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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.
Life was bleak on the ground but utopianism was in the air. Historically, it often was when people had given up on the present. This future fantasy theme was played out in film, television, pop music and…... fashion. Alessandro Michele of Gucci, said recently: 'A lot of things that other designers have already done could be new again because now is the right time to do it.’ This was equally true of fashion and design by 1974. Was it a reaction to the relative austerity of the time? Fashion was raiding the past in a bid to anticipate the future. The emphasis was on the artificial, the illusory; a combination that amounted to the cultish sensibility documented by Susan Sontag a decade earlier in ’Notes On Camp’. She writes: 'the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric - something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.' In society’s margins boundaries were breaking down or blurring when it came to gender and sexuality. Not enough to breakthrough into the mainstream, but sufficient to become newsworthy. So fashion evolved; it was a mix of vintage gear, gender-blurring, and the crude space-age world of televised sci-fi, in which tomorrow people wore platinum wigs and foil tabards. A look that took inspiration from the (now) retro-futurism of Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne and the fashion forecasters of the 1960s. This used to be the future.
The years that budding futurologists had pinned their hopes or fears were invariably 1984, 1999 and 2000. I think William Morris, and possibly H.G. Wells, held out for 2020. We've passed many of those landmark years or are vast approaching them. We're living in the future that was anticipated in antiquity. At least it looks that way. Almost everything that was promised to the class of ’74 and before has happened. The perennials of relative poverty, relative homelessness and debt persist, but the cosmetic time-fillers in the culture - consumerism and technology - have delivered. George Jetson and Bucky Fuller would be proud. Much of what we desire is at our fingertips, as though we're living in a smart, modern, wired version of the mythical free-for-all that was Cockaigne. Our world is operated by the computer in our lap, the phone in our palm or the watch on our wrist. The freak outsiders from the past have come in from the cold - those pioneers of cross-dressing, gender-blurring and polymorphous sexuality. They might not be entirely accepted but they are accommodated in the mainstream. Cosseted, in many instances.
What’s been lost is the capacity and imagination to second-guess tomorrow. No one can truly surprise us with utopian fantasies anymore. Oh yes, there are visionaries, but they're essentially peddling variations on well-trodden themes. Yet, increasingly we're informed that, in these tumultuous times, we need our utopian fantasies to release us from the dystopian present. We’re living in an intense, chaotic epoch we’re told, and fashion has a response to this. ‘Designers are finally living up to it,’ according to the New York Times. ‘You can give up or you can get inspired. The usual choice these days.’ Have we arrived at similar, familiar moments in history? The inter-war years in which the European modernists flourished; the fin de siècle when William Morris and Edward Bellamy set their sights on the 21st century from the 1890s. In the utopian socialism of Morris the future is as big a fantasy as the past. What am I saying? It is the past - the return to an idyllic but mythical, prelapsarian age. This used to be the future.
Utopian Fantasy #2. When it comes to fashion, the future and fantasy have frequently joined forces. Fashion uses the past as a reference, while making studied attempts not to surrender to it. But there is one figure currently striking the right balance between yesterday, today and tomorrow when it comes to design, according to those in the know. He’s been talked up as something of a saviour - sartorially, at least. Turns out the money is on Alessandro Michele who, since taking over as creative director at Gucci at the beginning of 2015, has reputedly become the most successful designer of the decade. He has transformed the fortunes of the luxury brand in a manner that surpasses the tenure of Tom Ford in the 1990s. 'I am trying to push the idea of fashion, and to destroy the old codes of fashion,’ says Michele. 'I want to change the aesthetic of this whole company and that way I can change what fashion is.’
He was maybe born in the wrong place at the wrong time, such is his passion for the wardrobe of Elton John and his ilk from the 1970s, and Britain's tribal streetwear from thereon in. He should have been an English adolescent loitering in a London tower block in 1974, when Elton was prevalent and Bowie was relevant. Instead he was born in Rome two years earlier. He first got interested in fashion when he happened on British magazines that documented the new romantics and gender-bending clubbers of the 1980s. In time the interest expanded to the wider culture and history of the nation: its artists and its aristocracy. He is the one and only fashion designer to stage a show at Westminster Abbey. (Last year’s House Style exhibition at Chatsworth House, home of the Duke of Devonshire, was sponsored by Gucci). According to the Business of Fashion, he's given birth to the future by disrupting the past, by taking fashion to another level and altering its landscape. Fantasy and illusion are central to his approach. This was notably evident at Gucci's A/W 2018 show: 'A head carried on the catwalk by a model is a crazy, probably silly sight, judging with old parameters. So is reproducing Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” replacing the ermine with a little dinosaur.’ It’s a long way from the halcyon days of Paco and Pierre. The emphasis is on theatre, spectacle and maximalism. It’s eclectic and flamboyant, with ruffles, frills and layers. The clothes culled from different epochs throughout history - from the Tudors to track-suited commoners. Like the previous collection, ‘Utopian Fantasy’, this too offered a glimpse of the Gucci future. It was described as 'a phantasmagoric way of ingesting everything and vomiting it out again, rewriting the curve of time in the process’.
Michele has said that so much of his output is about exploring the construction of identity. He takes elements from everywhere; re-assembles them; remixes history; breaks through boundaries. This has led to charges of cultural appropriation. One of those tired, bad breath phrases, like 'white privilege', that shows just how much the self-elected representatives of minority groups have exhausted both their remit and their victimhood. (Meanwhile the real world looks on; bored; indifferent.) Michele ruffled feathers by putting turbans on non-Sikh models, and was castigated for casting too many pale-faced models. Aren't these objections, these shrill criticisms just a bit old, just a but over? Even when allowing for the youth and infantilism of many of those tweeting the accusations. Anyway, more than half of the customers that buy Gucci were born after 1980. They don’t have a problem with it.
