British street and fashion culture is the envy of the world. But the grind of professionalism is killing maverick talent

Vivienne Westwood: An Unfashionable Life

Jane Mulvagh <em>HarperCollins, 399pp, £19.99</em>


There is a famous encounter in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. Cedric, a droll, flamboyantly camp social climber, visits the narrator, Fanny, a slightly dowdy young aristo married to an Oxford don. "Aha!" notes Cedric. "So now we dress at Schiaparelli, I see!" Fanny says that her scarlet jacket was a present and expresses horror at the waste of money when, expertly, Cedric prices it. "Simply silly . . . there's only a yard of stuff in it, worth a pound, if that."

Cedric retorts: "And how many yards of canvas in a Fragonard? . . . Art is more than yards . . ."

In these brief lines of dialogue Mitford summarises a gulf that exists to this day. Our society seems permanently divided between those who throw around words such as "genius", who believe that couture is high art, worthy of museum status and serious study, and Fanny's spiritual descendants, for whom fashion is all too silly, frivolous and immoral, who believe that the money would be better invested in third-world schoolbooks. Apart from a few protean stylists who can move painlessly from catwalk to thrift shop, fashion for the majority is either bliss or blight.

In this context it is interesting that in these two large books, each devoted to the work of a significant clothes designer, the clothes themselves do not occupy centre stage. They are the chorus, the supporting cast, the backdrop. A biography of a European couturier (even the recent relatively racy one on Yves St Laurent) must focus primarily on the designs. There is not much else. But Ossie Clark and Vivienne Westwood were English artists first and fashion designers second.

Over here we are far more interested in character than clothes; we prefer flamboyance to fabric. In the UK the context of fashion differs considerably from its continental European counterpart. Fashion here is more animated and inclusive, less cerebral and hierarchical than in Europe. So Clark and Westwood functioned primarily as personalities, each emblematic of a particular period in postwar culture.

Ossie Clark's name evokes a familiar pantheon of imagery - prettiness and privilege, spun-sugar rebellion, Mick'n'Bianca, Twiggy and Bailey, white butterflies, Moroccan lamps, dim rooms swagged and draped with ethnic tassels and fabrics, a fog of incense, rose-coloured spectacles and those early cock-sure, thundering chords of the Beatles-Stones-Who soundtrack.

To an even greater extent Westwood represents a paparazzi paradise: designer to the original London punks, she's there too, professionally sullen with her bleach-blonde spiky crop, ripped fishnets, mohair jerseys and all her other provocative, confrontational, hard-edged, asexual clothes; later there's Vivienne picketing for culture in flesh-coloured tights and a strategic fig-leaf, or greeting royalty in a see-through lace dress. Flash! The mini-crini. Vivienne swaying around in her rocking-horse shoes, hectoring anyone on declining educational standards. Naomi Campbell tumbles off Vivienne's ten-inch platform shoes. Flash!

From the beginning, untramelled by idees recues, the untutored Westwood could always pull off a dazzling visual statement, particularly when in partnership (and love) with Malcolm McLaren. Alone she could not inject, Jane Mulvagh writes, "contemporary reference". "The semiotics of the street did not impinge on her isolated sensibilities . . . McLaren had a brazen, feet-on-the-ground, finger-on-the-pulse modernity."

Mulvagh's biography is thorough, well-informed, straightforwardly (rather than theoretically) intelligent and very readable. Naturally she must traverse ground already over-excavated, but she succeeds in illuminating Westwood's contradictory character. Remote from politics or anarchy, Westwood's innate attraction was to a "heavy-handed . . . romantic historicism". Mulvagh displays tact and respect in documenting Westwood's life post-McLaren, particularly in regard to that journalistic banana skin, Westwood's "guru" and self-styled professional intellectual, Gary Ness. Helplessly drawn towards male mentors whose ideas she respected, Westwood remained under the doubtful influence of Ness for years, apparently unable to discern that his self-conscious, self-serving ideas of what constituted an "intellectual" were warped and unbalanced - for example, his wholesale rejection of all 20th-century culture. It seems almost inconceivable that, after associating with McLaren, Westwood could start parroting Ness's weirdo anachronisms.

Mulvagh succeeds in balancing praise and pathos in this poised assessment of Westwood, pointing out how "extremely impressionable" Westwood is, and noting that she is very much better at research and reproduction than originality in design - a debatable contention. With both these books there is some sense of surfeit, of overload. They concern the very recent past, decades that have already been cannibalised, sucked dry, analysed to death. For the computer-literate bibliophile there is little challenge now in cultural research. There is no more "search" in research. It is all available. Every last detail and minor character.

The Ossie Clark Diaries is a much more slapdash book, despite its stylish graphics and great photographs. Perversely, this haphazard quality makes it more appealing and more in tune with its content than Mulvagh's professionalism. There is a disarming foreword by Lady Henrietta Rous, who cannot understand why Clark was "never helped more radically by his extremely famous, rich friends". There are also some truly appalling mistakes and typos.

The body of the book is composed of Clark's diary entries. The resulting minutiae have a salutary effect in demythologising the 1960s and early 1970s, shrinking the starry cast of famous names into bite-sized chunks of real life. So these legendary people get tired and bored and sick; they quarrel and sleep and get divorced and cry. Vividly, unpretentiously, Clark records his decline from prince of the fashion pack, Hockney model and consort of the cool, into forgotten, miserable penury. He was eventually murdered, in 1996, by his last boyfriend.

This is a sad morality tale running from innocence through excess to waste and ruin. Clark's sudden, well-deserved success, his lack of business acumen in the emerging fast-paced society he found himself in and his narcotic self-indulgence provide a more accurate and familiar fable of the period than the lives of tougher stars who endured and thrived.

Clark and Westwood displayed the lack of interest in commerce and professionalism characteristic of true innovators. Today professionalism alone - however mediocre the product - tends to leave talent and chaotic creativity far behind; and both these designers have had countless, and much more commercially successful, imitators. So these books serve as a valuable celebration of two pioneering English eccentrics. Lest we forget.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour