Something changed the day Virgil Abloh’s former mentor Kanye West was dismissed as an unhinged, uppity black man by the modern ‘massah': the rap aristocracy, race hustlers and rich white liberals. Those that control the narrative when it reaches blacks, whites, 'racism', the slavery motif, and the MSM's nemesis and muse President Trump. It started with a West tweet: I like the way Candace Owens thinks. Hours earlier the 28-year-old conservative and You Tube provocateur challenged Black Lives Matter standard-bearers protesting her presence on a campus panel. She told them they were not slaves but overly privileged Americans. She wants to smash stereotypes; create a ‘blaxit’ within the black community; an exodus; a movement of the people from the Democratic Party ‘plantation’. (Word is, it’s happening). Her viewpoint chimes with that of the black American economist Walter Williams: ‘For 50 years, the well-meaning leftist agenda has been able to do to blacks what Jim Crow and harsh discrimination could never have done: family breakdown, illegitimacy and low academic achievement.’ Soon the topic was opened up by the online magazine Quillette in an article by the promising young writer Coleman Hughes, entitled ‘The High Price of Stale Grievances’. He suggests that black leaders are using historical grievances to justify special dispensations for blacks in the 21st century. Meanwhile, a majority of blacks believe that 'bias is not the main issue they face anymore’. Those that express these views are often dismissed as race traitors.Read More
Utopian Fantasy #1. In 2011, I wrote and presented a BBC 4 documentary on the history of social housing entitled 'The Great Estate’. It opened with the sprawling council estates that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s inspired by Le Corbusier, and that coterie of European modernist architects between the wars. The buildings were a glimpse of tomorrow’s world as viewed from the vantage point of the past. To underline the point, to drive the point home and park it, I chose for the soundtrack 'This Used To Be The Future' by the Pet Shop Boys. It’s a second-rate song with a lazy lyric, but it suited the moment: Why don't we tear the whole bloody lot down and make a new start all over again? By the time these buildings were completed the ‘future’ was over. They were an old-fashioned utopian idea; a further blot on dystopian landscapes (to cynics, at least) in a bleak, overcast decade. Certainly a departure from the modernist radiant cities that worked so well on paper, and perhaps in a suburb of Paris and Marseilles, but not on a patch of urban pavement between Old Kent Road and Elephant & Castle. Some of the British schemes were heralded as towns for the 21st century, yet they barely made it past the millennium. The one I was most familiar with, on that aforementioned stretch of south east London, was demolished in its forties having been completed in 1974. Those of us with a keen eye on the future - adolescent outliers anxious for the shock of the new - welcomed every breeze block that brought change. We congregated around a clunky cassette player in the stairwells of those tower blocks to listen to David Bowie’s ‘Future Legend’ with its references to the ‘sterile skyscrapers’ of ‘hunger city’. Diamond Dogs was big, big, big that summer.Read More
I was unaware of it at the time, but I opted for the ‘voluntary simplicity’ championed by the social philosopher Richard Clegg in the 1930s as a teenager in a 1970s home stacked with stuff. This included ephemeral gadgets (‘As advertised on TV’) and furniture passed down for generations and harboured by parents with a post-war make-and-mend mentality (‘It’s good enough for us’). There were the keepsakes bought on seaside beanos, and the talismen believed to bring luck: a horseshoe, a shillelagh. It wasn’t simply that the stuff was overwhelming but that it related to the past. In a bleak season of platforms shoes and power cuts - heels were higher than hopes - some of us were preoccupied with the future. At least those of us that believed the future would be minimalist. The clues were there in the designs of Dieter Rams, the award-winning interiors from Kubrick's 2001, and its poor relation - those clunky television series that convinced us the 21st century would be metallic wigs and foil tabards. That was tomorrow, in those days.Read More
Day One. Months before a Miami trip was mentioned the Baxter Dury track of the same name was uppermost on my Spotify travel playlist sandwiched, oddly, between ‘Moskow Diskow' and the latest from Mr Jukes. On arrival I wondered if Dury had a point: 'Welcome to Miami now/Broken promises are here'. The city was new to me. Prada, the reason for my visit, less so. (The new store here is a break with the past and a glimpse of the future). It was January. Winter in England. In Miami it was 75°F. A semi-dry season between two moments synonymous with the neon city: Art Basel Miami Beach pulls in the rich for a week in December. Spring break attracts the young to Florida. It's aptly captured in Harmony Korine’s film ‘Spring Breakers’, in which the voice of Faith (Selena Gomez) is heard over images of drunken, drug-fuelled, sexed-up teenagers, semi-naked at beach parties: ‘I'm starting to think this is the most spiritual place I've ever been’. The designer-clad curators and gallery owners drawn to the Art Basel fair engage in their own bacchanalian excess in a city that's currently re-inventing itself. Something it's done throughout its history, and often in the aftermath of riots and hurricanes. To the fore of the transformation there's a visionary entrepreneur. This was true with the creation of Coconut Grove, which launched Miami at the beginning of the twentieth century, and neighbouring Miami Beach which blossomed on a mangrove swamp between the wars. Since the 1950s the city has been a haven for the émigré seeking exile. Little Havana is here. Little Haiti is here. A less official Little San Juan is here. And now another enclave between these neighbourhoods, attracting the rich foreigners passing through second or third or fourth homes in the skyscrapers altering the landscape at the water’s edge: the new Miami Design District.Read More
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'In time people will tell one another, "You really should know about these two guys, who lived in the 20th century in Paris”.’ This was Pierre Bergé in his later years, reflecting on his prolonged partnership with Yves Saint Laurent. Was he referring to their story as erstwhile lovers? Was he alluding to the global fashion brand the couple created, driven by Bergé’s crusading zeal and business acumen. Arguably, it was also a reference to how Paris, Europe, society changed during their lives, and the active role figures like themselves played in bringing about that change. The couple’s presence was felt beyond the confines of their fashion empire. Bergé was notable as a political campaigner and a patron of the arts. The couple’s art collection was famously auctioned for almost €400 million in 2009. The most expensive private collection ever to go under the hammer, according to Christie’s. The money was donated to AIDS research, and the charitable foundation now responsible for the two museums dedicated to the work of Yves Saint Laurent that opened this month. A move the couple had planned for over half a century. Almost as long as they were together.
Recalling their relationship in his book ‘Letters To Yves’, Bergé writes: 'I remember your first collection under your name and the tears at the end. Then the years passed. Oh, how they passed quickly. The divorce was inevitable but the love never stopped’. Bergé said that for decades he woke thinking of Yves Saint Laurent. After his partner died in 2008, his thoughts turned to the legacy of the designer. Or rather the couple’s dual legacy. When Bergé himself died last month, French President Emmanuel Macron said : 'With Pierre Bergé, a whole portion of our literary and artistic legacy is disappearing. It will be up to his friends and those who were guided by him to keep that memory alive and to help the French understand the importance of what he did for French culture and to perpetuate his work’.
The story of the Paris in which the couple met in the 1950s was a tale of two cities, maybe three, four or more. In the fizzy world of fashion, following the untimely death of Christian Dior, the 21-year old Yves Saint Laurent was hurled into the spotlight as head designer at the couture house. The day his first collection was shown was the day he met Pierre Bergé, who belonged to another Paris. He had a cameo in the scene described in Sarah Bakewell’s 'At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails’, published last year. That high season of existentialism on the city’s left bank, within the eateries and clubs along the Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The philosophy was partly a reaction to the war and the occupation of France. It created the young, radical prototype that peaked during the student uprisings the following decade, and eventually morphed into the caricatured progressives we're saddled with today. Beyond the obligatory black clothes and jazz soundtrack there was a serious attempt to address moral issues and make a commitment to art, literature and politics. Bakewell refers to it as a philosophy that goes ‘straight to life’. Rebellion as an act of authenticity. The young Pierre Bergé was on the periphery of the ever decreasing circles that surrounded the middle-aged magus of the movement, Jean-Paul Sartre. He shared a cell with Albert Camus following his arrest at a political demo. He was the lover of the painter Bernard Buffet - a celebrated enfant triste, along with the novelist Françoise Sagan and Yves Saint Laurent. Bergé’s passion for books, the attachment to art, culture and politics, was forged in this era. In hindsight, he was perhaps less of a traditional radical and more a radical traditionalist. Someone who believes - I’m surmising, wildly - in throwing out the bath water but keeping the baby. ‘In life I am a revolutionary’, he once said, ‘but in art I have a respect for the rules of conservation’.
Artists transfixed him. Something that brings to mind what the poet Stephen Spender wrote of Christopher Isherwood: ‘He was on the side of forces which make a work of art, even more than he was interested in art itself’. Bergé's ambition was to be near the ‘burning fires of creation’. Similarly he was more taken with the concept of revolutionaries than the ideology they propagated. He was never a Marxist. He saw himself as a pragmatic figure on the left. Yet, paradoxically, he harboured hopes of a socialist utopia materialising in the future. The fallback position of those on the left that have seen so many of their illusions shattered in the present. Bergé lamented the lack of vision, ideals and convictions of the rising generation of so-called radicals. The inheritors of the mantle of the men and women in black he once sat among and debated with, to a backdrop of bebop. What was it that so irritated him about the young, modern 'progressives'? The hackneyed language? The zealous attachment to the populist hobbies of identity politics and minority issues? Or was it simply the absence of finesse?
Bergé himself recaptured some of that youthful vigour at the beginning of the 1980s, when the socialists were returned to government after an absence of 23 years, led by François Mitterrand. He campaigned heartily for the president during the elections of his fourteen-year tenure, and was justly rewarded by becoming, controversially, the director of the Paris opera house. 'I try to be true to the teenager I was when the world changed’, Bergé said. ‘I try to keep faith with the discovery of life and the things I was doing, with that first experience of politics, literature, and music...If I look back over my shoulder, I would like the teenager I was to recognise me and shake me by the hand. Perhaps he’d refuse. Perhaps he’d think I’ve left too many things by the roadside’. Even at that juncture the road had been a long one. Pierre Bergé emerged from the shadow of his partner just as Saint Laurent was spiralling out of control on a cocktail of sex, drink and drugs and disappearing into the shadows. This was the moment Bergé blossomed into a significant cultural and political voice in the French capital. (Ultimately, the owner of theatres, magazines, that imperious collection of art, a library of rare books and co-owner of Le Monde.) This was the figure that prompted the plaudits and eulogies from esteemed dignitaries in the wake of his death. François Hollande described him as ‘an exceptional man of conviction who defended the idea of equal rights for all’.
On reading the obituaries, I was reminded that the Paris of the 1950s was the one that preoccupied Malcolm Mclaren. It’s evident in the ‘Paris’ album from 1994 with its references to Miles Davis, Juliet Greco and even Saint Laurent himself. (‘I wore black on Saint-Germain-des-Prés /Feelings in the air they love today’). He dedicated a documentary to the city, compiled of archive French commercials, labelling it ’the capital of the XXIst century’. (The title was a steal from Walter Benjamin, writing in the 19th century). Then there was the musical about Christian Dior that Mclaren spent years threatening to make that never came to fruition. Interviewed shortly before he died in 2010, he said: 'I saw a story that really could define music and fashion and how it all happened after the war and where it all went. I could do that, and trap it, inside this house of Christian Dior, from its birth in ’47 to Dior’s death in ’57.’ The story of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in that period, and during the decades that followed is actually a better guage of the changes that occurred - picking up from when Saint Laurent left Dior. Established in 1961, the house of Saint Laurent tapped into the shifting cultural and social scene in a manner that no previous couture house had. Saint Laurent himself was someone who, to use an Auden line, wore his talent like a uniform. Some suggested his greatest talent was his understanding of the zeitgeist. Bergé declared that the designer ' transcended the merely aesthetic in fashion and penetrated social territory. He opened up fashion with an extraordinary youthfulness'.
Saint Laurent created fashion that existed on the catwalks because it existed in life, he said. This is perhaps where fashion began to chime with Bergé’s politics. When it lost its elitism, and began to be more widely available to the moderately wealthy consumer. It's no coincidence that Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line was a reference to the Paris that radicalised the young Pierre Bergé: Rive Gauche. The fantasy was becoming more democratic. This was smack, bang in the middle of the 1960s, when London started to swing. Saint Laurent's sensuously entwined intitials became synonymous with that period. The decade itself punctuated by key moments identified with iconic looks: the Mondrian-print shift dress, the safari dress, the androgynous 'Le Tuxedo' that kicked off the gender fluid fashion season of the early 1970s. While somewhere in there a move that further boosted his status, his association with Paris and its fashion - the outfits for Catherine Deneuve in ‘Belle De Jour’. By 1976, what was perhaps a final flourish - the ‘Ballet Russe’ collection. That same year, London, and Europe and beyond, was warming to a boom in tribal street wear. A move in which Malcolm Mclaren played no small part. Saint Laurent was no longer the figure taking fashion into social territory by way of an extraordinary youthfulness.
Both Bergé and Saint Laurent loathed the ivory tower approach to fashion. 'While Balenciaga, Dior, and Schiaparelli were great couturiers’, Bergé said, 'they were locked into a couture of social caste, never straying outside of their aesthetic pantheon. The only two who went outside that framework to enter more social territory were Chanel first, and then Yves Saint Laurent’. The couple celebrated trends that spoke to the times and transformed them, rather than the ‘fascist fashions’ imposed from above. Bergé's greatest extravagance he said, was in not liking money: 'Money corrupts, and makes people do all sorts of things. Nothing has more rotten effects than money’. It was as though money was never so vulgar as when it was in the hands of those that had the wealth but not the taste. This was his problem with haute couture. On numerous occasions over the years he announced its death. It had been created for a lifestyle that had become obsolete: 'It isn’t a few Russian tarts buying dresses at a handful of Parisian couture houses or what-have-you that will wring the anachronism’s neck’. It was over and would not be revived by ‘a handful of houses living off the fat of their fragrances’.
If Bergé's politics had him look to a utopia somewhere in the future, Saint Laurent lamented one that had passed. In one of the numerous documentaries made about his life he sits watching film of himself as a child, when he was cocooned within his family in French Algiers. He was a nervy, bullied boy who fantasied about being a couturier. Watching the footage, a morose middle-aged man, he quotes Proust: ‘The only true paradise is paradise lost’. Bergé pointed out to the press with a knowing regularity that ‘Yves was born with a nervous breakdown’. His role was to be intermediary between the designer and the rest of the world, leaving him alone with his uniform of talent. (Despite Saint Laurent’s fragile disposition, he created a signature style for women that was said to make them empowered and statuesque.) Saint Laurent said of his partner: 'His strength meant I could rest on him when I was out of breath’. In his efforts to be close to those burning fires of creation, Bergé was attracted to tortured artists. Whether it was Bernard Buffet, who later committed suicide, or Yves Saint Laurent, who looked as though he wanted to. 'Maybe they find stability in me’, he said. ' I love people that have doubts and are unafraid of uncertainties. I like fragile people. It’s inevitable that artists are disturbed by the idea of creation’. In this instance the act of creation was driven by obsession: ‘Artists are obsessives who constantly circle their obsession, endlessly trying to go deeper into it’. Saint Laurent was obsessed with his work, his art. Bergé was obssessed with the artist, and building a legacy. A passion that he also applied to business, politics and art. Perhaps what he said of his partner was as true of himself: 'He gave everything to his métier, like a saint gives everything to God.'
Saint Laurent's obsession almost destroyed him. Bianca Jagger once asked him in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine what he would do if he weren’t a fashion designer. ‘Live’, he said. In his diaries Warhol commented that Saint Laurent ‘was such a genius that he just can’t take it, he has to take a million pills'. Yet the designer claimed that when life was bad the results of the work were often better. Bergé's obsession with his subject became a springboard for other things. Along with the world class art collection, the couple were patrons of music, literature and architecture. Fashion had never truly interested Bergé. It was a futile past time to keep wealthy women amused. He certainly never saw it as an art form. In later years he dismissed modern designers that presented collections as though they were art installations. Just as he was once dismissive of creatives that predicted the future. 'When I was young, they used to say that there were two couturiers who were working for the year 2000, Courrèges and Cardin’, he said. 'The year 2000 has come and gone, and if you ever see anyone anywhere in the world dressed in Courrèges or Cardin, text me! Fashion isn’t a laboratory, it’s not supposed to caricature the future. It’s the opposite – an excessively fragile, ephemeral link between the past and the future’. And yet the utopian socialism he set his hopes on was as much a caricature. Clinging to the notion of this in the present made him appear something of anachronism. Particularly in the light of his vast wealth and materialism. He was dismissed by Jacques Chirac as the 'foremost representative of the Caviar Left’.
In keeping with young activists of the hashtag generation, Bergé committed himself to some of the common, contemporary causes. He was to the fore of the campaign for homosexual marriage. (Although the romantic relationship with Saint Laurent ended years before his death, the couple were joined in a civil ceremony in the designer’s final days.) Charlie Hebdo and suicide bombings were more an inconvenience than a tragedy to the younger generation of ‘radicals’ he marched alongside. Such events forced them to have opinions on race, multiculturalism and faith they were ill-prepared to formulate. Bergé broke with the standard etiquette on race the year of the attack in Nice, and the banning of the burkini on French beaches. With his customary passion, invective and directness he railed against the Islamic veil. Taking on those designers - Dolce & Gabbana among them - that introduced it to the catwalk.
'Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion’, he railed. 'Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.’
Repeatedly, when making the argument that fashion was not art, Bergé opined: ‘A dress is made to be worn, not to go straight into a museum’. And yet he regarded certain designers as artists - Dior and Chanel among them. Balenciaga he compared with Georges Braque. While Yves St Laurent was the greatest artist of all in this rarefied world, with an eye for colour to match that of Matisse. Bergé was not alone in this belief. Others claimed the designer was an ‘exceptional artist’ because of the movement and fluidity within his sketches. Saint Laurent himself harboured many regrets - he wished he'd invented jeans - but held onto the hope that he would be remembered as an artist. Now the body of work is preserved in the two museums that were inaugurated just weeks after the death of Pierre Bergé: one in Marrakech and the other on 5 Avenue Marceau, Paris. The latter housed Saint Laurent’s atelier. The epicentre of the couple's lives for more than half a century. The Museé Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech is designed by the French firm of architects behind the less elaborate Chiltern Firehouse, in the less exotic Marylebone. Marrakech was the other city the couple considered to be home. Here the ashes of the designer, and now those of Pierre Bergé, are scattered in the Jardin Majorelle on the Rue Yves Saint Laurent. The collection consists of 5,000 items of clothing, 15,000 haute couture accessories and tens of thousands of sketches. Unusually the couple kept a copy of everything. Collected from 1963, the year that Edmonde Charles-Roux put Yves Saint Laurent on the cover of Vogue. One of the men said - I’m not sure which, and maybe it doesn’t matter - the life of a dress was the life of the couture house itself, ‘which is the whole of my life’.
Initially, the museums were to house the designs, along with the art works the couple had collected. Instead the art was sold to finance the museums. The couple's majestic apartment on Rue de Babylone was dismantled and reassembled in the hall at the Grand Palais. Bergé later auctioned his personal collection of rare books. He was a bibliophile. Books were the things Bergé claimed to truly love. He himself wrote several. One of them is entitled ‘Les Jours S’en Vont, Je Demeure'. Time goes on, I remain. It’s a quote from Apollinaire that brings to mind Proust. Time lost and time regained. It brings to mind Saint Laurent quoting Proust, lamenting the loss of his childhood: 'The only true paradise is paradise lost’. Perhaps this is what the museums now represent. A paradise lost. A remembrance of things past. The story of two men that lived in Paris in the twentieth century. 'I don’t believe in God. I only believe in human beings, in memory’, Pierre Bergé once said. 'That’s all. The memory will persist’.
Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Introduction: Michael Collins
"Nobody can be said to know London who does not know a true cockney". So begins Virginia Woolf in her 1931 essay 'A Portrait of a Londoner'. In writing of the fate of a Mrs. Crowe the novelist is anticipating the fate of the city breed the character is part of: "Mrs. Crowe is dead, and London - no, though London still exists, London will never be the same city again". A few decades earlier two other writers, the American author Jack London and the social reformer Charles Masterman, each of whom had temporarily settled in poor London neighbourhoods, suggested this tribe would soon be obsolete. Partly because of the impact of migrants from the countryside who were stronger, healthier, but chiefly because the polluted city air would bring these lives to an end. Yet the London native survived until the 21st century. The cockneys were not wiped out - they migrated to the suburbs, the coast and beyond. While the elders left behind appear landlocked in a landscape altered by immigration and redevelopment.
