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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 September 2007, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Fashion. A serious business
Model on the catwalk

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

They do charity work. They want their contribution to British culture to be taken seriously. But why do people look down their noses at the fashion industry?

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months," Oscar Wilde said.

Next season's ugliness is currently on display at London Fashion Week in marquees outside the Natural History Museum.

Outfit by Gareth Pugh
Some items are not easy to imagine in real life. Like this...
There you will find Naomi Campbell banging the drum for the Rotary Club's work for flood victims, Matthew Williamson punting 50 umbrellas to help the Red Cross and Katherine Hamnett's Save the Future T-shirts raising money for better welfare standards for cotton producers.

Many media outlets will at some point this week have used images from the event, although for many the focus is on stick thin models and underage exploitation. And even leaving aside the weight issue, the denizens of the fashion industry don't tend to enjoy very good press.

Outfit by Gareth Pugh
...or this

The venue for this jamboree of fashion could not be in a more serious location. The spring/summer Fashion Week "tent" is overlooked by the sombre facade of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), with its maroon window frames and statues of luminaries from Britain's cultural history like St Dunstan, Caxton, Chippendale and Wedgwood.

When the V&A exhibited a selection of Kylie Minogue's clothes, most notoriously her gold hotpants, Joan Bakewell was not alone as she blasted the museum for failing to maintain "some semblance of standards".

The ambivalent attitude towards fashion can be sensed at the Fashion Week entrance. There one can find a mixture of eager tourists craning their necks to get a look and passers-by muttering little unpleasantnesses. Their sotto voce cynicism is mirrored in the nation's newspapers, which want to bask in the glow of the glamour, while making fashion's protagonists seem faintly ridiculous.

We clothe ourselves in our fantasies
Robin Dutt
Fashion consultant

It must be said that one knows one is approaching a fashion event, rather in the same way a tracker picks up a trail. Tanned men with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing what appear to be white linen pyjamas, tend to be a dead giveaway. And a glut of sunglasses when it's not sunny. And stony-faced editors with harsh bobs fixing burly security guards with Medusa-like stares.

London Fashion Week is an event aimed at buyers, journalists and others within the industry rather than directly at the public. But the influence of the people who throng its halls is felt throughout society. Many might regard the high fashion world as irrelevant frippery, but the clothes on show here will be the inspiration for the garments sold on the High Street. And that's where most people buy their clothes.

Jasper Conran is a prime example. Having designed extensively for Debenhams, he has a foot in the mass market. And his show at Fashion Week is full of clothes - such as chocolate-coloured silk shorts and chartreuse dresses - that could be worn in real life.

Photographers are herded like cattle at shows

The first model out at the show is Lily Cole. Straight As at A-level and offered a place at Cambridge, she's the poster girl for fashion being a suitable environment for those with brains.

The few "members of the public" who attend the catwalk shows - often competition winners with sponsors like Canon or the magazines - have a chance to see for themselves whether the models are emaciated or unhappy. They can enjoy the illumination of celebrities such as Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Darcy Bussell, and the nudge-whisper ripples when American Vogue editor Anna Wintour attends a show.

At the other end of the spectrum from the accessible Conran is Gareth Pugh. His show features models whose faces are entirely obscured by a black cube and an outfit apparently partly woven out of white mice that prompts an audience gasp. His work might be a little harder for many people to take seriously.

But fashion consultant and journalist Robin Dutt - wearing a black frock coat, embroidered in gold and other vivid colours, a red waistcoat, purple silk scarf and black snakeskin trousers - thinks we should take our clothing seriously.

Anna Wintour
Anna Wintour is treated with pharaoh-like reverence

"We clothe ourselves in our fantasies. They are silent communicators. Clothing holds a memory, whether it's a beloved grandmother's veil, or the clothes you went to a funeral in," he says.

Yet there's a hefty number of British people who look down their nose at fashion. A puritanical streak, hidden just below the surface, still occasionally rules. At school they were reminded that the flamboyantly-dressed Cavaliers were crushed by the more sensibly-clad Roundheads.

Walking around the exhibition centre, fashion is here in all its diversity. There is everything from bone-coloured ballgowns that only Grace Kelly could have pulled off to cheap-looking white dresses similar in feel to a counterfeit T-shirt at a Stones concert.

The designers and buyers range from dreadlocked dungaree-wearers to grey-haired grande dames in houndstooth and hot pink jackets. Other violent assaults on the eye proliferate. There are far-fetched sounding names like Hoss Intropia and Melier Yume, and many designers waiting for their first big break.

Beyond the charity work, there are other serious concerns, snippets of chatter about organic cotton - "organics, everyone likes organics" - and fair-trade drift over the exhibition.

Fashion takes itself seriously. It wants you to take it seriously too.

Send us your comments using the form below.

