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June 22 2011

A change of scene

From Gilbert & George to Stella McCartney, Central Saint Martins has trained the country's coolest artists and designers, but can it retain its radical edge now it is moving out of Soho and into King's Cross?

In a studio that reeks of chemicals above London's Charing Cross Road, a small group of second year students are putting on a fashion show with a twist. Danish designer Henrik Vibskov, who is wearing voluminous black trousers and unsuccessfully trying to open the window, has commissioned them to express the concept of a panopticon prison through the medium of menswear.

Two young men stand motionless in front of a screen. One is wearing trousers in violently clashing prints and a hat that looks like it was made of broken white clay pipes; the other has donned a baggy navy jumper with a ochre splodge on it. A short film is projected over them that goes from black-and-white close-ups of a male nude to threatening psychedelic fuzz. They're "clothes for a distorted body", explain the students, pointing to bits that stick out at the elbow and the knee. Christopher New, head of BA fashion menswear, admires the jumper's intricate weave and asks about the meaning of the yellow blob. "Sometimes we do classic tailoring as well," he tells me, moving on to the next group of students, whose interpretation of the panopticon concept involves the recreation of a rave in the college's basement.

This is Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (CSM), which for decades has been the place where Britain's brightest young creatives have come to develop their talents (it evolved into its present incarnation in 1989, when the Central School of Art and Design merged with Saint Martins School of Art). It was at Saint Martins that Gilbert met George in 1967, the Sex Pistols played their first ever show in 1975 and Jarvis Cocker met the Greek girl who "had a thirst for knowledge" and inspired Pulp's Common People. In the mid-80s, the Charing Cross Road building became renowned as the furnace in which the world's leading fashion designers were forged, a reputation that persists to this day. Sarah Burton and Riccardo Tisci, 2011's most talked-about designers, both studied here, as did Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, the men they replaced (or are poised to, in Tisci's case) at McQueen and Dior. A list of other CSM alumni would take up the rest of this article, but includes such cutting-edge artistic talents as Polly Harvey, MIA, Sade, Mike Leigh, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Jonathan Saunders and three-quarters of the Clash.

This week marks the end of an era, as CSM leaves its two buildings in central London and moves to a new premises in King's Cross, just across the road from the Guardian. The move won't be welcomed by Professor Louise Wilson, legendary course director of MA fashion, who believes that the very grottiness of the Charing Cross Road building has helped drive her students – from McQueen to Christopher Kane – to succeed. "You feel that you're better than this corridor," she says. "In the new building you want to hide. All our secretaries loved it when they saw it and I thought: 'Yeah, you would.' I didn't want to point out that they're never going to meet a man because there's nothing around there. But it's not an issue whether or not we like it – we're going."

A party for alumni at the Charing Cross Road building will celebrate the occasion, where Pulp will play. The bash has been organised by former student Katie Grand, now editor of Love magazine and one of the most sought-after stylists in the world. "They should tell you on your first day that everyone you meet you're probably going to be working with in 20 years' time," she says. Her early-90s peer group included Luella Bartley, Giles Deacon, Stella McCartney, Antonio Berardi, Hussein Chalayan and Phoebe Philo – as well as Anita Pallenberg, who enrolled as a mature student. "I remember my first day at college," says Grand. "It was like that scene from Fame with everyone jumping around and being terribly intimidating and fabulous."

Right from the start, eccentricity seems to have been woven into the place's DNA. Antony Gormley, who studied sculpture for a year from 1974 before deciding that the place wasn't for him, remembers one tutor, Patrick Reyntiens, who wore medieval costume. "He didn't believe in modern trousers with pockets so he had to have a little purse that he hung from his very wide leather belt. He was literally in hose, so he was wearing tights, and then this sort of doublet at the top." Grand remembers one student being warmly praised for making a print out mice blood, while Christopher Booth, now menswear designer at Balenciaga, got stuck straight into making jackets designed for Siamese twins: "I was like, 'Yeah! Creativity!' and the tutors appreciated that." Walking around the collections made by this year's final year, you see that anarchic sprit lives on in the work of Ryohei Kawanishi, who has created giant-sized items of knitwear representing WikiLeaks and Twitter.