Those of us that made the voyage out and live like ex-pats with memories of the old country, seek out familiar relics on return trips. Not in the name of nostalgia but - history. To remind ourselves we once existed on streets we now walk as ghosts. The search begins by looking skyward at what a poet, I think, described as the foreheads of buildings. Then to the red-brick monoliths that recall the civic nature of the neighbourhood: town hall, library, welfare centre. Then to the elements that appear too earthy, too localised, to be cast as cultural. These bring to mind the George Orwell point that the popular common culture of England is unorthodox, below stairs, and frowned upon by the establishment: "All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea'". For the urban working class reared in the once dark continents of the capital, as 19th century social anthropologists referred to them, the list was incomplete without the pie and mash shop as depicted in ‘The Englishman And The Eel’.
Arguably the pie and mash shop is one of the few reminders of a Victorian legacy in these working class enclaves. These venues were synonymous with the tribe that was formed by the modern, industrial city. The urban underclass was described as ‘the Deluge’ - existing in a netherworld of vice, poverty and crime. Writers held their noses before they descended into these dark continents, and exited with dispatches that prompted reform. The tribe itself was mocked along with its pastimes, its dialect, its eating habits. All this changed in the wake of the London Blitz. Suddenly the stoic cockney was, fashionably, the subject of films, plays and cartoon strips. No longer a figure to fear but a figure of fun.
Through all this the pie and mash shop remained, and became the stuff of cockney cliché along with street markets, the pub sing-along and pearly kings. And yet... and yet, it continues to be an example of the community Orwell alluded to. It survives in a fragmented 21st century capital, where the loss of identity and history has become the defining characteristic. Writing about a London neighbourhood in his book 'The Comfort Of Things', the anthropologist Daniel Miller argues: "If ever we lived in a post-society, whose primary focus is on diversity rather than shared or systematically ordered culture, the London street is that post-society". Every home houses a tribe, every street is a reservation, and everyone co-exists within the wider setting of the city.
Meanwhile the pie and mash shop survives, even though sightings are rare these days. It was always an alternate collective experience to the pub and, say, the street market. It’s often a place to eat alone. A refuge for the solitary. Something that’s apparent in Stuart Freedman’s photographs. These sometimes reveal these eateries to be shelters of respite and repose. Those of us that were regulars remember the widows, the widowers, the lone coster or labourer, along with the mother with her offspring. Unlike Eliot’s Prufrock, whose life is measured out in coffee spoons, theirs were measured out in pies, mash, liquor, jellied eels, dissected by cutlery that was for a period, plastic. But whether alone or in company, this is a meal to be eaten and enjoyed in silence. Taking the forensic eye to the detail of the photographs in these pages - where the small hand rests on the clock; ‘Stay True’ tattooed across ten fingers - I feel myself within them, just out of frame. When? What day? Well, certainly, that clearing between infancy and adolescence. Perhaps a momentary pause from growing pains, double-biology, and the earth-shattering news that Sparks had slipped down the charts. Such were the concerns when you played truant and used your bus fare to lap up double pie, mash and liquor for 22 pence during a bleak mid-winter in the 1970s.
How can this meal do that? How can something so simple, and born of hard times, on hard streets, be ambrosia to the locals and resonate with the potency of a Proustian madeleine to those of us that relish the taste in adulthood? Because, well, to an outsider, an interloper, it was simply congealed liquor with green flecks, lumpy mash, burnt pies, and eels, jellied or stewed. And it still is. What has changed is that eels no longer wriggle on trays in the windows of these institutions. Condiments no longer come in brown tablet tubs that once housed prescribed drugs. Dried chillies no longer float in black vinegar in old Sarsparilla bottles. What remains, as is apparent by the various settings revealed in 'The Englishman and the Eel’, are the moist ornate tiles, the wooden benches, formica counters and marble table tops. What remains are the people.
One particular Stuart Freedman photograph pulls me back and takes me back. An elderly woman is reaching up to a counter and paying for a meal. I recognise Arment’s the pie and mash shop in south east London where I have found myself on an infinite number of occasions throughout an infinite number of years. On the wall behind her, a line-up of framed photographs. Unlike the images in this book they are black and white, amateur and ancient. These tell the story of the subject before this book begins, and moves the story so perfectly, so beautifully, into the present. Arment’s has been a family-run concern since the beginning of the 20th century. The various generations, and customers, are depicted within the frames, charting the changing times in a changing neighbourhood. But equally, this gallery of images appears to be proudly making a salient point: we’re still here and our story, our history is still relevant.
The pie and mash shop itself is surrounded by halal butchers, Polish supermarkets, curry houses and West Indian takeaways. In the wider neighbourhood the sound of drilling, digging, and accents from other classes, reveal the extent to which redevelopment and gentrification are colonising the area. In such a setting the pie and mash shop may seem an anachronism that belongs to a monocultural past, and those that celebrate it, and other aspects of that lost city, are often accused of peddling a myth. This is true, in part, even when you attempt to recall the past in terms of history and fact rather than memory and nostalgia. But it is no less a myth than the multicultural present, with the tired refrain of diversity and vibrancy that has turned the capital into a hackneyed cliché by those so keen to celebrate it.
Those of us that return here as ghosts, and reach out across the formica counter for our meal, continue to enjoy it in solitude and silence. While our experience of the place that housed our past, where we seek our ambrosia, our madeleine, is not unique. It chimes with that of others making similar sojourns to once familiar cities. "Nowadays I feel like an old timer in terms of estrangement", writes the American Charles D’Ambrosio in a recent collection of essays. "I don’t know what determines meaning in the city any better than these old people with their attenuating memories... I went away and in my absence things have sprung up. Good things. It’s a new place, but there’s an old silence bothering me".
Within these pages that silence is filled with images, stories and lives. Stuart Freedman has chosen a significant moment to celebrate and share this subject and its history. One day these venues will pass - maybe sooner rather than later, and London - no, though London will still exist, London will never be the same city again.
London, 2017. At Phillips auction rooms in London’s Berkeley Square an image by Bruce Weber has just been bought for £87,000. It’s the most expensive auctioned work the photographer has ever sold: a sensuous black and white, full length shot of a toned, tanned man and woman up close and naked on a swing ( 'Ric and Natalie, Villa Tejas, Montecito, California’). The iconic photograph was used in an ad for Calvin Klein’s scent Obsession, in 1989.
As fresh and provocative as the perfume campaign was it marked the culmination of a chapter in the evolution of Calvin Klein. The game-changer came six years earlier with the launch of his men’s underwear range. Weber's image of Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintnaus in a pair of briefs - the luminous white that Persil promised - against a spotless white-washed wall, beneath a cloudless Grecian sky. Emblazoned across a billboard in Times Square it halted traffic and attracted crowds. Not as newsworthy as images of the moon landings or the assassination of a president….but a contender, nevertheless. The following year, American Photographer magazine cited it as one of the ten pictures that changed America.
The poster overshadowed the most powerful US ad campaign ever: Marlboro Man and the mythical landscape of Marlboro Country. When the artist Richard Prince used the cowboy in his appropriated art in the 1980s, he rephotographed the ads, then cropped and blurred them to exaggerate the artificial nature of the images. 'Further revealing them as hallucinatory fictions of society's desires’, MOMA clumsily pointed out. Similar could be said of the heightened, well-hung Hintnaus and those that followed. If Marlboro man was idealized American masculinity in the 1950s, Calvin Man was idealized male sexuality in the 1980s. Weber was presenting men as sex objects rather than cowboys, soldiers or astronauts. Calvin Man had balls - but little else. 'Everyone in Calvin's world was gorgeous', the designer Marc Jacobs recalled, excitedly, in conversation with the designer for Interview in 2013. 'Sexy. Sensual. Beautiful bodies. Silky skin. Perfection. Calvin's clothing seemed to be all about the sensation of touch and the provocation of getting naked'. While Calvin Country was more symbolic than mythical. It represented the hedonistic disco demi-monde Klein himself was part of throughout his high season as a celebrity from the late-1970s. When New York City was revitalised and the nightclub Studio 54 created what Andy Warhol described as a ‘new society’. One that fused the counter culture of the 1960s with the sexual freedoms on the fringes of the 1970s. The combination captivated the rising consumer generation of the 1980s and became the cultural orthodoxy of the 21st century. Welcome back to Calvin Country: population unknown.
New York, 2017. After becoming creative director at Calvin Klein and being a muse to A$AP Rocky ('It's rare Raf when I wear Raf/ Bare Raf when I wear Raf’), Raf Simons showed his debut collection for the label in New York this year. His remit? A vision for the future to match that of the brand’s founding father in the past. (Klein sold the company in 2002.) There was reference to Klein’s subtle designs, but the underlying message was as heavy-handed as some high-end fashion itself has become. Simons was following a trend - indignation is this season’s accessory. Creatives holed up in New York fear the poor, huddled, badly-dressed masses beyond are returning America to the Marlboro country of the 1950s. The figure leading the charge is like Klein himself a native New Yorker (Queens rather than the Bronx), and a Studio 54 regular from opening night. The new Calvin Klein collection coincided with the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has talked up putting America first: buy American, hire Americans. Simons - a Belgian in love with his adopted New York - attempted his own take on patriotism. David Bowie’s ‘This Is Not America’ was played over a parade of models that referenced folksy quilt-making settlers, cowboy chic, varsity sweaters and even Wall Street yuppies. It’s a departure for an industry so fixated on the present. In which the past is another country that comes a poor second to the diverse nation of today. A folksy modern America that makes the present as much a myth as the past. But without Norman Rockwell around to capture its flawless, wholesome beauty. ‘It’s a celebration of Calvin Klein’s iconic underwear and jeans’, Raf Simons informed his Instagram followers, when summing up the ad campaign accompanying the collection, ‘acknowledging their status as Pop and showing them in the art world’. The ads feature semi-clothed young adults in gallery spaces, with the works of Warhol and Richard Prince.
Exhibiting the Klein oeuvre as art brings gravitas. Placing it in a historic tradition seals the designer's reputation for eternity. ‘You have just witnessed one of the great moments in the history of fashion’, writer Truman Capote declared, having been a cameo in an unrelated scene at Studio 54. 'That is, if you care about the history of fashion’. Some of us among that rising generation of consumers in the 1980s were witness to the Calvin Klein phenomenon. Yet it was lost to us in an era of excess: big shoulders, big hair, big billboards, big balls. We didn’t care. We had neither the physique to fill the clothes, nor the funds to buy them. Our focus remained on the sideshow of freaks and casualties on the fringes, in clubs that filled the chasm left by the likes of Studio 54. But as it turns out there was a prescience about Calvin Man. Calvin Woman. Calvin Country. The sexual provocation of the Weber ads. The gender fluidity of the ’shared fragrances'; the unisex fly-front underwear. The street style of the CK range. The celebrity-endorsed garments that began, provocatively in 1980, with a nubile Brooke Shields in jeans (‘You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.’). All that fashion, consumerism, culture has become. Now we get it. Now we care. Now we want to know the story. What was it again?
New York, 1968. Two things happened in 1968 that became dominant in the 1980s, and they top and tail our story: 'Calvin Klein’ was born and the AIDS virus entered the US. Assassinations were in vogue that year. Warhol survived an attempt on his life two days before another Kennedy didn’t. Calvin Klein became a company the day Martin Luther King was shot. (The riots that followed destroyed Klein's father’s grocery business in Harlem.) In hindsight, the 25-year old designer didn’t figure in the counter culture of the time: Warhol’s Factory fodder; revolutionary underground movements; anti-war protests, civil rights marches.
'That damn polyester killed the whole country’, he said years later. Fashion was his first, his last, his everything from a formative age: 'I spent the first ten years of my life designing beige, cream, white, brown, because those were all the colours that [my mother] loved’. The minimalism was evident during his apprenticeship years: the lack of ornamentation, the muted palette (fifty shades of beige). The designs were architectural and constructed in harsh fabrics. Yet casual, with an emphasis on separates as they were called - beginning with coats, moving swiftly into sportswear - rather than the standard single outfit. There was a forensic attention to detail and even more revealing of the man himself, a rigorous pursuit of perfection. The search for the perfect colour, the perfect cut, the perfect image. In the 1980s, when the ingredient of sensuality was added to the mix, he came close to capturing the elusive grail. As much - maybe more so - in the ad campaigns as the clothes: on a swing in Montecito; against a white-washed wall in Santorini. 'I have experienced lots of things that have influenced my world’, Klein has revealed. ' I am for good or bad a real example of whatever I’ve put out there. [The imagery] really is a part of me. And it happened because I was either observing or living in a certain way, or desiring to’.
Some believed his style was American and original. Others argued it was European and borrowed. During those apprenticeship years he was dispatched to Paris shows, while employed in New York’s garment district anonymously designing for Seventh Avenue stores. He was directed to copy and amend European designers, while swerving charges of plagiarism. These were levelled at him both early on and later in his career. He was referred to, disparagingly, as ‘the American Yves Saint Laurent’. In the 1990s he was said to be appropriating themes from Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander. According to The Washington Post a cashmere dress of Klein’s 'was a good deal more original than Klein’s previous delvings into beige, which is Armani terra firma’. Yet a Parisian retailer paid him the ultimate compliment: the one American brand he would introduce to the French market was Calvin Klein. Le nom transmet un rêve. 'The name conveys a dream’, he gushed. Sartorially, America was dismissed by experts as Europe’s poor relation. Klein tapped into the named designer trend as ready-to-wear came into its own, and fashion stateside became more democratized. In ‘The Me Decade’ Tom Wolfe attributes this to the thirty-year post-war boom that pumped money into almost every strata of society. The word ‘proletarian’ had lost its meaning: ‘One can’t even call working men “blue collar” any longer…..They have on $35 superstar Qiana sports shirts with elephant collars…’ Calvin Klein was never an elitist. He harboured ambitions to reach out and touch the mass market, taking his brand of style to those in provincial climates clad in polyester and pachydermic neckwear. Denim was as ideal a way to clothe the masses as any. Historically it's the great leveller - from Tom Joad to Tom Ford. Even in the 1980s it was as American as apple pie was, and AIDS was presumed to be. Perfect for that rising generation of consumers reared on MTV. But again, he wasn’t the first on the block with the big idea. Gloria Vanderbilt put jeans back in the frame in 1976; Fiorucci put a twist on the classic Levi’s, turning them gold and plastic. ‘Jeans are sex,' Klein announced. ‘The tighter they are, the better they sell.’ And his were a second skin that clasped the crotch and the rear. Some 200,000 pairs were sold in the first week. Later, following the Weber ad in Times Square, Bloomingdale’s shifted $65,000 worth of Klein’s underwear within a fortnight. Were these among those great moments in the history of fashion, that matter to those that care about fashion? Klein’s first big moment actually came by way of a fanfare several summers earlier. 'If you were around a hundred years from now and wanted a definitive picture of the American look in 1975’, trumpeted the September issue of Vogue, ‘you’d study Calvin Klein’. His fashion show that year broke new ground by being staged in a nightclub. He was tuning in to the changing mood, as trends in the margins - where minorities were making headway - bubbled in the mainstream. Notably in New York, which was moving out of a long recession following a multi-billion dollar bailout.
As ever Warhol was on the ball. Soon the ’superstars' that toyed with drugs, sexuality and gender inside the Factory gates, would be heading to a disused TV studio on 54th Street. For now they were quoting from the recently published 'From A To B And Back Again’, the philosophy of Andy Warhol. Ingrid Sischy, erstwhile editor at Warhol’s Interview, later claimed that like Warhol, Calvin Klein was a canny pop artist: 'able to nail the zeitgeist with precision time and again; often, in fact, he nudged the zeitgeist forward’. The magazine - 'the crystal ball of pop' - had begun to document the lives of key figures in the new society. Flawlessly perfect after artist Richard Bernstein transformed them with his pastels, pencils and airbrushing. (Calvin Klein was a cover star in 1982). Paloma Picasso noted that with the ‘Bernstein look’ things were ‘stronger, faster and further’. Similar could be said of the city itself that season. 'I wanted to be part of a whole new era that got inspired by what was happening in the world’, Klein recalled, when the party was over. 'It was an amazing time in New York City. Everyone from all walks of life, from any part of the world—at least I had the opportunity to meet them and get inspired by the way people looked or by what they did. Studio 54 really was a theme park for adults’. In the 1940s Truman Capote wrote of those figures that belong 'to that sect most swiftly, irrevocably trapped by New York, the talented untalented; too acute to accept a more provincial climate, yet not quite acute enough to breath freely within the one so desired, they go along neurotically feeding upon the fringes of the New York scene’. They were about to come in from the cold, sidling up to celebrities, participating in the rule-breaking excesses that were the preserve of the modern elite: the wealthy, beautiful people - the talented, the clever, the creative, the relevant and Bianca Jagger.
New York, 1977-1980. Studio 54 may have only survived for three years, but the eulogies that celebrate its life and lament its passing continue to linger, like restless spirits and helpless drunks. During its lifetime Calvin Klein, along with fellow party animal Halston, made the transition from designer to celebrity. And the experiences of that period informed the iconic brand found on the waistband of underpants from the 1980s and for eternity. Opening night was hosted by Fiorucci. The Italian label had launched a New York outpost that year - itself more of a nightclub than a store. Author Douglas Coupland described the shop as 'one beautiful little crystallization of everything you wanted adulthood to be. It was sexy, it was pop, it was fast, it was kind of electric’. Marc Jacobs became a Saturday boy, having been a besotted bystander: ‘I remember being 15 years old and hanging out at Fiorucci on 59th Street during the summer. I bought my monthly copy of Interview there. One Saturday, I was downstairs, and there before me was Calvin Klein…..I ran over to him and told him I was a huge fan…. I saw him amongst the beautiful people at Studio 54.’ Warhol said the disco was a dictatorship at the door and a democracy inside. Co-owner Steve Rubell operated a vetting policy: 'If it gets too straight, then there’s not enough energy in the room. If it gets too gay, then there’s no glamour. We want it to be bisexual. Very, very, very bisexual’. Beyond the velvet rope the ‘corridor of joy' led to a dance floor sandwiched between a basement and a balcony, where regulars had a license to partake in whatever sex and drugs that took their fancy, free from fear of stigma. 'I’ve experienced sex with men, with women. I’ve fallen in love with women’, Klein has said of those nights. 'I have experienced lots of things that have influenced my world’.
The experience influenced his designs for both men and women (he moved in on menswear the year Studio 54 opened), as they became more about that aforementioned sensation and provocation. Clothes to slip out of as well as slip into. The fabrics were softer: cashmeres, satin, linens. Texture became the focus in a decade in which female models were amazonian to fill the broad, big-shouldered clothes, and bulked up male models on billboards wore less and revealed more. (Klein himself pumped enough iron to be cast in his early ads). These images of male sexuality, and sexual ambiguity, not only had appeal but impact. People smashed the glass at bus shelters to steal the poster of Tom Hintnaus.
'I know all of the images and all of the models so well - as well as all of the moments,' Marc Jacobs mentioned in that conversation with Klein for Interview. As though each moment was a cue to another story, that was maybe personal, or maybe something more major. Not quite the moment that everyone knew where they were the day Kennedy was shot but…….. What had we missed? Those of us among the rising consumer generation of the 1980s, who couldn’t remember where we were the moment we saw a pole-vaulter in a pair of pants (1982) or a naked couple on a swing (1989). So much to recall in each of those years. So much in the years between. Capote went. Warhol too. But for the sake of our story, let’s take one development that surfaced. The spread of AIDS. The virus took the lives of 179,000 in the US by the beginning of the following decade. Among them: German countertenor Klaus Nomi who danced in the window at Fiorucci. Halston. Steve Rubell (Calvin Klein, Donald Trump among the Studio 54 regulars at the funeral). And later, Richard Bernstein. For some it was a plague. God’s revenge on the new society; those that dared to ditch polyester and leave 1950s Marlboro country. For others, and equally absurd, it was the beautiful people taken out before their time as artists, designers, musicians were on the list of the fallen. This was not the common-or-garden cancer that finished off plumbers in polyester and elephant collars in the provincial climates of the suburbs. In an effort to understand and articulate the magnitude of the disease historical events were cited by comparison, and belittled in the process. No, it wasn’t like the Holocaust. No, it wasn’t like The Great War. But some were insistent. ‘All the brightest and the best trampled to death’, the auteur Derek Jarman confided to his diaries. ' ‘- surely even the great war brought no more loss into one life..’ Signing off with the affected and trite - ‘and all this as we made love not war’.
Lives were ending sooner than expected. Other things too. An era. A decade. While on a billboard somewhere in 1989, Ric and Natalie back there at Villa Tejas, in full swing, in freeze frame, oblivious. Obsession. Of course. What else? Both a scent and the sum of an experience …….. by Calvin Klein: ‘Obsession is big, like a movie poster for this era. I think of everything I’ve ever done, how obsessed I was. Everyone is obsessed in the ’80s.’ A decade earlier at Studio 54, the regulars and a cast of hundreds, or thousands, if you include those in the queue that never passed the vetting ritual at the velvet rope, eager to be part of the launch party for Yves Saint Laurent’s perfume Opium. The French couturier arrives and is greeted with a kiss on both cheeks by Halston. 'You have just witnessed one of the great moments in the history of fashion,' Truman Capote declared. ‘That is, if you care about the history of fashion.'
