Fashion matters because how we dress says so much about us. When the world is gripped by a collective longing for shoulder pads, or for wearing all-black, or by a nostalgic yearning for a bygone age, all of these represent cultural shifts. Contemporary art might express the zeitgeist in a more considered and refined way, but fashion is more democratic: a conversation in which anyone can have a voice.
After 14 years as fashion editor of this paper it has come to my attention that not everyone agrees with me on this topic. But plenty do: not only Coco Chanel (“fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live”) but Jean Cocteau (“style is a simple way of saying complicated things”) and even Polonius (“the apparel oft proclaims the man”).
Yet the past week has made me want to grab the fashion industry by the scruff of its double-breasted Céline collar and give it a good shake. Fashion cannot lay claim to a platform of cultural significance, showing off about the way in which catwalks and clothes intersect with the wider world, and then retreat into an ivory tower. The closest the official announcement of John Galliano’s appointment at the Margiela label came to acknowledging what makes this big news – Galliano’s past – was describing him as “non-conformist”. This is a pretty spin to put on the ugly self-destruction the designer brought on himself when he was filmed slurring racist and antisemitic abuse in a Paris bar three years ago.
What was more astonishing was the blinkered reaction of the fashion industry. Almost without exception, it reported the appointment as if the most newsworthy and controversial element of this story was the contrast in style between Galliano and the Margiela history. This is absurd. Yes, the thought of Galliano filling the white concrete cubes of Margiela stores with bias-cut gowns in flamenco crimson is intriguing. But to make that the most compelling aspect of the Galliano comeback is to miss the point in Marie Antoinette, let-them-eat-cake style. Pretending an issue isn’t there doesn’t make it go away, it just makes you look out of touch. And fashion can’t be out of touch, or it isn’t fashion.
Fashion at its best can be eloquent on all kinds of subjects. At Gucci in the 1990s, Tom Ford screengrabbed that decade’s mood of sex, drugs and hedonism, put a price tag on it and sparked a waiting list. Lee McQueen in the noughties was exploring dark, complicated ideas about femininity and fear and clothing as armour. The Chanel catwalk show in Paris in March of this year, in which the Grand Palais was lined with shelves of “Coco Pops”, camellia-branded Marigold-style gloves and “Eau de Chanel” mineral water, was a fabulously witty piece of theatre, with a message about the power of branding in the modern world that was all the smarter for being lightly made. So I was irritated and disappointed with the trite, Coco-feminism of last week’s Chanel show. There is an interesting connection to be made between feminism being currently in vogue – Beyoncé with her “Feminist” stage lights, and Taylor Swift (I won’t go into it but basically, she’s just realised she’s a feminist) on the cover of Vogue – and Coco herself. She wore men’s clothing and said she “gave women a sense of freedom; I gave them back their bodies that were drenched in sweat due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.” But this was Coco-karaoke, a parade of half-hearted chanting. “What do we want?” demanded Cara Delevingne, but nobody seemed to have told the other models what to say. “Freedom?” a few wondered tentatively; others just giggled. Pankhursts, this was not.
When fashion oversimplifies it makes itself look stupid. Nicci Gerrard’s excellent piece in this weekend’s Observer about female detectives included the line that “women, however defended they are and strong, have a vulnerability about them simply because of their gender”. This reminded me of what it seemed Stella McCartney was getting at when she said backstage at her Paris fashion-week show that it was about how “strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive … [this collection] was more about celebrating the softness in a woman and her fragility”. Her comments were seized upon as being anti-feminist, a strange oversimplification of the motivations of a woman who founded and helms a substantial international company which she runs according to personal ethical principles; but I was frustrated, also, that McCartney did not step back into the public arena to stand up for herself.
If catwalk show seating came with a season ticket, I would be on the verge of ripping mine up, in the mode of callers to the 606 football phone-in, irate over the latest team selection. They are expressing frustration that something they believe in has let them down. They don’t mean it about ripping up the ticket; and nor do I. But the sports correlation is significant. I get cross that men can obsessively follow sport without it being seen as an indication of unseriousness, while a woman who loves fashion is dismissed as trivial. But on that basis fashion fans and fashion journalists need to do as sports fans and sports journalists generally do, and engage when serious issues enter the arena – whether that’s racism or corruption in sport, or feminism or worker conditions in fashion.
Fashion must grapple with complex issues if it wants to be part of adult conversation. On the subject of which: yes, I do personally believe it is a positive move for the industry to give Galliano a second chance. The Victorians had a fashion for signet rings engraved with aphorisms and motivational quotes (a cross-section of personal, public and adornment which is not that far removed from the modern vogue for tattoos, when you think about it) of which I have a modern version, by the designer Annina Vogel, engraved with an Oscar Wilde quote: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”. Yes, when I think of applauding Galliano at the end of a catwalk I feel uneasy about that. But that doesn’t mean it’s right to banish him. Life is complicated; that’s the point. Fashion: deal with it.
• This article was amended on 8 October 2014 to remove a paragraph which quoted Renzo Rosso, who was incorrectly described as Moroccan-Jewish, as saying in a piece in Women’s Wear Daily: “The important thing is to know your mistakes and to learn to correct them, and I guarantee you that John Galliano has done that.” It was Armand Hadida, founder of Paris concept shop L’Eclaireur, who made that remark, not Rosso.
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