Some students have had mixed feelings about this tendency to elevate the conceptual over the practical: Philo, now the celebrated designer of French fashion house Céline, famously said of her time at CSM that: "I just wanted to make a pair of trousers that made my arse look good, rather than a pair that represented the Holocaust or something." It's also characteristic of the place that when you ask the head of the college, Professor Jane Rapley, which former students stick in her mind, she settles on Chalayan, famous for burying his collections in the ground and making dresses that turn into tables.

Yet this unashamedly arty thinking is what gives CSM its edge. Moreover, it gets tangible, often commercial results. Though they only showed their work in February, three of this year's MA graduates have now been snapped up by red-hot Parisian fashion house Lanvin; over on the BA course, Italian Vogue is already sniffing round 25-year-old Flaminia Saccucci, whose collection of sharply cut latex dresses printed with flowers and tyre marks have won her this year's L'Oréal Professionnel Young Design Talent award. It's not just fashion designers either: Glen Matlock, who dropped out of a foundation course to join the Sex Pistols ("I've always regretted it. Vivienne Westwood said I was mad"), claims Pretty Vacant was inspired by his time there: "Marcel Duchamp and his readymades – that's how I got the idea. I borrowed the riff from an Abba song, and I thought it was cool because that's what Marcel Duchamp did. Pretty Vacant, with that moronic riff, is somehow Dadaist. I wouldn't have got there if I hadn't been to art school."

Yet will the creative buzz survive CSM's move from the bright lights of Soho to the building site that is King's Cross? Even more than the college's reputation, the central location has been the main draw for generations of students. In the 70s, Matlock remembers seeing Lucian Freud in the district's illicit drinking clubs. Mark Titchner, who studied fine art from 1992, divided his time between the record shops and the galleries: "To be able to go to the National Gallery and look at a work and not much else was very luxurious." Booth points out that Soho contains invaluable resources for fashion students – the fabric shops on Berwick Street to make the clothes, and the sex shops for "research". The college is intimately linked to London's clubland – designer Gareth Pugh remembers putting on a fashion show at a strip club called Moonlighting in Greek Street and discovering that a corridor led to the college's library. Grand says that hanging out with the staff of Covent Garden shop The Duffer of St George in her lunch hour taught her as much as some of Saint Martins's more avant-garde projects.

It was in the mid-80s that Soho became youth culture ground zero, making Saint Martins the hottest place on earth. Artist Isaac Julien, who studied fine art and film and graduated in 1984, remembers an dizzyingly fertile time when young creatives broke down the boundaries between artistic disciplines, high art and club culture, couture and street fashion. Fashion students such as Galliano would work on their creations all day, then go out in them at night to Club For Heroes and Le Beat Route, where they would be photographed for emerging style magazines such as the Face and i-D. There were talented young people on every course: graphic design student Robin Derrick, now the outgoing creative director of Vogue, was in charge of the college magazine; Peter Doig was studying fine art, and students such as Julien were rebelling against their tutors' idea of film studies to embrace MTV and popular culture. Julien remembers his peers as a generation who knew they were going places and felt ready to seize any opportunity that came their way. "It was incredibly difficult to get on a course," he chuckles. "So you felt that it was an achievement just being there and that you were expected to culturally lead in some fashion. If you were in the centre of London, you were at the centre of things. Who'd want to be at Goldsmiths?" – positively out in the sticks in New Cross.

