“We need a redesign, a rebrand, we’ve hit a rut.” Clemens flops onto a leather beanbag.
“I think you get stuck in a rut, not hit one.”
“Excuse me? Just who is the creative one here? My language, my rules, thank you. God, I am among amateurs and time-wasters.” Clemens rifles through the design samples on the coffee table in front of him and then sweeps them to the floor. He looks again at the draft brochure for his new collection that Hereward has been putting together. Hereward is the word man. “I have tidied up the copy you sent me, shaped it a little, made sure it hits all the correct firecrackers for the brand.”
Clemens is not a word man. He is an ideas man, a creative man, perhaps, he thinks, a visionary. His language is leather, textured weaves, slub silk, hessian and PVC. He lives and breathes fabric and is completely certain of his place in the world as one of the most avant-garde designers of menswear this century.
Imperator has imbued his atelier with the dreams of a modern mystic; as creator and magus his current collection stands for the geographical exemplification of a secular spirituality, like the industrial archaeological sites where he develops the outlines of his alchemist laboratory for contemporary investigations.
Clemens-the-brand is ‘Imperator’ – the ‘pe’ in the middle a sort of reptilian squiggle which renders the name almost unreadable except to those in the know.
As he reads the words, he feels something like pride swelling in his chest but something else too resembling an anxiety that he does not understand many of the words that have been laid in front of him. He likes the sound of them all together and trusts that Hereward, who went to Oxford University, knows what they all mean and could explain them if – and this is unlikely – Clemens should admit to being baffled by any of them. He would like to pick up on a phrase or a word and criticise it, in its place suggest one of his own, but this isn’t something he would find easy at this point.
Imperator is no stranger to clothing for the harsh climate and his collection displays this expertly with a range of knits combined with fur and leather, inspired by the extreme ice climbing which the designer himself undertook in order to live the aesthetic and functional development of the collection.
“I want ‘barrage’. Barrage is better.”
“Where do you want barrage? Instead of what?” Hereward gets spiky at anyone, even the designer, rewriting his words. For him, the words he places on a page are sacrosanct. He is the word man, and there is no other.
“Barrage of knits is punchier. Change it.”
“You wouldn’t prefer ‘fusillade’ or ‘bombardment’ of knits? Knitwear can be very dangerous in the wrong hands.” But Clemens will not be teased out of his determination to have at least some textual input to the brochure. “Barrage”, he says and crosses his legs as if that closes the matter. He reads some more but he is getting bored with all the words and wants something more fun to do. He does a little-boy-lost face to Hereward and whimpers playfully, “You are such a bully to me. Always telling me what to say and write. Sometimes I think you forget who pays for your sweeties and coke habit.” He reaches out and tries to catch hold of Hereward’s sleeve but his word man sidesteps out of his grasp. Clemens sighs theatrically and picks up the brochure again.
With his menswear line, Refugee, he combines tones of shredded faux suede, emergency foil blanket in tarnished pewter, and bright sou’wester yellows to create an aesthetic of hope and peril which he personally experienced, spending time in a dinghy attached to the back of a yacht in the sometimes-treacherous waters off Weston-super-Mare.
“They will like it, won’t they, the public?” says Clemens, gripped suddenly with a fear of ridicule or worse. “This is the real me, the authentic me. I care about the world and my clothes are a part of that care. Refugee is calling out for the world to know about all these terrible things that happen to people, being persecuted and having to flee to other countries and be poor, and everything. If just one sale of the hessian ‘Heimat’ pants, one single sale brings knowledge and empathy and maybe giving to charity or something, then my work on earth here is done.”
Hereward moves fondly towards him and strokes his hair, giving the back of his neck a gentle squeeze. “You’re the man, Clem, you are the man.”
“I know I’m good. I know it. All I want to do is make great statements and wake people up to the troubles of the world. It’s like a mission. I will work my fingers to the bone to achieve this, I always have, haven’t I, Hereward? I give my ALL.”
