A Nation of Shopkeepers

18/03/2015 § Leave a comment

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In 1815, Napoleon I dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers. And, as far as fashion goes, it seems that little has changed. In the UK today anyone who has anything to do with fashion is incapable of separating this creative and aesthetic cultural practice from the dull and uninspired business of retail. This has been a source of irritation to me for a while, but has finally come to a head now, and motivated me to write this article. In the space of the last two weeks:

  • The designer Gareth Pugh was interviewed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The interviewer couldn’t get past her second question without raising the issue of commerce and selling clothes. (Gareth Pugh, to his credit, took the question as an invitation to explain at length his contempt for the spreadsheet wallahs and the marketing poppets that cluster around fashion creativity)
  • The Independent published an article arguing that fashion should be taken seriously purely because it makes a vast contribution to the economy. (Many things contribute to the economy. We do not organise individual lives and the civilisation they live within on the basis of their contribution to economy alone and it’s not at all clear why fashion should be subject to this unique criterion.)
  • The Guardian review of the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty said that, when it comes to understanding the work of McQueen, ideas, concepts and intellectual content don’t really matter. (For the journalist in question, that it is certainly possible – but I am not convinced its the same for the rest of us. There is a reason why people have been walking around this exhibition in tears, and it might be worth thinking why the work on show should have that effect on visitors.)
  • An academic symposium at Somerset House, connected to the exhibition of the work of the fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, saw the curator of this exhibition inform the audience that the purpose of the images was to sell shoes and clothes, and a senior researcher from the University of the Arts take to the stage and talk at length about how the film maker David Lynch prefers working for fashion house because they give him more money. (When a forty-year-old photograph is on the wall of a gallery and is being viewed as part of an art exhibition, its original status as part of an advertisement diminishes to the point of irrelevance, and another point of meaning takes over. And as for David Lynch – is the work of one of the greatest film directors of our time really reducible to the size of his budget? Any aesthetic significance of his work dissolves in the face of corporate dollars? I am not convinced, but if anyone would like to make the case that it does, please leave a comment below.)

It is bizarre that so many people, many of whom are supposed to be fashion experts, insist on negating the aesthetic and creative dimension of fashion, and talking exclusively instead about retail – but it is also routine, and it is unique to fashion.

Think about other creative forms. Literature, for instance. An interview with Hilary Mantel, or David Mitchell, or Terry Pratchett (RIP) could go on for hours, discussing their work, their research, their approach to writing, their inspiration, and so on. Units sold, royalties and commissions, would be irrelevant. This is possible because literature is generally held to have sufficient intellectual, aesthetic and cultural gravitas that it doesn’t need to be validated purely by profit margins. It is generally accepted that literature is good for us, it enriches our minds and our lives in ways that have nothing to do capitalist processes.

Likewise, art. For all the eye-watering sums paid by ultra-rich oligarchs for the a Monet or a Francis Bacon at Sothebys or Christies, and for all the glossy, botoxed visitors to the Frieze Art Faire, there are galleries all over the world that are visited and loved by millions and millions of people every year. In fact, the top five galleries in the world attracted a total of 34,272,576 visitors in 2014 alone. Vast numbers of people embrace art as an experience, not as an object in a transaction, on a daily basis.

You can say the same about music too, in all its forms. Robert Johnson famously sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to become the greatest blues guitar player that ever lived. He did not sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads to get a record deal from the billionaire owner of a highly syndicated talent show. Music provides the soundtrack to people’s lives. It’s why individual pieces of music are chosen for weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. The right song can wake up a coma victim. It’s got nothing to do with sales, and everything to do with people’s souls.

When it comes to education, where many peoples ideas are formed, the situation is not much better. You can do a degree in art, and in art history, with the sale of art being given only a cursory nod in the curriculum. You can do an entire university degree in literature without once thinking about the publishing industry. You can do a degree in music without the music industry being mentioned very much at all. These things all have enough intellectual ballast to stand as subjects of study in their own right. Not so fashion, where assumptions are rather different. If you do a degree in fashion, you are taught how to make clothes and how to sell them. You are not taught why they matter. On the basis of a fashion degree from Central St Martins or the Royal College of Art, you will never understand what it is about people that induces in them a love of fashion, or indeed why fashion can be so central to the lives of some people, but not others.

When it comes to some creative and aesthetic forms – literature, art, music – people are quite capable of treating their cultural value separately to their economic value. In fashion, it is automatically assumed that to have any cultural value, it must first prove its economic worth. This, in my view, is a winning combination of tragic and wrong. Fashion has the same cultural value as literature, and music, and art, and it is to our detriment that we refuse to see this.

The next question of course is why fashion should be singled out for this treatment. Why is fashion simply a matter of shopping when shopping is between incidental and irrelevant to all other creative and aesthetic forms? In terms of intellectual, conceptual and aesthetic substance, fashion is the equal of any other creative form, but it is routinely thought of in pale and diminished ways. Why is that? That will be the subject of my next article. Watch this space.

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