x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Fashion talk: lessons from youth

The industry and its interns could learn some things from the late designer Alexander McQueen, whose youthful decisions were a great part of his success.

Alexander McQueen never played it safe at his fashion shows.
Alexander McQueen never played it safe at his fashion shows.

I've spent the week working on a special tribute magazine to the designer Alexander McQueen. This has involved re-watching fashion shows, many of which I attended as a young, star-struck fashion reporter. I've also been talking to members of the designer's close-knit inner circle. As with any unexpected death, especially of someone so famous, there remains a sense of incredulity, even weeks on. What I've learnt from telephone conversations is how much McQueen touched the lives of those he worked with.

Watching his shows reminded me how much he and his clothes shocked the unshockable fashion crowd. Seeing him take his bow, looking so happy - and so very young - was far more shocking than his clothes, which today look fairly ordinary. Age is a funny thing. I'm only a couple of years older than McQueen, so never thought as him as young. Like most fashion superstars, his "overnight success" was nothing of the sort. It took years. In the early shows, McQueen refused to stroll to the end of the catwalk to take his bow and give the braying snappers a photo. Instead, he would dance about with his model mates, such as Kate Moss.

Many journalists thought this was shocking - disrespectful, even. In hindsight, it wasn't an act of rebellion: it was simply McQueen's youth. Youth had a lot to do with why he insisted on cherry picking inexperienced show producers, set builders and creative peers to help him realise his shows. Many fashion industry insiders who now find themselves at the top of their field, such as the show producer Sam Gainsbury and the stylist Katy England, owe their success to McQueen. Before England, there were only fashion editors; now every 16-year-old who shops at Topshop wants to be a "stylist".

In between all this reminiscing, I've been putting the finishing touches to a new course in fashion media. It is unique because it's designed for 16- to 17-year-olds. Most similar courses aimed at prospective fashion journalists catch students when they are around 21, which is positively wrinkly in fashion industry terms. Although it's a short course (just a week) and very much a "taster" of the business, it is designed to give the YouTube generation an insight into the world of The Devil Wears Prada.

What happens to all the kids "styling" friends' outfits, like I did when I was 15? Most, I suspect do anything but land a career in fashion. I did all sorts of courses before finding my path back to fashion journalism. So when I ultimately graduated from Central Saint Martins at the grand old age of 25, I spent two years sorting out tights in the Vogue fashion department. I often think about what would have happened if I had taken up the job Tina Brown offered me on Tatler magazine when I was 16. My father, a journalist, ironically, forbade it. Yet McQueen, Stella McCartney and Anna Wintour all left school at 16.

As well as the fundamentals (and teaching students about the importance of stylish young people within fashion media), I based my course around what the attributes of an ideal fashion intern would be - things like having a knowledge of the fashion industry, being great at ironing and having a sense of the ridiculous. Most fashion journalists learn their trade as postgraduate interns working in frenetic fashion departments in newspapers and magazines. The majority of naive interns I've worked with recently have no grasp on reality, let alone fashion. I find myself having to explain fundamental concepts such as how a dress ends up in a boutique. Recently, I had to correct an intern who was pronouncing haute couture "horticulture".

I hope courses like the one I'm involved in will entice into the industry young people who don't just love fashion and want to be famous, but who also have a genuine interest in how clothes are made. With a little help from YouTube, I've stumbled on some cracking interviews with Vivienne Westwood, David Bowie, Henry Holland, Lauren Bacall and Stella McCartney that are realistic, glamorous and fabulously superficial. I'm teaching the course via style icons.

I'm saving the talk on McQueen until the last day, when I make my point about fashion ultimately being a business about making money. Although it's driven by the vision, dreams and talent of individuals, the ultimate achievement for such an individual is to be backed by a luxury giant, like PPR, as McQueen was. In his short lifetime, McQueen enjoyed success, fame and financial rewards but ultimately not happiness. Surely there's a lesson to be learnt here?