Death of Taste

WGSN.com, March 2007

The Death of Taste, a two-day series of talks hosted by London’s ICA, examined the ever-increasing speed of fashion trends and the “constant plundering of the recent past”. WGSN reports.

Speeches at the ICA’s Death of Taste symposium from designer Vivienne Westwood and journalist Colin McDowell paved the way for a series of discussions on topics ranging from fashion photography’s relationship with computer-generated imagery to the importance of a city’s image in promoting the fashion industry.

Many compelling issues were raised, including the notion of a “slow fashion” movement, as well as the possibility of a portable online fashion week thanks to the internet’s rapid dissemination of fashion information.

One of the conclusions was a call to restore consumers’ confidence, in order that they themselves can become connoisseurs of taste.

Is bad taste better than no taste?

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood

 Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2007

Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2007

 Colin McDowell

Colin McDowell

David Beckham

David Beckham

 Mr and Mrs Beckham

Mr and Mrs Beckham

 Victoria Beckham

Victoria Beckham

What is taste? The UK’s Sunday Times journalist Colin McDowell discussed the history of taste in the West and its links with class in the symposium’s keynote speech.

Taste is power. Taste is exclusion,” he said. “It’s all about wanting to be better than other people. It’s about prejudice and superstition. It’s all about showing off – like the Beckhams. But how do they [the Beckhams] know how to dress in the correct way, because they don’t adhere to the rules of the upper class?”

McDowell traced a history of taste, placing the blame for a dissolution of taste (and the Beckhams) firmly on those strict enforcers of the class regime, the Victorians, for creating a desire for imitation within the lower classes.

“The Victorians piled it on, they wanted it all to be seen. They broke the rules of the upper classes because others then copied them. The Georgians got it right. Their attitude was that less is more as long as “less” constitutes the things no one else wants.”

Conspicuous waste: Marie Antoinette

Conspicuous waste: Marie Antoinette

 Piling it on: Alexander McQueen spring/summer 2007

Piling it on: Alexander McQueen spring/summer 2007

For McDowell, this dissolution occurred with the onset of conspicuous waste, in which desire overcame need and clothes were replaced before they were worn out. Even the tradition of dressing for dinner or changing clothes throughout the day fed this desire.

After berating – somewhat harshly – the “godless greed of the West”, McDowell made the case for a fourth class, which could be the most powerful of all: the youth class.

“The youth is our future aristocracy. The 21st century is more ageist than ever. They say, “we are young, we can do whatever we like.” It’s bad luck for the oldies,” he said.

But the question is, will the youthquake ever end? It could be argued that the increasing ageing population – although young at heart – could still hold just as much influence as the young.

“I am expensiv”

Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2007 collection

Vivienne Westwood took to the stage at the ICA for an interview with journalist Brenda Polan, ruminating on issues of taste, culture and subversion.

Culturing taste is all about recognising originality,” she said, adding that taste is a necessary facet of rebellion. “Rebellion is always in context. Subversion undermines the status quo and should re-establish it. I’m not trying to subvert taste, but I would just like us to have more of it,” said Westwood with a wry smile.

Obsessed with classical culture and an avid reader, Westwood is a fashion anomaly. A big-name designer who doesn’t court celebrities on a designer yacht in St Tropez, she instead takes quiet holidays in England’s Lake District. Her views on culture are high-brow, yet refreshing.

“Culture has the power to change – but pop culture isn’t culture. We’ve gone so far away from it we don’t know what it is. Culture is representative of human nature. It’s not “me, me, me” but a core of normal experience that people can relate to – it’s a mirror to life.”

'I like the idea of decorum.' Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2007

“I like the idea of decorum.” Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2007

 Vivienne Westwood autumn/winter 2007/08

Vivienne Westwood autumn/winter 2007/08

 'I like the idea of decorum.' Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2007

“I like the idea of decorum.” Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2007

“I like the idea of decorum, and that I have to ask myself “am I being true to my vision?” This isn’t self-indulgence, this is self-discipline, and this is what great art is about.”

Speaking of her Gold label spring/summer 2007 collection, with its jumpers, bags and boots adorned with the slogan “I am expensiv”, Westwood explained that it started with the idea of propaganda as a great evil – and culture as the remedy. To her, the collection was a way of responding to mass culture by saying, “I don’t want your cheap holiday and I’m not fancying a McDonalds at the moment, thank you very much.”