It's just profiteering, pure and simple. If you change fashion every six months, then consumers want to change their wardrobe every six months. Money, money, money.
Andy Twiss, Birmingham, UK

Every stitch, buckle, bow and thread we wear tells others about ourselves, we choose our clothes to fit in with the social group (tribe) we aspire to. Those that sneer at fashion are the same as football supporters sneering at all those idiots who support the 'wrong' team. There are also minefields of snobbery, class war and fear linked to the whole business. It demonstrates to others that we have enough spare cash to waste on non esentials in the same way that antelopes 'prong' to thumb their nose at predators. It has always been a massive industry and social driver. If we are good at it in this country then celibrate it, enjoy it and be proud of it.
Ian Broad, Tunbridge Wells

Why should I take the fashion industry seriously when it doesn't seem to take larger-sized women (an ever growing part of the population)like me seriously? If the fashion industry wants to be relevant in society, how long can the industry then continue to ignore larger-sized women by making them invisible on the catwalk and in the fashion media and thus in society? Aren't fashion designers capable of designing and showing clothes for larger women or do they just not want to? I don't know which answer puts me off more.

It's also a missed opportunity for both the fashion industry and its larger-sized customers. The latter party has money to spend on nice clothes, so why not serve their needs and rake in the money too?
Astrid Dol, Leiden, Netherlands

By its very nature fashion is transient, that is why it is looked down apon. Especially when every new trend or current event is hyped up to the nines, we grow bored of the incessant hyping
richard bown, Norwich

If it were just a bunch of flamboyant eccentrics setting out to make the world a brighter, better place, then I'd welcome it. But the flip side to all this is an industry that preys on people's basic fear of 'not fitting in' and encourages us to consume more and more beyond our needs and beyond our means. From herion chic to third world child labour, I take it very seriously indeed.
Barry Neilsen, Marlow, UK

Fashion makes me sad. Sure it creates jobs, but so do train spotting and stamp collecting. It's another futile pastime - nothing more than that.
Sally, London

Alternatively, fashion is an industry of parasites feeding on our pointless vanities and selling something that becomes useless while remaining fully functioning. We could well manage with new collections about once every three years, but then they'd be out of a job, wouldn't they?
Diane, Sutton

Sorry, its all vanity. Like pop music, fashion should not be taken seriously other than for the adverse impact it has on the young and uneducated.
Colin Penny, Bideford, England

In the 30 or so years I've been old enough to recognise that clothes are more than just covers for the skin, there has been little discernable change in our styles - jeans, tee-shirts, trainers. In fact retro-styling from previous decades is more popular than modern styles. What does this prove? Fashion designers have no useful funtion in our world. A vanishingly small percentage wears their output, on a one-off basis normally, the vast majority go to high street retailers, and buys the evolved designs which actually fulfils a useful role.

But the media luvvies, anxious to ensure a frequent stream of catered freebies, panders to their gargantuan egos, whilst all the time the emperor has no clothes. And I'm not even starting on the demoralising effect the stick thin models (and hence stick thin designs) have on the more impressionable in society, leading to eating disorders.... Nope, there is nothing good to be said about the fashion industry.
Eddie, Edinburgh

The fashion industry is arrogant and pretentious and therefore should be treated as such. The 'big name' fashion designers deserve no fanfare for their nonsensical and impractical creations nor should their 'size zero' ideal of the human body be taken seriously by anyone, especially the younger generation.

Of course a lot of this is fuelled by the relentless media frenzy surrounding events such as London Fashion Week. Where fashion goes, more often then not controversy follows. I'll stick to buying clothes at Matalan thanks, I couldn't give a toss about 'designer' gear.
Chris Durrant, Maidstone, UK

The Devil Wears Prada was a brilliant film on the subject.

As the main character quips: "This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers.

"Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff."
Candace, New Jersey, US

Not surprised most intelligent people do not take it seriously. It does nothing but encourage empty aspirations and attempts to increase consumption without any real reason. Think of the waste and resources involved in producing textiles that get binned after a few wears.
Tony Privitera, Worcester

I'm with Wilde on this one. In many ways the fashion industry would be more appealing to me if it took itself less seriously. It is the embodiment of so much that us ugly about the human race. Arrogance, self importance, classism/elitism and rampant consumerism. Fashion is not fun.
Chris Kruger, London, UK

Counldn't care less about fashion, or the general publics opinion of fashion shows. What I do hate is people taking themselves too seriously and we all know people in the music, art and fashion industries all take themselves far too seriously. I know surgeons who can have more of a laugh about there work.
Ben, Birmingham

I love the fact that people scorn the V&A for exhibiting things like Kylies hotpants, have these people ever been inside? the textiles collection features some of the highest and most ridiculous fashions from history, but these are treasures just because they are old? Fashion tells historians huge amounts about social ecomonics and politics (for example the fair trade work) and is very important, granted I doubt I'll be stepping out in a mouse encrusted jacket next year but it's just another art form.
Jody, London

One of the few places where women earn more money then man, which might be the main reasons why it's looked down upon, for women around the globe as still treated as second rate citizens. That said, people look down their noses at sport, the entertainment business and so forth as well, and largely for the right reasons. Overpaid and overvalued. I'd like to see the effort made into looking good, into helping those less fortunate. Also, lets not forget items like blood-diamonds and so on; know what you wear.
i.m. therefore, toronto

Fashion won't be taken seriously whilst its aim remains to fully engage impracticality in design, and its air of 'greater than thou' snobbishness towards people who cannot afford the money or time to indulge in similar self-love and shallow aesthetics.
Duncan, Hove

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