LONDON, United Kingdom — To lose three people of great cultural value in a couple of weeks seems a cruel deprivation. First, Gore Vidal, then Robert Hughes and, finally, Anna Piaggi — belles lettres, art criticism and fashion knowledge lightly worn. They will be missed in their different ways. But each one of them had something to contribute to fashion, though I suspect that many, inside and outside the fashion industry, may not instantly see what unites the three.
They were all fearless. They refused to temper their originality of mind to fit with what others were thinking. In the case of Vidal, he deliberately set out to frighten and annoy those he saw as having dumbed down and destroyed the culture of America, which he delighted in calling The United States of Amnesia. He felt American society had betrayed itself and sold out to the culture of money and materialism — and he largely blamed commercial filibustering and the lemming-like way that the media followed its lead. Looking at today’s fashion scene alone, who can argue?
If Gore Vidal was a corrective rapier in our sides, Robert Hughes, Time magazine’s Australian-born art critic, was the essential scythe, slashing away at the rubbish, as in his dismissal of Damien Hirst (“Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?”), Jean-Michel Basquiat (“a featherweight”) and Julian Schnabel (“a lurching display of oily pectorals”). His book The Shock of the New should be compulsory reading for every fashion student, especially those studying journalism, but I doubt if there is even one copy in most college libraries, which prefer to spend their tiny budgets on buying fashion magazines.
Like Vidal, Hughes was fearless in his appraisals. And even though artists and galleries hated what he said, they could not silence him. How different to fashion commentary where any attempt at honest criticism results in outrage and blacklisting from future shows. Sad and silly, showing terrible insecurity on the part of the fashion house, it is counterproductive in that nothing can grow and develop without informed commentary, no matter how fierce it might be.
And so to our own critic, Anna Piaggi. Her path was gentler than that of both Vidal and Hughes. But it was just as important. What she taught us about contemporary fashion was done subtly, by omission rather than accusation. Her knowledge was lightly worn, not only on her back but also in her two page spreads in Italian Vogue where she used her encyclopaedic awareness of the history of clothing to illuminate what she felt was the best of modern fashion. These monthly bulletins were visual statements but they spoke as strongly as any words by Vidal and Hughes and they frequently highlighted what a friend said to me recently: that modern fashion has lost its brain. Flicking through most fashion magazines, what thinking person could deny that?
Unlike mere attention-seekers who use silly clothes to attract paparazzi, Anna Piaggi was a walking, living costume history lesson. Once, long ago, I asked her why she didn’t put her exceptionally wide-ranging knowledge of fashion into a book.
And although, at a later date, she did allow many of her Italian Vogue “doppie pagine” (double-page spreads) to be published in book form, at the time she smiled and said: “But I do. Every day when I dress it is a new page.”
And, of course, it was. Not a sterile historic page, but a brilliantly judged gallimaufry of the modern designers she found of interest — not that many, it has to be said — with streetwear and clothes from many time periods and cultures about which she had learned from her great mentor, the Australian costume expert Vern Lambert, who left his collection of clothes to Anna. She told me that her hope for the future of the collection would be to give it to Australian aborigines to join Western dress culture and native Australian culture to create something entirely new and exciting. It was an inspired dream and I hope it happens.
But even more, I hope the death of these three visionaries — Vidal, Hughes and Piaggi — will remind us that there are always alternative paths for those prepared to think and it is always those paths that lead to the real crock of gold. We must be wary of the merchants of hyperbole. We must refuse to be swept along by artificial excitements. And we must learn that the best thing that any of us can do for fashion is to think for ourselves.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.