These days, however, London's cutting-edge club scene has long shifted east, and today's students don't seem fazed by the move out of Soho. "It's nice to go to a big new building because it's so annoying that our libraries are separate," says 20-year-old first year menswear student Ellie McDonald. "It's fashion and fine art here and then everything else at Southampton Row" – CSM's other central London building, 10 minutes' walk away in Holborn. Soho isn't what it was, either: the Crossrail project has flattened the West End's best club and gig venues, and King's Cross at least offers a building which, as Rapley puts it: "hopefully won't leak, the windows won't fall out, lumps won't fall down and nearly kill people and we might be warm". The move is part of a long-term strategic plan to bring together the Univerity of the Arts London – CSM's parent organisation – on to a single site; by the time next term starts, it will hold 3,000 students and 800 staff (two other buildings whose leases haven't run out will still be in use, at Clerkenwell and Archway).

Of course, next year will also bring increased tuition fees: CSM will charge £9,000, replacing the £8,500 a student currently funded by the government. Rapley says that CSM is "quite obsessed" with the worry that brilliant working-class students such as Lee McQueen – whose father was a cabbie – will no longer be able to afford to come, though they're at pains to point out that CSM will be no more expensive than any comparable institution. What art schools traditionally provided, Rapley says, "was an opportunity for the renegade to come through. Our most obvious classic one is McQueen, although I have to say we just helped along the way – he was going to get there one way or another." Initiatives to improve access include bursaries for students who can't afford the fees, and outreach programmes which bring students from poor backgrounds into the college in order to encourage them to apply.

While both Rapley and Wilson say that CSM isn't for everybody ("We might destroy you," says Rapley, faintly alarmingly), when I ask what advice Wilson would give a student who wants to go, she simply says "apply. I'm always frightened that it's those people that don't apply are the very ones we want to apply. It's perception as well – we're considered a very good college, and it can be something as innocent as the art teacher saying 'you won't get in there' that puts them off. Actually, they might."

Yet the college is all too aware that students have never been so hard-pressed financially. Wilson says that it's not unusual for people on her MA course to have already racked up £50,000-worth of debt during a foundation course and three-year BA, which in turn affects their work: "The pressure disallows them to take as many risks as they would have previously." A self-described "rightwing despot", she points out that the barriers to entry for working-class students were erected under Labour, when grants were abolished. "Education has had seismic cuts for years, and soon it's going to be on its knees," she rages. "The grants disappeared without so much as a murmur – that's already affected education because people from other social strata can't enter it, for that dynamic mix."

Yet despite everything, CSM is determined to preserve the spirit that has made it such a powerhouse of creativity. "I think the place stands for a certain anarchic idea of permanent revolution – of every generation overturning the orthodoxies of the previous one," says Gormley. "It's so important for the national culture that there right in the heart of the city there are people poking fun, asking: 'Is this the way we want to look? Is this the way we want to make things? What's important about being alive?'"

CSM's philosophy, says Wilson, is revealed in the fact that it doesn't even have an archive. "That means you're hanging on to the past, and we're always trying to creating the new and not redo it. Fashion's transient – it moves. And besides, the students aren't interested – they do their research, but they certainly don't look back at old shows that we've done. We're very hot on having knowledge and then rejecting it."

Downstairs by the library, two students are making another project, which involves photographing each other with cardboard boxes over their heads. As I pass by, they rope me in, put a box on my head, and snap me waving goodbye, Wilson's parting shot ringing in my ears: "Without art you don't have society. It underpins so much. Without creatives we're a bit buggered." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 03 2011

Met gala: McQueen tribute show draws celebrities – in pictures

In pictures: Fashion's most famous fans flocked to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for the preview of an exhibition devoted to the British designer

April 21 2011

Food for thought ... Why cuisine or couture can never equal great art

Clothes are to be worn and food is to be swallowed: they remain trapped in the physical world. True art, however, is of the mind

What is art, and what is not art? We all know the answer to that. Potentially, since Duchamp, anything goes as art. So perhaps that question has no meaning any more. A better question might be: what is interesting art? Or better still: what has the potential to be great art?

This last question is the one I choose to pose. It is prompted by the ongoing promotion of certain activities as serious cultural forms that might in the past have been treated with less reverence. Admittedly, this week's announcement of the top 50 restaurants in the world makes no explicit claim that chefs are great artists, but the seriousness with which these exercises take food means the line between culinary genius and genius full-stop seems thinner all the time. You could argue that a similar line has already been crossed by Alexander McQueen, the late British couturier whose designs are to be celebrated by an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In some banal way, it's easy to say that food is art; that clothes are art. What's more interesting is to ask whether they can be serious art: can they move us; change the way we see the world; make us think about profound matters?

