Red is the new black
From a style point of view, it’s rather fitting that the colour red happens to be ‘The’ colour for AW17, confirming one of my favourite quotes from Audrey Hepburn - “there is a shade of red for every woman” – and adding a stylish edge to the abundance of Remembrance poppies this month. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a display of charitable commemoration being ‘au courant’ sartorially.
Red is alarming, uncompromising, empowering and fierce. As a society, we’re hard wired to it since it taps into our primal, passionate impulses. It’s the colour of the blood of Christ and also the Devil, with a cocktail of connotations consisting of fireworks, adrenaline, love hearts and red roses. The impact of Margaret Atwood’s haunting Handmaid's Tale has formed the wallpaper of popular TV culture this year, with red dresses and white bonnets even headlining Vera Wang’s fashion shoot in Vogue.
Red shouts. Revolutions are ignited by it, the camera loves it, Tibetan Buddhist landscapes are peppered by flags the colour of blood red robes. The matt scarlet ‘Givenchy Red’ seen on the AW17 catwalks reminds us that this colour is dangerous, subversive and fiercely feminine all at once, while Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman red dress confirms why every woman should own a red dress. Simply put, everything is better in red and it’s a God given right that every woman should wear in what makes her feel wonderful.
There is a shade of red for every woman
The colour of Buddhism and Communism, Jezebels and a harlot's knickers, when we ‘rouge’ our lips we are embracing our womanhood and making a statement [“I’m gonna’ rouge my knees and pull my stockings down” à la Liza Minelli]. “Let’s paint the town red [….]”. I defy anyone to not feel brighter, more confident and stronger when donning this traffic stopping colour. Bold and yet empowering, it’s even been proven that athletes who compete in red are more likely to win!
That red is also the colour of the iconic Remembrance poppy lends itself kindly to the thread of activism and identity at the heart of fashion’s raison d’être. The symbol of remembrance and hope, the poppy was first given prominence in Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous ‘Flanders Fields’ poem – lines from which are featured inside poppies this year - , and then by American Academic Moina Belle Michael. It was Michael who committed to always wearing a poppy in 1918 and who, in 1921, began creating silk poppies to sell to raise money for veterans, wounded soldiers and their families. That they were initially made of silk – one of the most sublime and sentient of natural, luxury fabrics – is a fact which has really struck me this year, with silk emerging as part of our mainstream movement towards New Luxury. Fashion will always have activism in its DNA and self-expression woven into its very fabric and its capacity to make a statement through what we wear is one of its greatest gifts. Following on from Michael’s initiative, the poppy flower has been represented in numerous end products using different fabric and materials since 1921, which have also equally been summarily sold to raise money for the needs of the serving and surviving British Armed Forces members and their families. I do not agree with the grievance – made by some - that a fashionable interpretation of the poppy is to the detriment of its sobering significance. From the Jeans for Genes campaign through to Fashion Targets Breast Cancer clothing, the fashion industry remains one of our greatest social influencers and this season’s lusty affair with red is a gift to Remembrance and its iconic red poppy.
Rather, the only problem I might have with the iconic Poppy tradition is that it conjures a collective remembrance, with the risk of the individual becoming lost in the constituent mass of lives lost. One of life’s most precious qualities is our identity, our individuality, having our name remembered when we enter a shop, club or pub or having our preferences or idiosyncrasies recalled. Our identity is everything and fashion is a tool with which we can express this. This is why the homogenous fast-fashion, prescriptive trend-obeying mindset is a travesty for individuality and personal growth while employing our clothing and accessories to express ourselves is hugely liberating. And fun! Yes, identity and individuality is freedom. Fashion has no rules. Fashion is freedom. Fashion is mood-enhancing. A flash of this uncompromising hue is equally impactful – as Christian Louboutin knows better than most. I know myself that when I step into my red stilettos, throw my ‘Red Riding Hood’ red coat over my shoulders or apply some femme fatale red lipstick, I’m owning myself, affirming my identity and making no compromises. It feels bold and brilliant and shamelessly indulgent.
“To me, clothing is a form of self-expression; there are hints about who you are in what you wear” – Marc Jacobs
The right to personal identity is recognised in international law through a range of declarations and conventions. From as early as birth, an individual’s identity is formed and preserved by registration or being bestowed with a name.