‘I think that I still work like a costume designer,’ Michele says. Nothing he creates relates to an exclusive period in history, and in this the approach is reminiscent of the mid-seventies when the dressing up box was raided - we left those tower block stairwells in search of it - between the birth of glam rock, the closure of big Biba and the rise of punk. The latter has long since lost its potency, but oddly, the fashion world appears to be the last with the news. Following the Comme des Garçons A/W 2018 collection, founder Rei Kawakubo suggested the rebel yell that echoed through the years from the hot summer of 1976 had finally fallen silent. Like news from nowhere, the revelation comes that ‘Camp’ is now the future; it speaks to the outsider, the outlier and the rebel. ‘It can express something deeper,’ according to Kawakubo, ‘and give birth to progress.’ The inspiration for this turnabout is none other than Susan Sontag and her ancient text on the subject.
But here, ‘camp' departs from the original intention, when Sontag described it as something that ‘turned the serious into something frivolous’. Now it's expected to do the reverse. As surely as Alessandro Michele’s utopian fantasies are intended to lift us out of the apparent gloom of the present. This is part of the new seriousness in fashion that has bubbled to the surface in recent years. Like the political posturing; the virtue signalling; the very selective attachment to the right causes and the right victims (Gucci recently donated $500,000 to the gun control movement). Researching this essay I found online a quote, which I think comes from Michele or someone writing about him, that fashion was once about beauty but now it has to deliver so much more. In short, fashion seeks gravitas. Designers name-check Camus, Heidegger and others, when bringing in explanatory notes to add weight to their creations. Alessandro Michele has cited the likes of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze as an influence. For the recent collection the inspiration was Donna Harraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ from the year that so preoccupied Messrs Bowie and Orwell - 1984. And now Sontag has been added to the mix to bring weight and depth. According to Rei Kawakubo ‘camp' is about the serious rather than the frivolous, it is 'really and truly something deep and new and represents a value we need.’ That value she adds, by way of a chaser, is ‘free expression’. Yet those that are attempting to stifle it - by censoring the words that fall from our lips, shutting down opinions we hold - are not the reactionaries of the past but the so-called progressives of the present. When Sontag was writing her essay, everything that has now found its way into the mainstream was treading water in the margins. It is now part of the modern orthodoxy. Those that fail to acknowledge this are clinging to an archaic idea of rebellion, and perpetuating a myth; peddling a fantasy. A trend that brings to mind the words of Christopher Booker from ‘The Neophiliacs’, when summing up the rise and fall of the 1960s, in the final year of that decade: ‘In order to become mature, in short, we must not only reject the authority of our parents – but, at the same time, in order to replace them, we must also learn to kill off our own fantasy selves. Only by killing this fantasy self can a man become fully mature. Unless he does so, he is still in a state of rebellion, a perpetual state of immaturity.’
Utopian Fantasy #3. We're told we need these utopian fantasies because of the ‘divisiveness’ of the present; because of the chaotic age that’s making designers rally. You can give up or you can get inspired. This divisiveness is laid at the door of those that used the ballot box to bring about Brexit or bring in Trump. The figures making the charge, largely within the echo chamber of social media, fall into two tribes: the young, upper middle class graduates yet to reach maturity; the mature, upper middle class graduates that have dragged the politics of the student bar into middle age. (What was that about fantasy and immaturity, Mr Booker?).
Many working within fashion have made it known where they stand on the current US president. Meanwhile their response to Brexit often gets a namecheck in those explanatory notes and a reference on the catwalk. The designer Katherine Hamnett recently expanded the series of anti-Brexit t-shirts she issued last year; a riff on the t-shirt she designed in the 1980s, emblazoned with the slogan '58% Don't Want Perishing’ ( allegedly the percentage of the population opposed to American missiles in Britain). So now it's the voices of the 52% that voted Leave she wants to silence, with the slogans ‘Cancel Brexit’ and ‘Second Referendum Now’. It’s almost Sontag’s camp, turning the serious into something frivolous; a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques. Bizarrely, the figure that Hamnett name-checked in the publicity associated with the new designs spent years championing withdrawal from the European Union, and declared on the day of the referendum result that Article 50 should be triggered immediately: the radicalised left’s great white hope Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s odd that in these parts, those so eager to escape the present and embrace the utopian future, believe this is the figure to take them there. Particularly as they believe the reigns of power should be snatched from the grip of straight, white, wealthy old English men. Corbyn himself is a far cry from the future. Rather a relic from a bygone age who has washed up on the shores of the 21st century: the agitprop page from a 1968 listings mag made flesh. His vision of the future owes a debt to the political polarity of the 1970s (some of us were there; in the stairwells of the future, watching the present implode), the utopian socialism of William Morris, the post war-socialism adopted by the Labour Party, whose groundbreaking manifesto in 1945 was entitled ‘Let Us Face The Future’. And the country did. The future lasted six years until voters decided they’d enough of the strikes, the rationing, and the austerity. Is this really tomorrow calling? So many of those leading the charge towards the future count themselves as ‘progressives’ - from politics to fashion by way of the university campus - at a moment when the ‘progressive’ has became the most reactionary, hypocritical, figure in contemporary society. And to think that once, once upon a time they used to be the future. Why don't we tear the whole bloody lot down and make a new start.