The idea that food is an art, that cooking can be high culture, is nothing new. It goes back at least to Brillat-Savarin, a French aesthete who philosophised the pleasures of cuisine in the early 19th century. In fact, French culture has seen food as artful for a long time, and since the French also invented modern art, perhaps the imagination that can cherish a well-cooked omelette is also the imagination that can value the ordinary world as a cultural artefact. On the other hand, Vincent van Gogh joked that the folk of Provence were stupefied by their endless bowls of bouillabaisse, conveying the point of view that food is nothing more than carnal. It cannot feed the mind. It can soothe, but it does not inspire.

The same goes for clothes. Can fashion make you think? It can definitely make you think about fashion. But McQueen took on dark themes, or so argues a passionate piece about his posthumous exhibition in the Telegraph. The designer was a brooding romantic who used fashion to express his anxieties and release his demons. If that is the case, can his clothes be considered profound? Do they really go deeper than the surface?

I like food and fashion, but I do not believe they ever come close to doing what great art does. Food is to be swallowed, clothes are to be worn. But although I think about art every day, how many great works of art have I touched? I have handled Leonardo da Vinci drawings, but the physical contact, though moving, was not the point.

Art is of the mind; it is ethereal. Everything it gives us it gives to our brains. Fashion and food fail to be serious art because they are trapped in the physical world. Compare a still-life painting of food – one of those rich, laden Dutch images of lobsters and lemons – with a real plate of food. The painting is very obviously not food – it does not give what food gives. But it does nourish something deeper instead. It reaches the parts of us that chefs and couturiers cannot reach. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 22 2011

McQueen's fashion designs at the Met

Late designer's work to be celebrated in major exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Great fashion design is equal in status to any form of artistic expression. That is the premise of an exhibition celebrating the designs of the late Alexander McQueen that opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May.

A preview of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty has been unveiled at the Ritz by the twin fashion forces of Anna Wintour and Samantha Cameron, against the backdrop of London fashion week.

Thomas Campbell, the director of the Met, and Andrew Bolton, curator of its Costume Institute, praised the artistry of McQueen's work. "His work fits so easily within the discourse of art," said Campbell. "He can be considered no less than an artist whose medium of expression was fashion."

Bolton said: "His fashions were an outlet for his emotions, an expression of the deepest, often darkest, aspects of his imagination. He was a true romantic in the Byronic sense of the word – he channelled the sublime."

The exhibition will be arranged thematically rather than chronologically and will feature over 100 examples of work from the designer's 19-year career, from his 1994 Nihilism collection to his posthumous Angels & Demons collection shown last year.

It will begin with a gallery entitled The Savage Mind, which will examine his subversion of traditional tailoring, while other rooms will focus on his recurring fascination with Romantic literary traditions such as death, decay and darkness.

Other highlights will include the McQueen tartan from his Highland Rape collection and a mini projection of the infamous Kate Moss dancing hologram, which debuted after the model's cocaine scandal in 2006.

Stella McCartney, whose career has run almost in parallel to that of McQueen, and who will co-chair the exhibition, was at the launch. Sarah Burton, who worked alongside McQueen for 14 years and is now creative director at the label, was also present.

McQueen was found dead in his central London flat on February 11 last year. He had hanged himself. An inquest at the time found that he was struggling with depression and the death of his mother and the coroner ruled that he had "killed himself while the balance of his mind was disturbed..

The organisers of the exhibition said its swift timing enhanced its integrity. "Memories are so fresh," explained Bolton, who also noted that the archive was intact.

Campbell explained the location – the Ritz hotel was where McQueen first showed a rail of his creations to the press in a 1993 collection called Taxi Driver.