New York, 1995. Long after the lights went up and the lives went out, Calvin Klein opened a flagship New York store at a corner of Madison Avenue. ‘The minimum is the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve on it by subtraction’, is the credo of its architect John Pawson. Klein’s notion that ‘repetition is reputation’ chimes with the approach of like-minded artists, designers and architects that opt for the confines of minimalism. Glass panels were slotted between existing pillars, and reached up three floors on the store’s facade. Inside, glass vitrines on honey-coloured flagstones exhibited the clothes as though they did indeed belong in a gallery or a museum. The minimalist goal was achieved to perfection, both aesthetically and ascetically. So much so that it inspired a group of monks to commission Pawson to build them a monastery.
Although the minimalist theme had occupied Klein for ever, it was now part of a wider trend that was a backlash against the 1980s. The vulgarity, the bigness, the consumerism had meant, for some, that culture had become a bit too democratized. ‘In the junkyard we are all richer, have more opportunities, more information, but are dispossessed’, wrote Derek Jarman, who died the year before. (He was commenting on the London of the 1980s.) 'The city no longer belongs to us, it is a Disneyland of shallow style. We are all tourists here, rootless’. In short the proles had finally ditched the polyester and elephant collars and started pitching their tents in Calvin Country. The beautiful people weren’t happy: this land was their land. Meanwhile, the waif-like, even child-like models in Calvin Klein ads were the antithesis of those of the previous decade. The topless Kate Moss advertising jeans and perfume was, according to Klein, a means of ‘closing the door on the excessiveness of the ‘80s’. The ‘90s were more natural, real, pared down. Anorexic, even. The half-dressed teenagers promoting his CK range, with shaved heads, piercings, and skeletal bodies were shot as though they were screen testing for a Larry Clark film. Moralists from the right, feminists from the left attacked the use of Lolita-like models in suggestive poses, accusing the designer of sanctioning child abuse. Klein was reputedly investigated by the FBI the year the store opened. The ads were pulled. Had he nudged the zeitgeist a little bit too far?
The launch was covered by the writer James Kaplan for New York magazine - a regular home to the 'new journalism' of the 1960s. Kaplan adopted a similar approach, placing Klein as a character in a series of scenes to which the journalist was privy. Such was the designer's fame in 1995, that the drug of choice that year was ‘Calvin Klein’ or ‘CK’ - a simple combination of two separates that complimented each other : Cocaine and Ketamine. Now in his fifties, Klein no longer had the physique that propelled him to advertise his own wares. His face was mottled from the sun; his hair was greying. Kaplan even suggested, unfairly, there was a ‘seediness’ to his attire: ‘It’s as if as a younger man he’d lived exclusively for the present, then awakened one morning, around 1988, to find that the present had gone’.
By writing about the designer in the 1990s he gave a glimpse of him in another time, another place. Beyond the velvet rope, along the corridor of joy at Studio 54. Long before the club was credited as a rehearsal for the 1980s, and a template for the 21st century. At a cocktail party Calvin Klein greets designer Donna Karan, as though the glitter balls are spinning, lights are strobing, the last days of disco are on them and they are, as the dance anthem claimed, born...born to be alive : ‘Entourages fall back as the two demigods embrace. And proceed to dish for a tantalizing ten minutes, in which Klein shifts out of party mode into alert, amusement, engagement and incredulity. He leans in like a Jewish eagle, fingers spread at his breastbone, agape. All at once, he is himself’. Kaplan too has a cameo in the scene, cast like a Capote figure witnessing one of those great moments in the history of fashion, for those who care about fashion. Only of course, it wasn’t.
London, 2017. The day the Bruce Weber photograph was auctioned in London, a series of images could be found covering the walls within a store nearby. Each poster featured a toned, black male model in a pair of white Calvin Klein underpants (actors from the film Moonlight). The images were taken by Willy Vanderperre, the long-time collaborator of Raf Simons, as part of the ad campaign to revamp the brand. Naturally these were a reference to the iconic Weber images from years before. It could have been 1982 - but it wasn’t. People passed by. Images of bulked up men in underwear have long since been the norm. A cowboy promoting cigarettes would cause greater offence. As for the few customers that stopped and stared, were they placing themselves in those moments that Marc Jacobs mentioned? Pausing to place the image in the greater scheme of things. What did this say about now? What did it say about where we are? How far we’ve come and where we’ve arrived at. Let’s call it Calvin Country, still. Let’s give the man that, long after Klein removed himself from the spotlight to hunt down the perfect hue for the components of his numerous homes ('The colour of the water in the pool is the exact same colour as the Shinnecock Bay’.) So much that was once in the margins - polymorphous sexuality, cross-dressing, gender-blurring - has found it’s way into the mainstream, where it has joined the varying faiths, races and cultures. The descendants of that diverse crowd of disco dancers at Studio 54. It may not exactly be home, but something close to it. Their voices may not be heard as often as they wish, but they are louder than they’ve ever been. And yet….
At the Calvin Klein show in New York, attendees were invited to wear white bandanas to show unity as part of a campaign entitled #tiedtogether. A response to the divisive climate of hate dominating world politics, in the wake of recent referendums and elections (to paraphrase). That pesky democracy again. But these results were not so much a reaction to the diverse present, as the myth of the diverse present; not so much a reaction to progressives as the figures that progressives have become. Characters similar to those Capote once wrote of: 'too acute to accept a more provincial climate, yet not quite acute enough to breath freely within the one so desired, they go along neurotically feeding upon the fringes..’ For the most part cartoon figures marooned in the mainstream. Redrawing battle lines in battles that are almost won. Shifting goalposts to widen the remit of victimhood. Falling back on a lexicon of cliches more hackneyed than the ‘populism' they abhor. While becoming apologists for ideologies that oppose the freedoms they fought for - because to challenge would imply that people with brown skins sometimes do bad things. When it comes to racists, homophobes, sexists, terrorists (to paraphrase) they like a particular look: straight, male, Christian, American, and a whiter shade of pale. Enter President Trump. He has become both a demon and a muse to his fashion-conscious enemies. A rich, crass honky, with hair the colour of the honey-coloured flagstones on the floor of a Madison Avenue store. Perfect. His supporters are cast as ill-educated proles, landlocked in those provincial climates of Marlborough Country, circling the wagons. While the elite, beautiful people are holed up in the the city, listening for gunfire and trigger warnings, bandanas to hand. Unarmed but accessorised. Secure in a safe space. Home of Studio 54, Interview, Fiorucci, the Warhol factory, Calvin Klein. This is New York, they say. This is not America. Only of course, it is - and God bless it.
Arena Homme +
Of all the major fashionable figures, past and present, that have come to epitomise luxury one of the most eloquent is the master French perfumer Serge Lutens. He has also gone to great lengths to interpret luxury. Perhaps most famously with a line which loses its polish in translation: ‘Luxury is the distance (the greater between you and the object, the more luxurious)’. He seemed to be stating the obvious when mentioning that ‘luxury can not be mass’. Then in 2013, the man that created the illustrious Nombre Noir, who believes that perfume should neither be accessible nor worn every day, had an absolute rethink. 'This entity, what we call luxury, annoys me’, he groaned. ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like the name. The idea of a luxury—what is it?’
It’s a question that is uppermost in fashion at present. Both casual wear and heritage brands are re-interpreting the concept of luxury. The casual outperforms the sartorial, but rumour has it the beautifully cut classic look, the customary mode of luxury, is coming up on the outside. Rebooted. Although a number of streetwear designers may disagree in their bid to recast luxury, colonise it, and build a modern elitism by producing less in an age of more. ( Something Serge Lutens achieved by attracting a clientele of ‘connoisseurs’ rather than casual customers). ‘Luxury was always something that was scarce’, Vetements CEO, Guram Gvasalia, informed Vogue. ‘Today, I don't consider Louis Vuitton to be a luxury brand - Yes, the quality is luxury, but if you can go to the store and get whatever you want, it's not luxury’.
If these sound like old topics to industry insiders it’s because I’m not young - and an outsider. My insider status was short-lived and aeons ago. Somewhere between the bleak midwinter of the late 1970s and the fall-out from New Romanticism in the early 1980s. Yet, still I cling. On the sideline watching trouser hems rise and crotches drop, as seasons come and collections go. For me, the swashbuckling leather and velvet creations of a designer like, say, Haider Ackermann - a champion of both Lutens and luxury - is something to witness, but never wear. When it comes to the wardrobe of the middle-aged male I like the simple Warhol maxim - A good plain look is my favourite look. If I didn’t want to look so ‘bad’, I would want to look ‘plain’. But not too plain. Not The Man In The Camel Coat.
Yet, still I cling. I wrote about Justin O’Shea when creative directors were dropping like flies, having been recruited by luxury brands following effective runs at independent labels. Both the arrival and exit of O’Shea at Brioni was a shock. At least in the hamlet that is heritage menswear. His departure announced at Paris fashion week last autumn, after six months in the job. That same season - a further surprise. Haider Ackermann joined the eminent Italian-born, Paris-based bottier Berluti. Would he go the same way? Both men were keen to bring attitude, rock music, and guitar cases to labels synonymous with tailoring and tradition. Unlike O’Shea, Ackermann was a trained designer, and one closely associated with womenswear. This was his chance to ‘work in luxury’, he declared. And what did he mean by luxury? ‘Having access to materials of great nobility’, came the answer. The opportunity to utilise the skills of Berluti’s private army of master tailors at the atelier Arnys, who famously produced the black velvet Forestière jacket that became a staple of Le Corbusier’s style (coupled with the ‘Architect frames’ that were his spectacles). Like Berluti, Arnys was acquired by the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, with the Arnault family in the saddle. They had plans. Haider Ackermann was the one to bring them to fruition. To reach out to the street; to initiate the young, well-hung and wealthy into those ancient, ritualistic codes of luxury.
‘I have another story to tell’, Ackermann said when offering his reason for taking on tailored menswear and moving to Berluti. Creating characters and telling stories is central to his work. Some say he’s an artist. So many designers are said to be, or believed to be, or claim to be……. artists. Just as certain designers now claim to be activists. It’s an outmoded, old-fashioned move. The posturing and sloganeering are dated. The deluded progressive has turned so-called radicalism and identity politics into a cartoon, and liberalism has crashed and burned in a cul-de-sac. In such a climate Brexit is a revolution, and America’s new president a maverick. Yet, the designer activist, like the celebrity activist, continues to reel out clichés as worn out and washed up as old accessories.
Momentarily, Ackermann dabbled in this with those ‘Be You' slogans on sweat-tops, that brought flashbacks of ‘Choose Life’ and ‘Frankie Says’ to those of us that endured fashion’s excesses in the 1980s.
There’s more. Ackermann has been described as both erudite and an ‘intellectual’. Now that is rare in the field of fashion. So was he being smart or playing it safe, when the first model to emerge from the shadows in his debut for the luxury brand in January, at the Grand Palais, Paris, was more Berluti than Haider Ackermann? - The Man In The Camel Coat. The staple of the wardrobe of the middle-aged male who simply wants to look plain. Wasn’t everyone expecting something closer to the super-sized
shoulders that captivated at menswear collections the previous season? That David Byrne silhouette circa 'Stop Making Sense', favoured by the new boy on the block - the other Gvasalia brother, moonlighting from Vetements - at Balenciaga. Why the big suit? Why not? Perhaps this is what Ackermann means when he talks of writing another story, of planning for the Berluti customer who will one day accessorise a cashmere coat with baggy leggings: 'I want to make a new man for the 21st century. Something harder within the limitations of traditional tailoring’.
The Haider Ackermann story began with his birth in Bogotá in 1971. The ‘Haider Ackermann’ story began with the launch of his eponymous label in 2002, and a womenswear collection the following year. The sightings of menswear design was rare and later, defined by vivid colours, crushed velvets and shiny boots of leather. When he says he hopes to create a new language and new identity at Berluti, once again, Serge Lutens springs to mind: ‘All I'm talking about is identity – that is all I've been talking about my whole life’. Fitting for someone who claims to have a ‘blurred’ identity. Similar could be said of Haider Ackermann. His father was a mapmaker. His infancy, adolescence spent in various countries - Ethiopia, Algeria, Netherlands - before attending fashion school in Antwerp, and winding up in Paris. 'When you are young, you are very tormented and very insecure’, he said in March this year. 'Now my creativity comes from happiness. It's nice to dream and build up your own story, you know, I like to search for things and have some fantasy’. It’s a well-run rites of passage for the young outsider, the marginalised itinerant - but reading this made me think of the talented, oddball narrator in Harold Brodkey’s ‘The State Of Grace’: ‘If dreams came true, then I would have my childhood in one form or another, someday’. I guess Ackermann is finally having his.
At Berluti, he replaced Alessandro Sartori, who was engaged to develop a clothing range for the distinguished shoemaker, before he jumped ship and joined Ermenegildo Zegna. A trained tailor, he undertook to reel in that rising generation of rich consumers by departing from tradition, introducing a casual element and - colour. The company was known as much for its ‘patinas’ as for the shoe that put it on the map at the tail end of the nineteenth century, created froma single piece of leather and without any sign of a seam. Sartori ramped up the colours at Berluti, pushing them beyond the primary. At the Grand Palais on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in January, where once the Fauvists shocked the art world by exhibiting their explosions of colour, Ackermann delivered a palette that, in part, was reputed to reference the brutal hues of Francis Bacon: the purple of bruises; the bloody red of cuts and gashes. These were eased in as The Man In The Camel coat, and the blacks, browns and beiges, that followed gave way to a spectrum of cherry reds, violets, emerald greens, blushing pinks in the shape of trench coats, tuxedos, parkas, jean jackets and bombers. Colours that would have given Matisse a run for his money.
If Francis Bacon was the inspiration for one aspect of the collection, another, located on the mood board at Ackermann HQ was David Bowie, in the year of his death and in his incarnation as the Thin White Duke. The slicked back orange hair, alabaster skin, and stripped down kit of starched white shirt and night black waistcoat. A look that managed to be as striking as any of the personas that had gone before.
‘I wanted to make luxury a little more careless’, Ackermann said in the wake of the show. ‘Which is why we had so many different guys, from skinheads to long-haired rockers. Berluti should be for a lot of different men’. But the test for Ackermann and Berluti is whether the collection will be as lucrative as it is creative. There remains a world of difference between menswear and womenswear, and as though to bridge this gap, Ackermann placed female models in men’s attire on the runway. He says: 'In feminine fashion, the creation is always complicated because this body is foreign to me. That of man is obviously closer’. Even now, in a new century still in its infancy, menswear design takes time to progress. Particularly when it comes to tailoring and craftsmanship. But Ackermann’s in it for the long haul, making his vision a reality over years rather than within a single season. And it’s a huge shift for him, from the layering, and draping and cropping of fabrics that characterise his womenswear, and the swashbuckling themes of his earlier sporadic outings in menswear, to the sculpted suits at Berluti. Here, change, like God, is in the detail.
Something I was aware of way back in the aforementioned bleak mid-winter of another age, studying the skill of bespoke tailoring and pattern cutting in commercial east end streets where it was a dying art. In the window in the week devoted to a design lesson, a copy of L’Uomo Vogue was placed before us and we were encouraged to draw and adapt the detail on men’s suits. So a lapel would expand or retreat, a patch pocket would disappear from the breast, a ticket pocket would appear on the hip, and on a dizzily radical impulse - an ambitious puff took a raglan sleeve towards the blouson. It’s an approach that the army of tailors at Arnys have prided themselves on, rarely bowing to the winds of change ushered in by fashion and consumerism: ’Boldness comes through in the unique details. The lining of a garment often conceals a surprise. Sometimes, the surprise is in the choice of buttons, the placement of elbow patches or the print of a tie’.
Berluti’s new boy has also taken this into account, by keeping the old guard on board - past clients read like a ‘Who’s Who’ in French culture throughout the last hundred years. From Marcel Proust to Yves St Laurent via the Jeans Luc Godard and Cocteau - by simply tweaking the detail or the fabric of a traditional garment: a crocodile duffle coat, a yellow fur lapel. Despite his short time as creative director, he has formulated his own idea of contemporary Berluti man: ‘I would like him to keep a part of the mystery, that one can not completely define it, knowing that he travels a lot, works on a planetary scale, comes from everywhere and from nowhere’. This was apparent at the Grand Palais show. Beyond the ambitions to expand the colour scheme, and juggle the casual and the sartorial, the modern and the traditional, emerged a nomadic motif that was a nod to the designer’s peripatetic youth, and his internship at Galliano. It was a period when he was sleeping on the street, and leaving his luggage in a locker at the youth hostel where he showered. Despite being employed at a couture house streets away.
The nomadic theme was reminiscent of the Burberry spring collection of 2015, when the sojourns of the late-travel writer Bruce Chatwin provided the inspiration. That approach was earthier in some ways, despite deep-purple and bottle-green suedes and velvet outerwear. There were field hats with battered brims, and coats and bags with pockets the size of bellows to hold the wearer’s worldly goods. For Beluti, Ackermann produced backpacks and a sack-like holdall that could equally contain everything the minimalist, the nomad, or the homeless intern owned. Again, it was a move that brings to mind the words of Serge Lutens, a figure that Ackermann has name-checked and saluted on several occasions. He was one point of reference when the designer curated an issue of A magazine, along with Francis Bacon and Robert Mapplethorpe. Lutens has claimed that his greatest luxury is that he can live without almost anything. He has survived in a yurt and a studio, yet has spent 35 years creating a home and garden in the medina of the Marrakech that vibrates with the musks that have suffused his perfumes. Here he delves into the trio of writers - Proust, Baudelaire, Genet - that also help him tell his stories; here he read his favourite piecesof writing - ‘Le Condamné à Mort’- to Haider Ackerman. Reflecting on the experience, the designer mused: ‘Telling a story is the greatest gift that someone can give you’.
Now Ackerman himself is in the business of pinpointing luxury in his work, and making attempts to interpret it: ‘I love things to last. But it feels like now with all this fast, this speed, the timing that we have, we don’t even really have time to love the pieces that we own’. He wants to create a wardrobe rather than a collection. He wants to create an item that has longevity. Something that Beluti succeeded in doing from the beginning with a shoe that was inspired by Parisian architecture, and created by the company’s founding father who gave it his name - the ‘Alessandro’. By 1962 several more distinctive designs had been added, including that year, the Andy loafer, dedicated to Warhol. Ackermann now looks to create his Alessandro, his Yves Saint Laurent ‘Le Smoking’, his Nombre Noir. ‘Any creation which may one day be considered a luxury’, Serge Lutens once said, ‘can be interpreted initially as a reproach, borne of a world that resists change out of desire for self-preservation’.
Having refurbished Hitler’s Haus Der Kunst in Munich and the Kaufthaus Tyrol, the biggest shopping mall in Austria, the Brioni store in Paris wasn’t an altogether surprising move for David Chipperfield. The modernist architect has cornered the market in museum design, with a neat sideline in monolithic stores for luxury brands. As Warhol once promised: 'All museums will become big stores and all big stores will become museums’. And they have - from Apropos to Zegna. This year’s marble is this year’s model. Something Wallpaper columnist Nick Vinson highlighted in 2014: ‘black Belgio’ (Prada)…..‘grey Cala Paonazza’ (Tom Ford)…..and ‘boiserie-style paneling, columns, arches’ at Viktor & Rolf on rue Saint-Honoré, Paris.
One of the biggest stores on rue Saint-Honoré is the Italian heritage brand Brioni. Following the shock recruitment of the rakish Justin O’Shea as creative director in April the interior of its Parisian outpost was recast as a ‘gallery of clothes’. Following his exit six months later his tenure may one day be seen as an aberration, and the Paris store his legacy. The building's transformation heralded his arrival and declared that this was to be more than a mere store. It was a ‘destination’ in a city that was less of a destination following the series of terrorist attacks. ‘Paris has to make an effort to become Paris again’, Karl Lagerfield said recently. Chances are it will and is. As Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast: ‘Paris was never to be the same again, although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed’. On rue Saint-Honoré and similar avenues there is the Paris of the modern designer museums - those native fortresses of fashion where fantasy and illusion are a refuge for the wealthy consumer: Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent. To paraphrase Audrey Hepburn, Paris is still a good idea
Paris, 2016. The Brioni store is palatial in its dimensions: two floors covering 590 square metres. The mesh partitions bring an industrial feel, but the overall theme is one of classical luxury. The marble pillars get me thinking of the Haus Der Kunst before the makeover, before the attempt to eradicate its history, removing the blood-red marble of the pillars and plinths taken from the lake Tegernsee at Hitler’s request. Here at Brioni someone has gone to similar lengths; turning to the quarries of Ancient Rome and travertino, the stone Michaelangelo used on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. It covers the walls and floors and is the grey of clouds and twine. The museum element is evident elsewhere; shoes are displayed like exhibits, elevated and mounted in glass cases. O’Shea was intent on presenting menswear in a new way, as the company did in 1952 when it put male models on the runway for the first time.
