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By Harriet Robinson
Let’s talk bug bears. I have my fair share of longstanding forerunners: passive aggression, city-dwellers owning Land Rovers, the gilet. But over the last few years something else has really begun to get my goat. More than bo-jo’s faux-bumbling persona, more than an omnipresent smug-faced Simon Cowell – what has really started to irk me is the sheer amount of kitsch in fashion. By that I mean, the frankly unbelievable over-use of elements that may be thought of as cultural icons in clothing, which far from being ironic and edgy, are, in my opinion, just plain boring.
Take David Lachapelle, an artist and fashion photographer, intimately involved with Vogue worldwide and well known for combining hyper-realistic aesthetic with social messages. As an artist, I find him inspiring. A personal favourite is ‘I buy a big car for shopping’, where an oversized, Oldenburg-esque Coke can is seen crushing a car, while the city-working car-owner stands bleeding in the foreground. His fashion photography is in a similar vein. Vogue Italia has published several of his photos, including “Can you help us?”, which shows two women in bubblegum pink tutus holding teddy bears against an apocalyptic backdrop, and another with a model straddling a giant mobile phone emblazoned with the American flag. As a social commentary, I find his photography breath taking. However, when it comes to fashion, I can’t help but think should the “kitsch-pop surrealism” of Lachapelle really be held in such high esteem?
Another key figure in this tidal wave of kitsch is French-Moroccan designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, known affectionately in the fashion world as JC/DC. He was projected into the limelight following the creation of a teddy bear coat worn both by Madonna and Helena Christensen in the film ‘Prêt-a-porter’ and has since created items which comprise a coat made entirely from soft Kermit the frog toys, a vast array of Snoopy and Mickey Mouse items and a dress resembling a French franc.
This ideology has inevitably percolated down to the high streets and it would seem that they have become polluted with t-shits proudly brandishing ketchup bottles and sweatshirts bearing homage to the loony tunes. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a guy in a tank top dedicated to MTV or the ever-present NYC. I have to ask myself, what message are these people hoping to convey? In my, admittedly humble, opinion, fashion offers the opportunity to express oneself, to convey your identity in an immediate, aesthetic form. Is a defining aspect of their character that they like Coke or enjoyed Mickey Mouse as a child? I mean, I like Coke as much as the next person, but I’m not going to brandish it across my chest like a walking advertisement for the beyond mundane. Evidently at the outset the employment of kitsch in fashion was ground breaking and edgy. But following its inevitable filtration into the mainstream, doesn’t it just end up a widespread celebration of the dull and the ordinary? In fact, as someone with a penchant for the melodramatic, I would go so far as to say that if my identity, the first impression I gave to everyone I met, could be encapsulated in a tank top saying ‘Drink Coca-Cola’, then get me to a nunnery; I really have very little to offer.
Thankfully, the winds appear to be changing and it would seem that de Castelbajac and others are heading along a different trajectory. His latest collection at the Autumn Paris fashion week showed a strong avian influence, with a more sombre colour set. While the collection did feature a fair few cartoon bird head shoulder pads, there wasn’t an identifiable children’s television character in sight.
Fashion, as it reaches the lay person, has been devolved and reconstructed since it’s time on the runway. What was once haute couture, showcased in a spectacular Paris venue, is now reflected in the sweat shop produced, sequinned mini skirt; £5.99 in Primark. All fashion will ultimately become inferior, mass-produced copy of a top designer’s creation – that’s just the nature of the game. So with this inevitability in mind, let’s have a more sophisticated starting ground, shall we?