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.