Brioni was started in Rome in 1945. The name is that of a hotspot in the Adriatic that was synonymous with elegance and luxury. The company chose it as an antidote to the austerity of the war years, and because it was an Italian word that Americans could handle. The target customers were wealthy, stately and materialised in the sleek form of Hollywood actors and fictional British spies (James Bond). ‘That era and aesthetic - that is my aesthetic’, said Justin O’Shea shortly after taking up the post. In becoming the first high-end Italian tailoring brand to arrive in America it capitalised on the country’s post-war consumer boom. The company tapped into the nascent lifestyle culture enjoyed by both the Playboy bachelor and The Organization Man. But Brioni was out of the league of the suburban commuter in The Grey Flannel Suit. It was for the pockets at the Don Draper end of Madison Avenue - its Gold Coast. So, here at the refurbished Paris store, with its palette of grays in mesh and marble, there is something of that New York…..something of the lobby at Consolidated Life where C.C. Baxter is employed in The Apartment….somethingof the secret HQ behind the Del Floria tailor shop in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. And bringing things back to 370 Rue Saint Honoré, Paris - something of the glass and steel set in Jacques Tati’s Playtime, where the most impressive gadget is the door that slams‘in golden silence’.
It’s the kind of touch you expect to find at Brioni. The silence is golden here, of course. There is serenity. Exactly like a museum or a mausoleum, where the dialogue comes in distant careful whispers. It’s a silence in which you could be weighed up, summed up by the cut of your jib. The natural light that darts through the first floor windows and spotlights the bespoke section in the windowless basement could be part of a greater plan to expose the absence of craftsmanship in your attire. The rip of Velcro would not only be crassly vulgar here it might cause the very foundations, the Roman Brioni empire itself, to crumble.
There’s an elevator between the two floors, and at basement level a staircase that calls to mind Grace Brothers, despite the stately grey tavertine. Simplicity is central. It’s evident in the surroundings and the exhibits. The suits are single button front without a vent, courtesy of Justin O'Shea: ‘The first thing I wanted to do was make the suit cool again. That was my primary goal… The suit is a fashion item- it’s not only to go to work in for formality purposes’.
The store changed under the aegis of Justin O’Shea, and the Brioni logo went gothic. If it had been comic sans it couldn’t have been more of a shock. Oddly, it’s a font that is suddenly fashionable. Even Kanye West picked up on it with the merchandise promoting‘The Life of Pablo’. So, this was one of the charges levelled at O’Shea: he was following trends rather than setting them. But it’s apt that he would opt for the gothic theme. Here’s why...
It brings to mind loud 80s guitar bands dressed in black. Something you could never imagine being fashionable….rather like heavy metal. Yet here was Metallica advertising Brioni in the initial campaign after O’Shea took the reigns. Middle aged heavy metal men in white tuxedos and expert tailoring. It made little sense - and then you saw Justin O’ Shea. The shaved head, the tattoos, the goatee beard, the interviews peppered with expletives, and O'Shea captured in freeze-frame tanked up on testosterone on his Instagram page: JOS getting tattooed; JOS at the gym; JOS congratulating UFC Champion Conor 'The Notorious’ McGregor ‘for being an all round badass’. And in some ways the former cage fighter stripped, bald, bruised, bloody, tattooed, has a look of JOS about him, or perhaps one he would hope for after a round in the ring or a night on the town.
It all set the notorious JOS apart as much as his background.
O’Shea didn’t emerge from the Antwerp scene like Dries, Dirk, Raf, Margiela…. or from Seoul, New York, Paris, Milan…..but Queensland. He was from mining country. He’d been a truck driver. He’d been in a rock tribute band. Finally, and this was the biggest shock of all, he wasn’t a designer. His background was retail, all be it as the king buyer for a luxury online brand. A career that doesn’t say Brioni and bespoke but Amazon and Asos. Many criticised his qualifications, arguing that a spivy look, a history in sales and a social media following barely made him a contender, let alone a champion. ‘He’s a man in a suit. This is one of the few concrete reasons for his appointment’, wrote esteemed fashion writer Alexander Fury.
But was it actually his maleness….his machismo that rankled? It seemed so outré……so outmoded. ‘I just want a men’s brand to be masculine’, he boomed. It seemed so at odds with what had been happening with men on the runway, what with all the blurring of genders and all. And some of us welcomed that. Those of us that emerged from infancy into the dazzling light of glam rock in the 1970s, and jettisoned adolescence for adulthood during the gender-bending club years of the 1980s. It reached out to those of us that were once loners and queer outsiders in postcodes that made the news but never the fashion pages. When everyone from Burberry to Gucci and beyond put lean and hungry male models in pussy bow blouses it was a move that chimed with the androgynous future we once held out for that was anticipated by the late, revered fashion historian Anne Hollander, the author of ‘Sex And Suits’. In the essay ‘Girlie Men: Revamping Male Couture’, she wrote: 'For generations (men) had to look tough, modest, honest, and restrained under plain suits or plain sportswear. Masculinity was allowed no erotic range in dress; the phallic necktie, licensed to reflect light and glow with color, was famously men's only hope.'
Justin O’Shea wears a necktie. It’s a big-thick-phallic-fuck-off-motherfucker-son-of-a-bitch-double-windsor-knot of a tie. You can imagine him saying this as he ties it each morning. It’s often floral. But without the subtlety of the ever-present blood-red roses that erupt from glass vases here at Brioni, courtesy of celebrity florist Eric Buterbaugh (‘I approach flowers like a fashion brand approaches clothing’). The floral ties are as loud and lairy as a Mr Fish kipper tie.
Lairy, yes. A good word, but there’s a better one: ‘Lair’. Here’s the dictionary definition: ‘Austral./NZ. Informal noun. A flashy dressed man who enjoys showing off’. It fits O’Shea as well as his ‘Wall Street Fashion Gangster’ look, accessorised with a swaggering confidence. ‘It’s very gangster to wear a silk shirt. That’s the guy I want to appeal to….They’ve got so much money’. He was probably one of those boys at school that had everything sewn up. He could throw a punch, put the ball in the back of the net, and always get the girl. Recalling the original interview at Brioni, where he wasn’t asked where he saw himself in five years time, he said he’d said: 'Look, this is what it’s gonna be. I’m not gonna create 73-fucking-thousand mood boards for you. If you want me to do the job, give me the job and just trust me. And if you don’t like it, then fire me'.
You can’t imagine Brioni HQ back therein Rome being to O’Shea what Lanvin was for Alber Elbaz when he was creative director, minutes from here on rue Saint-Honoré. ‘It’s kind of like my bunker’, Elbaz confided, when filmed at his studio for the New York Times. 'It is all black because from a black hole I thought I would have a better perspective …I feel very comfortable in the dark……It is the only place I feel skinny and beautiful…..The moment I get out of my office I feel I am worth nothing. I’m so like not athletic……..I don’t like the sun. I don’t like vacation. I don’t bike even. And here I feel I’m like, I know everything'.
O’Shea was social, cocky, self-assured, uncompromising, keen to let everyone know that he wouldn’t be broken by an industry that charged along at breakneck speed, in which brittle creatives jumped or were pushed from great heights over short periods of time. The world that brought about the suicide of Alexander McQueen and took John Galliano to a meltdown in this very city, at La Perle. But these were designers. Before getting the job Justin O’Shea had sketched one item: a pair of sunglasses on the back of a napkin during a lengthy flight. So, think of O’Shea and think of the character Morrissey suggests ‘Christian Dior’ could have been, if he hadn’t fixated on fabrics and dyes and making the poor rich smile: ‘You could haverun wild on the backstreets of Lyon or Marseille/Reckless and legless and stoned/Impregnating women/Or kissing mad street boys from Napoli’.
If you take out the Neopolitan boys, isn’t this Justin O’Shea?
‘I love tailoring’, he said. And this is where I for one get it. I love tailoring, but I loved it less when I was a tailor. For three years from the age of sixteen, apprenticed in the art of bespoke before I legged it. At Brioni they start them younger. But don’t be fooled into thinking Bangladeshi sweatshops. Think Russian gymnasts and Chinese musicians. In Penne, Italy, there are rumoured to be more tailors than people. The home of pasta quills is also home to the Brioni factory and the accompanying finishing school established by the master tailor and co-founder Nazzareno Fonticolo. Eight boys are selected for a four year apprenticeship. At an age when balls have dropped but voices have yet to break, they embark on the career that writer Gay Talese believes creates a mental disorder, which leaves you oscillating between silence and wild fits. The dandyfied pioneer of new journalism loves tailoring. He loves Brioni, and remains a poster boy for the brand in his dotage. Writing of the trade of his Italian father in ‘The Brave Tailors of Maida’ (1989), Talese attributes the aforementioned occupational malady to ‘excessive hours of slow, exacting, microscopic work that proceeds stitch by stitch, inch by inch, mesmerising the tailor in the reflected light of the needle, flickering in and out of the fabric’. At Brioni, when it comes to a hand-made suit that translates to 7,000 stitches in a single jacket. In the acclaimed2013 documentary ‘Men Of The Cloth’, one of the master tailor’s featured- a nephew of Fonticolo - is filmed in Penne . Here the young tyros embarking on an apprenticeship can expect to be master tailors by the age of22, and yet, as he says in the film, rather cryptically: ‘You will never be a complete tailor until you die’.
Into this hothouse of craftsmanship, expertise, precision, and dexterity strode Justin O’Shea earlier this year with his vision and his demands. They were no strangers to change after all. Brioni had pioneered the continental look way back, and by the end of the 1950s was putting men in dinner jackets in all colours of the rainbow. But this was something else. The boardroom men at the company that owns Brioni wanted to reproduce versions of Justin O’Shea on the runway, and so this became the brief for his debut collection: Chinchilla coats. Crocodile trench coats. JOS said think pimp, but this was so pimp it could have been accessorised with knives, needles and hookers instead of those silver-edged attaché cases. It conjured thoughts of the figures that Tom Wolfe discovered in the ghettos of New Haven documented in 'Funky Chic’: 'the Prince Albert pockets and the black Pimp mobile hat with the four-inch turn-down brim and the six-inch pop-up crown with the golden chain-belt hatband’.
In the wake of the collection, Justin O’Shea bragged to Vogue: ‘I could talk about bespoke tailoring qualities and the amazingness of the guys in Penne and blah blah blah and we got all exclusive fabrics and rah-di-rah-di-rah…..But that’s not what a guy necessarily cares about so much at the moment. Guys want to do the coolest things’.
Now he’s gone. Maybe mood boards weren’t a bad idea after all.
In October, David Chipperfield’s Brioni store on rue Saint-Honoré looked exactly as it did in the summer. The silence was golden; the blood-red roses were Eric Bauterbaugh. Now it was more mausoleum than museum. The company’s creative director had gone. The turn-over in these roles is quick these days, but at six months this was a record-breaker. Did he jump or was he pushed?
It was Paris fashion week, and the announcement was news but not huge news in the city of light - not the tragedies that touch us all: Charlie Hebdo…..the Bataclan. But on the ritzy avenues where fashion matters it was a talking point. The basement of the rue Saint-Honoré store had been the runway for O’Shea's debut collection in July, now, his final collection was to be presented to a group of retailers in a showroom in Milan. It sounded clandestine and illicit. Exactly how far had he taken this gangster pimp thing?
Rumour had it the original designs had not reached out and touched the gangsters he was targeting. Perhaps it was like that moment following9/11 when the fake tan and if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it Tom Ford look of the 1990s was suddenly vulgar. Something sedate was required. As many a cultural historian will confirm, men’s fashion transitions in time of turmoil - war, revolution…... terrorism. So where does that leave it now?
Safely in the arms of tradition and craftsmanship back at Brioni, and a client base of hedge funders, actors and heads of state. But they’ve missed a trick. The 21st century figure that best fits the Brioni ethos is 31-year old Kevin Systrom, founder and CEO of Instagram. Sartorially, he virtually stands alone in the world of start-ups and billionaires, with neither the Issey Miyake turtle neck that was the uniform of Steve Jobs nor the obligatory grey t-shirt of Facebook’s Steve Zuckerberg. Only Jack Dorsey, creator of Twitter, comes close with his Prada suits and Rolex watches. Instagram has become one of the surest ways of showcasing a fashion brand, and last year Systrom toured Europe, beginning in Paris, where he met the luminaries of the fashion industry. He wore Brioni. ‘I love Italian fashion for men’, he says ‘not metrosexual, something manly with a rugged feel.’ He sounds like O’Shea. It could have been a great marriage, where tradition and modernism come together as they do at the David Chipperfield-designed store on rue Saint- Honoré. Systrom is Brioni; O’Shea is instagram. On the day of his departure, O'Shea posted an image on the photo-sharing app for his 102k followers. It was the marble-like, coffin-like shape from the window of the Brioni store, which encases the large gold gothic letter B. The adjacent blood-red Bauterbaugh roses now seemed funereal, as was the last post that day: ‘The @brioni_official coffin’. The burial of a brand or the death of a career? Either way, Paris is still a good idea.
The Sunday Times
Michael C Hall and I are comparing notes on all that’s been done in the name of David Bowie since his death in January this year. ‘Did you see the Lady Gaga tribute at the Grammys?', he asks, that familiar eyebrow raised. ‘The BBC Bowie Proms was far, far worse’, I cut in. ‘I swear you could hear him turning in his grave when Amanda Palmer brought her baby on stage'. Luckily Hall missed it all - he was back home in New York. Now he’s in England, having arrived for the Mercury Prize for which Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ was a contender but not a winner. He performed the track Lazarus, the title of the Broadway musical in which he played the lead. It opens in London next month, which means this city is his home until early next year.
For the moment, Hall is Bowie’s representative on earth. The part of Thomas Newton was his before the audition. He was cast on the back of his roles in the awarding-winning series Six Feet Under and the groundbreaking Dexter rather than Hedwig & the Angry Inch, the Broadway musical about an androgynous glam rocker in which, again, he was the lead. At his Lazarus audition Hall began with ‘Where Are We Now?’, the song that coaxed David Bowie out of exile in 2013. He tells me: ‘Meeting him and singing his songs felt like more than a formality. David didn’t come to see Hedwig. He was aware of my acting, but that was the first time he heard me sing. I did puddle on the floor when he left, for a second’.
Musical theatre has been central to Hall's stage career. His resumé lists Cabaret and Chicago along with Hedwig. But this current venture is a departure; perhaps more akin to the avant garde theatre work of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. ‘The music doesn’t operate the way in which it does in traditional musical theatre, as much as it isn’t always there to move the story forward. It can be atmospheric, but also provide a counterpoint. I know that David didn’t want to do a jukebox musical and this is the furthest thing from it’. Several songs from Bowie's last two albums feature, along with three previously unreleased tracks, and a surprising collection of re-arranged numbers from the early years.
Of all the Bowie personas Thomas Newton seems an unlikely one to return to. ‘I think he maintained a fascination with the character. That theme of isolation and that interest in that embroidered interior world we all create runs through all his work. So to maintain that he is not quite done with Newton makes sense’. The character was actually the creation of Walter Tevis author of the book that became the film ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, in which Bowie made his acting debut. The story was inspired by the trauma in the writer’s childhood when he was moved from his family in San Francisco to a children’s home in Kentucky. Transposed to film and fiction it became the lonely travails of an alien landlocked on earth, in the parched landscape of New Mexico. Filming was slap, bang in the mid-1970s when Bowie was at his lowest point with drugs and depression, but equally, scaling the summit both creatively and stylistically. Reviews from the time mention his ‘imperial detachment’ in the role. But was it a great performance or merely a thin white drug-addled rock star going through the motions? ‘Well, I don’t know that those things are mutually exclusive’, says Hall. ‘I think his performance is fascinating. He is disarmingly beautiful and impossible not to watch. I like that he doesn’t take pains to act otherworldly. He doesn’t need to’.
Forty years on the Thomas Newton in Lazarus drinks gin, eats junk food and watches television. Little is revealed of the back story in the intervening years. The orange hair and alabaster skin are absent, even though he doesn’t appear to have aged. According to the script 'he’s a dying man who cannot die', retreating into his internal world and self-imposed exile.
Death is central to the key roles synonymous with Hall: the gay, conservative undertaker David Fisher in Six Feet Under; the celibate, cold but cool forensics expert and serial killer Dexter Morgan. With Newton the fundamental theme is grief - the loss of family, a longing for home. According to Hall the parts he plays tend to be ‘dichotomous’, something that is perhaps true of him as well as Bowie. The latter managed to be both ‘impenetrable and revealing’, he recalls. Hall himself brings a darkness and a humour to the roles. There was a muscularity to his Hedwig that also draws parallels with Bowie. No matter how thick the make-up, or how high the heels, Bowie somehow maintained a trace of blokey straightness.
Unlike him Hall was never in a band. Yet there is a touch of Jagger and David Johansen (a New York Doll) about his features. His vocal owes a debt to a 1970s rock voice, and his look today seated in his publicist’s office in Covent Garden - scuffed boots and scruffy black - is the wardrobe of a rock singer in his forties. He’s reserved rather than guarded; cerebral rather than detached. Perhaps one of those figures that springs to life when inhabiting a part. Or as he puts it, correcting me: ‘Becomes inhabited’. The word ‘repressed’ recurs throughout his conversation.
As Bowie appealed to the loner and queer outsider that some of us were in adolescence, I wonder if this was Hall’s experience (certainly not now as he’s on his third marriage): ‘I think I behaved in ways that were pretty conformist. My dad died when I was eleven. I understood implicity that I needed to take care of my mother. The best way was not to upset her, never cause her to unnecessarily worry about me. So, I kept a lot under lock and key. I’ve certainly found myself working on things that have encouraged me to explore whatever is repressed or shadowy in me and - I’m glad.'
Hall’s father died at 39 of prostate cancer. At 38, Hall himself was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. He announced that he was fully in remission in 2010. Hall was aware of death early on, as his sister died in infancy before he was born. The trauma of losing his father was ‘a frozen moment’ that he regularly returned to and slowly, gradually pulled himself out of. Trauma and death resonate so much with the characters with which he has become identified that, on meeting him, Bowie asked: ‘What is it with you?’
The day the cast were scheduled to record the Lazarus album was the day that Bowie died. Two days later they were back on stage. 'The recording gave us a chance to get together and actively do something that felt productive that we knew was in sync with his wishes. It was very emotional and surreal. Doing the show was more challenging, realising just how much David’s enthusiasm for this piece had to do with its capacity to be a meditation on mortality and death’.
One of the featured songs is ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, from the eponymous album released in 1971, the year that Michael C Hall was born. So, when did the boy Michael come on board as a Bowie fan, growing up in North Carolina? Turns out, it was the moment that many of us jumped ship: 'Let’s Dance'. ‘That was the album. I saw this dashing blonde, tanned, moody crooner, and went back from there and appreciated all the shape shifting that had occurred. I steeped myself in the Bowie catalogue. I then revisited it a lot when Hedwig was happening. I was listening to Hunky Dory on a loop in my dressing room for a while. There were cut-outs of him all over my dressing-room mirror’.
‘I was listening to Blackstar on the way here’, I say, as we prepare to part. I had been thinking of the lyric from the song ‘Dollar Days’, in which he mentions England. After many years, Bowie made the trip here following the news of his diagnosis, revisiting some of the settings that had been the backdrop to his formative years. Now he’s gone. Blackstar was his swansong; Lazarus the posthumous goodbye, and the fulfillment of an ambition to see his work staged as a musical. His last public appearances was at the opening on Broadway. 'That’s so funny I was thinking of those very same lyrics on the way here too,’ says Michael C Hall. It’s a moment of recognition in which he is suddenly alert, wide-eyed, smiling, emerging from the reserved, thoughtful figure of the last forty minutes. ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to’, he says, quoting. 'It’s nothing to me’.
