It was a fleeting glimpse in a window - a slouching human presence framed by a mannequin with better skin tone. The 10-second appearance behind glass at Topshop's top store in London's Oxford Street was quite enough for Kate Moss. It was also sufficient, apparently, to fulfill her obligation to Sir Philip Green, Topshop's owner and Britain's richest and pushiest fashion retailer.
The stunt served its purpose even if Ms. Moss was a bit ruffled by the hordes of teenagers, queuing to buy her collection at its late evening launch earlier this month. "He's f***ing-well getting his money's worth," she was reported to have said with all the grace of a model with a £3-million ($6.5-million) contract stuffed into her brassiere. The Kate Moss collection is by all accounts selling very well and Sir Philip repeated the trick in New York recently, although the crowds were a bit thinner and America's starchy fashion arbiters bridled a bit at the idea of up-market Barney's celebrating denim hot pants.
They don't get it, these raging fashionistas and the sniping, pouting male designers. Sir Philip does get it. The Kate Moss Collection is remarkably unremarkable, the sort of stitched-up clobber you expect to see on the rack any day in Topshop - fashion for a weekend of vile teenage excess. Clothes to be ripped off the rails this afternoon, flaunted at friends this evening, unspeakably stained tonight and then slung in the bin tomorrow morning.
In her louche way, Ms. Moss gets it too, as does Madonna who is lending her name to H&M and Lily Allen who is pushing frocks at New Look. It may not seem remarkable - celebrity endorsement - but this time it's different. It is the levelling of taste and the democratization of image.
Ms. Moss is the bad girl from Croydon, a dreary suburb of London, who didn't rise from the catwalk, marry a prince and move to Hollywood. She made a pile of cash, lived wild and carried on misbehaving, currently disporting herself with Pete Doherty, a drug-addled rock musician better know for his court appearances than his lyrics.
"Cocaine" Kate no longer has the look - how could she? What she has is attitude, a commodity that today sells more clothes than a baby-fresh face. Retailers once used the porcelain images of the effortlessly beautiful, Twiggy in the 60s, Elle Macpherson in the 80s to gull shoppers; now we see the lived-in faces of Madonna, Lily and Kate: the old, the "fat" and the druggie.
Ms. Moss has no doubt reassured Sir Philip that excess is just part of her aura and not part of her current lifestyle. It doesn't really matter, however, because Topshop is at the cutting edge of a fashion industry that is like a locomotive speeding into a dark tunnel. We don't know what lies ahead, but we know we cannot leave the track.
This business has suffered the humiliation of rip-off Chanel, knock-off Prada and duplicate Dior. There is no fashion cachet that can escape the sewer of a Chinese sweatshop and be cloned 10,000 times in rack after rack of threadbare imitations. The kids queuing for Kate Moss Collection don't want to be chic and desirable; stupid tourists wear Armani. The young want to be dangerous, perhaps even dull and ugly. Above all, they don't want to look rich, gorgeous or well-off.
Poor things. They have no idea, but neither does the fashion industry which may be racing towards Armageddon. Glamour was easy to sell, so was the notion that clothes were meant to hide your flaws. What does democratic fashion mean, if not ill-fitting, sloppy sacks that expose flab and embarrassing bumps. At what point will we look at the contents of our shopping bags and reject it as worthless rags?
No such anxiety at Topshop, where sales boom and analysts reckon its worth some £2-billion. Sir Philip is carefully weighing up the speed and scale of his assault on the U.S. market. He knows the cliché about America being a British retailer's graveyard, but he is doing it differently, creating a big noise before the arrival of the circus, swiftly moving on before the punters become bored of mangy lions and tiresome jugglers.
Fashion is no longer a safe place for institutions. It's for street fighters and market traders who make a buck on a whim. The faint-hearted may be nostalgic for elegance, but the awful truth is that real beauty doesn't need clothes. It's the rest of us, the endless queue of rag, tag and bobtail that buy the awful stuff.