It’s a sad truth that while some bona fide inventors – Thomas Adams who first made chewing gum or Nikola Tesla who invented the radio – get brushed under the rug in the hall of fame, others are remembered for things they did not create. This credited group is fashion designers. Mary Quant never claimed to have invented the mini skirt. This is because she did not, any more than Disney invented fairy tales or The Spice Girls invented girl power.
Designers like Quant have good hands, gifted at drawing out and stitching together, but they have better eyes; they have always been the one watching the girl wearing the tutu in the club, noticing the young lads’ worker boots on the street, seeing that a man’s jacket makes his cold girlfriend look sexier than her dress underneath does. We are used to the designer label telling us that the garment is ‘real’, but the label really marks the clothes as a copy. Label clothes are imitations, creating through the sweat of designers what is won by the youth through blood and tears of the ‘you can’t go out in that’ battle, the ‘that’s not the uniform’ detention, the stares on the bus for wearing a dress held together with safety pins.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were the mother and father of little Joe, born in Clapham in 1967, but they were not the parents of punk. Punk was gobbing its way down the streets of London before their Kings Road shop opened, less like their child and more like a stray dog they took in and fed. Westwood’s more colourful Pirate collection was inspired by the glittery ‘New Romantics’ posing in Soho clubs on mid-week Bowie nights, competing to be noticed in their face paint and frilly blouses, like kids tottering around in their mothers’ make up and heels. Alexander McQueen’s bumster jeans were versions of the hand-me-downs slung low for years on LA kids. It is their translation into high fashion that led to the loss of the original purpose of the style – working as a short-hand for how many were ready to defend you, the bigger the trousers the bigger the brothers – as middle class boys from the suburbs wander round with their trousers round their knees, only a hindrance as they walk to their piano lessons. The moral of these stories is that the youth make fashion; high fashion may have an adult number of zeros on the price tags but their models are teenagers and the catwalk is an imitation street.
It seems that grassroots level has the first say in fashion all over the world, from the early Casuals in England who requested West Ham colours on the classic Fred Perry shirt to those walking the main street of Harajuku, Japan, the pedestrianised kaleidoscope of the Nineties, immortalised by Gwen Stefani. This explosion of childish Gothic and cartoon Decora preceded the opening in Tokyo of the biggest Chanel store in the world, high fashion’s seal of approval on the country. Lagerfeld once said ‘I have Japanese women pinch my ass’, and maybe in retaliation, a bruised Karl pinched inspiration from the Harajuku youth in the lines of candyfloss haired Lolitas in metallic shoes in his S/S 2010 collection.
Punk was first and foremost a Do-It-Yourself subculture, all about jamming metal through your extremities yourself, not about spending hundreds of pounds on designer leather boots. However, high fashion couldn’t resist the Frankenstein-esque thrill of such monstrous creation and in 1977 Zandra Rhodes did designer safety pins, taking away the core idea of a safety pin being something throwaway and temporary, holding your clothes together with something found in the kitchen drawer. In 1994 Versace put Liz Hurley in That Dress and Goth – the offshoot subculture of Punk – crept into the catwalk, with yards of gloomy lace in the collections of John Galliano and Oscar de la Renta. Alexander McQueen fashioned Haute Goth garments, making his Supercalifragilistic collection more Morticia Addams than Mary Poppins.
Is high fashion missing the point? Being cool is about not trying to be cool; the effortless slash of red lipstick, throwing on an unwashed t-shirt, being bored with it all. Fashion designers can’t create that themselves, they are ‘doers’, ‘earners’, the very term ‘designer’ connotes effort and action. It is only through taking the best of what is done by the Flappers, Mods, Rockers, Hippies, New Romantics, Casuals, Goths, Emos and Indie Kids that designers can get the eternal indifference of adolescence (the main ingredient for cool), as foregrounded in the stony-faced teenage models chosen to stalk their way down the catwalk.
Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but kids will be kids. Marc Jacobs sent his 1992 Grunge collection to the young Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, as homage to the influence they had exercised on his fashion line. They burned it.