Corinne was from Ickenham in West London. Kate is from Croydon in South London. When they heard my accent, they asked me where I was from. When I told them I hailed from Reading in Berkshire, there was flicker of recognition from both: We had all clawed our way out of our respective crap towns and into the accepting arms of mother fashion.
We chuckled about our gritty birthplaces and joyfully compared notes. Whose town was the crappiest? I insisted on mine. After all, Oscar Wilde, who was incarcerated in Reading and wrote a bleak poem about his experience, described it as “a cemetery with lights.” From my childhood bedroom window I had a nice view of that very jail, thank you very much.
There is a kind of reverse chic about crap towns, which is hard to understand unless you were born in one. Whether we hail from Fresno or Scranton, Ickenham or Twickenham, we celebrate our gritty roots with pride while simultaneously rejoicing in the fact that we escaped.
Crap-town pride is especially pronounced among fashion folk. The chasm between the bleak naffness of that hopeless, inhospitable, rainy birthplace and the fun and magical artificiality of the fashion world is a source of delight and inspiration. Our unpretentious origins provide a knowing reference point from which to approach the ultrapretentious white-hot furnace of fashion and trendy glamour.
The list of creative slags who have fled their crap towns and dusty villages and found safe harbor in the world of fashion is a long one:
Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in Getaria, a fishing town in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa.
Michael Kors is from Merrick, Long Island.
Jean Paul Gaultier was né in Arcueil, Val-de-Marne. No, I’ve never heard of it either.
Jay McCarroll from Project Runway grew up in rural Pennsylvania.
Like the charismatic Jay, Kate and Corinne exude humor and confidence. They have that creative self-assurance which comes from being born on the naff side of the tracks but knowing that your innate sense of style and your outlier creativity were sufficiently major to propel you out of obscurity.
Despite their jeunesse and total lack of experience, Kate and Corinne had—at the time of this first encounter—just accomplished something huge. They had changed the face of fashion forever. Their collaboration created ... another drumroll! ... the waif.
Let’s digress a moment to chat about The Waif.
The waif was major. The waif was the biggest thing to happen to fashion since punk. But in order to fully understand the waif, we need to digress again and explain the glamazon, the tarty virago who preceded the waif.
The glamazon came along in the late ‘80s. Her look could best be described as “high drag.” Open any magazine back then and you were bound to encounter a cavalcade of maquillaged glamazons. The glamazon look was a postmodern mash-up of midcentury high-fashion dominatrix aggression. Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts and Steven Meisel all celebrated the power and stature of glamazons.
Just as with drag queens, every glamazon model’s makeup and hair was designed to pastiche the styling of a midcentury model or movie star: Linda Evangelista was Jean Patchett or Dovima or Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida. Christy Turlington, in Versace with a blond skyscraper beehive and more lip liner than Lady Bunny, was Barbarella or Ursula Andress. Naomi was Josephine Baker or Mahogany. It was a cinematic postmodern explosion of hyperfemininity.
Then Corinne and Kate created the waif, and David slayed Goliath.
The waif was the polar opposite of the glamazon. The glamazon shrieked with laughter. The waif barely smiled. The glamazon wore thick foundation. The waif didn’t even wear foundation garments. The glamazon was a defiant optimist. The waif was a beautiful pessimist. The glamazon was a look-at-me supervixen. Everything was externalized. The waif represented the opposite. Everything was melancholy and internal and slightly damp. The waif was the supercool working-class slag from a crap town. Corinne and Kate had stripped away the artifice of the tired old glamazon and channeled themselves. Together they obliterated the tarty glamazon and created a whole new poetic, introspective concept of style—the perfect accompaniment to the grunge movement in music—which still reverberates today.
Fifteen years later: Kate is now a household name. She has become the most famous model in the world. She has weathered various scandals and always emerged triumphant. She is still the cool girl, the chick every gal wants to emulate.
What about me? I have reached my half century, two decades of which have been spent working at the same store. I am, in some ways, the Susan Lucci of Barneys. (I refer to the longevity of my role rather than to a lack of awards. At this point I have a shelf groaning with Lucite obelisks, cut-glass rose bowls and brutalist granite blocks, all bearing my name.)
I am preparing for the arrival of Kate Moss and her Topshop clothing collection, which will make its U.S. debut at Barneys. The hip and affordable UK high-street retail phenomenon is set to conquer Manhattan with a collection designed by none other than Kate herself. Will there be any missy separates? Undoubtedly. There will be a bit of everything. Fashion after all these years has become an all-inclusive goulash of trends and styles that seem to exist concurrently: bohemian, faux-hemian, sexy secretary, manga, goth, dykey assassin, glamazon, and, yes, waif are all available for your delectation.
Along with designing the Kate Moss Topshop boutique and the opening windows, I am also charged with chatting to the press.
The New York Post calls.
In a sincere attempt to put the sheer majesty of Topshop into some kind of broader sociological context, I tell the reporter that Kate’s ineffable sense of style comes from the fact that she is “a working-class slag from a crap town, just like me.”
I go on to explain that fashion would not be fashion without the contribution made by us slags. We enliven the landscape with our refreshing lack of preconceived ideas. We neutralize the corrosive bourgeois preoccupation with luxury that can so often threaten the creativity which drives real fashion. Slag power rules!
The point I was trying to make was: All the energy and creativity in fashion comes from the crap towns like Reading and Croydon. The Sebastians and Arabellas—the toffs from Knightsbridge and Mayfair—make zero cultural contribution. It’s the lads and lasses who have fought their way out of the rough end of town who provide the creative foundations for La Mode. I cite John Galliano (a plumber’s son) and Alexander McQueen (a taxi driver’s son) as good examples. Blah! Blah Blah! I get all fired up and morph into a ranting fashion-world Camille Paglia.
The media and the blogosphere ate up my comments, or rather, I should say, a severely edited version of my comments.
The fact that my words were intended not to insult the working-class slags of the world but rather to generate a bit of crap-town solidarity was largely overlooked. Taken out of context, as they subsequently were by a billion tabloids and websites, my words sound almost menacing.