To have an identity; to express-oneself freely and to be valued as an individual are values which sustain our self-esteem and give meaning to our sense of self. These are fundamental human rights in a free society, which those soldiers fought for in the fields of Flanders. Few sectors of culture can support the protection of identity better than fashion and independent designers will always have the edge in responsiveness, flexibility and individuality.
This occurred to me other day when I discovered the most beautiful story, reminding me why fashion matters and why cultivating our identity is at the very heart of this.
In support of the irreplaceable work done by the Royal British Legion charity, an independent London designer donated a luxury ‘Poppy’ handbag (worth £888), designed and produced specifically for the cause, to a Royal British Legion branch in Bristol. Eyato London , a brand founded on the principles of distinction, individuality and self-expression, launched a small sub-collection dedicated to Remembrance, called the Ronti collection, a percentage of sales of which will be donated to the Poppy Appeal. Named after phonetic pronunciation of the Yoruba word for 'remember’, the luxury collection is designed by Atiti Izogie around the iconic symbol of hope and liberty represented by the poppy.
Handmade in London using luxury soft leather and designed to encompass the design of a three petal poppy, this Ronti handbag is bold, beautiful, and distinct and will be auctioned off at the Bristol Poppy Ball on the 18th November. From the handmade leather slip-on mules with detachable poppies on the vamp to the shamelessly indulgent evening clutch, the entire edit is a tribute to fashion’s ability to express, remember and be fun. The London designer says, “This collection is all about remembering, acknowledging and cherishing those individuals, just as we respect individuality every day. As a designer, I have always wanted to produce a design around those three petals”. Aside from the symbolism of the red poppy this month, this cheerfully luxurious capsule collection reminds us that fashion is fun, free and rule-defying.
No soldier should be remembered as a nameless collective, and each of us can use our wardrobe as a toolbox for self-expression, selecting what we want to say. Identity, independence and freedom are what each of those soldiers fought for on the fields and what their memory deserves. Identity is our most valuable possession and, together with freedom, will always be at the heart of fashion. Protect it. Wear it. Wear it with pride.
The full Ronti collection will be available www.eyato.com from Monday the 13th of November 2017.
Unless you’re a cave-dwelling ascetic or a self-denying Spartan, chances are you like nice things. Most of us appreciate quality when we experience it and know how to identify it on a rail. The price tag is usually a giveaway and few of us expect luxury without having to give something in return. But our preparedness to cough up cash is balanced by expectation too. A high price tag is (should be) justified by true magnificence, which few of us can afford. We pay with the assumption that we know what we’re buying and where it was made. This explains why some of us (those who can) shell out four figure sums of money for a pair of stilettos or a handbag, with the premise that the price tag is justified by solid brand values, heritage, skilled craftspeople and superior materials. We like to imagine that an Italian luxury accessories brand or a British ‘heritage’ brand will each be ‘made in’ their respective homelands.
But luxury brands are all over the place when it comes to disclosing where their products are made. All recognise the potential advantages of full disclosure but few — even those boasting a manufacturing heritage — exploit it. The majority go for partial disclosure.
Earlier this year, The Guardian exposed Louis Vuitton for producing the majority of its shoes in Romania, not Italy (according to EU law, if shoes are “finished” in France or Italy, the company can still qualify for the sought-after ‘made in’ tags). Further, most of the world’s leading designer luxury brands rank poorly in Fashion Revolution’s 2017 Fashion Transparency Index . In the 2017 report , all of the "luxury" brands score less than 30 out of a possible 100, and the majority achieve a dismal rating of less than 10.
As I recently commented in Why Slow Fashion is picking the pace , more and more fashion consumers are demanding transparency - in materials, production location/social impact, and even profit margins. They’re willing to pay high prices for high-quality items, especially if they have an understanding of the history and impact of the product they’re purchasing. We like a story. It’s a shift, to a purchase being driven less by brand and more by information.
What’s in my Wardrobe?
Echoing the #whomademyclothes social-media backlash to the Rana Plaza disaster, what do we really know about the history of those items in our wardrobe? Is there a dark story confusing price, perception and product lurking in our closet? If we pay 10, 20 or even a hundred times more than an item cost to produce, does the price tag correlate with the magnificent , luxury ‘story’?
