The marketing of a lifestyle; International style

In the first of a two-part series on international style, Isabelle Anscombe looks at the aggressive design and packaging that influences our lives – and gets a global view from three busy travellers. . .

International style, to most people, means glamour: images of the super-rich trekking from ski resort to Caribbean island with Gucci luggage

The playboy’s toys have the allure of being both expensive and exclusive, rich with the smells and textures of money and power. But, despite its popularity as the vital ingredient in Dallas and Dynasty, it is fast becoming a rather dated conception of fabulous wealth and perhaps now reveals more about middle-class aspirations than the real life of megastars and billionaires.

For the more discriminating, international style has less to do with the iconography of franchised prestige and more to do with their own group of cult objects, defined by good taste. Their self-righteous abstention from the vulgar conspicuous consumption of the jet-set takes the form of minimalist living quarters of black, white and grey austerity, sparely furnished in glass, steel, chrome and leather.

Such environments derive from the historical design phenomenon known as the International Style, a branch of the Modern Movement. Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius unknowingly brought this style of radical chic into being in the cause of mass housing in Europe in the early 1920s.

The International Style has now been appropriated by big business. Intended to be democratic, non-elitist, practical and unintrusive by its lack of patterning, ‘clean’ lines and ‘pure’ forms, the leather and chrome look was never cheap. But it looks good with the marble floors and huge pot plants in the lobbies of International Style high-rise office blocks. Thus, by an indirect route, its creed of functionalism has also come to symbolize corporate money and power.

Another truly international style also took off in the 1920s, but not in the European compounds of the avant garde. It led, after the Second World War, to the world-wide sales of such brands and products as Levi Strauss jeans, McDonalds hamburgers, Coca Cola and Ford cars, and its origins lay in the United States.

But few people would feel that such products represent the dizzy heights of aspiration. Although truly international they are not in themselves glamorous.

The Harvard Business School has named such successful mass-marketing ‘the globilization of products’. International trade has taken place since Roman times. But it was only when radio was developed in the 1920s as a means of mass communication that production-line manufacture could be properly exploited in the cause of satisfying people’s burgeoning aspirations.

Perhaps the first mass medium by which the individual, isolated consumer could identify with a larger world was the Sears, Roebuck mail-order catalogue which gave small communities in America seemingly accurate pictures of how life was lived elsewhere, as well as an image of how they themselves might live.

For the public, the chance to ‘see how the other half lived’ (even if no one really did live like that) has proved enduringly appealing. Around 1930 the London Board of Trade commented perceptively that ‘motion pictures are influencing fashions, behaviour, dress and housing. People all over the world are deliberately going to a cinema as to an animated catalogue to get ideas’. The same must be said today of television.

The industrial designer Raymond Loewy has claimed the credit for the next step towards global marketing. In the 1930s he put forward the aphorism that ‘between two products equal in price, function and quality, the better looking will outsell the other’.

The influence of art on industry was hotly debated, especially in Europe, in the 1930s. By the 1950s styling had become so important to the consumer that manufacturers were able to enjoy a balmy period of built-in obsolescence: a time when, in America, men replaced their cars every year when all that altered was the shape of the tail fins. ‘New’ products, especially within the field of household technology, were constantly introduced.

So how and why is style added onto a product? Deyan Sudjie, whose new book Cult Objects is to be published later this year, says simply that design is to sell things, but added that those people who try to use style to manipulate the buying public usually get it wrong, since the consumer sees the packaging and merchandising of style primarily as a form of entertainment. What is certain is that people want more than mere function when they buy services and objects.

So what types of product are perceived to have a style that is international?

First, there are the luxury products: the Dunhill lighter, Chanel perfume, monogrammed accessories. Estee Lauder, for example, don’t alter their packaging or advertising in any of the 140 countries in which their products are available. Its genuineness is as vital an aspect as it is in the art market, where the mystique of the product is that, by buying it, the customer enters an exclusive world. Ironically, such manufacturers have to ensure that, despite their ubiquitousness, their customers don’t perceive the product to be too easily available, too common, or the mystique vanishes.

Second, there is the group of objects that, broadly, are the inheritors of Modern Movement traditions, that are consciously well-designed or are perceived to be so by interested consumers: almost anything from such companies as Braun, Olivetti or Sony, a Rolex watch, most non-instamatic cameras, Saab and Porsche cars, most things that are high-tech, electronic and matt-black.