Cameron said she was "thrilled by this recognition of British fashion". The exhibition will runs from 4 May to 31 July with a gala launch on 2 May. "I'm sure that the party will be a very, very special night," she added.

London's hottest stars

Mary Katrantzou delivered a standout collection at London fashion week. The Greek-born designer showed a sculpted, couture-like silhouette with hyper-real prints of stunning interiors, pictured below. Last season she did lampshades and stately homes; this season it was shapes and prints that recalled Ming dynasty vases.

Marios Schwab's collection mixed sleek leather and wool dresses with brogue and buckle detailing and was much praised. He used pearl necklaces as part of his dresses' construction rather than as accessories.

Louise Gray's bonkers mix of dots, stripes, prints and checks demonstrated London at its playful best. Other designers being name-checked as ones to watch included Michael van der Ham and Christopher Raeburn. Van der Ham showed jewel-coloured crushed velvet dresses in his trademark luxe-patchwork. And Raeburn's pop-out parkas – two jackets cut to be worn together or separately – won a legion of industry admirers. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 03 2010

The big picture: Yves St Laurent unveils his autumn/winter couture collection

The influential designer, whose lasting legacy was the trouser suit, is in his element here as one of the last kings of couture

Today a few unfashionable people may be celebrating the rebirth of a god. Early Christianity legitimised itself by latching onto the pagan rites of spring, so the resurrected redeemer annually takes responsibility for the new life that stirs in the mortified earth. It's a shrewd strategy for any cult that wants to establish itself as a religion, and it has been adopted by the fashion industry, which observes holy weeks of its own throughout the year. In midwinter, designers anticipate spring at florid catwalk shows in which models mimic flowers on legs; what we see here is a midsummer show where the models are already dressed for winter – except for the one beside Yves Saint Laurent, who has an overblown rose where her head to ought to be. Fashion lives in the future: if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

On this occasion the audience outdazzles the models, and the young man in the yellow shirt could be impersonating a newly opened daffodil. Why all the sunglasses? Fashion belongs in a conservatory where exotic growths can be pampered. Hence this gilded hothouse, with spotlights creating a solar blaze indoors.

Roland Barthes suggested: "Fashion, for the modern woman, is a bit like what the great Dionysian festivals were for the ancient Greeks." Well, just a bit: these guests clap politely rather than running amok like the wine-maddened worshippers of Dionysus, who adorned themselves with flowers as a tribute to the blossoming god. Yet Saint Laurent understands the purpose of the performance: he has walked down a runway that resembles the nave of a cathedral to attend his own consecration. He has dressed for it, however, in a suit. For others, fashion may be an art or a religion, but for him it's a business. Gods only need to delude their infatuated followers; they don't have to believe in themselves.

An Yves Saint Laurent retrospective runs at the Petit Palais in Paris until 29 August: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 02 2010

The high art of fashion

The Enchanted Palace takeover of Kensington's Royal residence – ghostly, ethereal and layered with subtext – helps fashion finally hold its own with art and theatre

Fashion as art isn't a concept that has escaped the country's museums, galleries and artists; so why are fashion exhibitions so difficult to get right? Curating style isn't just about the chronological, fusty presentation of couture behind glass boxes, nor should it be an exercise in fashion mag fanaticism. Take the V&A. The institution's glorious archive aside, even they managed to make Kylie Minogue's extravagantly sequinned Dolce & Gabbana stage outfits look limp, listlessly lined up next to each other at a bog-standard – if well attended – retrospective back in 2007. The same goes for the beautiful, but po-faced, Golden Age of Couture show also that year.

Step up the Tim Burton-worthy Enchanted Palace, a fairytale takeover of Kensington's Royal residence. This west London show raises the bar for how best to translate this billion-dollar business into public art when it's not sloping down a Parisian runway. Inspired by the stories of the seven princesses who've lived there, the maze of rooms in the palace's state apartments have been given over to a handful of the country's most notable design talents – from Vivienne Westwood to Fashion Week favourite William Tempest – by the Historic Royal Palaces curator, Alexandra Kim, and the production company Wildworks. Together, they've created a space where fashion comfortably holds its own at a crossroads with art and theatre. It's not just a grand wardrobe of clothes being paraded as artefacts, but a genuine effort to create a unique event: multi-sensory, magical and, at times, quietly eerie.

