A War Against Aesthetics

by Jo-Ann Furniss .

Trying to 'edit the politic' out of the shopping experience at the moment seems an incredibly difficult task. Whether fashion likes it or not, it is involved with the politics of the current situation.

'If women are going outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming clothes, they should never expect to go to heaven' reads an early decree from the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The correlation between clothing and 'western corruption' was often made explicit by the Taliban - here its infamous ministry sounding like a particularly harsh 'don'ts-of-the-season' from Woman's Own. Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, Ellen DeGeneres, then hosting a twice-postponed Emmy Awards asked: 'What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit, surrounded by Jews?' So providing the wittiest and most succinct summation yet of the role of entertainment and fashion in promoting an idea of 'decadence' to those looking critically at the West. There may well have been cries of 'Ellen DeGenerate' echoing around the cave that evening.

While the regime that was inextricably linked to Osama bin Laden has now been toppled, a symbolic relationship with terror still remains in the form of the clothing enforced. It's a relationship which has often been seen in news reports: cue devastation in New York, cut to Afghan women shuffling along in the burka. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a comedian who was inextricably linked to Anne Heche, still has the good sense to see the power of clothing in this conflict and receives a standing ovation from the American TV industry for her comments. For once in world events, an obvious question seems to be posed: what does the fashion industry make of it all?

Those directly involved in the making and promoting of 'fashionable, tight and charming clothes' have, in fact, been decidedly quiet on the matter. There was an initial confused flurry of activity in the few days following September 11, where European fashion journalists were put in the unusual position of having to report on the tragic events taking place in New York (that date coming as it did in the middle of fashion week and they being the only journalists on hand to file news). This was followed by a rather sombre reception and modification of the rest of the season's show calendar: music was changed, parties were cancelled and certain 'offending' items of clothing were excluded from the catwalk (some, it seems, deemed 'ethnically inappropriate'). Since then, the industry has, to a great extent, maintained a silence on what would appear to be such a relevant subject, even though many of those who work within it were eye witnesses to the events in New York.

Yet, to be more specific, it is not so much a silence of self-censorship that seems to have been taking place within the fashion business post-September 11. While those involved in the television, film and music industries have thought themselves quite capable of commenting on the current conflict, many of those in fashion have not. This isn't because, as is widely thought, people in fashion are less intelligent and serious than those working in the rest of the entertainment business - if anything we could all be seen as equally stupid - so why does the Basil Fawlty-like 'don't-mention-the-war' attitude persist for many of those involved in fashion?

For the photographer and publisher of SHOWstudio, Nick Knight, the reaction of the business seems almost inexplicable: 'The fashion industry provides such a huge platform for communication. This is certainly the case with global ad campaigns - for anybody who picks up a magazine, switches on a TV, or lives in a town these things are omnipresent. The startling fact that I found about September 11 was that the people who are responsible for global communications were not airing their opinions on it. There was almost a turning in - of those in the fashion industry thinking themselves too trivial to have an opinion and it being bad taste for them to comment. Having followed the emergence of a certain politicised aspect of the industry over the last decade this surprised me. Despite the fact that there is now an audience for political expression through fashion, I think in much the same way that there was for an audience for politicised pop music in the Sixties, thoughts have not been expressed.'

Maybe the case for 'politicised fashion' is still a valid one, but in many ways the climate of experimentation found in photography, styling and design in the early to mid '90s seems very far away. And the events of September 11 might have pushed it that bit further from us. In recent years those early 'political' dissenters have become establishment stars, their questioning styles have been absorbed into the main fabric of fashion, and the luxury goods conglomerates have strengthened their positions and recruited many to their ranks. Eventually, some of those waiting on the outside also want a piece of the proverbial pie. It might just be a question of not wanting to rock the boat or bite the hand that feeds, which has made some people so overly cautious about expressing their thoughts.

Perhaps the first sign that these fears were not completely unfounded became clear when the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes was banned from all LVMH shows in October. The ban occurred after the renowned journalist had expressed the opinion that their Spring/Summer 2002 Dior presentation had been too aggressively out of step with the times. LVMH complained that it made the company look insensitive to the current post-11th climate. For a journalist of Suzy Menkes' stature to be censured for voicing a-not-so-shocking opinion was unprecedented. It was in reference to Dior, amongst others, that rumours also flew as to whether items of clothing had been withdrawn for their perceived unsuitability.