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Almost no one talks about the Albany. Those that do always mention the silence. On hearing this I thought of the silence 'like a thin rain’ that Graham Greene, a former resident, described during his sojourns into the fictional landscape of ‘Greeneland’. It has seeped into the very being of those that live here and those that have left. And so, for centuries this Grade 1 Georgian apartment block on Piccadilly has kept its mystique. Bombs, scandal and the 1960s left few scars and brought little change. In 1969 The Beatles gave their last public performance, on the roof of the Apple Corps building at No 3 Saville Row. At the 69 apartments of the Albany, concealed behind its shuttered rear entrance on Vigo Street, at the foot of Savile Row, windows didn’t open and curtains didn’t twitch. Not even‘Don’t Let Me Down’ echoing through its cloistered Rope Walk, through its hallowed corridors punctuated by marble busts of revered inhabitants from the past - Lord Byron among them - could stir the Albany. Aristocrats, historians, writers, actors and several prime ministers have occupied its ‘sets’, as the apartments are known. The day the Beatles played Edward Heath - he became the British premier the following year - was a resident. In his novel 'The Bachelor of the Albany’ (1848), Marmion Wilard Savage reveals that it’s' the retreat of superannuated fops, the hospital for incurable oddities’. In recent years the designer Christopher Gibbs, a long-standing resident, gave the New York Times a thumbnail sketch of life on the inside. He cast it as a monastery in which the customary Trinity has been replaced by 'secular devotions of exacting taste, the pleasures of life and a romantic nostalgia for England’s past’.
The current cost of a ‘set’ begins in the early millions; weekly rental in the early thousands. The interiors lack the opulent staples of new residences nearby, and the ‘penthouse perfection’ formeryresident Bryan Ferry sang about on ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’. The forthcoming The Clarges development, along with The Mellier on Albemarle Street have increased the desirability of 'southern Mayfair’, as Piccadilly is now referred to. But the exclusivity of the Albany is synonymous with class, pedigree, and old money in a rarefied world. One in which insiders never mention money, or discuss the Albany, because it would be bad form. And believe me, I’ve asked.
It begins with the definite article. Purists omit the definite article as the early settlers did at Albany. Was this where I went wrong? Tucking it in the emails and letters to past and present residents in an effort to gain access. 'Albany, and virtually all its residents, place great weight on shying away from any form of publicity', was the prompt response from the committee secretary Commander Wellesley-Harding, 'and whilst the odd snippet emerges from time to time from a resident who doesn't quite see things that way, I cannot as a 'hired hand' breach the policy’.
I’d written and presented documentaries on housing for BBC 4. One on the history of council housing (The Great Estate) and the other on the suburbs (Everyday Eden). I’d covered the working class and rising, the final piece of the triptych was the upper classes and the Albany, well - perfect. Its story has stayed with me for an age, as the building came to represent both that Masonic-like world of an establishment elite defined by public schools, Oxbridge and the aristocracy, and the refuge of the donnish bachelor that devotes himself to the life of the mind. If there was once glamour in the Albany I suspectedit had now succumbed to a jaded elegance. I think it was Peter York who told me the Albany was a kind of ‘Westenders’. A toff Trumpton. The view chimes with the idyllic tableaux offered by Christoper Gibbs: ‘old-timers sitting in the little ivy-lined garden, sunning themselves by the little bronze statue of Antinous'. I mailed Gibbs at his antique emporium in Pimlico. He wasn’t talking. He’d said enough. Maybe too much: 'Residents who are deemed indiscreet risk a ritual scourging by the trustees. So ingrained is the sense of decorum that even to utter a friendly hello to a neighbour as we pass on the stone stairs or the covered outdoor canopy, might be violating a taboo'.
I spotted the Albany as a teenager in the 1970s, passing through Savile Row, pausing to decipher the graffiti coating the door to The Beatles HQ. Then later traipsing this stretch while training to be a tailor. The Albany often came up. The gold letters of its name fading in the sun on Vigo Street: the password to England’s romantic past, and to an elitist English present that the rest of us would never gain entry. It was a similar experience for the actor Terence Stamp, before Billy Budd propelled him into the national consciousness in 1962. In his autobiography Double Feature, he recalls telling the interior designer Christopher Bennison: ‘I saw this place when I was a messenger boy. Had a feeling about it….don’t actually know what it is, often comes to mind though. It’s called the Albany…For years I had fantasies about entering the place’. Bennison was friends with the art historian John Richardson who had a set on the Rope Walk. Stamp went for tea (Dundee cake from Fortnum & Mason, which Richardson referred to as the local ‘tuck shop’). Within weeks a neighbour headed to New York to work at Sotheby’s and the actor took over the apartment. When Richardson moved to New York, Bryan Ferry moved into his chambers. The humble origins of Stamp and Ferry make them rarities in the history of the Albany. Something that may soon change.
One afternoon last Autumn I was at the tailor Huntsman on Savile Row, researching an essay. Established in 1849 it remains upper echelon English. The heads of pursed-lipped stags punctuate the walls in its showroom. Suspended from the rafters the patterns cut for esteemed figures from antiquity. Yet it’s owned by a a Belgian hedge fund manager. While Hardy Amies, Kilgour, Gieves & Hawkes have been colonised by the empire building of Chinese billionaires. Was the Albany about to surrender to the ch-ching, ch-ching of new money from super rich foreigners? ( Swiss bankers and new york art dealers are rumoured to have entered the premises in the last decade). They will have a battle on their hands. More than half of the sets are owned by Peterhouse college at Cambridge university. These were bequeathed by one the Albany’s longest serving residents William Stone (he died in 1958 at 101).
'We have a list of purchasers specifically looking to purchase in Albany’, says Jenna Buck at Mayfair estate agent Knight Frank. ‘They understand that Sets are so rare that it might take a good number of years until a new Set presents itself. Most residents have been in Albany for many years’. A rental apartment appeared last year. Bereft of furniture. Stripped walls. All cracks and shadows. Momentarily, when looking at the images of the interior, the Albany of the nineteenth century namechecked by Dickens and Oscar Wilde materialised. Even more so the tenure of the historian Thomas Macaulay, who left in 1865 after fifteen years: ‘The books are gone, and the shelves look like a skeleton….. It is the corpse of what it was on Sunday….To-day, even while I climbed the endless steps, panting and weary, I thought it was for the last time, and the tears would come into my eyes.’ It was here that the former Whig politician applied himself to his mammoth legacy 'The History of England' (1848). Macaulay was writing of a period in England that ended a century before the Albany came into being. The 18th century three-storey mansion of Viscount Melbourne was converted into bachelor apartments in 1802, by the architect Henry Holland. Two rows of buildings were added, and between them the covered Rope Walk that connects the main entrance on Piccadilly with the north gate on Vigo Street. The covenant that was in place from the beginning resonates in the present, and explains the absence of infants, pets, whistling and anyone without the required credentials.
The American author and academic Philip Bobbitt lives here. He’s almost American aristocracy; the nephew of former US president ‘LBJ’ with Princeton, Yale and Havard on his resumé. He’s in Texas for half of the year and returns to the Albany in summer; he finds it easier to write here. A mutual friend attempts to put us in touch. Still no word. John Richardson was worth a try. He exemplifies a particular moment in the history of the building with his upper-crust English accent and a Britishness that has become more pronounced the longer he’s lived in the US. Still no word. Anyway, I can fill in the blanks. He moved here in 1960, returning from Provence following the break-up of his lengthy relationship with the art collector Douglas Cooper. The multi-volumed A Life Of Picasso (1991) is the work with which Richardson has become synonymous. Picassos were hung in his apartment on the Rope Walk, along with the bleached shell of a giant turtle. The playwright Terence Rattigan lived here between 1945-1951, and for a short time shared his chambers with a young actor. It was from this building The Albany Trust took its name. Founded in 1958 to campaign for the decriminilisation of homosexuality its first meetings occurred in the rooms of J.B Priestley. The writer and broadcaster was representative of that new post-war mood, with the arrival of a Labour government. A fellow traveller, Patrick Hamilton, author of Hangover Square wrote of the working classes that inhabited the pubs that he frequented and then crossed London to his Albany home in those years. Priestley, Hamilton, and later Graham Greene were men of the left. They championed socialism, communism even, yet clung to the cornerstones of the old order: the public school, Oxbridge, the Albany. Priestley was a snob about the suburbs. Hamilton loathed the working class for choosing consumerism over revolution. Greene evacuated the Albany and England in 1966, partly because of the ‘braying of the English middle classes'. During his residency he often walked to Belgravia for ‘shepherd’s pie evenings’ with friends, sending around two bottles of 1950 Cheval Blanc the day before so the sediment could settle.
If these figures championed the demise of the class system other ‘Albanians’ generated towards the aristocracy. The US-born socialite Fleur Cowls editor of Flair magazine ( 'the best things, the first things, uniting its readers in an aristocracy of taste’), occupied fives sets with her third husband from the 1960s. The interior designer Ashley Hicks currently lives here, long after his parents arrived in 1969. He has said of his father David Hicks: ‘He was the greatest snob who ever lived’, who once bragged that his 'one great achievement’ was marrying the daughter of Lord Mountbatten. David Hicks, perhaps the most fêted interior designer of the 1960s and 1970s, broke with traditional notions of good taste with clashing colours, patterned carpets, abstract painting, in his commissions for English country houses and the White House. In his last refurbishment of the Albany apartment, three years before his death in 1998, Hicks opted for the silky chocolate brown walls that become his signature, when cherry-red sofas and purple carpets were deemed passé. His wife, Lady Pamela Hicks, who finally left the Albany in 2013, claimed this was inspired by her throwing glasses of Coke at her husband during domestics. ‘Wish I could help’, Ashley Hicks says in of a series of courteous emails, when I ask about the Albany. ‘I’d love it to be better known and documented, personally, but I am rather in the position of being back at school and having to obey (most of) the rules’. One who broke them was the artist Keith Coventry.
In 2009 at the Haunch of Venision gallery in the eyeline of the Albany on Piccadilly Coventry exhibited his ‘Echoes of the Albany’ pictures, inspired by his brief spell there in the 2000s. The 40 figurative paintings featured some of the characters from Albany’s past, in reds, whites and pinks. A superficial rose-tinted world - literally - with seedy undertones. The writer Michael Bracewell mentioned ‘the dirt beneath the finger nails of status and super wealth’, when writing about the works. The images of crack-smoking seemed a stretch, but scandalous rumours about the Albany's inner sanctum have bubbled to the surface over time. Tales of call girls and rent boys clattering along the Rope Walk in the early hours. Condoms floating in the Albany pond. These, along with the shenanigans of Tory grandee Alan Clarke, were overlooked by the discreet porters. Another Tory MP, Jacob Rees Mogg was here in the early 1990s. He tells me he lived in D6, but little else: ‘This had been Isaiah Berlin’s set’. Perhaps the greatest scandal, or rather tragedy, came in 2000. The style writer John Morgan, author of Debrett’s Guide To Etiquette & Modern Manners fell to his death at 41. His origins, like those of Coventry, Ferry, Stamp were at odds with the backgrounds of most Albany residents. He’d jettisoned the provinces for the capital, stuffing another accent in his mouth and taking on the mantle of the archetypal Albany bachelor in Saville Row suits and handmade shoes. But he soon lacked the funds to maintain his lifestyle, rather like Byron centuries before. He was thought to have committed suicide, leaping from the bathroom window of his fourth floor set. But the coroner ruled on accidental death. Pointing out that if it was suicide there would have been a note - and on Smythson’s notepaper..
Is this where he fell? I wonder, crossing the courtyard ahead of the palladian entrance. Did windows open? Did curtains twitch? Spotting me, the porter steps from his lodge and attempts to fill the main doorway. The top hat has gone but the uniform remains. I think of Terence Stamp when he first visited: ‘ I had actual butterflies in my gut, as bad as first night’; of the porter putting Keith Coventry to bed when he came back drunk. There is a ’set' up for sale on the open market, in the main house of the former mansion. Who will buy at £6.95 million? Are Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires, Americans and Europeans circling the wagons, keen to invest in history and heritage? The set belongs to Peterhouse College, and so whoever puts in a bid is likely to be vetted by both the college and the Albany committee. They don’t want wide boys and Ferraris. While many a rich foreigner is likely to opt for the modern Mayfair apartments where everything is operated by the touch of an ipad. This set has no central heating and is in need of a makeover at the hands of a contemporary Hicks or Bennison. There are scars left from floor to ceiling bookcases. The remaining furniture brings to mind the day bed at Christopher Gibbs place, once owned by Tennyson. This was the home of the academic philosopher Lord Quinton for the last ten years of his life, and that of his widow for the last five. The small kitchen upstairs is a hangover from the days when staff occupied the box room next to it. Today, the rooms house the remnants of the lives lived here, ready for the removal van: sculptures on plinths and gilt-framed paintings, alongside a puzzle, a beer mat, and among the books, Plato’s Symposium - a clue to the career of the former tenant. I’m not sure the Eton-educated estate agent is convinced I can afford this. I’m probably poorer than the porters, and no where near as posh. I’ve been told that discretion is key; shoes and watches are the clues to the wealth of the residents. I’m wearingbrogues by Loake, no watch, and my vowels are getting flatter by the minute. I use the bathroom, like a dog spraying its scent. I’ve finally entered the Albany. The small bathroom is a nod to the Sixties, or earlier, and themes that I’ve seen emulated in homes in Kent, Essex and elsewhere, in the pursuit of high-end class, style and glamour. Except here the marble tops and chandeliers are real. But why a small square mirror on the ceiling, directly above the toilet? Oh, what stories the rooms at the Albany could tell.
Earlier this year at Sotheby’s in New York, furniture and objets d'art belonging to Terence Stamp was auctioned off. Much of it from his Albany days. He left in January 1969 via the rear entrance, looking skyward and stepping into a cab as The Beatles were playing ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. Regretting that he never asked his former girlfriend, the model Jean Shrimpton, to share his Albany rooms. 'When I moved into the Albany, Piccadilly’, he told Sotheby’s, ‘one of Britain’s great interior decorators, Geoffrey Bennison, advised me to furnish the chambers in the Georgian and corresponding French period styles in which they were built. John Richardson, the Picasso expert, steered me initially to Picasso ceramics…. There was an Empire daybed that Geoffrey had widened in order to accommodate two people comfortably. A large polar bear skin, complete with gaping jaw, lay across bare floorboards’.
I share the same agent as Stamp. I hope this might swing it. I want him to tell me all that the Albany symbolises to him. In 1967, he appeared in the Ken Loach film Poor Cow. Filming took place at The Palatinate, a condemned building in south east London, around the corner from where I lived. The name suggested the grandeur of the Albany, but here were two tenement blocks built a century before. Each five storeys high with a courtyard to the rear; a cracked concrete margin blotted with potholes, across which rope lines were suspended and from which washing was hung as though noosed, in all seasons. It was demolished as part of the regeneration of the neighbourhood. The Palatinate represented the working class world that Stamp left; the Albany the one he arrived at. He was one of those rare creatures that made the leap from east end boy to west end boy in the mythical social revolution of the 1960s. 'That first afternoon’, he writes in his autobiography, ‘I rolled around in front of the fireplace, hugging myself in reassurance it was true’. His story mattered more than anyone's. I wanted him to talk more than anyone. But he too is muted by the ancient oath of omertà.
Much has been made of the sepulchral tranquility between these walls. Standing here, staring into the the Rope Walk and the tiny patios with statues of griffins (those mythical creatures that guard wealth and treasure), I’m reminded of the silence that the dissidents refer to. The sounds that pierce that silence are the sounds that always have: birdsong, the chimes of St James church, the hourly tinkle of the Eton Boating Song from the Fortnum & Mason clock. Christopher Gibbs has written of a drunken baronet who drowned in his bath, and whose spirit was lodged in a dumb waiter here. But there must be other ghosts from its history accounting for the odd click and creak. Macaulay mounting the attic stairs at night. The swish of Lady Caroline Lamb’s cape when dressed a pageboy, she sneaked into Byron’s rooms and scratched two words on his desk : Remember me. The upper class, cut glass laugh at a Fleur Cowles dinner party. The thud of a falling man. Outside the Albany, a London that belongs entirely to the present. A city dominated by the rich and poor immigrant, from the oligarch to the asylum seeker and the refugee. But in here another city, another country. The last of England - all be it an England most of us never knew. Where the outsider is omitted along with the definite article. Albion. Arcady. Albany. An England that will one day be, like the London we natives once knew, like ‘Greeneland' itself, ‘a region of the mind’.
The theme that dominates the BBC’s Lost Sitcoms season is class. Something that rarely figures realistically in modern television comedy. In a recent Radio Times interview the author Caitlin Moran, creator of the Channel Four series Raised By Wolves, lamented the lack of working class characters on television. When these characters were evident they were defined by their bleak lives on Benefits Street. ‘But you didn’t get to hear them talking about their ideas on philosophy or politics’, she said. Yet this sums up how the working classes have often been portrayed, when they weren’t cast as Andy Capp characters or cartoon cockneys (Danny Dyer’s Mick Carter on Eastenders straddles the two, but manages to bring authenticity and humour to the mix). Television has never understood that the working class has increasingly become a broad church. It has not solely been the preserve of trade unionists and council house tenants for some time. What remains is a tribe united by its experiences, views and concerns. Much of which does not sit well with the orthodox ‘liberal' vision of programme makers. Particularly when it comes to race, faith and immigration. The reaction to the Brexit result alone is a primary example. Perhaps you don’t hear these attitudes mocked in comedy programmes because news reports and documentaries have that covered.
This particular portrayal of the working class was apparent even in the high season of 'swinging London' and the mythical social revolution that was the 1960s. The era when BBC director general Hugh Carlton-Greene wanted the small screen to reflect the real lives of the viewer. Steptoe & Son, Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home were among the iconic programmes commissioned during his tenure. The ciné-vérité style ofBBC drama focussed on the plight of the working class - homelessness, unemployment - but too frequently grafted the characters onto the issues rather than the reverse. Essentially they were stooges for the politics of the film makers. These dramas were largely based in the north, while the comedy tended to be set in the south. That’s the case with the programmes remade as Lost Sitcoms, where original ‘lost’ scripts have been filmed with a new cast. Notably, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe & Son. In these scripts the parochial world of the characters and their prejudices are mocked, yet the genius of the writing and the portrayals bring poignancy and empathy too.
Some years ago I interviewed the writer Johhny Speight, author of Till Death Us Do Part. He told me that he didn’t create the bigoted folk-devil Alf Garnett, he simply 'grassed him up’. Speight was reflecting the views that existed. But no matter how ridiculous the Garnett character appeared, he highlighted many fears and experiences that chimed with those that lived in the east end setting of the series and beyond. Many of which resonate today.
What made the Garnett character a departure to all that had gone before was attitude; what Harold Steptoe had - which made him the butt of the joke - was aspiration. This week the remake of Steptoe & Son is televised. The remake brings nothing to the original, but presents it as a period piece. ‘Why do you want to go to Austria?’, Steptoe’s father asks his son. ‘What’s wrong with Bognor?’. But the young Steptoe does offer a clue to a working class characterthat was on the wane in a London landscape that is rarely recognised these days. Rather like the east end of West Ham fan Alf Garnett.
Whilesitcoms began to focus on single men in bachelor pads, and modern single girls sharing flats (The Liver Birds, Take Three Girls), Harold Steptoe was landlocked within the poverty and grime of a rag and bone yard. With every cosmetic attempt he made to 'better himself' - speaking French, reading books, wearing cravats - he was undermined by the filthy, uncouth father. (A figure that belonged more to the era of Dickens than that of The Beatles).
The aspiration of the working classes, like their views, has often been the subject of mockery in television comedy, from Abigail’s Party to Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney and beyond. The punchline invariably arrives via a tangle of bad taste, malapropisms and Franglais. Some series managed to rise above this. In the Essex parents in Gavin & Stacey you see a modern take on the urban working class that made the voyage out to the suburbs. In The Royle Family, played out in real time, and in the absence of real plot or punchline, Jim Royle was a modern Alf Garnett, at least in spirit, as railed against all that passed on the television screen. Yet you couldn’t help thinking that he would have had views on the subjects that preoccupied Alf Garnett - but the sensitive mood of the time made him impossible to express them. And so he became something close to loveable, seated in front of the small screen watching programmes that rarely featured anyone that though, sounded or looked him.
The Sunday Times
Writing about the trade of his Italian father in the 1989 essay ‘The Brave Tailors of Maida’, Gay Talese notes: ‘A tailor’s eye must follow a seam precisely, but his pattern of thought is free to veer off in different directions, to delve into his life, to ponder his past, to lament lost opportunities, to create dramas, imagine slights, brood, exaggerate - in simple terms, the man, when sewing, has too much time to think’. Talese attributes his sartorial elegance and meticulous approach to writing to his father. 'I essentially write like a tailor,’ he once said. 'My idea as a writer is to make the stitching last. The writing, the shape of the story, the seriousness with which it is approached, the sense of craftsmanship.’
I first heard of Gay Talese in 1981 when I was a shallow manchild grudgingly serving an apprentice as a London tailor. He featured in a magazine story following the publication of 'Thy Neighbour’s Wife’. Talese spent the 1970s writing this experiential take on the so-called sexual revolution; attending orgies and nudist colonies, managing a massage parlour in the name of research. It was his look that struckme; the writing hit me much later. Along with Tom Wolfe - the best-dressed pioneers of the new journalism of the 1960s - he sports hats, bespoke suits and hand-cobbled shoes. Dressed as though heading for Wall Street, he leaves his five-storey town house on New York’s upper east side to descend into a former wine cellar below. The windowless-room where he works is surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves containing…….everything: ‘I want to report on what I have seen and heard and people I’ve known, and what I’ve done, because I think it’s connected to history. I keep records to testify to the fact that I’m alive’.