The exhibition moves from the gloomy purple cubby hole of the Room of Beginnings, where white lace gloves point towards Aminaka Wilmont's jewel-embellished, marble-dyed silk Dress of Tears in the Room of Royal Sorrows. Moving in further, Westwood's typically dramatic corseted Dress for a Rebellious Princess stands to attention amid black-veiled candle lanterns and shrivelled autumn leaves. It's Tempest's nimbus skirt of a thousand origami birds that really stands out, though, melting into the antique wallpaper and topped with a hovering halo of pink roses. Tempest says: "An exhibition has to be able to spark people's imagination ... created or arranged in a way that stimulates our emotions and senses." If innovative presentation is the key to producing a successful fashion exhibition, the Enchanted Palace has it spot on: the show is staged in the middle of the palace's £12m makeover, disguising the industrial evidence (stepladders! Dulux tins!) of building work that isn't due to be completed until 2012. Storytelling with a Wonderland-like bent, it's also well timed, given fashion's current fondness for all things Lewis Carroll.

Purists will grumble it's not strictly a fashion exhibition; granted, not every presentation would benefit from Enchanted Palace's added theatrical elements. The Yves Saint Laurent designs currently clothing mannequins in Paris's Petit Palais for instance, in the first full-scale retrospective of the designer's work, are doing a good enough job on their own. But rather than think of it as spoonfeeding, let's imagine this is one way of upping the ante for work that can be enjoyed even more when it's really brought to life, for an industry that's based on selling an image (or around 15, depending on how many trends you'll be buying into this season). 

Even stripped of its superfluous trimmings – see the stewardess sitting under a spotlight reading to herself at a school desk, the mad scientists replete with headlamps and Egor-style overalls swishing through the rooms as whispering tour guides, and the just plain creepy dancing shadows on the ceiling – this is a couture spectacle that does away with any "Is it fashion, or is it art, or is it both?" to-ing and fro-ing. It opens up the opportunity to see the latest fruits of each couturier's labour to a wider audience, democratising the industry in a way that it isn't usually used to. It's whimsical, it's beautiful and above all it's fun. All the things fashion is supposed to be. The show also (whisper it) makes for fantastic art: ghostly, ethereal and layered with subtext. These are museum pieces created for an exhibition true to the conviction that high fashion and high drama go hand in hand. Curators should take note: no more dutiful dusting down of designer archives, please. Fashion's very essence is living, breathing and moving – something its art shows should cotton on to. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 02 2009

Bring back our Christmas bling

John Galliano's minimalist blue tree for Claridge's may be chic, but it's hardly traditional. So what's wrong with old-fashioned baubles and tinsel?

In pictures: This year's best Christmas decorations

Definitive proof that Christmas has been well and truly annexed by the style police was unveiled yesterday at Claridge's. In the Art Deco splendour of the hotel foyer is this year's Christmas tree, but – thanks to the whim of John Galliano – there is not so much as a hint of green, let alone a scrap of tinsel.

Galliano describes the tree, which he designed for Claridge's and Dior, as "icy frozen snow scenes mixed with a tropical twist". Think pale, twisted branches, sleeping leopards and blue parrots, sparkling crystals and exotic orchids. Is the jolly, bauble-stuffed tree to go the way of multicoloured fairy lights, and be airbrushed out of our lives in the pursuit of Christmas chic? Is the scent of pine about to be consigned to the ghost of Christmases past, in favour of the aroma wafting from Diptyque fig-scented candles?

