Easy, Spare and Contemporary


>> I've been re-reading the brilliant The Fashion Conspiracy by Nicholas Coleridge, now President of Conde Nast International, but back in 1988 when the book was written, he was rising through the ranks, as editor of Harpers & Queen (now known as Harper's Bazaar).  He delves into the world of fashion, from the catwalks of Paris to the sweatshops of South Korea, gathering opinions of over 400 people in the industry in the late 80s, observing it all with an intrepid and somewhat cynical eye.  What he saw back then can largely be related to what we see today.  I chuckled out loud on the bus the other day, reading the chapter where Coleridge speaks to American designers like Donna Karan and Norma Kamali, who as the time were just taking off with their businesses.  They both spoke of this ambiguous "modern, easy and independent American woman" and the type of clothes they wore, which could almost be anything at all.  Coleridge recounts these descriptions with a wry smile.

The more I talked to American designers, the more I became amused by the linguistics of the fashion conspiracy.  The terms in which they described their philosophy and customers were similar, often identical and yet the clothes have little in common.  Words like 'modern', 'easy', 'contemporary', 'executive', 'simplicity' and 'spare' are apparently so ill-defined and intangible that, in the hands of a Seventh Avenue publicist, they can be applied with equal validity to a plain cotton camisole or a ruffled evening dress. 

At each interview I asked the designer about their customer, and heard described the same amorphous woman: married or nearly married and yet the mistress of her own destiny, building a career but with a full rounded character, confident but confiding, ambitious but yielding, a workaholic but intending one day to quit the rat race for a beach house at Newport.  Her life sounded so shot through with contradictions that you feared for her sanity.

A curiosity of the modern, easy, spare American woman is that all her adjectives come in sets of three.  'She wants something that's wearable and tailored but still feminine.  Clear, relaxed, professional, clothes she can put on and forget about.' (said Donna Karan)

It is unreasonable to expect visual people to express a fashion instinct in words.  No wonder they all grasp at the same ones, like they gravitate to the same colours according to the season.  It occurred to me that the reason designers describe their clothes as 'easy' is only because magazines label them 'easy', because 'easy' is short and typographically convenient.  'Easy' is the kind of word you can squeeze in next to anything at all.

I laughed because of the way words such as 'easy', 'contemporary', ' spare' and 'simplicity' still pervade the language of fashion today, certainly when you speak to designers in New York and also in Europe, and definitely across the board in magazines.  We're none the wiser when it comes to concrete definitions.  It seems they've become lazy catch-all terms that make prospective consumers and journalists feel at ease with the clothes at hand.  One flick through this chapter and I'm already wishing that journalists and designers turned to clothes that are "difficult", "antique", "festooned" and with "complexity".  

12 Replies to “Easy, Spare and Contemporary”

  1. Such a fantastic post. I think I might read this book it sounds very intereting and would be good to look at how the fashion industry has changed today, if it has at all.
    Michelle x

  2. What a great point. It seems like this is similar to the relationship between art criticism/history and art making. Grasping for words to describe the visual is always tricky, and I too wish there were a larger vocabulary to discuss complexities.

  3. Hello
    So true. It is easy to use words that journalists are used to, when the whole point of fashion is to take another path that is purposefully ‘difficult’. The reason why these words stick around even today has absolutely nothing to do with fashion, and everything to do with the mainstream.

  4. Just reading the same chapter! Love how it continues – ‘the park was full of contemporary American women exercising. Like adjectives, they jogged in little groups of three.’

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