At 84 he’s still stitching those stories together. The subject of his new book ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’ has been with him since ‘Thy Neighbour’s Wife’, when the owner of a Colorado motel first made contact. Gerald Foos confided that he’d been conducting his own scientific research on the sexual lives of Americans, by spying on his paying guests and documenting his findings. Talese signed a confidentiality agreement and visited him, essentially becoming an accomplice to the voyeurism, and later, privy to the details of a murder that Foos witnessed. In April, an extract from the book was published in The New Yorker. (Foos finally gave Talese the go ahead to tell the story). In a reprise of the response to the publication of his book on the sexual revolution, certain critics are questioning the author’s ethics. Those that aren’t include Stephen Spielberg and Sam Mendes, who will be taking on producer and director roles for the film adaptation, since Dreamworks bought the rights for a reputed £1 million dollars.
Foos is the latest in a line of figures that Talese has written about - the mafia among them - that appear at odds with polite society and whom he attempts to redeem in some way. Like so many others I came across his celebrated masterwork ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ (1966), several years after the event - 15,000 words on the author’s thwarted attempt to interview a fellow Italian-American. Vanity Fair has described it as the greatest non-fiction short story of the twentieth century. ‘Many Italian-American boys of his generation’, he writes of Sinatra, 'were then shooting for the same star - they were strong with song, weak with words, not a big novelist among them'. Gay Talese became the exception to the rule. He was strong with words, and elevated non-fiction to the standard of the novel. Tom Wolfe has credited him with inventing the new journalism in which the devices of fiction were brought into play: scene-setting, point-of-view, interior monologue. Talese has always been emphatic about using real names and real dialogue. Something that began with the stories he wrote as a copy boy at the New York Times (its staff became the subject of his 1969 best-seller ‘The Kingdom And The Power’). He has written of his family history, and the major work in progress is the story of his 57-year marriage.
In his essay ‘Origins Of A Non-Fiction Writer’ from 1997 he writes: ‘Each of my books draws inspiration in some way from elements of my island and its inhabitants’. He was referring to his formative years in New Jersey, watching his father at work and eavesdropping on the conversations at his mother’s dress shop. Here he learned the ‘store manners’ and charm that served him so well as an interviewer. It is the story of those customers, and similar figures he has come upon since that are central to his best pieces of writing: 'the overlooked non-newsworthy population that is everywhere, but rarely taken into account by journalists and other chroniclers of reality’.
These were the words that stayed with me when I set about telling a similar island story that I’d been a witness to, in the book ‘The Likes Of Us’, a decade ago. The overlooked population here was the British white working class who became newsworthy when cast as a caricature or called on to play the patsy. To me these figures were as ‘dateless’ as the characters Talese has described in his brand of journalism, which he believes, rightly, is redundant in an age when celebrity soundbites and Twitterhave become the authorial voice.
The Sunday Times
Years before she unsettled the LGBT lobby with her views on the transgendered female, Germaine Greer offered an opinion on the unattached heterosexual man. ‘The unmated male’, she writes in Sex and Destiny (1984), ‘is more likely to wind up in prison or in an asylum or dead than his mated counterpart’. So where does that leave unattached asexual males and their female counterparts, then and now? A group that’s part of the ‘fourth orientation’ when it comes to sexuality, and one that has also incurred the wrath of the LGBT lobby. Asexuality was once the preserve of ameobas and aliens - or so we believed. But now asexuals- many choose the collective tag ‘Aces' - have become an embryonic movement of men and women seeking a voice in the mainstream. At the last major head count in 2004 they made up one per cent of the population, according to a survey of British residents published in the Journal of Sexual Research. That’s just two percent below the estimated (openly) homosexual quota of the time. The veteran activist Peter Tatchell has said - in a subtle volte face - there now exists ‘a league table of oppression’ as so many vie for the prize of most oppressed minority. As a minority intent on playing the Ace card, asexuals face strong competition in this infantilised atmosphere of safe spaces and trigger warnings.
This official head count, even a decade ago, overlooks asexuals that may not be aware they fall into this category. Others may be closeted in sexual relationships or simply unwilling to ‘come out’. The appropriation of this term and that of ‘queer’ - used in the more general sense, to mean anomalous - has irked gay rights activists. Something that David Jay, the founder of the online Asexual & Visibility Education Network (AVEN) is aware: ‘A lot of people in the queer community have fought so hard for sexuality, they can't understand how we’re connected to what they’re doing’. Jay, 34, launched the network in 2001 while a student at university in Connecticut. 'The first thing I felt, before I understood anything else about myself, was that there was this expectation of sexuality that was being put on me by society, and I knew it wasn’t there’. Just as AVEN has provided the movement with a nucleus, a book published two years ago raised the profile of asexuals, partly because it was the work of an insider. Julie Sondra Decker’s ‘The Invisible Orientation’(2014) defines asexuality and dispenses with the myths that surround it. Unlike celibacy, it is not self-imposed. Asexuals may be reluctant to indulge in sex, or repulsed by it but all share an absence or a lack of - depending on the research you tackle - physical attraction to others. (Although many admit to indulging in that last word in self-sufficiency - masturbation. Which sceptics argue is in fact ‘sexual’ activity ). Decker, who describes herself as an aromantic, asexual woman, was aware of her orientation early on, and open about it. But even now she’s confronted by people attempting to ‘fix’ her: ‘They develop this completely inappropriate obsession with my sexual and romantic life, which can manifest itself as anything from aggressively propositioning me for sex or searching what ‘really’ is wrong with me'.
It’s in the US that the asexual lobby has made headway in finding its voice. In the state ofNew Yorkasexuals are protected by legislation exclusive to other minorities regarding discrimination and the nebulous ‘hate crime’. All of which has contributed to a debate with the LGBT lobby online that Vice magazine describes as ‘all out war’.
The internet has been instrumental in connecting asexuals globally, and highlighting the lack of scientific research around the issue. Even if the asexual quota in the UK remains around the one per cent mark it’s a figure that makes a dent in a country of 65,000,000 and rising. Yet the concept of asexuality is something that many fail to grasp. That’s the conclusion of Mark Carrigan, a researcher at the University of Warwick, who has written at length on the subject.’ Offering asexuality as an account of themselves’, he says, ' asexual people are instead told that it can’t exist.’ Even when acknowleged, asexuality is seen as a passing phase for late developers, a state of limbo for the mature. But that also applies to all of us whose brief sexual or romantic liaisons barely fall into single figures and occurred a long time ago. We started late and finished early. Even in this enlightened age there is an insistence that completion and contentment comes with a sexual relationship or a sexual act. The theme of the recent Yorgos Lanthimos film ‘The Lobster’, in which unattached adults are rounded up in the city and dispatched to a hotel, where they're allocated 45 days to find a partner. Those that don’t are transformed into an animal of their choice and released into the wild.
‘People often wrongly assume that because people are asexual, they are not capable of emotional intimacy’, David Jay has said. This again is more a comment on the general fixation with sex and sexuality. Ironically, as the rainbow collective of minorities have become more accepted, or at least accommodated in society, they have moved on from the original equal but different approach; they've departed from the notion of sexual fluidity and bender blurring. As they seek the right to marry, adopt children, and be legally cast in the gender they choose rather than the one their saddled with, those not defined by sex and sexuality emerge as the ‘queer’ outsiders. But obviously without the history of stigma, abuse and discrimination that would propel them towards the top of the aforementioned league table of the oppressed. Nevertheless, asexuality does have a history. It had a cameo in the Kinsey report when it made sex a talking point in 1948, highlighting the sexual behaviour of men (women had to wait until 1953 for their report). The biologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey's category ‘X’ classifies the 1.5 per cent of the male population of America with ‘no socio-sexual contacts or reactions’. In short, asexuals.
Julie Sondra Decker agrees the culture has now become so hypersexualizedthat it's impossible to imagine 'a sexless or unpartnered life being fulfilling’. The absence of high profile asexuals past and present doesn’t help. Citings are rare and unconfirmed. Currently they are fictional curiosities and caricatures that come in the form of Sheldon from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (if the rumours are true), and 'Jughead Jones', outed by Archie Comics in February. Last year, when former Prime Minister Ted Heath became the latest deceased, defenceless public figure facing accusations of paedophilia a long-term associate attempted to rescue his reputation. There was no hint of sexuality about him ‘whether it was in relation to men, women or children’, he said. What if so many high profile male and female figures in the past that opted for celibacy and the single life were asexual? From Descartes down it’s an an impressive list. Historically, the single, sexless state was thought to be syonymous with achieving greatness - politically, intellectually, artistically, spiritually. A fact that prompted the philosopher Francis Bacon to write: ‘Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit to the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless man’.
This lack of representation 'is a contributing factor to our isolation and difficulty coming to terms with our identity’, says Decker. Some asexuals have taken to wearing a black ring on the middle finger of the right hand to recognise each other. The movement itself has defined itself with a flag since 2010 - available from Amazon in 'heavy bleached cotton with brass grommets' - and stages its own pride marches in the US. In this, and the way it's currently perceived in the wider world, the movement has at least something in common with the early days of the gay rights lobby. As the author Edmund White said recently, recalling his experience of that era: ' I was at Stonewall, and it seemed silly to us. That here we were, these “sickos” claiming our rights. It seemed hilariously funny. People don’t realize that now. But it was like the first comic revolution’. These days the plus sign now appears as a chaser whenever LGTB is mentioned in a bid to be more inclusive and bring ‘allies’ into the fold. Asexuals fall into this category but they continue to campaign for shared billing and similar status to the featured minorities.
Barcelona, 2015. When Jonathan Anderson won both male and female designer of the year at the British Fashion Awards last Autumn I was in Barcelona writing about Margot House, a hotel inspired by the Wes Anderson creation Margot Tanenbaum. (Herself something of a muse for young designers). The building looks onto the Spanish heritage brand Loewe where Jonathan Anderson has been creative director since 2013. The day after the announcement a buoyant Loewe employee steered me through its hushed and hallowed rooms, past the iconic luggage from its archive - the Amazona, the Flamenco - to the Anderson accessory that propelled the luxury store into the 21st century: the Puzzle bag. Anderson has hinted that when it comes to modernising an established brand you begin by erasing the familiar. At Loewe he did this by changing the HQ, the logo and the coat hangers. The Barcelona outlet is part of the city’s famed ‘block of discord’, where Gaudi’s Casa Batlló is as stately as a gallion alongside the equally iconic Casa Lleó-Morera on the Passeig de Gràcia. The thoroughfare is the equivalent of a Madison Avenue or Avenue Montaigne and exactly where you’d expect to find a flagship store dedicated to the eponymous J.W. Anderson label that garnered these awards. Instead the designer has opted for a 250 sq ft shop leased by the neighbouring Ace hotel on Shoreditch High Street in London’s east end.
Shoreditch, 2016. Jonathan Anderson is the reason I’ve returned to Shoreditch. Jonathan Anderson is the reason I’m writing about fashion. And yet fashion is where I came in - on these very streets. Over time, in broadsheets, a book and broadcasting my subject became class, race, the London of the past and the city that replaced it. Often using the personal as the cue to the bigger story…..the history. And so, standing here now, the personal becomes the cue to a view on fashion, these streets, this city - again - past and present; a palimpsest of styles, memories and experiences. How could it not? I’m no longer a participant, but a window shopper, a witness, a bystander, watching from the wings. The clothes here are above my price range; below my age range. I’ve seen more than fifty summers and now settle into all things navy by way of a uniform. Something the late Jean Muir wisely opted for early on, accessorised by her slick bob and Bette Davis eyes. (Jonathan Anderson too, in shetland wool crew necks and jeans, never seems to wear what he designs). Bespectacled, bald, swamped in navy blue, with the epilogue of my story closer than the prologue, I’ve arrived at the the point T.S. Eliot reached - Jonathan Anderson see himself as a modernist too - having asked: ‘What was the value of the long looked forward to?' Here I am in the ‘deliberate hebetude’ of the poet’s Autumnal serenity, frequently mistaken for Gru from Despicable Me.
So here is the Jonathan Anderson Workshop - as the Shoreditch store is named - with its slatted rainbow walls and a cube wardrobe at its centre. I select one of the many stand out pieces from the spring/summer 2016 menswear collection: a mock neck jumper in what in less enlightened times would be described as ‘flesh-coloured’, emblazoned with a Teletext-news-type motif. (The perfect outfit for Kraftwerk circa Computer World). It’s an idea of fashion’s future dispatched from the distant past, long before the past exhausted its fanciful notions of the future. ‘Fashion is never meant to make sense in that moment,’ says Jonathan Anderson. ‘You're ultimately designing for the future.’ Actually, Anderson breaks this first law of fashion, using his imagination on the past and the present as well. The store, like his label’s website, and his social media outings (‘I love the immediacy of Instagram. My feed is really my train of thought.’), is a mood board of moments in a history that he never witnessed - he was born in 1984 - that summon inspiration. The antiquated informs his output as much as the modern. He rifles through the decades ‘trying to expel things to get to a new point’. It’s evident by the archive magazines he collects: Playgirl (1970s), Interview (1980s), The Face (1990s). Similar publications, along with book selections are displayed here.
Equally, the store is a showcase for his collaborations. In the past, he teamed up with Larry Clarke using actors from the director’s films as models for the book ‘The Smell Of Us’. Recently the publisher Luis Venegas selected pieces from the Anderson oeuvre for ’The Rain In Spain Stays Mainly In The Plain’. Currently, there’s the hoodie and t-shirt clothing range carrying the archive images of Ian David Baker, from 80s gay pin-up magazine Mister and gay Pride marches. Anderson has said that he admires the hedonism and the freedom of the 1970s in particular. This is the restricted view of the decade from the vantage point of the present, by those that never experienced it. Yet, the figures and the physiques of those featured in these images bring to mind those days when heels were higher than expectations; when stick-thin boys on high-rise estates were feminised by feather-cut hair and high-waisted flares.
The J.W. Anderson menswear collections allude to the nascent years of that decade when pop and fashion blurred gender lines - all be it cosmetically - and flirted with sexual fluidity. The sparkle had dimmed by the fag end of the decade, when the summer of 1977 both re-booted the early-Seventies swagger and buried it by way of bin liners, bondage pants, and the rise of tribal‘street-style’. Anderson laments the passing of the personalised approach to fashion that has dominated in the intervening years; evident in mass-produced casual clothing, omnipresent heritage brands, and the designer kit bought by those wealthy enough to own a stylist. He has said that we are living in a cultural world rather than a luxury world ‘where we have to create more experiences. The luxury environment just isn’t personalised anymore’.
His clothes bring to mind the time when fashion - in postcodes like this - was, for some, not simply about cracking the shackles of sexuality, and gender, but class too. Glamour was not quite the pursuit, even when parked between inverted commas. ‘Camp’ missed it completely. Although Susan Sontag’s interpretation of that concept came close: ‘esoteric, elite...... something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques’. Anderson has taken that coded, esoteric sensibility and tailored it to the 21st century where, by making good use of current technology, he reaches out from the margins to the masses. He says that he sees no difference between Instagram and the dating app Grindr. In January at the London Collections: Men, Anderson’sshow was streamed live on phones and tablets, for the reputed millions that have downloaded the Grindr app. It was an attempt to 'try and break down the rules in terms of who receives the information first. So it’s about taking information directly to the consumer. And they experience it at the same time’.
Here and now, examining his retro-futuristic Teletext knitwear, I recall the chiselled ruby slippers and cropped, cuffed pantaloons from his spring/summer 2016 collection, and then history intervenes; I’m reminded of Arthur Morrison’s slang description of east end gangsters when writing about these very streets in the 1890s: ‘the original out and out downy benjamins, or the celebrated bang-up kicksies, cut saucy’. He was writing in the decade my grandmother was born in Shoreditch. In 1977, aged 16, I rolled up on these streets to study bespoke tailoring, having escaped the social engineering of a dystopian south London comprehensive, sans qualifications. I needed a job. Preferably, an apprenticeship. This street, this neighbourhood, maybe even the site of the Ace hotel itself, was central to the clothing industry with its buttonholers, overlockers, and specialist tailors supporting an ailing trade with skills and crafts that were fast disappearing. That year, in their first ‘Dirty Words Pictures’, Gilbert & George documented the delapidated streets, the deserted factories and workshops where 1970s storms and local lads had taken out the window panes. In those shadowed doorways the graffiti that provided the titles for the pictures themselves: Queer. Cunt Scum. I arrived at the east end outpost of London College of Fashion where Jonathan Anderson would graduate decades later, in 2005.
Shoreditch, 1977. At the London College of Fashion the design course was the domain of the privileged, the pedigreed and the qualified and in the heart of the west end. The tailoring course was for those that had escaped the factory floor and the ever-expanding dole queue. The classes were dominated by west London black boys in their late teens, hooked on lover’s rock, patois, Farah slacks and pith helmets in salt n’ pepper tweed. The ones on my wing hated honkies and homosexuals (Queer cunt scum), and reminded me daily when sewing machines fell silent, and the whisper of stitching, punctuated by the kissing of teeth, marked time. So, what did the brothers like? The 24-inch flare, the cross pocket and the trouser yoke. It was an attachment suited to the window in the week devoted to a design lesson, during which we were encouraged to adapt the detail on men’s suits. So a lapel would expand or retreat, a patch pocket would disappear from the breast, a ticket pocket would appear on the hip. I saluted the range of skills on offer but felt short-changed by the lack of scope. I longed for the moment when radical menswear design would collude rather than collide with this traditional craftsmanship. (Bringing forth a cascade of other freedoms and breakthroughs.) The Long Looked Forward To. Something that Jonathan Anderson would address in recent times: 'How do you harness craft and how do you articulate it in a way that does not feel nostalgic?’ Anderson’s modern interpretation of pattern cutting is where the lines between male and female are truly blurred. It’s an approach that reverses the muscularity of other designers that have changed the male silhouette by exaggerating the maleness of the physique, squaring the shoulders, raising the crotch and lifting the rear. Something that Anthony Price did brilliantly in the 1970s. He was inspired by the illustrated gay clones of Tom of Finland. Anderson has opted for neutral shapes, flat chests, skinny hips; an emasculating look, cut for women and worn by men. ‘There was no gay fantasy there’, he has said. No surprising that he confounded critics and accolytes alike by winning both male and female designer of the year.
Shoreditch, 2016. Back at the beginning, in his 2005 graduation show insects featured heavily, and were encased by accessories. A move as inexplicable as the dayglo snails that appear in his last collection. Some ideas are not easily explained; references are not easily traced. The familiar becomes alien when it’s subverted by a change of context, an odd juxtaposition. Men’s fashion is at it’s best when it demands a double take. Jonathan Anderson put it this way: 'There will always be something a bit wrong, like a really nice paisley shirt but with a rubber collar. It’s not quite fetish, it’s just a little bit sick’. We’re not dealing in replicas or originals but a fusion of the two. Anderson says he doesn’t reinvent clothing, he reinvents the edit. ‘If you are going to design something, I don’t think you can be the archetype for it. Ultimately you are going to get old, and your clothing is going to get old with you'. Ever the renegade, the contrarian, he declares that he’s not a designer. Circling the compact interior of the Shoreditch workshop you see - as you do on his label's official website - everything that he might be already, at 32: collaborator, creator, curator and editor. Ultimately he would like to be an artist, but he knows it’s a transition fashion people fail to make, even in an erstwhile cockney neverworld of Shoreditch, where entire buildingshave been colonised by former Young British Artists.
This is why the store is not a pop-up shop but a nod to the short-lived Omega workshops of the Bloomsbury set, and where future installations are planned. Fashion is keen on being ‘art’, literate, relevant, and political at the moment. Let’s get serious. Historically, the attempts at ‘politics’ in an industry so dependent on the three Cs - consumption, consumerism and capitalism - have always been more risible than the outfits: from Katherine Hamnett in the 1980s to Vivienne Westwood’s pet causes in the present. Last season's trend for blurring the genders on the fashion front was more natural, and suitably shallow. That is, once you overlooked the pretentious analysis supplied by big name brands at fashion week, as dandy highwaymen and Baudlerian flâneurs sauntered down the runway for Gucci, Burberry and Prada in pussy bows and doily tops. The approach was at its best in the hands of Jonathan Anderson, the first on his block with the news, reinventing the edit back in 2008 in the debut collection that launched his label.