Unfortunately, as has been made apparent in recent years, the role of dressmaker is now, more than ever, tied up with the politics of business. Fashion's endless fascination with its own corporate machinations has been as much of a trend as black was for winter. Not since Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had their day, have insults been flung like those between Prada's Patrizio Bertelli and Gucci's Tom Ford. The industry has lapped it up, reporting on the boardroom like never before. Simultaneously, the rise of the anti-globalisation movement has not left high fashion completely unscathed.

Infatuated by their own in fighting and more in love with the logo than ever, some within the fashion industry have become disenchanted with what appear to be many of its main objectives. Utilising that 'politicised' forum of dissent, a commentary has started to appear over the past few years, questioning these motivations and at times those of capitalism in general. Unfortunately, after the 11 September, that critique has, in some cases, been curtailed.

One of the shoots shown here, initially entitled 'McDonaldization', by the stylist Jane How and the photographer Richard Bush, was completed before September 11 and originally destined for i-D magazine. After witnessing the events in New York, i-D's creative director and editor in chief, Terry Jones, made the decision not to run it. He explains the move in this way:

'Essentially, I think our standpoint has always been about editing the politic, right from the very start. When somebody made a racist comment, we edited it out, we did not want to promote something we could not stand by. As the magazine evolved, particularly over the past three years, we had to take that stand in different ways, including adopting a commercial position to support the fashion industry; we are now essentially supporting that creative industry. We were very aware of what people were saying after September 11, for us it would have been totally hypocritical if we also started saying that these events occurred as a result of global capitalism, or if our actions could be read as that. I thought the images and the styling of the shoot were fantastic, but thinking about it intelligently it seems we are all part of that business, we are all part of the promotion of capitalism. Whether it is Starbucks or Dior, Gucci or McDonald's, you can take a variety of companies that have entered the consciousness and each are ultimately part of the shopping experience. Essentially, we are part of the promotion of the shopping experience. So for us to attack it at that point seemed totally hypocritical. Then again, these were not my main reasons for not using the story. Having come away from America with the image of people wandering the streets covered in dust, those photographs had too much of a resonance. It was out of respect for those that were killed, that we decided we couldn't run the shoot.'

Terry Jones is not the only one to equate the imagery and agenda of anti-capitalism with the actions of al-Qaida. For many the bandana covered faces and slogans shouted to 'smash capitalism' don't sit easily after the literal shattering of one of its 'citadels'. As the UK's Minister for International Development, Clare Short, rather harshly pointed out: 'Their demands turned out to be very similar to those of bin Laden's network.' However, if anybody in New Labour could still remember, the Koran doesn't exactly sit easily with Das Kapital either.

But trying to 'edit the politic' out of the shopping experience at the moment seems an incredibly difficult task. Whether fashion likes it or not, it is involved with the politics of the current situation. In January 2002's issue of British Vogue there was an article entitled 'Who's Shopping Now?' in which society shoppers, store owners and designers were asked to comment on their shift in spending patterns post-September 11. On the surface, this piece seemed as apolitical an article as you were ever going to get involving that date. Many comments were akin to 'Crumbs, I thought we were all going to die. So I went out and bought two Dolce and Gabana hats'. Nevertheless, the piece appeared at a time when the fashion industry's sales were plummeting and consumerism was being cast as a new kind of patriotism, particularly in America. With the threat of a global recession looming, the former President, Bill Clinton, was among many urging Americans to 'get out and shop'. A group in Georgia, called 'Moms of America' went as far as declaring September 30 'Shop for America Day'.

Meanwhile, in Britain, never has so much attention been lavished on consumer spending over the Christmas period and the subsequent sales. Even the strange combination of Posh, Mohammed Al Fayed and a very sick child opening Harrods' sale couldn't detract from the media's interest in actual retail figures. But as the event's organiser, Lulu Kennedy, said in that Vogue article: 'When I'm in Selfridges I go into a trance. When I hear about a recession I think, what recession?'

Nevertheless, there are those who have not backed away from the political implications of their work in fashion post-September 11. It seems no coincidence that, for the most part, those who have taken this stance are individuals working independently of the large corporate structures, neither employed by them or reliant on their advertising revenue. The design duo Boudicca are among that number. They presented their unmodified Spring/Summer 2002 collection in London the week following that date. They were wary of causing offence but were ultimately undeterred: 'We sat and endlessly watched the news at that time, wondering how we could possibly justify the panic we felt about finishing the collection for Fashion Week. To add to the confusion we were putting together a show stemming from our involvement in the anti capitalist movement, a collection called Transition - Corporate Deserter. For us the implications of what was happening were obvious, but we felt that certain things needed to be said within fashion more urgently than ever.'