Hereward leans over his boss and lets his fingers trace over the knobbly collar bone emerging from Clemens’s bomber jacket. He pushes a zip down a centimetre and lets his index finger curl around the sparse hair of his chest. Clemens sighs and shifts in his beanbag, feeling himself stiffen as little tugs on his chest hair provoke sensations that resonate in his groin. Hereward pushes the zip down further with the heel of his hand as he strokes and plays over the bare skin directly beneath the jacket. Clemens grabs Hereward’s wrist: “I CARE, H, I care so much about the poor. Because under the clothes, whether they are haut Impera-ture or rags, underneath it all we are the same. We are babies pink and naked as the day we were born. There is no rich or poor, we are all brothers. Brothers and sisters. Siblings. Whatever.” This little speech is sounding a bit too poetic for the words man and Clemens is looking surprised and a bit pleased with himself. Hereward wouldn’t want his boss to overstretch himself in the words department, and he bristles internally and abruptly stops what he is doing.
“We must dare. We must dare to be political. Call out the politicians and make them sit up and take notice of all the injustice in the world. We need an idea. Something radical. Something where I can show my vision for kindness and sharing and stuff and making sure there are no more wars.”
Hereward is feeling uncomfortable and not just because Clemens is gripping his wrist with a Chinese-burn-like grip. From time to time, Clemens gets ideas about his own importance which are megalomaniac and often completely mad. It is notoriously difficult to dissuade him from pursuing these, and the result is like watching a lemming publicly throw itself off a precipice as the world’s fashion press look on, pencils poised and drooling with excitement at this regularly predictable self-annihilation. Hereward has his own ideas.
“I have radical for you, Clem. I think you are going to like this. London Fashion Week. They are waiting for you, for your unique genius, for your vision of clothing with a message for the 21st century. They’ve seen the press trails, the literature. The music starts, the lights, high production values. Then out of the dry ice emerges one figure and then another, and another and they are all naked as the day they were born.”
“Naked.” Repeats Clemens, his eyes narrowing with the effort of discerning if his words man is taking the piss. “I am a top designer, and this is about me showing my stuff and selling it to the punters. I have spent two years on this collection, and you want to present it by having the models not wear it. Genius.” Clemens snorts. Hereward waits and says nothing. He can picture the cogs cranking in his boss’s skull as he processes what he has been told.
Clemens would like to throw a bucket of cold water over Hereward’s idea but Hereward has been to Oxford University and studied something like Philosophy or Politics so it is possible he is suggesting something clever. Clever in a useful, if irritating, way. He starts to speak, repeating what Hereward has sketched and turning it into his own unique idea.
“The more I think about this, the more I can really see myself bringing a revolution. I will be talked about forever as the one who brought real, dirty, angry life to the forefront of fashion. I will wake them up and shake them up and bring awareness of all the shit in the world.” By now, Clemens’ face is flushed, and he is waving his arms in great arcs as he carves out this brave new world.
“My raison d’etre and the raison of the collection is refugees, the poor, the sad people, the bottom of the pile. And fashion-”, he gestures wildly to the rails of clothing ranged along the walls, “This is all just shit. I mean, it’s brilliant shit, shit that sells, shit that looks shit-hot, but it’d be such a statement of, you know, like, empathy and the whole Imperator ethos which is the giving of the self. Me, giving myself. Me sacrificing myself for humanity.”
Clemens realises he has gone slightly off the raison d’etre bit and that his speech has run its course without reaching a satisfying or even coherent denouement. But he is fired up, and more so by the warm righteous knowledge deep in his satin bomber-jacketed breast: he can change the world and do good and charity and save the environment, and stuff. He actually feels a bit aroused by his mission and how good it makes him feel. He wants the scowling minion, Hereward, out of his studio now so he can have a little ‘Clem time’. His arousal is greater at the idea of his own arousal and this onanistic onanism makes him a wanking tautology. He knows he is a very good person, and his arousal increases at visions of MBEs, peace prizes, TED talks, and possibly, who knows, a post as an ambassador to the the Pope.