According to marketing professor, and luxury industry specialist, Vincent Bastien , it doesn't matter if the products are actually made in China or Transylvania. As long as the image of " heritage, country and craftsmanship " is continuously reaffirmed and nurtured, the prices can stay high. " The more [the product] is perceived by the client to be a luxury, the higher the price should be ."
That price bears almost no relation to manufacturing costs and that fashion remains the 2nd largest polluter globally, after oil, really doesn’t have much hanger appeal. It's the result of very deliberate effort, says Dana Thomas , author of the bestselling book 'Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre' . She’s in no two minds about what drives the industry :
"[Their] sole motivating factor is profits. The designers can dream up beautiful designs, but the number crunchers will cut costs wherever they can to raise the profit margin." How else to fund those prestigious flagship stores and indulgent advertising campaigns?
Scaling up Sustainability
A direct relationship with cotton farmers, supporting Mongolian goatherds – it’s all well and good, but conscious consumerism needs to be commercial. An industry founded upon consumption needs to cut its cloth carefully. Diana Verde Nieto of Positive Luxury , an online trust-mark scheme that rewards fashion houses and jewellers making a positive impact on society and the environment says “the objective of sustainability in fashion is not just creating a lot niche brands”. “If sustainability is to take root, it must be adopted by corporations and embedded into their very structures”.
As consumer behaviour shifts from excess to ‘Buy Less; Buy Better’, many brands are successfully bridging the gulf between image and value. It’s certainly the case with several high street retailers now embracing sustainability as part of their business model. To namecheck a couple that are completely transparent in production, sharing all manufacturing and production details, let’s mention – Thought Clothing and Gandys . And, to give credit where it’s due, two corporations at the opposite ends of the luxury barometer are beginning to change the way fashion is produced on the scale that Nieto is talking about: Kering , the French luxury-goods giant that owns 16 brands including Stella McCartney, Gucci and Alexander McQueen; and H&M with its Conscious Collection together with its Global Change Award . And, in fairness, LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, has partnered with a Belgian tannery, marrying sustainability with its quest for the best materials and shifting some of the culture of secrecy.
Making the Grade
While exploring sustainable fashion, I’ve worked with some progressive and innovative brands, speaking to buyers and retailers, and monitoring the shift of consumer behaviour. The subject has introduced me to companies such as Waremakers , representing independent producers of high quality goods and providing in-depth information about each of their partners. Ironically, many of the European producers they work with use the same materials and manufacturing process as the big designer brands in France and Italy, but have a fraction of the mark-up.
It’s a fact echoed in the cases of many Private Label British manufacturers who, not only supply premium High Street retailers but, produce their own superior collections. These will have a higher price tag than the top end retailers they supply, while coming in at a fraction of the price of those luxury ‘designer’ brands. In one case – a leather handbag manufacturer who supplies premium High Street retailers - they will use AA Grade leather for their own label, while using Grade A for the Private Label products. This enables the retailer to maximise margins and cut costs. The growing number of sub-brands within ‘luxury’ fashion houses will be cutting costs and catering to demand by downgrading their materials this way.
To cite Oscar Wilde, too many of us know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Thankfully, transparency is now determining price tags much more than before and consumers will vote with their purses. Economics of scale state that it’s the global companies who have the most capacity to foster systemic change, so let’s hope that ‘luxury’ leads the way.
Consumers care about the origin of their products. The Chinese — the largest nation of luxury consumers in the world — want their watches to be Swiss, their perfumes and cosmetics to be French, their cars to be German and their bags and shoes to be either Italian or French. As a fashionphile and avid supporter of the industry, I want the Fairy-tale as much as the next woman; I want my heritage British brand to have Britishness in its DNA and my Italian heels to be made in the country of amore . We expect the quality of a ‘luxury’ item to be truly magnificent . This is, after all, one of the meanings carried by the Latin word " luxus " and how we can justify the extravagant purchase. The other Latin interpretation is “excess”, which too has proven dismally accurate. Interestingly, the English meaning of ‘luxury’, in Elizabethan times, was “lust” or “lechery”. But that’s for another blog….