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Colin McDowell is an impeccable authority on all aspects of fashion. He’s Senior Fashion Writer for the Sunday Times Style and an accomplished presenter and broadcaster, giving lectures to fashion colleges around the world. His book, McDowell’s Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion is so indispensable and uniquely researched that it’s referred to as ‘The Bible’ within the fashion industry. He is the founder and Creative Director of Fashion Fringe, which carefully selects emerging design talents and propels them into the future.
Last year as the credit crunch kicked in, you suggested going to bed for the winter. Assuming we did that, how should one face this summer?
Firstly, you will be slim and well rested, so go out and buy lots of new clothes which you know are not right for your age, determine to drink champagne at least three times a week and sleep with people you know are totally unsuitable. The summer will fly by and you wont even notice the rain.
You’ve written 16 books, including ones on Ralph, Manolo and Galliano. Is there implicit pressure on you to be more complimentary than you might be, considering how powerful (and vengeful) designers can be?
Absolutely not. But of course I write about them because I have built up an admiration for them over the years, and that doesn’t change any more than reading your favourite novelist does. At the end of the day, the really big designers don’t care too much for words about their shows – only their PRs read them. What they want is the pictures in the magazines and newspapers. Analysis is totally out of fashion at the moment and who knows if or when it might return?
You’ve worked in fashion for over 30 years; does it ever worry you that such a lengthy tenure might divorce you from reality?
This depends on your definition of reality although I do concede that too much time spent on planet fashion tends to drive one mad. You have only to look at the great names of fashion design to see that. they are largely barking – but so are the fashion people who idolise them. As Lagerfeld once said, designers are simply tradespersons and the hubris of them starring in films, curating art exhibitions etc is obvious to all. Stick with the pinking shears is what I say. That’s where you will do the least harm. I have never met a designer with an intellect – with sensitivity and creative genius, yes, but intellect, no. As for the press grandees, their self esteem protects them from all self doubt.
At what age should men ditch skinny jeans and other fashion fads and start dressing ‘classic’?
This is a hard one. It isn’t so much a question of age as of figure. A man with a ‘normal’ middle age figure will not be a pretty sight in skinny jeans and a tight t-shirt and if he is all buffed and shiny you only have to look at the eyes to see you are in the presence of somebody who has such a low self esteem he doesn’t know how to grow up – like those white haired guys who drive in open sport cars in the winter – or any time, really. They make me sigh for the human race.
Donatella Versace is honorary chairperson of FFCG2009, what does she bring to the table?
Like Tom Ford before her, Donatella has brought so much in so many ways. And the most important are the most subtle and difficult to put into words. She is an inspirational figure, she is sympathetic to the young, she is patient and painstaking with designers and is genuinely interested in young minds. Busy as she always is, she makes time for us because why would she do it if she didn’t care? She is a world figure and we can bring her no kudos – the traffic is all the other way – but she and her staff are right there with us, even at considerable personal inconvenience – and that is priceless support.
As a literature graduate and a renowned academic, do you not find fashion people somewhat shallow?
Always! But also witty, amusing, entertaining and even, occasionally, genuinely generous in spirit. But I’m not going to waste my time talking about Waiting for Godot to most of them, am I? Actually, I am amazed that such intensely visual people are so lacking in curiosity when it comes to other arts, they seem to go to so few exhibitions, films or plays – except for Priscilla Queen of the Dessert and Cage Au Folles, of course. We all spend too much time having breakfast, lunch and dinner with each other – fashion is a very incestuous family – that eventually we lose the ability to talk to people outside the fashion circle. We’re the intellectual walking wounded of the arts, in most cases.
The theme of this issue is ‘Silence’. Who or what would you most like to silence?
Nobody. Noise is an essential sign of vitality – if a child is sitting in a corner, not speaking, we think there is something wrong. Its the same with adults. However, peace is a very different thing. I live in the middle of Soho, an area vibrant night and day, and always very noisy – except in the morning until about 11 o’clock. At that time it could be the London of Handel and Canaletto, who lived two steps from my door. Silence is one of the most productive of things that life gives us but only if it is balanced by noise – and in Soho that happens later in the day, when the streets are full of the sort of people Hogarth would have felt totally at ease with – and so do I.
How do you feel about the growing trend of celebrity fashion ranges?
I think you can guess what I feel. Don’t you? But just to spell it out …it is fashion journalism’s self-inflicted wound. We know that these things are cynical marketing ploys, we know the model, celeb or whoever does not do the designing and yet we write as if we believe our own hype. It is a disgrace. And every journalist plays the game – because their editors are too frightened to take a stand – and risk losing advertising revenue. When Phillip Green was given a long and extremely adulatory interview in Vogue, one knew the endgame had arrived.
You regularly speak at the Costume Society of Great Britain- aside from the present, what do you view as the most exciting period in British fashion and why?
I think that to answer that would take a book because it must be assessed in relation to what is happening elsewhere at the time but I would put the Georgians well up at the top and the thirties and fifties when British couture was very elegant and sophisticated in the hands of people like Hardy Amies. I also think that the most sophisticated and classic British designer was Jean Muir, who, had she not died tragically early, would have put most of our young hopefuls through their paces. They don’t make them like her any more and modern substitutes are, in most cases, totally unworthy followers. Like many of her contemporaries, she wasn’t interested in being famous but only in being good at her job. Sounds like a different world? You’d better believe it!
Have you ever experience an uncomfortable moment when faced with a person you’ve criticised in print?
No, because they always avoid me. Some of their friends have been known to take up the fight on their behalf by being rather sniffy – but I can cope with that. Banning from shows is the favourite weapon – and how sterile is that? Rather like a teacher who can’t keep control making an unruly pupil stand outside the classroom door. How spineless. Recently, I was informed by a very minor designer that I could only come to her show if I promised to be kind. How pathetic – and, of course, fascist – is that? Designers want wall to wall adoration, not constructive criticism, and woe betide the writer who fail to take them at their own unbelievably inflated self evaluation.
Who do you feel is the most misunderstood person in fashion and why?
Undoubtedly Anna Wintour. The reason is the bitchiness and envy that always attends a leader in the fashion world. Most of the critics would fawn like little lap dogs if she invited them into her highly professional world. So why the sniping? The jealousy of the inadequate. But nobody can take away from her the fact that in the past twenty-five years she has not just dominated fashion, she has made it a force that touches virtually everybody now. That is an outstanding achievement by any reckoning. She is by her appearance and demeanour the total negation of the bourgeois and suburban – in strong contrast to most in the fashion world. Anna Wintour is the consummate professional.
First Published : The Hospital Club Magazine