Fashion for the true outsider, is a snare and a delusion. Fall for fashion and you are fated to become not an innovator but a victim.
––Virginia Nicholson, Among The Bohemians
I have seen this snare snap shut on fellow designers that were colleagues and friends. They lose their footing and, stumbling forward, fall prey to it it usually in their early to mid-thirties. Its teeth puncture deep and the designer writhes and moans and torments himself and others because it’s not pretty to watch. Someone put him out of his misery, they comment.
Despite the cliquey nature of fashion, I’ve found that designers are generally life’s outsiders.They are the kids who were laughed at in school, the effeminate boy, the pudgy girl, the bespectacled curious loner…the oddball who stopped washing her hair and adopted a prickly goth guise to keep the world at arm’s length. I knew art school was peopled with my kind. So I applied for a foundation course in art and design and set out to understand myself through the various art forms. In sculpture class, I created a candleholder in the form of a bearded and robed Methuselah so disturbing it made people flee the room. In graphic design, I created an underwhelming album cover. In fine art I reinterpreted Matisse’s The Dance on such a huge scale that my inadequacies as a painter I might as well have highlighted in neon. In fashion design I made a technicolor waistcoat from sheets of plastic that had been left in the students’ union by a fine art student which I then cut into geometric shapes and pieced together. My instructor cried “Brava!” I got an A. Aha! I understood: A was for Acceptance, Acknowledgement, Approval. And just like that a career was born.
Now back to designers in their mid-30s. As dedicated professionals these outsiders, now on the inside, have seen their creations grace the covers of magazines, adorn celebrities and command the catwalks. They have been promoted, attended flashy parties, hobnobbed with the beautiful people, drunk their fill of the sponsor’s vodka. They have travelled to Shanghai and Warsaw and Stockholm and Barcelona and New Delhi. They have flea marketed in Clignancourt and slapped the company credit card down at L’Eclaireur. They have wheeled their suitcase from the Four Seasons to the new boutique Ian Schrager.
Then at some point they stand still for a moment and it happens. They are hit with the surprising realization that they have nothing to show for it all.
Bear with me a second and I will attempt to explain the source of these ingrates’ dissatisfaction. Have a look at this typical editorial page from April’s Vogue UK.
These blocks of text that accompany magazine photoshoots are just like the credits in a movie, or the cast and crew list in a theatre program. They inform the reader of all the major players, including the understudy, and some minor players as well. The label, photographer and stylist are like the screenwriter, producer and director. Here the photographer is Vincent van de Wijngaard, the stylist is Lucinda Chambers. On the opposite page are the names of those responsible for hair, make up and, of course, the models who wear the clothes––the actresses, if you like. Can you see where I’m going with this? Take a look at this other one from the same magazine:
The cover page has informed us the shoot was styled by Jane How and photographed by Glen Luchford. On the next page (pictured above), we see the name of the model, the professional who did her nails (quite irrelevant as the nails are unremarkable in any of the photos. This would be like including the non-speaking extra’s name in the movie credits.) The Deerhurst Road in South West London even gets a mention for its contribution.
But the individual who designed the featured clothes, she doesn’t get a mention. The brand is cited, of course, but that rarely has anything to do with whose idea it was and who executed that idea from beginning to end. You might think this is what the designer signed up for and she should stop whining. If she wants the spotlight she should found her own label. But she doesn’t want the spotlight; she just gets weary of the crashing anonymity, that along with the amount of commitment required of her, does a number on her self esteem.
The nameless designer is the one squinting at the drawing board and computer screen late into the night. She is the poor sucker who can recite every step of the process that went into the birth of that dress on page 105 of Vogue right down to why the stitching on the zipper is white and not red. She is the obsessive who can tell you the exact length of that richly embroidered skirt from waist to hem and even show you her hand drawn blueprints for the placement of each of the embroidered flowers. She feels as attached to that garment as the sculptor to his clay model and the painter to his portrait. The world of visual arts has always attracted the wandering and wondering, the marginalized and misunderstood, the misfits and the socially inhibited. They pour all those emotions into the creation of beautiful things. The only difference is that the fashion designer’s wares will be mass produced and sold in shops whereas the sculptors’s one-off pieces will be sold from his warehouse loft.
One of my early design projects was called Doll Parts based on an old Barbie doll I found. My drawings show figures with limbs facing opposing directions, feet pointing forward as well as backward, oversized heads, twisted upper bodies, outsized shoes. I look at them now and think they might have reflected my attempts to fit into the fashion industry. It was pretty confusing then but I too wasn’t truly conscious of it until my 30s. Just how much contorting of myself was required. That was the snare fastening me in its grip. One thing saved me: writing. Unlike others who were felled by the fashion industry, I still roam wild in it. I gambol and frolic and flit. I see past the sea of clothes in my career, embroidery placements and inspiration and fabrics and prints and color palettes. None of it bears my name but I don’t harbor any resentment. It gave me the opportunity to design another career and to fashion something I can truly call my own. It even has my name on it.
For that I truly am the most grateful victim.
My novel inspired by my experiences in the international fashion industry is now available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.