That was the season of his silk shorts and blouses. The approach had moved up several gears by 2013, with tube tops, Roman centurian skirts, knee-high riding boots. For the first time in the history of men’s fashion the hairy thigh became a must-have accessory. Then, last year’s spring/summer 2016 collection transcended all previous sartorial statements: cuffed trousers, chiselled court shoes and retro-futuristic knitwear, cut saucy. Here was everything I wanted menswear to be back in 1977. And so for me, in that collection, the present and the past came together perfectly, beginning with the runway soundtrack. Anderson chooses his team, his collaborators well. The duo responsible for bringing sounds to the visuals are ’sound designer' Michel Gaubert and Ryan Aquilar. They chose the one piece of vinyl that remains in my collection even this late in the day: the mesmeric spoken word album ‘Private Parts’ by the avant garde American composer Robert Ashley, recorded in 1977 with ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny on piano. It begins: ‘He took himself seriously’. At his spring 2016 womenswear show in London, Jonathan Anderson opened the proceedings with something forgetable by Rihanna and something memorable from the lips of the writer Fran Lebowitz from the Martin Scorsese’ documentary about her career: ‘You would be very lucky if in your whole life, you saw the work of one genius’.
( This profile was published in The Independent in 2000). When she was asked recently for her all-time favourite Christmas TV moment, Victoria Wood chose the celebrated Morecambe and Wise sketch featuring Andre Previn. ‘It was so well written’, she said. ‘And a rare example of a celebrity playing himself successfully’. Both the choice and the reason for it, reveal much about the comedienne herself. Victoria Wood has been playing the role of Victoria Wood the celebrity since the early-Eighties when, after many a false dawn, her television career finally pulled out of the siding in which it had stalled in the mid-Seventies. From the BBC series Wood & Walters onward, she began to secure a place in the nation’s heart and psyche - or at least her brand of comic writing found a home and settled down. The triumphs and the trophies followed swiftly. The most recent being yet another statuette from The British Comedy Awards, this month. Perhaps the greater accolade is that her Christmas specials have became almost as big a tradition as Eric & Ernie’s festive outings. Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings is this year’s offering. It’s a departure in that it features a cast of big names alongside her regular company, in parodies of films and dramas traditionally shown at Christmas. Pastiche and celebrity are themes that dominate the output of lesser comedians like French & Saunders, almost as a distraction from the weak writing and limited performances of the main duo. In Wood’s hands we can expect to see Bob Monkhouse, Derek Jacobi and Robert Lynsey attached to the standard of writing that made Previn’s appearance on Morecambe & Wise so appealing to her.
Ultimately,Victoria Wood’s recent comedy award doesn’t amount to much with the viewer, and maybe, if she’s honest, with Wood herself. Not when you consider much of the competition, the regularity with which these trophies are dished out, and the fact that a televised ceremony celebrating comedy is almost as desperate a concept as one that commemorates soaps or lifestyle shows. It’s the type of event at which Victoria Wood has looked most ill at ease. In the past she could be found sprinting to the rostrum, and flicking back her hair as when she arrives on stage for her stand-up routine, bewildered at being forced to be herself up there. In this she is reminiscent of Ronnie Barker. Shy, private, and a certain type of celebrity. One that gives out only the requisite amount of information necessary for the public persona attached to their act. There are no Hello! spreads, and she was rumoured to be less than happy when an image of her youngest child Henry - from a charity calender - found its way into Tatler.
Like Barker, her writing has been at its best when exposing the oddness within the language of the everyday, and moving in on dialects and wordplay. Her long-term producer Geoff Posner has said that she ‘manages to examine people talking and capture speech patterns and subjects that are everyday, but hysterical at the same time’. Whereas Barker is a great comic actor at his best when partnered with former variety comic Ronnie Corbett, Wood has had some of her finest moments as the comedienne coupled with Julie Walters, a great comic actress. The pair first met when Wood failed an audition for the drama course at Manchester Polytechnic.
Ronnie Barker once said the hardest entrance he had to make was when he was required to walk on stage as himself. He needed to become what he thought people expected Ronnie Barker to be, in order to be comfortable. You sense this to be true of Wood in the moment when she realises that dinnerladies, or her one woman show, or her longevity, has won her yet another award. The eyes become big and Bambi-like, the smile broadens, as Victoria Wood the celebrity bounces into action. For many years, when filmed at celebrity shindigs, Wood dismissed calls for an acceptance speech with an embarrassed wave. It was as though she had been forced to make a show of herself at a works outing that she would rather have passed on. When you cast an eye over many of the hangers-on and micro-celebrities present at the comedy awards, and witness the likes of Michael Barrymore cracking jokes about industry insiders, you realise how alien this in-house, backslapping occasion is to most viewers. Indeed, you wonder how this Masonic-like meeting of a metropolitan elite must seem to those watching in the places that have been namechecked in many a Victoria Wood sketch: Cheadle, Chorlton, and perhaps, even Kirkcudbright.
Both of these worlds have proved key to Victoria Wood’s comedy in the past, and often it has been the meeting of the two that has provided her with her best and most memorablematerial. It was most prominent in the BBC screenplay Pat & Margaret, where Wood’s down-to-earth waitress is united with her long lost sister - now a major a soap celebrity - much to the chagrin of the both of them, by the television show Magic Moments.
Nowadays, the two subjects that characterise television are those of the small screen turning the camera on itself (the sitcoms and comedies that go behind-the-scenes), and of television making stars of members of the public in the name popular factual programming. It is now impossible to parody these genres successfully. But it was from these themes, in the Eighties with As Seen On TV, that Victoria Wood created some classic TV comedy. The aping of the documentary form was at its best in A Fairly Ordinary Man, and The Making Of Acorn Antiques. ‘I suppose I thought why me?’, bleats Jim Broadbent’s character in the former, as a television crew make him the subject of a nascent docu-soap. He works as a telephone deodoriser, and has been engaged to his fiancee for sixteen years. The characters are what was by then familiar Wood territory. She herself is cast as the frumpy sister with the plaster on the glasses. A portrait of Thora Hird takes pride of place alongside that of Jesus Christ in the living room. But the humour extracted from the world is a distant relative to that of The Royle Family. It’s a world that reports on plastic bags in kitchen drawers, tissues under pillows, ordering the other menu in foreign restaurants, and kickstarting conversations with the word ‘grouting’. It’s a comedy that doesn’t rely entirely on references to brand names for a punchline, in order to eavesdrop on the everyday. Whilst Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash have channelled the experience of their background and their class into their beloved creation, Victoria Wood, the product of a middle class home, has always regarded herself largely as an interloper. Her late father was an insurance salesman, and semi-professional pianist, who spent his evenings writing. Her mother put herself through university. Wood wasn’t exactly Nell Dunn leaving the toffs for the tearaways to write about the working class in Up The Junction, but she always had a brilliant ear for the dialogue of a particular community. The language that sometimes only a perceptive outsider can summarise. You always felt with her, that the references to Gardener’s Question Time, brass bands, and amateur dramatics were the greater clue to her own background. It was perhaps best summed up in the monologues created for Patricia Routledge as Kitty: ‘The Rummy Club Sound of Music opens tonight. I’m prompter - and our Mother Superior’s on tablets so every other rehearsal it’s been ‘Climb Every What Is It?’
Unlike many of the current pretenders to Wood’s throne, she came of age wanting to be a comedienne. It began from the age of six, having seen Joyce Grenfell. She was apparently a solitary child who stayed in her room stuffing herself with sweets whilst her elder sisters hit the town. Wood said recently that growing up, she had the things that make someone become a writer: she was lonely, bored and isolated. Being blessed with that English, northern sensibility that links her with Alan Bennett, and Morrissey, it was inevitable that wit would dominate the writing.
Of course, she first came to prominence in the talent show New Faces in the mid-Seventies. She sang. She sang comedy songs. Back then, if you were a female seated at the piano who was funnier than Lynsey De Paul, and thinner than Mrs Mills, dressed in dungarees and singing comedy songs, where did you go? That’s Life, that’s where. A filler, stage left, providing topical songs in the slot reserved for folksy-types that wore novelty socks and worked on children’s shows. She still sings, and it’s the weakest link in her act. Partly because of the brilliance of the sketches and her stand-up monologues; partly because in spite of the wit of the lyrics, the modern comedy song itself has never recovered from its relationship with Radio 2 and The Grumbleweeds. It was when Wood stumbled on a talent for sketch writing, and moved from the protective shelter of the piano to centre stage that she began to establish herself. The change came after she toured with comedian John Dowie in the fringe revue Funny Turns, in the late-Seventies. Although her career has continued to surpass that of many a comedian that rose on the back of the ‘alternative’ wave of the Eighties, she has much in common with the showbusiness tradition that produced her hero of comedy, Ken Dodd. After her early TV success, she had a stint of the dole and piano playing on a seaside pier or two. It was perhaps these biographical details that inspired her first television play Talent.
Just as she was something of an interloper, and hard to pigeon-hole in showbusiness, there was a feeling that she remained slightly lonely, odd, and isolated within the social world of television celebrities. It’s telling that her depiction of northern characters are often packaged with a sprinkling of poignancy, compassion and pathos, whilst those in the world of television are drawn with a top note of shallowness and a layer of stupidity. This was apparent in the early sketches that parodied the inanity of the kind of consumer shows and daytime programmes on which Wood once performed, Acorn Antiques, and of best of all, Maggie Steed’s producer Marion Clune in The Making of : ‘this AIDS idea has been an itsy bit overplayed - let’s box a wee bit dangerous - let’s really go for it - earwax - I’ve never seen it tackled - it’s an issue, it’s heath....’
Wood appeared to be content socialising within a kind of northern cafe society that drifted towards the Giggleswick cottage of the late Russell Harty. It consisted of the former Coronation Street actresses that have found their second wind within the ensemble of regulars in Victoria Wood series. Some of whom feature in dinnerladies. It was the sitcom that Wood had always wanted to write. And although it was a return to a traditional format and familiar territory it was far superior to Ben Elton’s attempt to rejuvenate the form with The Thin Blue Line.
In the Nineties, Wood and her husband, Geoffrey Durham, moved from their home just outside Morecambe to north London, with their two young children. They wanted to cut down on travelling, be closer to the BBC, and not have their offspring become the village curiosities because of their mother’s fame. Shortly afterwards there was, momentarily, a hint of a dip in the sharpness of Wood’s work. It looked as if she might, like many of her contemporaries, write comedy around and about the exclusive showbusiness world in which they operate. We feared that she may become something of a Hampstead earth-mother. She underwent counselling, talked a lot about pollution, the right food for the children, and made jokes about Land Rovers on Hampstead high street during the school run. But then, in her stand-up shows in the late-Nineties, there was always the odd line revealing that she could still cast a glance to the minutiae of the world that exists beyond the media class (how the boyfriend thatvisits the family home always stays in the spare room with the ironing board). Eventually she returned to it again in her TV work, with the writing of dinnerladies.
After more than 20 years as a celebrity, she now seems less like an interloper in showbusiness, and more like someone who enjoys the success and the trappings, but not the company of those that snuggle up with the title of celebrity. It’s not unlike the relationship that one of her characters said that their mother had with Spain: ‘She likes the majesty and grandeur of the landscape, but she’s not keen on the bacon’.
The Sunday Times
For the Chinese male the journey from ‘yellow peril’ to menswear's jeunesse dorée has been a century in the making. Here was a demographic that no one had down as dedicated followers of fashion. If Morrissey was right, back in the 1980s, about Bengalis in platforms then chances were the Chinese weren’t far behind. Or so we believed, those of us that never saw beyond the Triads and the takeaways. Now a wealthy, fashion-fed generation of Chinese men have become the leading consumers of high-end, cutting-edge menswear design. The timing is perfect: men are buying more designer brands than women; sales of menswear is growing at a faster pace than its counterpart. The ballpark figure for 2015 according to market research company Mintel is £14.1 billion. And this, as the world is reeling from the events of the last decade in which China moved in on global fashion in the wake of its economic boom. The embrace of luxury goods by ‘the bling dynasty’ was a rebellion against the regulation Mao suit from the civil war onwards. Wasn’t it?
Mature, wealthy, style-consious Chinese men adopted conservative heritage brands, especially with regard to buying British. There is even a school that coaches them in the pronunciation of designer brand names. Erwan Rambourg author of The Bling Dynasty:Why the Reign of Chinese Luxury Shoppers Has Only Just Begun, published in 2014, says: 'Brands benefiting from the shift in perceptions include Burberry. They're the only legitimate global British brand. Its phenomenal appeal is linked to an association with Britishness and rock and roll rebelliousness’. Meanwhile, the young, wealthy, fashion-conscious Chinese male has distanced himself from the old guard, jettisoning super luxe brands for niche fashion statements in the process. He doesn’t need to be schooled on brand names or where to find them. He knows exactly where to go. Whatsmore, he’s getting there before everyone else.
'They're not only much younger and super-demanding, they're also extremely well informed. If you're complacent and don't communicate the way they communicate, it's going to be difficult’, says Rambourg. 'I think the Chinese customer is savvier than ever before’ says Darren Skey, head of menswear at Harvey Nichols. 'The demand is for the more cutting edge and outlandish look. Streetwear is proving to be the phenomenon responsible for the shift in dress of an entire demographic. This is something that our Chinese luxury customer is buying into'.
It’s a demographic with the finances to buy the labels and the figures to wear them. The younger generation of Chinese have grown up with western consumerism, but the western diet hasn’t fattened them up and filled them out. At least those targeting Harvey Nichols in search of Hood By Air and Off White. Remember the Japan lyric during their ‘Visions of China’ moment: ‘I'm walking young and strong/But just a little too thin’? That’s them.
Not too long ago I spotted a look that I thought might be defining this demographic. I pursued a hat through the west end of London as it headed along Oxford Street - a leaning tower of a hat and beanstalk green, teetering above the black cabs and black burkas - to Dover Street Market. Beneath the hat a diminutive, asthenic, Chinese manchild with those hefty Clark Kent glasses by Tom Ford. It reminded me of the Chinese gangs Tom Wolfe wrote of in his essay ‘Funky Chic’. The well-off, well-educated dressed down in berets and dirty Levis, while the poorer, tougher ones, that could barely speak English, did the opposite: 'He has on a pair of blue slacks, a matching blue turtleneck jersey with a blue shirt over it and a jacket…but it’s the hair…... his is chopped off down to what is almost a parody of the old chinatown rice bowl haircut..’
Each gang became radicals or revolutionaries to survive. Those circling the rails of Harvey Nichols and similar settings have opted for radical fashion and consumer extremism. They won’t play down their wealth - they wear it. But with more subtlety than their forebears of the bling dynasty, and the Chinese elders in Burberry macs and Saville Row suits. They want to be the first with the new rather than the last with the old. But is there a look? If not big hats and pudding basin haircuts - then what? 'The skill of the Chinese shopper is to take a basic shape and by layering pieces create a new proportion using a mix of fabrications for design details and finishes’, Darren Skey tells me. 'Consumers construct silhouettes by layering and lift styles through mixing fabrics and design details. Miharayasuhiro and Junya Watanabe are masters in the field, both deconstructing and radically reworking pieces to bring them into the contemporary sphere’. Into the clearing between theyoung deconstructionists and the old formalists stands Hu Bing.
Last summer he was chosen as the first international ambassador at the British Fashion Council’s London Collections Men. Again, perfect timing: Chinese consumers are responsible for the lionshare of top end menswear purchases: 38 percent of Prada’s customer base, 37 percent of Gucci’s, and 35 percent of Bottega Veneta’s and Burberry’s according to estimates from Paris-based financial services company BNP Paribas. Aged 44, Hu Bing, is a model and actor with 10 million followers on China's state authorised equivalent of Twitter, Weibo. He has modelled forFerragamo, Gucci, Dunhill and knows how to layer and deconstruct. Recently he’s beenmeasured for a suit from theoutfitters Huntsman on Saville Row that will be unveiled at this month's London Collections Men shows. This revered British bespoke tailor, established in 1849, has not succumbed to the empire building of the Chinese billionaires that have colonised Hardy Amies, Kilgour, Kent & Curwen, Gieves & Hawkes and nearby Aquascutum. It’s owned by a Belgian businessman, but remains remarkably upper echelon English. The heads of pursed-lipped stags punctuate the walls in its showroom. Suspended from the ceiling as precious as scalps and skins, as fine as the parchment of sacred scrolls, the patterns cut for esteemed figures from antiquity: Edward VII, Prince Albert, Winston Churchill. And now the chest, the waist, the inside leg measurement of Hu Bing. Elsewhere, his chiselled jaw and evenly-spread chest has been noted.
It’s a long way from 'the crafty yellow face twisted by a thin-lipped grin’ archetype that writer Christopher Frayling addressed in 'The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia’ in 2014. The book is part of a rush to correct us on Chinese culture past and present, it seems. The New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art attempted similar with its recent celebration of all things Chinese. For added gravitas it was staged in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre wing, named after the starchy matriarch at American Vogue. Apparently the likes of Yves St Laurent, Karl Lagerfield, Alexander McQueen had got it wrong with the appropriation of Chinoiserie motifs for their designs. Such exotic orientalism was a myth that misrepresented the Chinese masses - although many colluded in the conceit. 'The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental”, wrote the literary theoretician Edward Said in ‘Orientalism’ (1978), ‘but because it could be - that is, submitted to being - made Oriental’. Arguably, casting the Chinese male as a shallow, rich consumer following the current trend for peacock power in men’s fashion is open to similar charges.
But as some are quick to point out, this current image it not representative of the British Chinese at large - those born, bred or based here. Now there's a group that never had the cultural and social cachet of, say, blacks and Asians. The so-called oriental was never the must-have accessory or cause célébre of the urban media class progressive; never the subject of the research that other minorities warrant. Although an academic embarked on a study of the British Chinese in 2012, when there were 400,000 resident in the UK, including 100,000 in London. According to the fashion writer Susie Lau, it's not so much the British-born Chinese male as the visiting Chinese student that is synonymous with cash and fashion: ‘Generally speaking they have a lot of disposable income because to study here as an overseas student, you need to be pretty well off to begin with. They're the ones that are dominating the customer bases of Bond Street flagships and department stores. Look at the staff who need to speak Mandarin’. They are also influenced by Korean pop culture, which continues to dominate in mainland China and elsewhere. She tells me: 'London is the birth of those fashion labels that are being adopted by K-pop stars. Look at stores like Machine-A which sell cutting edge labels like Cottweiler, Sibling, J.W. Anderson and Christopher Shannon’. The British born Chinese stylist and menswear blogger Karlmund Tang - of the Mr Boy blog - says the generation whose parents ‘started takeaways and restaurants’ are not central to this current trend: 'BBCs I would say was very much a ‘subculture' back in the 90s, but these days everything is quite international. The phenomenom now is certainly the influx of Chinese money and how much these young kids are spending - which is lots’.
It’s the absence of notable Chinese designers that is currently drawing attention. Although Chinese fashions students studying in London are returning to China hoping to correct this. ‘There aren't enough that are prominent within the fashion industry here in comparison to say American born Chinese’, says Susie Lau, ‘Look at the number of designers that are prominent there - Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, Jason Wu’. It looks like this is about to change as a number of Chinese designers debuted their collections at London Fashion Week. Having become the dominant consumers when it comes to menswear designers, the Chinese may yet become the dominant designers according to Erwan Hamburg: 'In the initial phase of developing outbound travel, Chinese are looking for role models and want to relate to the New Yorker, the Parisian, the Londoner, the consumers of Tokyo or Milan. We are still in the discovery phase. There will come a time when Chinese will look inward for talent and inspiration’.
The Sunday Times
Long before the Chateau Marmont became Lana Del Rey’s muse and Sofia Coppola immortalised its faux gothic grandeur in Somewhere, there was Eve Babitz. The hotel on Sunset Boulevard is as central to the writings on her beloved Los Angeles as fires, earthquakes and the Santa Ana winds. I stumbled on her book Eve’s Hollywood the day before the 1994 earthquake. An Englishman abroad I looked beyond Hollywood to Heaven and begged to be buried in England as the city shook. A Babitz essay had a different take: ‘If God wants me to believe in him, I’ll do it, but only for the Pacific Ocean and sunsets. Earthquakes are only earthquakes. If God wants me to believe in him he’ll have to do better than that. I’ll wait under a door frame’. I waited under a door frame because ‘there is nothing to do but wait’. Outside, apartment blocks buckled and sidewalks crumbled. In the distance fortress Chateau Marmont, the first building in LA to be earthquake-proof, remained aloof. It’s foundations and secrets in tact. When the author A.M. Homes opted to write a book on the hotel in 2001, she made a beeline for Eve Babitz. ‘It was built for you know, peccadilloes’, Babitz informed her. 'If you want to commit suicide, if you want to commit adultery, go to the Chateau. It doesn’t mind brilliant talent, or romance, or lunacy’. It was from here that she witnessed Los Angeles ablaze during the Watts riots of the 1960s. It was here her former lover Jim Morrison jumped from a fourth floor window into the pool below. It was here a line-up of former lovers - Harrison Ford, Steve Martin among them - gathered for an auction to raise money for hospital bills weeks after Babitz herself was set ablaze.
