Published in Dialogue, No.11 May 1999
‘I’ve got a job for you.’ The gravelly voice of Ray Halsey, my ex-employer began. I reminded him that I had left his agency to pursue a solo career.
‘I’m well aware that you think a young woman such as yourself can make it on your own in the competive and dangerous vocation of private detection and by no means do I want to challenge your independence. On this occasion however, I believe that you are the best man for the job.’
‘How flattering. What’s the case?’
‘Find out who decides what’s fashionable.’
I could certainly see why he hadn’t taken on the job himself or handed it over to any of the other dicks that worked for him.
‘Who wants to know?’
‘That, I can’t tell you.’
I said I’d do it and hung up. I reached over to the bedside table and pulled a single cigarette from the soft pack of Marlboro’s. It tasted all the sweeter after a call from Ray. The sun had just about finished its passage through the Venetian blinds on its way to noon. While I inhaled the first nicotine of the day, I considered my outfit options. I gazed at my racks of clothes for a few moments. There was no choice to be made.
Dressed in a black 40s suit, I went downstairs for a coffee at Jo’s diner. Caffeine is always the first lead in any case. This was an unusual one. Not the run of the mill ‘See if my wife is having an affair’, ‘Track down that money’ or ‘Find that husband killing hussy’. I thought the best place to start would be a chat with some experts.
I went to ‘The Hill’ and saw old lady Leger in her store. In her day this old dame set the pace for the whole of the southern hemisphere. She’d emigrated from France after the war. There being few jobs for cabaret singers here, she’d brought European fashion to the arse end of the world. In her time, she’d been married to an actor, a conservative politician and professional gambler. She was rumoured to have had affairs with Fidel Castro, Bill Halley and Verushka.
I’d known her for a long time and had spent many an afternoon sipping Champagne and raving about the qualities of one frock or another. I was sure she’d set me in the right direction but I was mistaken. She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to say a single word. I had a pretty good idea that someone had got to her before me.
My next stop was a couple of gals I knew who sold the work of young designers down town. Only Alice was there. She offered me a coffee and we stood outside their store smoking cigarettes and watching the low life suits rush around importantly.
‘As far as we’re concerned it’s people on the street and in the bars and clubs that decide what’s fashionable. That’s where young designers come from or where they get their inspiration,’ Alice told me.
‘Most of the clothes in the shops are really dull. It’s great to make your own things,’ a girl with an enormous feather headdress told me.
‘We get inspired by movies and other people we see around.’
‘And finding good materials.’
‘Do you think you inspire fashion designers?’
Maybe we do but they’re the more interesting designers anyway. There’s no opportunity for individuality in mainstream fashion,’ the girl in the silver dress said.
‘We’re really outside the fashion industry. We don’t care about it and it doesn’t care about us.’
I chatted to these girls for a couple of hours. Mainly we shared fashion stories.
I was quite drunk by the time I got home. The scene that awaited me quickly sobered me up. There they sat in my apartment. The moguls of Fashioncorp. The diamonds on her tiara sparkled when the light from the hall snuck in the door. He wore a suit. Certainly not one of his own labels. It was really quite a smart suit. Up close he looked like he might have had a big night or two or three and yet his crisp suit gave the impression of a man who eats five veg and four fruit each day.
‘We were beginning to think something terrible had happened to you,’ Trixie Moloney giggled.
‘We hear that you’ve been rummaging through our rubbish and we don’t like it.’
‘Who are you working for?’ Trixie asked me aggressively.
‘I got the job through an agent. I don’t know who the client is.’
‘Bull shit! You’re working for the government.’
I had to have a chuckle at that. They might be right but I thought privatisation had not gone as planned if the government was employing low life private detectives to conduct the business of the state.
‘What do they want?’
‘I’m not so sure it is the government you know. My assignment is to investigate who decides what’s fashionable.’
They both laughed. They laughed a lot.
‘We thought you were with the Tax Department or the Department of Fair Trade or a Union or something.’
‘Well seeing as I’ve been so helpful in cheering you up, maybe you can tell me what you have to do with deciding what’s fashionable.’
Trixie said, ‘we don’t decide what’s fashionable. We just sell it.’
‘We market our ranges to specific groups and each year we produce ranges which are slightly different to the last so people have to buy it for fear that they will be unfashionable,’ Hugo said very matter-of-factly.
‘Let’s face it though; most of the population wouldn’t go near your store. Who’s deciding what they wear?’