It is a style far more readily associated with men than with women and one potent element of its appeal is the mystique of professionalism – ‘this is the camera the professional photographer uses’. Even though the customer knows he will never put it to the same range of uses, there is the satisfaction of playing with the big boys, of being seen to take it seriously.

But there is also a host of products and services that are global but not perceived as international in terms of their styling. They include not just Kelloggs, Heinz, Ford, McDonalds and Coca-Cola, but the myriad products produced by multinational oil, chemical or electronics-based companies (ICI, IBM, Philips, or General Electric). Their success has little or nothing to do with global chic and everything to do with technological research and advance.

Does the imposition of a global standard, the appearance of the same package, tradename, advertising jingle, synthesized sound, computer graphic or familiar smell in every conceivable culture, mean that the world is heading for a state of entropy and homogenization? Or are the same products perceived differently by different people in different contexts?

An empire founded on tea-towels; The Laura Ashley fashion company

The Laura Ashley fashion empire founded on a patterned tea-towel 30 years ago was celebrating last night the announcement it is to seek a stock market listing in modest-style.

The reclusive Mrs Ashley, whose name has become synonymous with Mother Earth floral prints and frills, was touring the west country with her mother.

Her husband, who she readily admits is the driving force behind the company – it was given her name after he refused to put his name to a tea-towel – was in the West End inspecting a few of the 180 shops located worldwide.

‘It is still the same business. We are just adding a few noughts on the end of it,’ Mr Bernard Ashley said between inspections yesterday.

‘The idea behind the Laura Ashley company has always been to make comfortable products, to make them available to as many people as possible,’ Mr Ashley said.

‘Our customers, though growing in numbers have been very loyal over the years. While we appeal to the more monied buyer abroad, we appeal to the home-makers here.

‘Our success is due to other people in retailing and manufacturing, it is people who come first, employees and customers. Our employees still have a say in how the company is run although they don’t report directly to us any more.

‘Our fashion and furnishings have always been classical rather than radical. Our aim has always been to make people feel comfortable.’

Among the main intitiatives planned for this year the company, still based in the heart of rural Wales, is breaking on to the lucrative Japanese market.

This global expansion is a far cry from the small workshop the Ashleys set up in Pimlico in 1953 to produce table mats, tea-towels and aprons.

Born Laura Mountney in Wales in 1925 she was brought up a strict Baptist. Printing lino-cuts on the kitchen table came as a diversion when the couple’s four children were young.

Bernard Ashley, aged 58, who likes to known as BA, gave up his job in the city when the orders for his wife’s work became too much.

In spite of the multi-national organization, the company is essentially a family business. The couple’s four children manage different sections of it.

Laura Ashley goes public to finance new factory; Fashion empire expands

Mrs Laura Ashley and her family will soon be joining the ranks of stock market multi-millionaires. Within the next six months the company, synonymous with frilly frocks and flowery wallpapers, will be selling its shares to the public in a deal which will value the company at about pounds 200 million.

The Ashley family owns almost all of the shares at present, and intends remaining in control of the company, although it will be selling at least 25 per cent of Laura Ashley PLC.

Laura Ashley is an unusual company in that it not only manufactured but also sells most of its goods. What began 30 years ago as a home-based fabric printing operation now produces and sells more than pounds 100 million worth of clothes and soft furnishings a year.

In the year to the end of January the company made profits of pounds 14 million on sales of pounds 112 million, of which pounds 104 million was in Laura Ashley shops round the world, Seventy-three of those shops are in Britain, but it is in the United States where growth is fastest.

The company has 55 shops in the US and plans soon to open another 25. The American market has apparently taken to the Laura Ashley look with all the enthusiasm previously given to Burberry.

In spite of its ‘folksy’ family image, Laura Ashley is a slick and professional company with a carefully assembled collection of managers to back up the family. Mrs Ashley oversees the company’s design policies and her husband, Bernard, is the entrepreneur who has built up the company.

Laura Ashley’s first big factory was built in Wales and the second in The Netherlands, where the authorities were keen to encourage new employers by offering generous incentives. Last year the company announced that it wanted to build an pounds 8 million factory, but that its wish to build in Wales might be overcome by the attraction of grants being offered in The Netherlands.

