Return to Innocence (?)

Probably fashion’s best kept secret of last year, Tom Ford’s first women’s collection, launched in June. It was a surprise to many. Like a sun-bather’s pool party and inspired by the breezy spirits of a 1960s David Hockney-like California, he presented a range of pieces made from delicate fabrics in carefully chosen colours that were dotted with metallic finishes and his trademark smart detailing. Even more breath-taking than the clothes, however, were the presentation and chosen location. From floors that were inlaid with the brand initials in high-polish shiny brass to the half-lit, painfully chic atmosphere, every detail of the show had been taken care of with razor-sharp precision. Beyond its overt features, however, the show also re-enacted a number of subtle undercurrents most had thought were buried somewhere deep down in fashion history.

In a trend-defying move, Mr. Ford opted for a setting a cry far from what we have almost become used to: B-movie actors, Tokio Hotel’s Bill Kaulitz, no-name designers, and even less known stylists rubbing shoulders in the backmost rows. In previous times, shows of high-end labels used to be one part theatre and 15-minutes-of-phantasy spectacles, one part important retail events, where the show acted as no more than a prelude or appetiser for all the buying action afterwards. At Ford’s show, for once we saw a return to this elementary stage; back to square one, as it were. Inviting only the haute volée of critics and buyers, a number of selected guests, and Terry Richardson as its exclusive documenter, the whole event came closer to a private party than one of the other notoriously overcrowded biannual presentations.

And yet, it seems there is something more to it. The exclusive setting, the carefully selected guest list, the aura of intimacy paired with openness, all that is evocative of a time when it was a privilege to be “among one’s kind”, to be able to fence out those who always show up and never have true relevance, the drag-alongs who barely fulfil a role in fashion circles but manage to be present at crucial events for reasons unknown. Here, a scene from Loïc Prigent‘s ‘Signe Chanel’ comes to mind when, only minutes before the show, staffs are busy with allocating the right seats to the right people. When the fash pack is finally taking their seats, Chanel’s attendants recognise how, miraculously, one specific and notoriously unwanted guest had just managed to sneak through a loophole into the venue. Too late to remove her from the scene, they can’t but put up with the situation. Polemic though this example might be, we are terribly reminded of the fact that, in a time where virtually everything is out in the open, up for grabs for those with a running Internet connection, barely any of the half-kept secrets are left that used to surround the fashion circus. Before we know, some blogger gone wild has posted some half-baked news from his Air Book, while the readership seems increasingly unable to take a critical stance towards the “news” they have just been fed with. What with fashion, if it wasn’t for the air of extravaganza, a strange and colourful resort which – at least for a moment – directs our thoughts away from the ordinary way into a realm that most of us never will be actually part of. Yet, none of fashion’s dreamy implausibility makes it any less beautiful – by contrast.

And so, the return to a respectably private and memorable event also tells us something about how an oversaturated market has fuelled and furthered concomitant feelings of irrelevance and interchangeability. Enter Tom Ford who, in contrast to his strategy at Gucci and YSL, from the outset deliberately excluded shout-about-news concerning his eponymous imprint and, quite naturally, caused them just so, i.e., by simply changing the principle of news-news to no-news.

Seen thus, the big surprise was not actually that Ford put his hands to women’s wear – a move many of us had thought would be only a matter of time, anyhow. Rather, the celebration of exclusivity, a return to something intangible – a faraway, untouchable island – fits well in a time where too many things have become open source, random, and hence too close for comfort; where actual surprises have become rare exceptions and formerly coveted dreamscapes have been turned into machineries of strategic planning and predictability.

Siri Hustvedt, wife of Paul Auster, once said, ‘Sentimentality cheapens life’. That’s true. I do not wish to bemoan the fashion industry’s current state of affairs or its supposedly lacklustre and parochial structures. Rather, I mean to suggest that Tom Ford’s show struck a chord with a certain sentiment that has seeped through our life-worlds during the past couple of years. Quite some time ago, some of us have started to recognise how the present access-all-areas world is not a blessing altogether, but backfires at us in more than one respect. It might be a welcome development that we have been given the possibility to exchange news in an up-to-the-minute fashion or that the internet enables us to interactively create, co-develop, and exchange ideas, go for brainpooling, or just play the clever clog from time to time. Also, it is just fine that fashion houses try to reach a wider audience by extending their scope and list of invites. But perhaps it was equally great that luxury used to be a privilege for the happy few. Mainly so because it allowed the rest of us to dream, to create our own versions of this phantasmagoria rather than relying on real-life news from Everywhere’s Ville – or without witnessing that a number of individuals who might just as well be us populate the big-name fashion shows nowadays. It is lovely to go on a flight of fancy and, quite naively, use fashion as a vehicle to enliven our own lives and make them just a little brighter. But it hurts to see that Eden these days also talks in the vernacular of banality. Ford’s did not. It was a well-orchestrated exercise in chicly quiet beauty, in doing away with the unnecessary, in ignoring the rest of the world for an hour or two. For a change. Perhaps.