CAROLINE BAKER: THE FREESTYLER
FROM THE VOLT (WINTER 2010)
The student manifestations of the late 1960s and early 1970s were emblematic of the social, political and economic upheaval of the time; women, students, trade unionists and the French were all angry. There was solidarity among socialists of all ages who sought revolution through action.
In 1965, a new fashion magazine, comprising 5,000-word articles by such luminaries as Susan Sontag laid out in fields of clean white space and uninterrupted fashion spreads by Helmut Newton and others, was launched in London. Its small and influential staff wanted a revolution of their own. Under the matriarchal figurehead of the fashion editor Molly Parkin, her secretary, a young Caroline Baker, became the first of a new breed of culturally aware aesthetes we now call stylists.
“Nova magazine was very much the first street fashion magazine. i-D didn’t exist, and the term ‘street’ had not come into being,” says Baker, now the long-serving and respected fashion director of The Mail on Sunday’s lifestyle supplement, You. “Understand that, back in the 1970s, fashion was driven by Paris and couture and design, and I was part of a group of working-class girls who were just totally anti label. Through my pages at Nova I was having a wonderful time, being a bit of a feminist and a rebel, saying, ‘I don’t want to wear heels and lipstick!’ We don’t want to be objects for men, but we do want to wear men’s clothing and we want to have men’s jobs.”
This rejection of the fashion establishment and the fusty commandments of Paris were unheard of. The ruling editors of Vogue and Harper’s & Queen were products of a different age and generally elected to their seat through their place in society.
Nova was everything that Vogue was not…
Having become Nova’s fashion editor, the twentysomething Baker eschewed the clothes worn by others her age and went on “ban the bomb” marches in an old parka influenced by the washed-out camo prints and khaki greens she’d seen in the hit American TV series MASH. “I did a shoot for Nova with the photographer Hans Feurer using all this army-surplus gear I’d found and was wearing at the time. Then, lo and behold, a year later, I go to the Paris shows and Kenzo, everybody, had put military surplus on the catwalk. You just realised then the power of the media.”
As the 1970s came around, psychedelic design was everywhere. Swirls of colour and acid brights, paisley prints and a new wave of modern fabrications that were cheap to produce enabled more people to wear disposable and readily available fashions. Miners’ sons in Doncaster wore girly polyester shirts, tight bell-bottoms and spoon-toe stacks. Baker took this as a cue to blur the demarcation lines of gender dressing even further.
“I started putting girls in men’s clothes. Now, Yves Saint Laurent had just produced the tuxedo, but who could afford Yves Saint Laurent? So I went to Moss Brothers, where they had a great second-hand department. It didn’t have to fit, just put a gold belt around it and then wear high heels.”
She put models in the crisp white garb of a waiter and piled on diamonds. She was the first to put her girls in legwarmers, something she started doing herself because she was always so cold; she experimented with surgeons’ robes, somehow splicing them into her shoots. She then turned clothes inside out, an act of sedition that Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo would adopt years later. She also experimented with Moroccan clothes and various African modes of dressing.
“You were just trying to be a bit shocking at Nova, break the rules; that was what Nova magazine was basically about. And I had an editor who encouraged that.”
But Baker’s magical shoots weren’t the only thing that reflected the socio-political flux; her life did: “You know, when I think of the 1950s, which I was born into, my mother and father would not go out the door without a hat. My father always had hats and cuff links. Women always wore lipstick when they went to the hairdresser’s. So there was so much for us to rebel against. It was wonderful.
“I was about 25. I got a job in fashion, purely because I ran around looking like Twiggy and I caught the attention of the editor – I was Molly Parkin’s secretary at the time, I was all legs. And suddenly I found myself immersed in fashion. Little by little, I began to live what I was preaching. I had a five-point haircut, which changed my life; women like Twiggy and Mary Quaint were our idols. I went into the salon with a beehive and came out with a five-point bob.”
Sadly, in 1975, Nova folded. And punk began…
Baker began to work closely with Vivienne Westwood on the hugely influential Nostalgia of Mud collection. Westwood was intrigued by Baker and her openness, her disparate sense of style. Baker began to rag her hair and pioneered the white girl Rasta look of the early 1980s, influencing the likes of Boy George and designer Sue Clowes. Later still, she worked on the Katharine Hamnett shows with clothes that embodied a new kind of London-centric cool.
Her influence on successful stylists such as 10’s Sophia Neophitou, Katy England, Carine Roitfeld and Katie Grand is incalculable. Baker is the progenitor. The first to style shows, to collaborate with designers and the first to really influence the catwalks. Her incredible work with the photographer Oliviero Toscani for Benetton in the 1980s is the stuff of styling legend.
“We did pictures of black babies amongst white ones. We did Arabs with Jews. I would style them all in this way. By the time Toscani got into women giving birth, he didn’t really need a stylist!”
The role of the stylist as we know it really began to change in the 1990s, argues Baker, when the stylist became terribly important. Or when the stylist became as important as the designer. Or when the stylist became the designer. “You had somebody like Tom Ford, who was a stylist, coming in to take over [at Gucci]. That kind of thing began to happen with people who possessed a fantastic fashion sense. They have something that actually relates to the way the public out there is thinking and the stuff then sells.”
And when a stylist becomes too involved, or rather a celebrity replaces a designer and the whole creative process is bastardised, Baker gets angry. She wrote this to me in an email:
“I am deeply hurt by the media obsession in what is a very creative world. Fashion design is an art form. Designers who make it to the top are the most creative minds working in this field, the use of cloth/pattern/shape is a skill you own as a designer and are able to use to produce clothing that inspires and changes the way we the public perceive clothing and what we want to wear and identify with. And for a celebrity to come along with a fashion collection, and the public to lap it up, is deeply upsetting, depressing and disgusting. All they do is take their favourite pieces from their wardrobe and get it copied, copied, copied. It goes with the general dumbing down of the populace. Lemming-like, they all rush head first into this bottomless pit of stupidity and unfortunately do not expire, rather they rush after the next celeb on the horizon.”
The last word goes to our hero about the march of the working woman in the 1980s and her feelings about today’s slovenly approach to dress: “That was a huge thing, going to work. We went through that whole period where you had to dress up and you had to fit in with men to work hard, to be smart like them, wear suiting. Now things are horribly casual and people are wearing jeans to work. People actually wear flipflops to work… I think we need Dior back.”
by Richard Gray
Photograph by Maria Ziegelboek – www.mariaziegelboek.com