‘I don’t even think they are. I think they just wear what they find at their local mall,’ Alice said. ‘I don’t know what evil entity invents those monstrosities.’
‘It’s a conspiracy!’ I said, joking.
Alice’s partner Slim came in. ‘Who decides what’s fashionable?’ Alice asked her.
‘In this town, two people call the shots,’ Slim said. ‘Forget the weather report. They decide what everyone wears. Fashioncorop. Moloney and Armitage. Between them they own most of the fashion labels that come our of this town and because of this they control even the ones they don’t own because they set the trends and the price tags. Frockarama, Susan Smith, Lara Linguini, Clubbed to Death, Girls Own, Boys Land’ Slim started to list. ‘Must Have Clothing, Tesco’s Shoes, Get Your Glamma Here, David Rogers Menswear, Sensible Shoes, Compfex.’ Alice continued.
This was one of those stories which involved old rich families and new rich families and poor people who got rich and lots of poor people who never got rich. Trixie Moloney, daughter of a small time uniform manufacturer had turned her father’s business into a thriving fashion house by the time she was thirty. Hugo Armitage on the other hand had inherited a clothing empire that had dressed the establishment for three generations. Their marriage was as loving as Michael and Lisa-Marie, Cindy and Richard, Tom and Nicole.
After trying on a few frocks and smoking a few more cigarettes, I left Slim and Alice and steered myself in the direction of Fashioncorp’s head office. The building took up an entire block. In the next street, gardens did not grow because the enormous building cast a shadow over them. Smoke poured out of chimneys; uniformed workers marched along cast iron balconies, suits carried files and drove off in executive cars; large boxes tumbled down shoots into trucks that drove off in all directions.
At this stage I was not going to be marching in the front door and demanding an appointment. I spotted a row of skips and surveyed security. No matter what, I was going to be conspicuous rummaging through a skip in a tailored suit. I hurried home and returned dressed in Blundstone boots, a flannelette shirt and paint splattered jeans. For the sake of detail, I carried a sketchbook. Much more practical but the important thing was if I was hassled, I could always play the innocent art student. I approached the first skip which was mainly full of fabric scraps, a second had upturned chairs in it. The third was more like what I was after. Files, files and some more files.
Amongst them all I spotted a sketchbook. I worried what had happened to its owner. Then I saw what was written on the front. ‘Lara Linguini, winter ’99′. There was nothing in it but magazine clippings. In the next skip I grabbed more sketchbooks, ‘Must Have clothing Summer ’98, ‘Clubbed to death, winter 99 and ‘David Rogers Menswear winter ’98′ which curiously was completely empty. I also picked up a handful of conspicuously unmarked files.
I didn’t hear the Rolls Royce. I felt the vibration as it glided toward the front door. I peaked over the edge of the skip. Of course I noticed the dress first. She wore a red satin halter neck dress. Its colour meant there was no chance of it being an original from the 30s but it was a bloody good replica. His outfit was not nearly as impressive. In fact I thought I’d been transported back to 1988. He wore a dark sports coat over beige trousers and loafers. I waited for them to go through the marble arched entrance and pulled myself out of the skip.
I went to a little place I knew not far from the Fashiocorp head quarters. I ordered a scotch on the rocks from my old mate Henry. Together we looked over the books. In each of them there were clippings from European fashion magazines. On the opposite pages the patterns had been drawn out and fabric samples stuck down. The fabric samples were the same colours as those in the photos but were all rough and polyester. The contents of the ‘Lara Linguini’ and ‘Must Have Clothing’ books were exactly the same. Apparently designers were an excess not worth paying for at Fashioncorp and entire ranges could be purchased for $8.95 at the newsagent.
The files were not so simple. They listed names which fell into two distinct categories. One included largely, shall we say, ethnic names. This listed a monetary figure such as $2.60 and then a ‘garments per hour’ figure. The other book listed largely, shall we say, chick’s names. Along with their names was a physical description. For example, blonde, 6 foot, 55kg.
I decided to look up some of these names in the phone book. It turned out that Sally Thompson and Touc-anh Ng both lived within walking distance of the bar. I had a final scotch with Henry and headed off. Touc-anh lived in a towering housing estate. Teenagers hung around the entrance and children played on the stairwells. I went up to the fifteenth floor past arguing couples and daytime television up full volume. The door was answered by a child, about eight years old. I asked if his mother was home.
