Tim Pendry's Reviews > 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know

50 Fashion Designers You Should Know by Simone Werle
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An entertaining and informative round-up of the history of fashion through 50 name designers with some excellent illustrative photography. Really a beginner's course and not claiming to be much more than that but reasonably well produced as you might expect from Prestel.

Our only additional note is an observation on fashion and gender. Of the great names who were born before 1920, the age of aristocratic and aping nouveau riche haute couture, over half were women (Lanvin, Vionnet, Ricci, Chanel and Schiaperelli).

In the generation born in the interwar era, only Mary Quant and the female half of the Missoni knitwear duo stood up against around 14 male names, some of whom were introducing notions of high art into fashion (Issey Miyake springs to mind) but most of whom were engaged in business.

Then, in the generation born in the 1940s, the balance shifts again with a majority of female designers clearly producing clothing that appealed more directly to women's perception of their own needs instead of just social status (Westwood, Kawakubo, Ander, Von Furstenberg, Karan and Prada).

During their period of dominance (late-1970s through to early-1990s), it is interesting that the three flagship male designers offer either an almost camp flamboyance (Mugler and Versace) or a simple model of marketing to taste (Klein).

Then, in the generation born after 1950, gender balance changes again with (excepting the case of Stella McCartney on whom the jury is still out as a 'great') all 13 major figures are, once again, male with a strong orientation back towards fashion as an 'art form'.

There is a mini-social history here of a fluid gender approach to the business being displaced in the wake of war with male dominance, then a counteracting recovery of ground as wealthy women assert their own needs after the 1970s or demand that men do so.

Somewhere in the 1990s, fashion self-consciously becomes conceptualised, a form of high art, perhaps because the needs of most women are adequately covered by the massive expansion of fashion-conscious retailing that is automatically adapting advanced design to women's day-to-day needs.

The flamboyance of the Versace and Mugler era gets ever more sexualised and glamourised by the luxury brand designers and conceptual artists move into the territory following the path laid by Miyake.

Other than 'our' Stella, women appear to have become facinated observers of highly charged males in vicarious peacock mode who are not, in all cases, making money - neither always business nor service, high fashion has become not merely art form and the stretching of boundaries but spectacle.

Naturally each generation overlaps, with Mugler's camp eroticism now underpinning the Lady GaGa phenomenon.

There is a hint of a grand narrative here, not only of female empowerment but of a paradoxical loss of female power within elites in the context of the war for liberation against 'fascism'. The war for democracy appears to have solidified gender roles rather than liberated them.

The rebellion of women in the 1970s represented by clothes made by women for women appears to have ended with another phase where we are all, men and women alike, participants in spectacle and drama, no different from being courtiers observing a prince's masque in the seventeenth century.

This is not to put forward a particularly feminist argument because women have become observers of the spectacle. Their needs are being adequately met by a massive retail fashion industry that interprets design back into practical use.

It is rather an observation about the drive of males (since there is no block to females in this respect) in the creation of spectacle and theatre in politics, entertainment and art.

Clean lines (the classical mentality, male autism if you like) and erotic display (the classic male yearning for desire to be channeled if it cannot be fulfiled) dominate over the pragmatic though, of course, this is not entirely fair to the ability of male designers to meet women's needs.

If you have Chalayan, Slimane, McQueen and Margiela at one side, then there is Jacobs, Ford, Dolce & Gabbana and the remarkable Van Noten on the other - but they are all lads and, where they are gay, that may change their sensibility but not their gender.

In short, we have been living the 'society of the spectacle' for nearly two decades. It will be very interesting to see how high fashion (as art) adapts to the changed conditions of the current economic crisis and whether people will want to continue to watch it from afar.

'Spectacle' is glamour in hard times (Hollywood played this role in the 1930s) but it can also be cause for resentment and even the uber-wealthy may have to start watching their step when it comes to ostentation.

Could there now be a 'peoples' fashion'? Should the revolution be about ensuring that 'all workers can eat at Maxim's'? Or will the rich simply tread more carefully?
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