The Ritz Magazine

Sartorial Subversion: The Iconoclasts Behind British Fashion

Words by Victoria Gill

Images by Getty Images / Alamy

Sartorial Subversion: The Iconoclasts Behind British Fashion

Words by Victoria Gill

Images by Getty Images / Alamy

Rules — and the breaking of them — is something the British do exceedingly well. Think of the miniskirt. Imagine Sid Vicious, hair spiked and face pinched in a sneer. Picture Diana, Princess of Wales, stepping out of her glass wedding coach, a sea of ivory taffeta fanning the establishment’s waves. Remember the carrier bag bearing the words “I am not a plastic bag”. Each of them is an iconic British fashion moment so at odds with the à la mode that they changed the language — and course — of fashion.

“You’ve got to know the rules to break them,” said the late designer Alexander McQueen. From Beau Brummell and his dandy band waving their kerchiefs at the bourgeoisie, to the Swinging London sirens sashaying along the King’s Road with their Bambi eyes and gamine legs peeping out from psychedelic tunics, and the faux-ironic posturing of the hipsters of the East End, London has long walked its inimitable blend of classic and contemporary, tradition and subversion, from the sidewalk to the catwalk. It’s a fantastic, iconoclastic, bombastic, romantic conceit. It was about the King’s Road. It was about rebellion. It was about girls in short skirts experimenting with free love and guys with Mohicans headbutting policemen. “The breaking of traditional rules is always exciting. Rules are made to be broken,” says Mary Quant. She is credited with propelling the garment that tore up the fashion rule book and started a sartorial revolution from the pavement onto the runway. She was the 1950s seamstress who raised the bar — and hemline — of acceptable dress.

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If Quant and her fellow fashion provocateurs in Kensington and Carnaby Street dressed a social revolution, then the iconoclast who set up shop along the street would feed the style demands of a movement with a harder edge — the thoroughly British, sartorial slap in the face that was punk. The World’s End boutique called Let it Rock, then renamed Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, was opened by natural born artisan Vivienne Westwood and music maverick Malcolm McLaren in 1971. Out of the dressing rooms flounced flower power and in stomped safety pins, anarchy and combat boots.

The puff ball skirt, underwear as outerwear, activism, the punk movement and the New Romantics — the fashion etymology of Dame Vivienne Westwood is as fluid as the lines of her couture. Her first eponymous collections were inspired by a universe of pirates and savages, hobos and witches — anti-heroes of the counterculture clothed with tailoring aplomb — her silhouettes comely hourglasses in a sea of twigs. “Englishness is essential to what I do,” says Westwood. “It’s about cut, it’s about irony, it’s about risk-taking and it’s about politics.” Just 35 years young, with lines ranging from Gold Label to Red Label, Anglomania to Couture, her brand now figures among the world fashion establishment. She has matured from an iconoclast to an icon; the spiky-haired primary school teacher with a talent for making clothes became a Dame of the British Empire for her services to fashion in 2006. The Vivienne Westwood look, soul and DNA has remained resolutely London and helped to shape the city that shapes the world. Her aesthetic is an exuberant contrast to the classicism of Paris or the modernity of New York, where Stella McCartney shows. It’s a sleek, contemporary, minimalist vision of 21st-century power and stealth.


If the design aesthetics of Dame Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney couldn’t be more contradictory, then their hearts are aligned. The two female global powerhouse British designers both share a passion and drive for fashion to change the world. While Westwood was injecting shock tactics, such as steering a white tank to David Cameron’s house in protest against fracking, McCartney was infusing ethicality into the mainstream and making it cool.

Stella McCartney is the first — and only — global vegetarian designer brand (no leather or fur touches her fashion) and sustainability runs from her shop floors to their dress rails. Campaigns to raise awareness of women’s issues, such as breast cancer and domestic violence, enlisted famous friends such as Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. As the daughter of Sir Paul McCartney, she has enjoyed the most connected yet socialist of upbringings; her education began at the local comprehensive and ended with pals Moss, Naomi Campbell and Yasmin Le Bon modelling her graduate collection on the Central Saint Martins’ catwalk in 1995. Just two years later, at the age of 26, she was chosen to fill Karl Lagerfeld’s shoes at Chloé.