After intervention from the Government, Wales was able to offer subsidies of more than pounds 2 million and keep the new factory. Due to open next year, it is partly to fund that plant that the company has decided to go public.

Stockbrokers and bankers are now putting a price on shares in Laura Ashley which employs 3,400 people and could make profits of pounds 20 million this year.

Fashion Editor’s Comment: Majors in Stardom; Critique of student fashion shows

The star of the college shows was a white shirt. It appeared in nine variations on a theme as a Kingston project, and it was the best thing I saw in three weeks of student showings.

White shirts do not make good pictures, nor do they make a student’s reputation as Britain’s answer to Karl Lagerfeld or as the graduate most likely to be flown to Milan to work for the Missoni’s. But the triumph of the fresh white shirt over the outlandish, the elaborate and the over-styled degree collections highlighted what is wrong with the annual college shows.

They have become a parade of self-indulgence in which students with strong personalities major in stardom. Because the shows are presented like international collections – sound, lights, models and music – the spotlight illuminates the bizarre and the outrageous. This is unfair on students whose work is quieter and ultimately more acceptable to the fashion industry. It is also unfortunate for the colleges whose prime concern is to find the right career slot for all its graduates.

The showbiz element has become a delusion for many of the London-based colleges who fund-raise to take over the ballroom at Claridges or, in the case of the Royal College of Art, raise money by asking a gala audience to pay to see its students.

In the old silver screen cliche, fashion moguls are placed in the front row as talent spotters. This year’s included Elie and Jacqueline Jacobson of Dorothee Bis and Dr Lugi Maramotti from MaxMara in Italy.

There are too many colleges showing too much work in too many places. This is the season of guilt and callow youthfulness, when this fashion editor is alternately ashamed at having got to so few showings and enraged by the attendant groupies, the unreadable invitations (courtesy of the graphics department) and the jejune comments of the students. (‘Crippling’ was one student’s verdict on his job opportunity with a design-conscious fashion company; ‘I think my clothes are right for Italy’, opined another.) They cannot all be stars, none of them is yet, and I think journalists do a disservice to the colleges by tipping winners and inflating egos.

And yet .. at their best, the fashion students, and increasingly the textile schools with their imaginative prints, do offer such a refreshing spring of ideas. The best shows have an unbridled exuberance, new frontiers in knitting, original treatments of colours or fabric. That is why foreign companies look to the British schools, why journalists go to the shows, and why Lydia Kemeny, the principal of St Martin’s, can reel out the names of designer houses who are advertising on their college notice board for talent.

The colleges are supposed to be divided between the BA or more ‘creative’ courses and the B-Tech grouping. All by comparison with American or German fashion schools, offer very little training in the crucial backroom skills of pattern cutting and making.

Without a profound understanding of the way that the construction of fashion has changed, lightening and giving fluidity to the garments the most avant garde drawing-board design will not be translated as modern fashion.

The reason that many British-trained designers go abroad, is that they do not have the allround skills that make them useful to a small fashion company. I wonder if any of them know that pattern cutters are more highly prized and sought-after in the trade than designers and that their stars can command annual salaries of pounds 20,000?

This season’s Royal College graduates gave a spectacularly bad show, although some of its component parts – knitwear, graphic prints and the use of textures – were interesting. The general impression was that the class of ’85 had got stuck up a creek with far too much fabric.

Their drooping asymmetric wraps and hanging shirt tails recalled Yohji Yamamoto of two years ago. As the established designer Victor Edelstein put it to me when I asked if he could see any line or theme to the clothes: ‘The body must be somewhere in the middle trying to keep it all on.’

It is right and natural that fashion students should have designer heroes. But Harrow had two students who thought they were Gianfranco Ferre and had been given metres of expensive fabric to disprove the point; St Martin’s had a loving ‘homage’ to Azzedine Alaia and all too much influence from last year’s ‘star’ designer John Galliano. The fashion world is already eager to steal an original idea and mass market it. Flagrant plagiarism by the would-be creators looks like fouling the designer nest.

I think the time has come for colleges to make a selection of their students and show in the end-of-term parade only the best work which has earned high grades. This would encourage a spirit of competition, and cut down on the time and energy needed to look fairly at the college work.

On Thursday, an exhibition of this year’s college students opens at Hyper Hyper – the Kensington emporium which makes the most rigorous selection of all by exposing budding talent to the market place.