She explains that it also means we, as consumers, are all expensive, that we’re spoiled; we’re supported by the third world and we’re costing the earth.

So what would she say to kids today? “Not “Anarchy in the UK” for sure,” she quipped. “I’d say stop telling people to switch off. Switch on And be more positive.”

A digital democracy

Fast fashion Zara

Fast fashion Zara

 Anna Wintour

Anna Wintour

 Fast fashion Topshop

Fast fashion Topshop

WGSN’s former editor-in-chief Roger Tredre sat on the plenary panel at the close of the symposium, discussing the dissemination of fashion information on the web and its implications for the industry.

We’re not talking about the death of taste, but a splintering of it; it’s exciting but also scary,” he said, discussing the “crucial moment” in 1999 when American Vogue editor Anna Wintour sent a personal letter to all the major international designers notifying them that images from their catwalk shows would be appearing on Style.com. “It’s a demystification of the fashion process and the catwalk has become a public arena,” he added. However, Tredre cautioned that many fashion houses still don’t fully accept this practice and there is talk of closed events.

“Fast fashion has definitely fuelled this splintering of taste, feeding a succession of trends in its speed-to-market model. But is it a democratisation of taste? I think the shopper is confused as much as stimulated,” he continued.

Non-British designers at London Fashion Week: Roksanda Illincic

Non-British designers at London Fashion Week: Roksanda Illincic

Erdem

Erdem

Jens Laugesen

Jens Laugesen

“There could well be a counter-trend, rather like the Slow Food Movement,” he said, adding that a company like WGSN, with its exhaustive trend analysis, can often actually make it harder to make fashion fresh – to re-invent and re-interpret – despite it also being a wealth of valuable information. “Which course to follow? I think the idea of global taste will change. Now, it’s more about region.”

Lee Lapthorne, creative director of the On/Off catwalk and showroom event in London, also upholds this idea of regionality and identity – but only to a limit. “We’re seeing more non-British designers showing in our event, yet their design ethic is seen as British,” he said. But Lapthorne also added that when it’s possible to download shows through, say, iTunes, regional identity won’t matter.

“We could well see a portable fashion week in the future. Designers still have to promote themselves in other countries and sell regionally, but London could be a hub for an international fashion week,” he suggested.

Slow fashion

Making the case for a slower, more contemplative fashion capital, Susan Postlethwaite, senior lecturer in fashion at the Camberwell College of Art in London, is inspired by the Italian Slow Food movement, now 20 years old.

“I would like to see designers not working to season, but when they’re ready, when they have something to say and are not subject to the speeded fashion cycle,” she said.

Bespoke London

Postlethwaite also believes that consumers achieve a sense of self through shopping, but they’re confused by the speed of change and the newness. “Fashion must give consumers their confidence back, so they can say “this is me”.” Inherent in this idea is a dialogue with designers in which the consumer is involved in the design process – rather like couture.

Of all the fashion capitals, Postlethwaite believes that London, with the tailors of Savile Row and the jewellers in Hatton Garden, could market itself as “Bespoke London”.

WGSN comment

The “dissolution” or “splintering” of taste, “conspicuous waste” – these were negative phrases that popped up throughout the symposium. “We have such an incredible cycle of buying and throwing away, soon there won’t be anything left,” Postlethwaite said.

But her plea for a closer engagement with the consumer hit on a more positive note, uniting ideas of experience, involvement and personal identity – all key in shaping notions of taste.

It’s a notion that could be music to the ears of those arbiters of taste, the luxury goods groups, who are constantly looking to reinvigorate the tarnished and overused notion of luxury; especially as it doesn’t involve less money, but rather a greater focus on time.

Fact file

  • The Death of Taste took place in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, November 24-25, 2006.
  • It examined the work of making, styling and fashioning taste within the context of increasingly fast fashion trends and the “constant plundering of the recent past”.
  • Speakers represented all aspects of the taste-making process. Fashion designers, trend predictors, journalists, stylists, fashion theorists, editors and retouchers discussed the ways in which they help create, develop and kill off tastes both old and new.
  • The symposium was organised by the London College of Fashion/University of the Arts London and the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

www.ica.org.uk

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