Neither violent riots nor violent weather caused the fire that Eve Babitz survived in 1997 - but cigar ash falling on her skirt while driving her car. She sustained third-degree burns from her waist to her calves. 'Death, to me, has always been the last word in people having fun without you’, she writes in Eve's Hollywood. First published in 1974, it’s finally been re-issued with the original Annie Leibowitz cover of the young Eve Babitz: a still life of party girl in bra and feather boa.Whereas the novels - Sex and Rage, LA Woman, Black Swan - are thinly-disguised fictional outtakes from her life, this is a catalogue of perfectly-formed autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes from the 1950s onwards. She has described it as a confessional novel but it’s closer to memoir, and her journalism at its very best. Growing up in Los Angeles the child of well-heeled, well-connected parents - Igor Stravinsky was her godfather - she believed that besides death and moving elsewhere, there was one further danger of being a teenager in Hollywood: having your schoolmate get discovered. One of her peers gained notoriety within the Manson family. Meanwhile Babitz achieved something close to it in 1963, aged 20, when she was photographed naked playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. She had chutzpah as well as connections. She wrote to Joseph Heller: ‘I am a stacked eighteen-year old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer’. But it was Joan Didion that kick-started her writing career, when she passed up a freelance job at Rolling Stone and recommended Babitz instead.
In Eve's Hollywood among the pages of dedications to people, places and stimulants - Desbutol, Ritilin, Obertrol - she acknowledges Joan Didion ‘For having to be who I’m not’. Both writers became chroniclers of Los Angeles. In 2004 Didion documented her frontier family’s history in Where I Was From (‘if we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it?’) having been one of it’s most fervent, yet eloquent, detractors since settling in New York. For her it had become a cultural wasteland, a burning city where the winds revealed how close it was to the edge. For Eve Babitz - a ‘daughter of the wasteland’ and the antithesis of Didion’s pioneer girl - it remained home, and a place she celebrated despite its faults (the San Andreas among them). A view at odds with notorious critics of Hollywood such as Nathanael West - the subject of an essay in Eve’s Hollywood - who reputedly wrote The Day of The Locust (1939) at the Chateau Marmont. The LA-based journalist, Steffie Nelson, who has written at length on Babitz says: 'No matter what cruel realities she might face, a part of her still buys the Hollywood fantasy, feels its magnetic pull as much as that Midwestern hopeful who heads to the coast’.
Lana Del Ray was one such hopeful. She was recently described as the spiritual successor of Joan Didion - a stretch, I know. ‘Come to California be a freak like me’, she sings on the recent album Honeymoon. But if you take out the pout and the suicidal tendencies she’s actually closer to Eve Babitz. Particularly when you read actor James Franco fawning over her in V Magazine : ‘When I listen to her stuff, I am reminded of everything I love about Los Angeles. I am sucked into a long gallery of Los Angeles cult figurines, and cult people, up all night like vampires and bikers’.
Babitz herself regards the writer Colette, who she discovered at the age of 9 in the Hollywood public library, as a major inspiration: 'When she describes a luncheon alone where all she has is a view of the Bois, a plum and a chicken wing washed down with a glass of cold white wine and capped with a Caporal - you get to sit in the Bois eating a plum and a chicken wing, sipping cold white wine and lighting a black tobacco cigarette’. This is perhaps something Babitz comes close to achieving when describing the Hollywood of her youth. And a skill highlighted by New York Times contributor Holly Brubach, who provides the new introduction to Eve’s Hollywood. 'I like to imagine Babitz recounting all this at the Boutique, a restaurant that no longer exists’, she says, 'where she’d drink dry Champagne and order a Leon Salad: Swiss cheese, ham, salami and lettuce chopped to “the cheerful consistency of linguine.” Or maybe at the also-extinct Luau, a garish Polynesian restaurant that was, she tells us, Stravinsky’s favourite'.
Whereas Joan Didion’s output has been absorbed into the New Journalism canon that emerged in the 1960s, with its east coast leanings, and ambitions to succeed with non-fiction where the novel was failing, Babitz remained outside of it, often cast as a lightweight because of her subject matter. She was on the other coast, and her short essays are gossipy, witty and conversational. In which she is frequently centre stage, cast as the smart party girl at the heart of the action, documenting her own experience as much as that of others. The drugs that came close to destroying her, long before burning cigars. The lovers - in the absence of husbands and kids - that later achieved fame in the their respective fields, some of whom donated art work to the auction at the Chateau Marmont (Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper) and others that bid $50,000 for it.
Since the fire she has become something of a LA recluse in a town where others pursued fame in their youth and settled for anonymity in their dotage. Sightings of her, interviews with her, calls returned by her are as rare as earthquakes. There is nothing to do but wait. New published writing has been unforthcoming - apart from 49 tweets on an old Twitter account. Perhaps the re-issue of Eve’s Hollywood might prompt something from her on the ever-changing Los Angeles of the present. Long after the Boutique and Luau have gone, factories from the 1920s become the flagship stores for designers, like the recently-launched Rick Owens homage to Cecil B. DeMille on La Brea. The Chateau Marmont, built in 1929, remains despite seismic shifts and shifting times - both a hangout and a hangover from another era. 'Hollywood doesn’t exist’, writes Babitz. 'I firmly believe, however, that it did exist. And like Rome, we are living amidst the fallen columns and clothes-lined courtyards, in the ruins of an empire of the self-enchanted which was once, briefly, more devastating than Caesar’s...'
Esquire's Big Black Book
There is something both sultry and impish about the fashion designer J.W. Anderson. He’s the hybrid of a young t-shirted Truman Capote and actor David Bennett as Oskar Matzerath, the boy who never grows up in The Tin Drum. With designs that blur the lines between male and female
he seems perfect to comment on the limited scope of menswear. He said in a recent interview: ‘It’s bizarre the ways in which society reacts: they find it difficult to comprehend seeing parts of the body on a man’. It was even harder to comprehend in the post-punk summer of 1977 when, at 16, I enlisted for a bespoke tailoring course at the London College of Fashion. Anderson studied there decades later. It was the springboard for the ‘unisex’ look - shift dresses and bustiers for boys - that gave him his signature style.
So much of what the likes of Anderson, the Korean designer Juun J, and most of all Thom Browne are designing in the 21st century is all I hoped menswear to be back then. Instead it stalled in a siding, despite the sartorial sparkle of the early 1970s and what followed in that high season of so-called street style. In that summer of bin liners and bondage pants, high street fashion was becoming increasingly tribal - although this wasn’t entirely reflected in what was widely available in the shops.
Despite rarely having threaded a needle or sat at a sewing machine, I decided the solution was to make the clothes that were either not available or affordable. So, after escaping the social engineering of a dystopian south London comprehensive. sans qualifications, I chose tailoring (and stayed with it as a career for four years). In short - I needed a job. The route to getting one according to my parents was via ‘a trade….an apprenticeship’. At the London College of Fashion the design course was the domain of the privileged, the pedigreed and the qualified; the tailoring course was for those that had escaped the factory floor and the ever-expanding dole queue. The classes were dominated by west London black boys in their late teens, hooked on lover’s rock, patois, Farah slacks and pith helmets in salt n’ pepper tweed. They were loyal to the 24-inch flare, the cross pocket and the trouser yoke. It was an approach suited to the window in the week devoted to a design lesson, during which a copy of L'Uomo Vogue was placed before us and we were encouraged to draw and adapt the detail on men’s suits. So a lapel would expand or retreat, a patch pocket would disappear from the breast, a ticket pocket would appear on the hip, and on a dizzily radical impulse - an ambitious puff took a raglan sleeve towards the blouson.
Within these magazines I discovered voguish foreign names like Claude Montana and Gianni Versace who were staging something alternative the moment ready-to-wear found a clearing and sidelined haute couture.
But fashion fantasist that I was I had an altogether different vision in mind. Had it manifested itself as something as practical as a ‘mood board’ it would have been a cut and paste of Bowie as Thomas Newton, Kraftwerk, the Australian band Split Enz - vaudeville meets the ventriloquist doll - and Roddy McDowell as Batman villain ‘The Bookworm’.
‘Is the word “commercial” not in your vocabulary?’, the design teacher asked me, as I added panda eyes to a sketchy figure wearing cullottes, puttees, and carrying a Dick Whittington handkerchief bag on a stick.
Yet I was not alone in my reference points. There was clearly a fresh, smart sensibility in the air. One which Dries Van Noten paid tribute to in 2014 when curating his retrospective in Paris, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs . One wall was given over to graffiti listing all the influences that inspired him to train as a fashion designer back in Antwerp in 1976: David Bowie….Kraftwerk...
For me, the plan was to see both a greater change in the male silhouette, something that Anthony Price had succeeded in doing previously, and delve into the history of men’s style. Much of which appeared to have been lost. I think largely because it was seen in terms of occasion, etiquette and elitism by way of clothes for day wear and evening wear. This rich history could be found in The Blue Book Of Men’s Tailoring the bible for the pattern cutter. It took you through spats, plus fours, the backless-dress waistcoat, to the inverness cape favoured by Sherlock Holmes. I did for a short time at least get to make some of these items. Having been disqualified in the college exam for cheating, I was escorted off the premises and found work in what struck me as the most suitable outlet at the time, the theatrical costumiers Bermans & Nathans. There my iffy vision and iffy skills came together the week that I made the elongated, abnormal suit sleeve for John Hurt as The Elephant Man.
Having therefore grasped the importance of skill and craftsmanship of bespoke tailoring - although not entirely mastered it - I hoped fora moment when the technical standards oftraditional tailoring would collude rather than collide with radical menswear design. It would entail riffing on the rich past of men’s fashion at home and abroad, in both civvie street and the military. This is where Juun J would one day come in with his ‘street tailoring’ inspired by sport and uniforms. It would take fabrics, garments, accessories out of the comfort zone in which they had become familiar and put them in a different context. This is where J.W Anderson comes in: 'There will always be something a bit wrong, like a really nice paisley shirt but with a rubber collar. It’s not quite fetish, it’s just a little bit sick’. It would - and this is where Thom Browne comes in - stretch the confines of masculine apparel, but keep the concept of the suit at the core of the vision. Beyond the spectacle he creates when he shows his clothes during fashion week there are the twists he spins on the basic jacket and trousers, found on the rails of his store on Hudson Street in New York. Rifling through these designs in 2012 - above my price range; below my age range - it struck me that this was the store I wanted to find parked between Anthony Price’s Plaza and Seditionaries on King’s Road that summer in 1977.
The Sunday Times
It was the historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay who coined the term ‘extravagant austerity’ when describing the asceticism of the puritans. Similar could be said of the minimalism being championed nowadays as an antidote to hoarding and consumption. Certainly when you look at the minimalists themselves. Some of whom - I’m sampling Macaulay again - have a tone of mind 'often injured by striving after things too high for mortal reach’. For minimalists tend to be tech and web entrepreneurs. They’ve made their billions and cash has left a few of them feeling uncomfortable, even though their wealth is a perk of the goal they pursued rather than the goal itself. Firstly, there are those whose lifestyles reflect the simplicity of their product. The late Steve Jobs cornered this one. The co-founder of Apple lived a sofa-free adult life and spent every day of it in the same Issey Miyake polo neck. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, forever in the same style of t-shirt, embraces sartorial minimalism to liberate himself from unnecessary decisions. He and Jack Dorsey - co-founder of Twitter - are striving after things too high for mortal etc. Zuckerberg has said: 'I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything, except how to best serve this community’. ( The Facebook followers that document the minutiae of their lives online.) It’s been said of Dorsey - a ‘minimalist' even as a child, when he opted for the smallest bedroom of his siblings - he wants to make the world a fairer, kinder and nicer place. Dorsey’s masterwork is a paean to minimalism. How perfect that a child with a speech impediment, who became a man of few words - according to those that meet with him - should create Twitter: 140 characters in which to signal virtues, flag status, and then add a hashtag to bring in back-up. With one click #blacklivesmatter and refugees are welcome. In seconds you’re a contender - and the world knows it. If Jack Dorsey hopes to make that world a fairer place, there are others that hope minimalism will make it a happier one.
They are spearheading a movement intent on liberating us from the shackles of maximalism. A move that is proving more lucrative than the schemes that brought them troublesome filthy lucre in the first place. Theirs is a credo that fills books, blogs and TED Talks - where every manifesto is guaranteed a captive audience. Graham Hill, 45, CEO of the website Life Edited leads the field. He practices the minimalism he preaches: 'I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did’. But it’s 'The Minimalists’ themselves - Joshua Fields Milburn, Ryan Nicodemus - the men behind the eponymous website that has 4 million followers, and the authors of best-seller ‘Everything That Remains’, that have become the Wesleyans of the movement taking the message on the road.
Late last year they pitched their minimalist spiel to a young British audience. The venue was the perfect backdrop: Testbed 1 in Battersea, the ‘distressed’ warehouse and former dairy ripped and stripped by architect Will Alsop. The peeling walls, the abundance of light and absence of windows, the fractured concrete floor gave the impression that something underground - a resistance? - or illicit was happening. The kind of subteranean set-up where you might watch dog-fighting or witness waterboarding, after arrivingin the boot of a car. The only signs of modernity and consumerism the iPads and iPhones documenting the proceedings - by way of Twitter, Vine, Instagram - in the palms of the people present. Each of them open to the possibility of being cast as a Henry David Thoreau of the digital age. (Am I alone in thinking Walden Pond with wi-fi?). They were embracing a new form of acquisitiveness. They wanted everything The Minimalists have. In short - nothing.
They wanted it because the34-year old authors have found happiness and liberation. Here’s how it came about: They were friends back there in Ohio with high-powered jobs and six-figure incomes. 'I found minimalism after two great losses,' says Joshua Fields Milburn. ‘My mother died and my marriage ended both in the same month. Minimalism allowed me to get the excess out of the way and re-prioritize my life so I could focus on what was truly important: health, relationships, passions, growth, contribution’. Milburn jettisoned 90 per cent of everything he owned over a period of eight months. He tells me: 'Some of us embrace minimalism to reclaim control of our finances (I was six-figures in debt), our health (I weighed 80 pounds more than I weigh now), our mission, our community, our families, etc. The best way to convince someone to become a minimalist is to show them the benefits that apply to them, and then let them decide whether they want to simplify their life'. Seeing a change for the better in his friend’s new found freedom, Nicodemus divested himself of almost everything too. Like Thoreau, the pair took themselves off to a cabin. (The wired cabin is taking over the compact city studio as the home of choice for the 21st century tech-savvy minimalist. The co-founder of video-sharing website Vimeo, Zach Klein, this month publishes a book that pays tribute to this entitled Cabin Porn. ) They documented their story and their philosophy in a blog, books, and now the documentary Minimalism released next spring. With a programme that brings to mind the 12 steps of AA, The Minimalists offer a 21 day journey to free you from your possessions; to get you clean. So what did the British make of it? 'Ultimately, what we learned from the folks in the UK is that, whether we're American or British, young or old, rich or poor, we're all fundamentally searching for the same thing: we want to live a more deliberate, meaningful life’. It’s a line that echoes the modernist architect Adolf Loos who believed that freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.
But it’s an approach that isn’t entirely new. Back in the 1930s one Richard Clegg advanced his philosophy of ‘voluntary simplicity’ as an antidote to the burgeoning consumerism that threatened to brainwash the masses. A far cry from the turbo-charged consumption of the present, in which hoarding is cast as the new obesity. Oddly, it was the depression era in America, with similar occurring on these shores before the gear shifted to austerity and rationingin the post-war years. The generation borne of that experience became our parents and we became akin to the avaricious 1970s adolescent in the Jim Shepard short story ‘The Mortality of Parents’: ‘Money dictates our children-of-the-Depression parents’ mantra, the bottom-line creed by which they live: If it’s good enough for me’. At the close of the story, now a middle-aged man in the 21st century he asks: ‘When exactly did their It’s good enough for me become our I need more? How did we let this happen?' These are the questions that occupy Graham Hill.
Here’s someone that had the midas touch when it came to money-making. He made his millions selling sites like Treehugger - his attempt at striving for things beyond mortal reach by saving the planet. Life Edited was his attempt to save himself. After travelling the globe with his girlfriend he woke up, looked around his beautiful house, and like a character in a Talking Heads song asked - How did I get here? The charge levelled at Hill is a familiar one: kicking out the stuff is an easy stance to take when you’re rich. It’s difficult to get rid of everything when you have nothing. And some people just might want the opportunity, the experience of having possessions before giving them up. When Hill laid out his story in the New York Times there was a backlash: 'In a majestic display of guileless narcissism, Hill, an Internet multimillionaire, congratulates himself for downsizing his life and getting rid of all the stuff—the homes and cars and gadgets and sectional sofas and $300 sunglasses—he accumulated over the past decade’. I’d argue that there is a paradox here - and not entirely a new one - whereby the modern ‘progressive' wants to return us to some idyllic, pre-industrial utopian past that never was. What distinguishes the likes of Hill, Klein and Milburn from the Richard Cleggs of the past is the reliance on 21st century technology. 'The modern version of minimalism, tries to objectify our objects’, says David Friedlander, 39, Director of Communications a Life Edited. 'Technology is neither good nor bad. It’s a tool. So the big question becomes “Am I using this technology - this smartphone, this app, this whatever - to enable me to connect with my life or am I using it to take me away from it?" Take Facebook. I can use it to connect with people or I can spend four hours watching cat videos. Facebook isn’t the problem. How I use it is'.
This approach further echoes the European modernists that had specific ideas of how the common herd should live - but now it’s more about sustainability than aesthetics. All those foreign theories about the house as a machine, ornament as a crime, and less is more . As Tom Wolfe writes in The Me Generation: ‘They had things figured out for the woking man down to truly minute details, such as lamp switches. The new liberated working man would live as the Cultivated Ascetic’. But of course the aspirant prole took off to the suburbs or customised his abode when he got the opportunity. Not only did he not embrace asceticism, but his idea of aesthetics was an affront to those that believed themselves to be the arbiters of good taste. Which is how minimalists often see themselves. ‘The members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products’, according to Graham Hill. By which he means the ‘wrong’ products. People spend less on more by buying cheap and in bulk, discarding it, and forking out for the next lot of stuff. 'If anything, people with fewer resources, especially those with less money, can benefit most from minimalism’, Milburn believes, 'because a minimalist lifestyle helps people determine what truly adds value to their lives — what things actually serve a purpose and bring joy’. Yes, but again, maybe people need to be shallow and rich before settling for the virtues of extravagant austerity.
Although some of us simply missed out the middle man. We didn’t become billionaires and our minimalism was instinctive from the word go. It remained with us partly from necessity, partly as a way of finding a clearing in the chaos of life and taking control. Or is having less simply a better way of dealing with loss? If we can live without a kettle and a sofa, maybe we can cope better when losing the big stuff - hair, family, home, faculties. The less we have the less we fear losing. Like Jack Dorsey, I was a child minimalist. My parents never had to tell me to clean my room because I was always throwing things out. This morphed into an asceticism in adult years that is dramatically monastic: one-pot stove-top cooking, one white plate, one white bowl, one white cup, one knife, one fork, a single bed, two chairs. The absence of cutlery and crockery leaves no reason to entertain at home. While Jack Dorsey’s credo that ‘constraint inspires creativity’ applies to cooking with a single pot. It’s possible to take on ghoulash, kedgeree, cassoulet, and an adaptation of Julia Childs boeuf bourguignon. Time was when I allowed an ironing board to double as a dinner table - and later, a writing desk. Perhaps the Pet Shop Boys put it best in the track ‘Minimal': ‘a cell without a criminal’. In hindsight I was anticipating the future. Because the future back then - when our depression-era parents were in their it’s-good-enough-for-me mode - was simple and minimal. Where everything we needed would be contained in a device on our wrists or in the palm of our hands; where we’d live in clinical all-white cabins where everything was operated by remote control. Now that future has arrived and it’s all we expected to be - and more.
But inevitably there’s a downside. Some argue that possessions have become a symbol of poverty and minimalism the preserve of a wealthy elite. ‘A modernist monastery where the religion is Apple itself’, was the charge levelled by one critic. I don’t entirely agree. The consumption ofthe minimalist is simply less conspicuous - even though suitably aesthetic. As technology becomes smaller and smaller it contains more and more apps that are less and less essential. While this ambition to continually modify our tiny technologies is the anthesis of the oh-so English minimalism championed by the architect John Pawson way back in the 1990s, before the internet and Apple became the giants they are today. In his book ‘Minimum’ he writes: ‘The minimum is the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve on it by subtraction’.