Hereward closes the door behind him and goes and sits on the lap of the receptionist who has been listening at the door but who scuttled back to her desk just in time. He puts his arms round her in a manner that asks for succour. She has noticed him looking tired of late, and more frequently pissed off, and his usual fondish loyalty to the boss has given way to eye rolling and tutting.
The lighting designers have been hard at it with a rig that conveys despair, angst and ennui. At least, that is what their brief had said. The effect is a louring gloom that lowers the spirits of everyone present. But an Imperator catwalk show is not to be missed – not really for the show but for who might notice your presence or absence. Journalists are sharpening their quills ready for the next day’s reviews.
The lights get even lower and the ethereal sound of a boy soprano singing a version of Pie Jesu written by a noted composer of West End musicals seeps into the air. It grates on the ear, and those of the audience who are aware this is from a Mass for the Dead, fail so far to see the relevance to a new collection of clothes by this self-proclaimed wunderkind. Underneath the high, slightly sharp notes a drum is playing, then another drum and another. A screen at the back of the catwalk is projecting shuffling workers, heads bowed in Fritz Lang’s silent film, Metropolis. More images appear of soldiers doing that jerky walk familiar from newsreels of World War I, then there are scenes from Eisenstein’s Potemkin where soldiers’ boots march in unison, and a baby’s pram bounces down the Odessa Steps.
The audience becomes restive in the face of all this gloom, and when footage of refugees in modern times, flailing and drowning in dark waters appears on the screen there are audible groans. Surely soon, reason the ladies and gentlemen of the press, the models will appear, and the exciting, much anticipated collection will be revealed? The dry ice of Clemens’ vision puffs murkily from holes in the catwalk floor, mercifully obscuring the increasingly miserable film clips which have moved on to Poll Tax riots and a mushroom cloud above Hiroshima.
Out of the smoke come figures whose dim outlines gradually reveal them to have not a stitch of clothing between them. Men and women of striking physiques in all their glory parade perky breasts and bouncing cocks. There are gasps among the assembled throng but whether of wonder or derision remains to be seen. The front row is stellar with the presence of one of the top fashion editors of the Milan scene, one Hollywood director in town with a new film to promote, an ageing pop producer so botoxed he can hardly blink, and a star from a long running soap opera with his young son, both dressed eye-catchingly, flamboyantly and identically.
Happily, the penetrating chorister voice and the drums have now stopped. The screen still flickers with depressing continuity as all the models line up in a guard of honour down the runway. Those in the side aisles are treated to an over-abundance of toned buttock.
Onto the silent stage comes a solitary man playing a bodhran and wearing a yellow inflated life jacket. As he saunters down the runway his erection is boldly evident. He is repeatedly blowing the jacket’s whistle, traditionally used after an air crash to attract the attention of passing fishermen. Its attracting-attention usefulness could, however, in this instance, be considered superfluous. He stops at the edge of his stage. He is at an uncomfortable height for the VIPs in the front row. The fashion editor has put her sunglasses back on and is looking down at her shoes. The pop producer is yawning ostentatiously. But the soap star’s son is tugging at his dad’s sleeve, a look of joyous hilarity on his face. “Dad, Dad,” his voice getting louder, “But Dad, the man is completely–” His father clamps a sweaty hand over the boy’s mouth.
To the side, handily positioned for the emergency exit stands Hereward. In the dim light his heaving shoulders might indicate a sudden coughing fit, his head bowed considerately so that he does not spread germs over the glitterati. But the silenced boy, his attention caught, can just make out the word man murmuring under his breath in a voice that is taut with suppressed merriment, “Go on, kid, say it, oh yes, say it, say it!”