The Belgian designer, Raf Simons, presented his Spring/Summer 2002 menswear collection last August. It was thrown into drastic relief by the events of the following month, as was his Autumn-Winter collection, which by that time had appeared in the shops. Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, is not above believing that fashion designers often function as interpreters of our time, and, in some instances, he thinks they may also be the foretellers of the future. It seems these last two collections are a case in point. Each show featured a strange synthesis of protest and protection; the model's faces were covered in scarves, the lines were loose and layered. For Autumn/Winter 2001 the designer had used the concealment of Arabic keffiyeh headdresses mixed with what have become more familiar trademark elements such as the bomber jacket, in camouflage this time. But for Spring/Summer the look had intensified, becoming increasingly Arabic in origin, the scarves remained and became almost feminine in feeling. The predominate colours were stark white and red.

After the attacks on America, the media interest in the designer's work has been great. For some this would have been a not too welcome prospect, but for Raf Simons it has opened up a valuable debate. Now, the designer feels there are real questions being asked as to what you can say in fashion and how you go about saying it:

'My approach to design is very often a questioning of what fashion is and what ones position can be within it. Often this is through a questioning of my own individuality and my own place within the fashion industry. In a way that's why there was sort of a protest look to those collections. But in another sense it was also a very protected and isolated way to show a person. Essentially, I was looking at how to present guys with a certain strength and a certain glamour without the flaunting of half naked torsos. There is a point in not being scared to use the elements that I did in conveying those ideas: I think I should have that freedom. Sometimes fashion is so judgmental about what you use as inspiration. For a lot of designers it stops at the 1970s. I think "get real, this is an important medium". There are many people who take fashion seriously, who think about the perception of dress codes and the attitudes that go with it. We don't actually live in the catwalk world of Paris and Milan. Myself and the group that I work with - who are very important for the discussion of these ideas - we all live in Antwerp, at times between people who hate each other, between racists. A large part of the Spring-Summer collection was about reconciling cultural differences while trying to make their aesthetics fit together. I don't think it is wise to run away from these ideas and make an empty glamorous image instead. In fact, I have the opposite feeling, I think I have a responsibility to show how fashion really is. I want things to be discussed and I have to say for me it has become more like that: people are now discussing things.'

But for others the reception of their clothing in the post-September 11 world has not gone so well. The talented American designer, Miguel Adrover, whose last two collections also had an uncanny Middle Eastern element, has all but lost his company. At the same time, it should be remembered that fashion is ultimately a business and when sales fall, no leeway is given for any kind of artistic statement. More disturbingly though, and as has gone on in other fields, it seems that the sentiment surrounding September 11 might have also been used to disguise rather ruthless economic decisions made within 'fluffy' fashion. No wonder people are toeing the line.

Yet, in all of this, there might be a far more basic reason for the fashion industry's tight lipped take on world events: guilt. For the past few years fashion has spent an unprecedented period playing politics - or rather playing with the look of politics. From its flirtation with Fascism to its love of the left - and a whole lot of combat trousers inbetween - now, when actual political events have come into play, perhaps fashion is suffering the consequences of its actions.

Of course, not everybody is guilty of such empty and irresponsible use of imagery, but, as Raf Simons says: 'I see a lot of images and I don't really know what message is behind them. When we use imagery we actually always start from the message, that is the big difference'. Looking over the past year, this statement proves particularly apposite. While the Spring/Summer 2001 collections were full of militaristic meanderings, some magazine imagery also made that point in a notably mind-numbing way. In shoots such as Terry Richardson and Camille Bidault-Waddington's 'Sabotage', published in the September issue of The Face, the concept of the 'fashionista' became literal; here girls toted guns and hand grenades instead of Gucci. While shoots like this might be interesting in terms of the manifestation of some kind of 'collective consciousness' leading up to September 11 (as was the whole of the last year in fashion), the question has to be asked as to whether they have a validity in any other way.

At a time when clothing has become so bound up with actual terror - from the burka to the almost absurd 'shoe bomb' - it seems there is no more room for such 'terror chic'. In fact, rumours are that one London based fashion magazine has even gone so far as to ban the word 'terror' from its pages altogether. As they say, from the sublime to the ridiculous. But it is perhaps only with the commencement of next season's show calendar, that we'll see how fashion really feels about its new postion post-September 11. Or whether it even thinks it has a new position at all.