Shocking! July 2014.

Dear Rowley,

So the thwack, grunt and squeal is over for another year and I’m not talking about Operation Yewtree. Joyous to see Novak finally breaking the Grand Slam drought, that gorgeous little PopSocks duo take the Men’s Doubles title and Kvitova crucifying Eugenie Bouchard in under an hour. There’s a serious problem at the top of women’s tennis because I can’t remember an epic three-setter for aeons.

I was all for Eugenie Bouchard until Chris Evert happened to mention that the youngster had gloated about all the cameras pointing towards her when the former champ and the new star appeared at a press conference together. Chrissie has won 18 Grand Slam titles and reached the final in 16 more. Eugenie Bouchard narrowly avoided a double doughnut playing her first. To quote Erasure ‘give a little respect…’.

This morning brought an appearance on Nick Knight’s Show Studio haute couture panel for a live discussion about Marco Zanini’s second haute couture collection for Schiaparelli. My mate fashion historian Judith Watt, who wrote the book about Schiap for Vogue, was booked hence my agreeing to join in. In the chair was the lovely Lou Stoppard and we were joined by a fellow Thames & Hudson author Amber Butchart.

Now, seeing as the BBC, Channel 4 and a plethora of satellite channels have done their best to prove that fashion doesn’t work on TV, I think Show Studio has a golden opportunity to show them how it’s done. I find that the exclusivity of fashion is both compelling and repellant hence the fascination for theĀ Devil Wears Prada school of thought. I don’t subscribe to the theory that people who laugh at fashion don’t understand it. But I do think there’s room for fashion to be considered seriously and in an historical context hence the potential power that Show Studio might wield.

The couture is a very particular discipline. It speaks to a level of wealth and, one hopes, refinement, that the ready-to-wear can circumvent. A couture house lives and dies on the relationship between couturier and client. The designer must understand how these women live. Couture is an Olympic sport. A look has to pass the test of beauty, practicality and appropriateness to an occasion be that a dinner, a dance, a race meeting or a gala ball. It cannot simply pass the red carpet test and look good as a screen grab on the Internet.

Elsa Schiaparelli lived in the company of the couture class. Clients such as the Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Fellowes, Lady Mendl, Marlene Dietrich and Mona Bismarck were friends. Artists Dali, Cocteau and Duchamp were intimates. Collaborations and inspirations came naturally to Schiap and she understood that her clients were not following but leading fashion. Every Schiaparelli collection took a point of view and imposed it be that Circus, Harlequin, Surreal or Maharani. Her language was so rich that one would hope a designer borrowing her name would have much to reference.

Lagerfeld has paved the way for a contemporary designer to take a designer such as Coco Chanel’s greatest hits and remix them for decades never deviating too much from the mother tongue. Lagerfeld might be irreverent and he might subvert but Chanel remains Chanel. Schiaparelli has not been shown on a runway for sixty-years. Elsa left Paris when the Nazis occupied France in 1939 and basically spent the rest of her life licensing the name and living on her fame. It is a brave man or woman who steps into her shoes now her language is so long forgotten by all but fashion historians and fashion designers.

Well, I’m happy to report that Lou, Amber, Judith and I did not pay a blind bit of attention to the Show Studio cameras and decided instead to have a robust, honest conversation that covered so much more than Zanini’s second Schiaparelli couture collection. I think what we presented was a ‘state of the nation’ address about the fashion industry as it is: the pressure on designers who are ruled by committee, the disconnect between a client’s requirements and the multi-media scrum, the ignorance about the women who finance haute couture and the mad desire in fashion today to promote the ‘so bad it is good’ silhouette.

I think we recorded a good forty-five minutes of chat before we turned to the live feed of images from Zanini’s Schiaparelli collection. Sad to say it confirmed my worst suspicions that Elsa would rise from the grave and haunt the people who are destroying her legacy. Schiaparelli dressed Dietrich, she dressed Mae West, she dressed the rather masculine Wallis Simpson and gave all these ladies strong shoulders, waspy waists and endless legs. Schiap celebrated a strong woman’s sexuality. For her, luxury was practicality. The clothes had to work for the woman.

What we saw being thrown down the runway by Zanini was anaemic, helpless teenagers with ‘cat in the rain’ fright wigs entirely overwhelmed by overcomplicated clothes. The colours were execrable. God only knows what the Saudi princesses would have made of lurid prints and chartreuse green furs. Name me a couture client who would order a 40s fur with honey monster chubby sleeves and a shapeless leopard print knee length coat. The Schiap references were heavy handed and intentionally ugly. Why choose her early 40s work to reference? It’s like a rock star choosing all B-sides for a live performance. I rest my case.