Reached by phone yesterday morning, the style police deny all charges relating to the kidnap of Christmas. Despite the arch exoticism of his tree, Galliano is adamant that he "loves tinsel" and would sit himself at the top of the tree instead of the traditional fairy, if it were humanly possible. Talib Choudhry, deputy editor of Elle Deco, believes that trees should be "stylish, but not fashionable. We're not about encouraging people to buy whole new sets of baubles." Design consultant and ex-Wallpaper interiors editor Suzy Hoodless says that Christmas "should absolutely be about having fun", while Claudia Baillie, style writer at Living Etc, insists that the best Christmas decorations are those "which almost look like they could have come from your attic".

Aha. Note the "almost" in that sentence. The nostalgic, retro-look tree is in fact as much a style statement as a minimalist Galliano masterpiece: Baillie adorns hers with vintage baubles that she sources on eBay, but notes that good ones are harder to find than they used to be, because "everyone's after them."

Not many of us may go as far as Coleen Rooney, who last year hired an interior decorator to design and decorate several trees in various colour schemes for her Cheshire mansion, but among the smart set, having your tree professionally "done" is par for the course. Hoodless has designed fabulous trees this year for private clients in Holland Park, west London ("it's not about having help decorating your house every five years, any more. These days we're continually involved with our clients"). In my own lo-fi way, I suppose I'm guilty too: I do my tree while the kids are at school, supposedly as a "ta-da" moment for them but really because small children have the tackiest taste in baubles and zero understanding of design symmetry.

When pressed, the interiors gurus admit that the Christmas tree is, these days, as subject to the whims of fashion as the shopfloor of Topshop. Baillie tips paperchains as this year's It accessory (she suggest buying prettily aged sheet music from vintage shops to cut them from. I am not making this up). She has noticed an abundance of bird decorations this year, and what she dubs the "German Christmas market" style of bauble – "woodland animals, a bit kitsch". Two months ago the Paris catwalks were abuzz with Planet Earth chic, from kitten prints at Miu Miu to armadillo shoes at Alexander McQueen – and lo and behold, department stores are now selling glass squirrels and owls, while Hoodless is waxing lyrical about Sainsbury's glittery reindeer.

If Christmas has had a glamorous makeover in the last decade, Hoodless sees this as part-and-parcel of Britain taking a lead from America and revelling in winter rituals, pointing to the revival of Martha Stewart-esque wreath-making, the fetish for cashmere blankets, the Ugg boot obsession, even the continuing ascendance of Halloween. Others see the notion of the chic tree – particularly the all-white, Narnia-esque tree that dominated department stores for most of this decade – as symptomatic of how fashion has spread feelers into all aspects of our lives. However, Susan Crewe, editor of House & Garden, points out that our image of unchanging bygone Christmases is misguided, since interior designers such as Elsie de Wolfe and Syrie Maugham led a vogue for monochrome decor back in the 1930s.

Pablo Flack, founder of east London's hip Bistrotheque restaurant, is joining Galliano in banishing pine this year – instead, this year's look at Bistrotheque and its Christmas pop-up, Patron Silver Reindeer, will be "monochrome and urban. We've got cardboard robots and skyscrapers painted black and white, with fairy lights inside – a kind of recycled, twinkly cityscape. A bit Wall-E." For the Topshop windows, which will be unveiled tomorrow, Vogue set designer Shona Heath has commissioned tangled fairy lights and broken baubles.

But what look do the style set work in their own sitting rooms? Crewe, who is adamant that Christmas should "absolutely not" be fashionable, has a family recipe. "You need two small children, a tree, a dustsheet, fairy lights, a water spray – the kind you do the ironing with – fake snow from, and a box of robin decorations from C Best at Covent Garden flower market. Drape the lights on first [without plugging in], then stand the Christmas tree on a dust sheet. Give the smaller child the water spray and the bigger one the fake snow. They dampen the whole tree first, chuck the fake snow over it and then hang the robins. It takes all morning, makes the most wonderful mess, and looks divine." Even Flack admits that he won't be taking his monochrome cityscapes home. Instead, he will have "the traditional look, with tartan ribbon – very Ralph Lauren, very fabulous. I love it. It's just Christmassy, isn't it?" © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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