In 2001, the Gucci Group launched her eponymous brand. She is the woman who turned sportswear into daywear, the first fashion designer to be named Creative Director of an Olympic squad (Team GB) and the recipient of an OBE. If every great designer has their own shape, Stella McCartney’s is sleek, minimal and sharply tailored. Her look, and background, is quite at odds with our next iconoclast. No survey of fashion designers — particularly those of British descent — would be complete without looking at the kind of styling that, quite literally, goes to your head. Philip Treacy is the milliner who has reinvented the art of the headpiece. The chosen hatter for the emperors of fashion — Chanel, Versace and Valentino were showcasing his designs when his brand had barely launched in the early 1990s — the majestic, out-of-this world headpieces conceived by the softly spoken Irishman have an ability to transform, and even eclipse, their wearer and her outfit. He was the first milliner to be invited to have his own show during Paris Couture Week, in 2000. His close friend and mentor Isabella Blow would have been naked without his designs. The fascinator that Princess Eugenie chose for the royal wedding in 2015 (later auctioned on eBay and raising £81,100 for charity) garnered nearly as many column inches as the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding gown.

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The majestic, out-of-this-world headpieces have an ability to transform, and even eclipse, their wearer and her outfit

That gown was designed by Sarah Burton, who now steers Alexander McQueen’s fashion house to ever-burgeoning success and popularity. His backstory reads like something from a Dickens novel. The son of an East London taxi driver, Lee McQueen began his career as a teenage apprentice in the dusty, spare tailoring back rooms of Anderson and Sheppard, then Gieves and Hawkes, in 1980s Savile Row. His inaugural fashion collection was shown on a clothing rail at The Ritz. After several critically acclaimed seasons, he followed John Galliano to Paris, succeeding him as head of couture house Givenchy in 1996. In 2000, he received the backing of the Gucci Group, which acquired a dominant share of his eponymous brand.

The return to decadence in the West brought with it a renewed appreciation for craftsmanship and McQueen’s collections metamorphosed into a menagerie of fineries, evolving masterpiece upon masterpiece. The artistic realms of his imaginative genius, perfectly balanced by his classical tailoring excellence and historical rigour, were exemplified by his otherworldly runway shows. One year, Shalom Harlow’s white dress was being spray-painted by robots on stage, the next, models were suspended from ceilings, flying over the catwalk dressed in ball gowns and burkas. “I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions,” he once said. He was crowned British Designer of the Year four times, voted International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2003 and awarded a CBE by the Queen in the same year.

Such success is achieved amid the pace and pressure of the fashion world that has seen designers’ lives implode. Ossie Clark, the 1960 couture darling who ended his life nearly destitute, was murdered by an ex-lover in his Holland Park flat. McQueen died by his own hand on the eve of the funeral of his beloved mother, Joyce, in 2010. Galliano, although not one of our iconoclasts, was the design star of his generation. He was the fashion prodigy whose sheer classical brilliance saw his graduate collection bought up and displayed by Joan Burstein in the windows of Browns and who later headed the houses of Givenchy and Dior. Yet his career floundered after a hate-filled, drunken outburst in a Paris café in 2011. He has since emerged from being aprofessional untouchable to head the Belgian label Maison Margiela.

Dame Vivienne Westwood is today seen as a senior figure of the fashion establishment and one of the most recognised Britons in the world, both as a brand and as a public figure. That British powerhouse of global fashion, Burberry, has pulled back from being regarded as a tired old gentleman’s outfitter and reversed the misappropriation of its historic house check, to become one of the most aspirational, à la mode and commercially successful luxury fashion houses in existence today. “To be really elegant, you must not be noticed,” declared the world’s first sartorial iconoclast, Beau Brummell, whose wardrobe of beautifully tailored bespoke suits was viewed as highly controversial in an era when knee britches, powdered wigs, frills, rouge and perfumes were the acceptable face of menswear. And, as a Tom Stoppard character, considering Brummell, puts it: “Substance is ephemeral, style is eternal.”

I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions

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Posted 7 Jun 2016

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