Fashion Beast: striking an awkward pose

Alan Moore’s latest graphic novel is an ill-fitting take on the fashion industry.

As the curtain closed on London Fashion Week last Tuesday, critics worldwide concluded that the city had firmly re-established itself as one of the fashion capitals of the world. After a decade or so of stultifying soul-searching, it seems the industry is finally moving forward with young designers like Christopher Kane joining established, loveable hacks like Paul Smith, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood.

In the context of this revival is a welcome re-emergence of another kind: namely, that of Alan Moore, author of genre-defining graphic novels such as Watchmen, true visionary, and quite possibly the ‘right hand of God’, as he labels himself in the introduction of his latest work, Fashion Beast.

The history of Fashion Beast is an odd one. Originally it was envisioned as a screenplay for a project spearheaded by the late, pop-culture impresario Malcolm McLaren, but it was neglected, eventually emerging as a comic series last year before being released in its entirety in graphic novel form earlier this month.

Loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, Doll (you can see where this is going) escapes the dimness and drudgery of civilisation seemingly on the brink of an unexplained apocalyptic collapse by becoming the face of omnipresent fashion house Celestine and the muse for the eponymous chief designer. The deeper Doll becomes embroiled in this parallel world, the more it becomes clear that appearances are not all they seem; the ‘beast’ is in fact a devilishly handsome genius, men are women, women are men (for no obvious significance) and the agenda of those at the forefront of the industry is elaborately insidious. 

Aesthetically, Fashion Beast is a treat, with contributions from artists at the forefront of their field, including long-term collaborator Antony Johnston. The narrative’s origins as a screenplay are obvious, yet it’s easy to see why it never made it to the big screen: visually it’s wildly ambitious, thematically it’s controversial and its subtexts are incredibly involved. All of which plays precisely to the strengths of the graphic novel, which can accommodate the visual splendour of a movie without compromising the nuance and character development of a novel.

The fundamental difficulty with Fashion Beast is that, like any of Moore’s graphic novels, it is attempting to ‘say something’. While the haunting message of Watchmen  - the anti-superhero riff, ‘who watches the watchmen’ - may have made it Moore’s Republic, Fashion Beast is his American Idiot; fun to go along with but not to be taken seriously by anyone over the age of 14.

The story is awash with conflicting and problematic messages. Fashion is both a malevolent force for oppression as well as a liberating release for consumers. At its most grandiose, the uprising at the conclusion of Fashion Beast presents it as a Marxist parable of the inevitable cycle of overthrowing oppressive cultural hegemony, only to be replaced by a new order which contains the seeds of its own destruction. Furthermore, in the character of Beast, Moore makes a poignant point about suffering, sacrifice and upending the status quo as necessary conditions for the creation of great art, though the comparison to Alexander McQueen made in the introduction is stretched, and by the end of the narrative, feels rather insensitive.

Despite these conflicting interpretations, Fashion Beast is a work which has been heralded as an indictment of the power of fashion. This, however, seems to be more a reflection of critics’ existing prejudices rather than Moore’s clearly muddled ideas. It’s all too easy to denounce Hugo Boss as Nazi sympathisers, sneer at the working conditions in Indian garment factories and tally black faces on the cat walk, but the fact of the matter is fashion is an art form, not in itself an instrument of oppression.

Fashion Beast may well be the worst of Alan Moore’s works, though with his back catalogue this is certainly not a damning indictment. Intelligently crafted from its original text, Fashion Beast is an enthralling tale, albeit one whose message is best forgotten.

Ed Noel is the schools and alumni coordinator for the Debating Matters Competition.

Fashion Beast, by Alan Moore and Michael McLaren, is published by Avatar Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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