One Step Ahead is the aptly named title of a show which picks out some of the best and most creative students, emphasizes that creativity, and gives them an opportunity to show and sell it. ‘One step at a time’ might be a wise slogan for the fashion colleges, whose embryo designers have everything to learn about real fashion life: the ability to develop and sustain creativity, steady growth, marketing, as well as the ability to cut and sew.

The all-star college shows seem to me to encourage student designers to run before they can run up a seam.

Fashion: Age of the new wave hippie

London fashion came clean last weekend with a slimmer, sharper silhouette. Skirts for spring are short, sarong-wrapped and slender; the longer hemlines come mainly on dresses. Both shorts and trousers are getting wider, and pyjama pants are being challenged by a revival of 1960s bell-bottoms from the wilder young designers.

Waists are universally back in fashion and cut very high. Fabrics like cotton jersey and shiny man-mades stretch and cling. When it does not fit tight, cotton voile shows the outline of the body.

Colours are bold and bright. London prints make a splash with big flowers, from south sea blooms to psychedelic. Spots give a more graphic feel.

The sounds of the 1960s reverberate through the avant garde collections: mystic prints, shiny satins, hippie bells and platform soles.

It was a good season for designers who could come to terms with the more sophisticated silhoutte. Jasper Conran cuts a good line in jackets (for both sexes) and wrote a fresh lyric to a familiar tune with sure and clear colours – orange, turquoise, lilac, lemon and orange. His snappy short skirt, draped into a bustle at the back was an overworked idea; wide pyjamas has a funky Chanel feel.

Roland Klein cuts a good shape, especially his threequarter jackets, moulded into the waist with a wide belt, lapping the hips on the curve. Klein showed short slim skirts and wider shorts, in a well-controlled collection played in black and white, with flashes of sharper green.

Arabella Pollen has grown up and her light touch with tailoring looks fresh and young, though not inventive. John Rocha is the opposite: full of ideas but without the absolute expertise to execute them. He cut a good jacket shape, collarless, scrolled back on one hip to give a sense of movement.

Paul Costelloe gave us a nice drop of the Irish, using his country’s linen for slim dresses, sweet in white and sophisticated in black and grey flower-embossed cotton. Tea towels made into skinny skirts and midriff tops were fun.

The Fabrex exhibition at Olympia, running concurrently with the fashion shows, emphasized the creativity of London’s fabric designers. Hilde Smith’s bold black and white prints for Bodymap and Brian Bolger’s blocks of houses for Betty Jackson added strength to their collections. Jackson should work on a new silhouette, but her skinny dresses in cotton jersey and her leotard body suits under see-through voile were well done.

John McIntyre abandoned restrained English country style for the cotton picking Deep South where he was overwhelmed by a gaudy pineapple print. His high-waisted long slim skirts and shapely jackets looked better in the opening scenes in black. English Eccentrics relied too much on their mosaic prints in sweet and subtle mauves and petrol blue.

Zandra Rhodes is continually inventive with print, making this season’s strident Spanish theme in fan patterns of black and white, for slim chiffon dresses and some more alarming Infanta creations that lifted at the back to show silk chemises and a lot of Zandra’s new spider’s web of lacy tights. All this was meticulously done, but suggested a restaging of Carmen rather than a fashion show.

Janice Wainwright makes stylish evening clothes, perfectly cut and balanced, and this season in happy colour combinations. Yuki was quiet, except for giant flowers bursting out of kimono knits and some unsure mixes of colour – fuchsia pink with egg yolk yellow or purple. Best were the evening pleats and drapes and body-shaped dresses, cut tight in the bodice, ruched down the front panel.

Bill Gibb’s cut and proportions were eccentric. The same was true for most of the groupings of young talent’, which is a name used by a few (notably Susan Backhouse at Hyper Hyper and Rubeen Tariq at Amalgamated Talent) who show inventive ideas, and abused by many to present badly made clothes. Mark and Syrie’s Baby Doll dresses in pastel colours were silly but fun.

Jean Muir redressed the balance with a coherent and professional collection. She has given a young feel to her increasingly important knits, cropped midriff short or elongated over leggings, slim or sunray pleat skirts. Shapely dresses in very grown up colours like lavender and navy were impeacably cut and a fashion lesson in craftsmanship.