‘Yes but she’s working’
‘Could I see her for a moment.’
‘We’re not allowed to interrupt her when she’s working.’
I knew I wasn’t at the bottom of this at all. In fact it was just beginning. Touc-anh who didn’t have a moment to spare to speak to me, still said more about fashion than those scrapbooks of plagiarised designs. I still didn’t have a full sense of this case but even when you’ve already started, you still have to start somewhere so I decided to follow up the night club element and see if anyone there was making any decisions about fashion.
I finished off my bottle of scotch and had another fag. I slipped on a gold glo-mesh dress. I felt as though I’d shrunk a foot under its weight but when you’re mixing business and pleasure, best not to be too comfortable. The evening was warm so I decided to walk through the dark city and visit clubs and bars as I went. In the long term I was heading towards The Ritz where I knew the most fashionable could be found, but, being the most fashionable, they wouldn’t be there until much later.
I started at a small cocktail bar not far from my apartment. The place was pretty empty. A young blonde sat by herself looking like she needed some company. Golden locks curled around her cherubic face and drew the eye to her full cherry lips. She wore a simple white blouse and navy skirt. She evidently didn’t have a clue about fashion so I went over to two snotty brunettes dressed from head to toe in black. I asked them who hey thought decided what’s fashionable.
They looked down their noses at me. ‘Us,’ one of them said and they both shrieked with hysterical laughter.
‘Are you designers?’ I asked almost sarcastically.
‘No but we have very good taste.’ More laughter.
‘So who designs the clothes you wear?’
‘Mainly the Belgians. They really know how to cut a garment.’
That’s just as well I thought because ‘the Belgians’ didn’t seem to have graduated to colour yet. I left the two brunettes to it. I made a note to follow up these Belgians.
When I finally got to the Ritz, there was a long queue but I showed my PD licence to the bounce and he let me straight in. Inside, I was not disappointed. The place was pumping with fabulously dressed people. I sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of champagne. The wall behind the bar was entirely mirror so I could survey the situation and chose my targets carefully.
Finally I joined a table of girls dressed in space-age outfits. They were keen to discuss the case.
‘We just like to dress up. It’s fun,’ a girl in a silver PVC mini-dress told me.
I headed off to see Sally Thompson. Her home was not far away but she live in another world. She loomed over me at the door of her terrace house. She wore no make-up except for a little gloss and her hair was wet and pulled back. She wore a loose t-shirt and pants with trainers and no socks. I told her I was investigating who decides what’s fashionable. She let out a cynical laugh but invited me in. She led me past a living room full of exercise equipment into a kitchen full of nothing. We sat at the immaculate bench and each lit up a cigarette. I told her I’d found her name in a Fashioncorp file.
‘What was the title on the file? ‘Over the hill?’ ‘Teenagers we made a lot of money out of?’ or ‘Over priced?”
‘No it was an unmarked file. What did you have to do with them?’
‘I started working for them as a model when I was thirteen. They gave me a lot of work through various labels. I was very innocent and they took every advantage they could. I grew up fast though.’
‘Do you still model for their labels?’
‘No. Once I expected to be paid properly, with real money and everything,’ she said with deep sarcasm, ‘they weren’t the slightest bit interested. There are always ambitious young girls who’ll do it in exchange for the promises, the apparent glamour, the drugs, the attention.’
‘So who do you think decides what’s fashionable?’
‘I don’t know and I don’t even care. I think it’s an evil business but I left school to pursue my fabulous career and so it’s all I know. You know how they say models cause anorexia, well I don’t blame them for saying that but models just don’t have that sort of power. I think some committee of middle age men conducts secret power meetings to decide what size women should be and what they should wear. It’s about control you know. The whole industry plays on people’s insecurities.’
‘Sally you know you’re not just a pretty face.’ I thanked her for her help and walked out into the twilight.
I returned home overwhelmed by the case. I sat in my easy chair with a fag and a glass of scotch and water. The neon light from the strip joint over the street shone into my room, on and off, on and off. The case was getting out of hand. In those books, had I discovered who decided what’s fashionable? Is it that simple? European designers decide what’s fashionable. I knew if I called Ray Halsey tomorrow and told him I’d solved the case, he’d be quite happy with that explanation. He wouldn’t know any better and he’d pay me for a days work and charge the client for a week. But that’s why I went out on my own in the first place. There’s nothing to be enjoyed in a job badly done.