Fashion has been in the doldrums for nearly two decades. We inherited highly distinctive styles from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties and then sometime in the mid-Nineties, it all fell apart. Modern fashion, like modern life, has gone depressingly beige. Globally, there is a soul-sucking dreariness. The windows of New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, and Munich are all the same, all one big yawn. When the next definitive history of fashion is written, I believe it will show that the expansion of the Gap (the McDonald's of style) and the democratisation of Louis Vuitton will mark the era in which fashion flatlined. How did this happen?
Firstly, Chinese manufacturing necessitated simplicity of design in order to accommodate the simplicity of low-cost mass production.
Secondly, the decline of an educated elite is also to blame. Earlier designers, stylists and photographers were steeped in centuries of historical images and motifs. Today's practitioners know only last year's pop culture. Fashion photographer Beaton yielded to Avedon who yielded to Leibovitz. Indirectly, Chanel yielded to Halston who yielded to Posen. Grace Kelly yielded to Madonna who yielded to Gaga.
In addition, our obsession with the now and the new also means that even the talented designers do not have time for their ideas to gestate and mature. The unfinished is hurriedly thrown into the market then the discount bin and then the trashcan and forgotten. The less talented simply rapidly copy the unfinished work of the talented. We now have a rather skewed situation of there being so much choice out there and yet.... there is nothing at all. Any stylish woman shopping today will tell you that regardless of price point it takes weeks of searching to find something that truly works for her. In frustration she usually buys the not-quite-right and just lives with it. Her closet is now full of the unworn and the barely worn.
In this black hole, creativity has died.
The Nineties and the Oughts have not produced any distinct fashion legacy. There is no clarity of vision or purpose. For all the money we had, we took very few risks and bought uniforms. Expensive uniforms, yes, but uniforms nonetheless.
Now, don't get me wrong; there are always the grand classics which are eternal. Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis and (sometimes) Marilyn Munroe wore the kinds of outfits that would still mesmerise a social gathering today. But since Madonna of the Eighties and early Nineties, with her lacework and risqué bustiers, can you think of anyone whose style has held the popular imagination?
Sharon Stone started out as a committed classicist. Soon after Basic Instinct when she walked the red carpet, I had thought that she would become the iconic standard bearer for the grand classical style as she gracefully took her cue from the earlier divas Π— Grace, Audrey, etc. Then along with her career her sense of style fell flat. No one is holding that flag. We got a glimpse of it in the very bad but beautiful movie The Tourist when Angelina Jolie sailed through the canals of Venice. So much of that movie was styled like a fashion shoot integrating the architecture, the clothes and the waters. All aesthetes drooled over that film.
Earlier in her career, I mistakenly had high hopes for Lady Gaga but soon realised that she is just a gimmick with shock tactics which have already gone tired. Stylists will remember the cone bras of 'Blond Ambition' far longer than they will remember the meat dress.
New York and London 'drag queens', the major 'apers' of high style are largely still reaching back into fashion history rather than fashion present because they are uninspired by any of the pretend-divas who cross our airwaves today.
Too many awards shows, too many red carpets, too many forgettable outfits, too many forgettable women. From the last two decades of fashion what do those of us outside the industry remember? Wardrobe malfunctions.
There is a desperate need for new visuals to reinvigorate the fashion landscape. Currently, there is more excitement and new in places like Africa, India, and the Jamaican dancehall. The more extensive use of colour, fabrics, layers and mixtures are way ahead of the now drab western lines. Add to that the extensive body art, including piercings and tattoos, and ornate hairstyles and one quickly sees that these milieus have a lot to teach the West about the full range of possibility in beauty and fashion. Africa and India are hyper-connected to their multi-century pasts and therefore currently pull on a wider range of fashion influences than the constantly discarding West.
These fashion frontiers have not yet penetrated the pages of Vogue and GQ but they should.
Enter Arise magazine, a bimonthly publication now on its 16th edition. Headquartered in London, Arise is attempting to integrate the disparate voices of the African and post-African experience. What unites Lagos, Kingston, Brixton, and Brooklyn? Where do we ever hear about Afro-Russians or men of the Sudan who have immigrated to the US escaping war-torn regions? Our international stories are rich and diverse yet have rarely been told in the pages of a glossy.
