The Invisible Designer

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I have already alluded to the frustration, from a practitioner's perspective, of reading texts which do not quite go to the heart of the reader's interest, which miss important points through not looking at clothes or considering their commercial context. This section deals more specifically with the paucity of texts, not just by contemporary designers, but even about contemporary designers. By this I do not mean the many glossy eulogies which people use to give their sitting rooms a fashionable feel, I mean texts which objectively consider the research, design process, realization and distribution of clothes in relation to their meaning. I am not the first to draw attention to this. Davis notes:

44. Reply to written questions received by fax from M. Patrick Scallon, Director of Communications on behalf of Maison Margiela (Feb 2000).

45. The faxed reply from Maison Margiela gave the 1998/99 annual turnover as 100,000,000 Francs for 'women's' and 'men's' ready to wear excluding footwear and mail order (for the moment with '3 SUISSE' a French-based catalogue company similar to Grattans or Empire stores) (Feb 2000).

changes in dress and fashion do not happen of their own accord. Human agency, in the form of fashion designers, a vast apparel industry, and a critically responsible consuming public, is necessary in order to bring them to pass. Obvious as this may seem, it is often lost sight of by the many writers who view the succession of fashion as somehow fated or ineluctably driven by the Zeitgeist's flux.47

Fashion, Culture and Identity promises to consider the 'labyrinthine passage whereby an idea in the designer's head is translated into the purchases and pleasures of the consumer'.48 Following the largest section of the book, addressing the issues of identity, gender, status and sexuality, the final two chapters deal with the fashion's cycles and processes. The text does indeed include quotes from and references to some knowledgeable designers and journalists but despite some pithy observations, the picture created is rather wooden. Davis was a sociologist interested in the fashion industry from a sociological point of view, and his description rather recalls a Victorian ornithologist's study of the habits of a newly discovered species of bird. The description might edify the general reader but it would be of little use to young birds wishing to learn how to fly. The problem is not only that of the author's distance from his subjects, but also that of there being so few other texts of its type that might support it. Many use references to designers incidentally and sparsely to illustrate whatever point they are trying to make, which of course depends on the author's field of study.

Another criticism of those texts which attempt to portray the fashion industry is that they have rarely succeeded in scratching the surface of the glossy image presented by the industry itself. Very few have inquired further than the 'stars', 'the couturiers as display artists . . . the members of the international personality circus'.48 We read references to Armani, Valentino, Calvin Klein, Versace, Vivienne Westwood and the like, as if they were the sole creative agents within their respective organizations or within the fashion industry. Those who are not 'couturiers', on the other hand, are often lumped together as 'high street designers'. It is not uncommon to read comments regarding 'high street designers' such as 'although they follow the couture trend, their own collections are shaped by more pragmatic concerns'.49 Such descriptions, with their air of having been written before the 1960s, indicate that the design explosion of the last three decades has passed unnoticed in

47. Davis, F., Fashion, Culture and Identity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 16.

48. McDowell, C., The Designer Scam, London: Hutchinson, 1994, p. 39.

49. Craik, J., The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 60.

academic circles. Those thousands of graduates of fashion design have passed into oblivion.

As a final illustration of this, I refer to the chapter of Malcolm Barnard's Fashion and Communication entitled 'Fashion, Clothing and Meaning', in which the author debates the possible agents for the generation of meaning in clothes: the designer, the wearer or spectator, and authorities. He argues, logically, that because designers' views are so frequently sought in the popular media, it is clear that many believe the designers' intentions are the sole source of meaning in their work, but that if it were so, it would not be possible for the meaning of clothes to vary according to time or place. A similar argument concludes that the wearer cannot be responsible for the meaning of a garment either since, if it were so, no different interpretations could not exist. Thence, the argument proceeds into semiology, the arbitrary nature of signs and issues of denotation and connotation, syntagons and paradigms, myths and ideologies, without ever having given an example, illustration or without ever having named, quoted or studied a single stitch, sketch or without considering that there might be different 'realities' under the general heading of fashion.50

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