Jean Paul Gaultier is an undeniably brilliant designer, and by all accounts a genuinely kind, compassionate and lovely man. I’ve never met him, but I admire him greatly, I’ve commissioned pieces on him and he seems to be universally popular. Unless you’re an anti-fur protester. Or Mitch Winehouse.
Gaultier’s haute couture collection for spring/summer 2012 was a tribute to the late singer Amy Winehouse, who died six months ago almost to the day. I wasn’t at the show but it was, it seems, a heartfelt ode to a woman who was not only an extraordinary vocalist and songwriter but also, as far as the fashion world is concerned, a style icon. Nothing wrong with that, you’d think.
Except that Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, didn’t know it was coming. He told The Sun that the pictures of the show were a shock to the family. “We’re still grieving for her loss, and we’ve had a difficult week with the six-month anniversary of Amy’s death.”
You can see his point. Six months is a painfully short time, and anyone who has been through a bereavement will know that feeling of suddenly being reminded of a loved one by something as little as a scent or a view, even years afterwards. Winehouse’s image is still omnipresent, with her posthumous album Lioness advertised widely, but to see a whole catwalk show of models dressed in beehives and smoking fags, when they weren’t expecting it, must have been heartbreaking for her family.
It could probably all have been avoided by a call to the Mitch ahead of the show, asking for his blessing; no doubt a donation to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which helps disadvantaged young people, and crucially a bit of warning for the family, would have made the whole thing a lot easier and even uplifting.
But I think the issue goes beyond Gaultier’s well-intentioned misfire. Mr Winehouse, talking to The Sun, said: “We’re proud of her influence on fashion but find black veils on models, smoking cigarettes with a barbershop quartet singing her music in bad taste… It portrays a view of Amy when she was not at her best, and glamorises some of the more upsetting times in her life. That’s upsetting for her family.”
I think he’s pinpointed something unsavoury about fashion and its choice of heroes. Winehouse always had a fascinating style, and personally I preferred her look back in 2004 or 2005: a young, fresh, individual ingénue, retro, albeit with a strong, urban edge even then. It reminded me of those 1960 images of Marilyn Monroe off-duty while filming The Misfits by the late Eve Arnold.
But fashion didn’t care at that point: they only wanted her when she was back on the scene from 2006 or so, post-Back To Black, not going to rehab, smoking, defiantly disreputable, rake-thin and ravaged by drink and drugs. This is an industry that thrives on the controversial, and boy was she controversial.
To me, that look was a costume, as so much of fashion is, and, being synonymous with a bad girl image that had far too much truth behind it, I can see why her father – who, after all, knew the Amy that came before the public figure – could find it an awful reminder of his daughter at her lowest ebb.
The thing I don’t understand, and that highlights the rather heartless bubble that is fashion, is how anyone could have studied her image, the way Gaultier clearly has, and not seen and portrayed the tragedy behind it. When I set out to sketch her, a couple of hours ago (see above), I thought it would be easy: flicked eyeliner, big hair, pout – bish, bash, bosh.
But it wasn’t. Every picture from this era, apart from the publicity shots, looked haunted, harassed, scared. Behind all that make-up was the woman capable of writing Love Is A Losing Game, but I think we all forgot that, as she disintegrated before our eyes. I’ve tried to capture that, but I don’t think I’ve done it justice.
The attendees at fashion weeks sometimes seem little more than a carefully contrived image – a trademark hat, a signature accessory, a carefully unflattering haircut, a fur coat in summer. But shouldn’t fashion be about dressing for who we are, or even who we want to be, rather than disguising ourselves? Yes, dressing up should be fun and, as Gaultier said at his show, “joyous”, but not at the expense of self.
Just as we studiedly avoided seeing the bad stuff that was going on for John Galliano, behind his strutting, flamboyant public persona, we enjoyed the spectacle of Winehouse and forgot that there was a person beneath the beehive.