain members of my family hope to achieve by stealing my shirts out of the drier.

Betty Jackson’s show was next on the morning’s tight schedule. From the catwalk tent at the Commonwealth Institute the fashion circus set off towards Olympia. The Observer’s contingent moved at a brisk trot. Vogue’s rapid deployment force went in their own minibus. American buyers rode in limousines. Everybody got there at the same time and jammed the Wedgwood-veneered venue.

Betty Jackson’s overnight success has been twelve years coming, with the result that her clothes look wearable even at their weirdest. At first I saw big shoulders and thought aha! Montana. Then I saw long sweaters and thought aha! Sonia Rykiel. But Jackson has her own way, especially with wool. The black medieval student suits were cutely strict, an effect reinforced by lorgnettes and half-glasses.

Black and silver brocade pants suits with silk shirts underneath looked very classy. They were greeted by a storm of photo-flash, indicating that all the correspondents had signalled their photographers to get the snap. When the air turns white you know it’s a hit outfit. The same almost applied to the black velvet pants plus transparent black lace top, but the brassiere was hard to ignore in there, like an inadequately camouflaged gun emplacement.

Instead of visiting the Emanuels’ show, I skived off for lunch. The Emanuels are a charming duo but I had not forgiven them for decking the Princess of Wales in a wedding dress that so thoroughly disguised her beautiful figure, or for lumbering Karen Barber with puffed sleeves in the European ice-dancing championships. Women’s clothes should not fight the woman, in my view.

If my view was old-fashioned, Jasper Conran seemed to share it. His was the first show of the afternoon, and immediately impressed with its authority. Apart from a few sweaters which made the girls look as if they were auditioning for the Los Angeles Rams defensive line, there was nothing extreme. His jumbo trench coats were more roomy than threatening, and the general look of black and grey was made lush with velvet trim and purple silk scarves. Having found the day a bit shrill so far, I was glad to find that somebody could sing from the chest register.

Conran’s long skinny black jersey silk shifts would have been hard to wear for any woman with ordinary protuberances. Even some of the rail-thin models seemed to have acquired an extra pair of nipples at the hip, although I was soon told that these were bumps raised by the seams of their tights. Generally, however, the clothes were user-friendly.

There was a mightily pretty yellow brocade pants suit with a deep green velvet coat and cap. It turned the air white, yet would still look good on a short girl. Too many designers make clothes that will hang properly only on Jerry Hall. Yves Saint-Laurent, a cannier operator, never designs anything that can’t be worn by Paloma Picasso, who can walk between Jerry Hall’s legs without ducking. Saint-Laurent’s is not an entirely disproportionate name to invoke, because Conran already has something of the same knack for stamping an identity on a whole collection without resorting to optical mayhem.

Wanting the same kind of restraint from Body Map, of course, would be like wanting Tina Turner to take a vow of silence. Back at the Commonwealth Institute, Body Map’s was the last show of the day, and the fashion circus, which is able to keep going only because of the mildly speedy side-effects of Feminax, was feeling pretty whacked.

Body Map woke everybody up. All the shows had featured boy models along with the girls, but Body Map also fielded small children and the designers’ mothers. ‘Body Map presents the half world,’ drivelled the commentator in sepulchral tones. Girls raced past in black lipstick, tasselled PVC platform boots, satin acetate tart-trotter frocks with Zen stickers, and G-strings worn over the loon pants instead of underneath. The artificial fabrics were so tacky it was obviously a matter of conviction.

Shirred petroleum by-products were edged with flatworm ruffles. Boys chosen for their Chelsea supporter faces did karate kicks to reveal that their printed cling-film posing pouches were holding them in as well as up. Linoleum-look bathing suits for the girls had terraced frills at the back, a 40-year plunge into the past. Long woollies, the only clothes you could imagine even a madwoman wearing twice, were stacked with frills from neck to hem, like floppy toy pagodas.

Pushing back the limits is an activity subject to the law of diminishing returns, which in Body Map’s case must surely soon set in. Meanwhile the fuss helps to keep the fashion circus on the qui vive, instead of just spending a dozy week pre-Paris. London’s profile goes up, the buyers flock in, the rich look smart, the smart get rich and the innocent go broke.

Observer 24 March, 1985
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Some of the designers mentioned above were out of business within the year. Foreign visitors had come to marvel, but went away without buying anything. A German fashion correspondent told me why. It wasn’t because the clothes were too challenging, it was because they weren’t well-finished enough. The message for the aspiring young designer ought to be plain: if you want to be Jean Muir, learn to sew.