As black people we have never had a global platform through which we can see our own images reflected back to us in a high-fashion way. So much of what we see from Africa is death and disease, not glamour. So much of what we hear is failure, not success and stylish living. Enough already!
Vehicles like Arise will be a chance for our expressive style and its derivatives to be exposed to a wider audience. Perhaps as black people we can influence global fashion the way we have influenced global music. We are witnessing the rise of the Afro-centric cosmopolitan — the Afropolitan style.
One of the earliest and best proponents of the Afropolitan eye has been our own Beverly Manley (now Duncan), who has done an extraordinary job of integrating African and European sensibilities in both her hair and clothing. I have previously said that someone should do a photographical retrospective that looks at Manley's dress and hair as reflective of each era in Jamaica's history. The dynamic tensions of capitalism, socialism, black pride, black shame, the ghetto and the middle class have all been reflected in her personal style over the years.
Lisa Hanna (perhaps the only young woman with a distinctive and discernible personal style) hails directly from the classical tradition. Reared largely on Euro-American television and magazines, she could not comfortably incorporate images of the African diaspora. She remains more at home in the Euro-American tradition. She is an important anchor in the national fashion scene (our Grace Kelly?) but she is not its future.
Fashion dynamism in Jamaica takes place below the clock where in attempts to outshine and outdo each other, dancehall culture has been pushing the frontiers of style across multiple fronts. Here, the peacock men may even be greater stylists than the women.
As in politics, there is a delicate balancing act in introducing ethnic sensibilities into western culture. The black man is now welcome into American corporate offices and the White House, but not if the afro is too large or he is sporting dreads. African, yes, but not too African. The ability to negotiate both cultures will be an invaluable skill in helping to create a widespread acceptance of a Pan-African sense of style and beauty.
Last year I spent some time in Otavalo, Ecuador where, on Saturdays, dozens of indigenous tribes brought their wares down from the mountains for sale in the village. The level of craftsmanship is high and the prices are low. A shopper's paradise for global connoisseurs. Yet so many of the items for sale, well-crafted though they may be, were just a bit too ethnic. I watched as one of the buyers for Donna Karan advised the indigenous peoples on creating lines for the Western market. In each case she would instruct them to pull back. "I like this pattern but instead of using 12 different colours, can we just use five?" "Can we put a solid band around these swaths of fabric to tighten off the edge and create a definitive solid colour border and finish?" The message was clear: "Ethnic, yes, but not too ethnic."
Carrying the images from African (and Indian) fashion into the West will also eventually transform male fashion and identity. In the middle of the 20th century when women's fashion was finally released from the tyranny of the skirt, women's style underwent an enormous sea change. Katherine Hepburn was one of the earlier popular images we saw of a woman in pants. Not a "real" woman was the cry. Women's clothing in the West has closely mirrored feminist politics finally releasing her from the skirt and dress into the pant and shirt as she entered male space in the workforce.
There was no corresponding shift for men from the tyranny of the shirt and pant. This has limited the degree to which men's fashion can evolve. Not so in Africa and India where pants have never had the stranglehold on male fashion the way it has had on the West. As the fashion eye roves towards the East and to Africa, it is likely that the tyranny of the pant will go the way of the skirt for women. The male pant will become choice rather than necessity thereby releasing male fashion to a broader palette of styles. The femininity one associates with "skirts" and "dresses" (Indian kurtas? African boubous?) will disappear once we see more images of "real" men, macho men from Africa and India wearing garb that in the West would only be associated with the effete.
If Arise magazine survives — and here is one convert who is hoping it does — it will become a critical part of the story of the revitalisation of fashion. By bringing the oxygen of colours, fabrics, hairstyles, body art and male fashion from Africa to the West in a way that is palatable, it will herald in some exceptional transformations that we can all look forward to.
Style is dead! Long live style! Bored fashionistas around the world should welcome the arrival of the Afropolitan eye.