Peter Matheson

Economic Counsellor

Part of Partners in Prosperity

21st September 2012 Washington DC, USA

A Fashion Statement

‘We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town-beep beep’

So sang David Bowie in a thinly veiled 1980’s attack on charlatans and copycats, ‘Fashion’. Bowie is not only a British musical living legend but also one of our most stylish icons (second only to Bryan Ferry in my opinion). Which brings us to my theme – London Fashion Week.

I like clothes. Actually that’s an understatement – I really like clothes. Economists like talking about ‘utility’ from a good or service. A technical term for what other people call satisfaction. Or kicks. So why do I derive utility from clothes as opposed to say travel, skiing or something else that people devote their disposable income to? A basic but complicated question when it gets down to it. I think the reasons are multiple and complex – like the best wardrobes.

Clothes are a necessity – there are such a thing as decency laws. You might as well use that necessity to enhance yourself (or more precisely your appearance). Clothes are also a statement of who we are, of our spirit and individuality. Finally, the act of buying clothes is very renewing and reinvigorating – like acquiring new skin or a new perspective on life and its possibilities.

But for the UK, fashion is not just about looking good. It’s good economics too. The fashion industry in the UK has an annual economic impact of around £37 billion. People accuse British people of having bad teeth and tolerating bad food. Few people accuse us of being badly dressed.

Our innovation finds its way into clothing. There are numerous examples of this. A Scot, Charles Macintosh, invented the rain coat in 1823. A lady called Mary Quaint was instrumental in the popularization and refinement of the miniskirt in 1950’s London.

And, as part of that, fashion is an important British export. Tourists lap up our high streets on vacations. And lots of British designers and fashion houses have established a powerful global presence that is testament to their creativity and flair. In Washington DC, Thomas Pink and Burberry are merely (as economists might say) ‘clustered doors from one another’. In New York, a new Ted Baker store is about to open on Fifth Avenue. One of my favourite sights I see when I travel in the US is stumbling upon the handful of Paul Smith boutiques such as the ones in San Francisco and Las Vegas. And my favourite clothier, Duchamp, a London company run by a dashing Scotsman, has been making gradual inroads into the US market with stands in various department stores including Bloomingdale’s in New York. A gentleman even sat across from me at a business dinner in Dallas Texas last night wearing one of their bold and distinctive ties.

Which brings me back to David Bowie who, as well as having a song named after it and being impeccably dressed, in many ways embodies the key strengths of British fashion at its best: timeless, easily recognisable, highly versatile and diverse. Oh and he used to have really bad teeth.

Learn more about GREAT British fashion ›

About Peter Matheson

Peter Matheson has been Economic Counsellor at the British Embassy since the beginning of May 2009. Before arriving in DC, he worked on the macroeconomics side of the UK Treasury.…

Peter Matheson has been Economic Counsellor at the British Embassy since the beginning of May 2009. Before arriving in DC, he worked on the macroeconomics side of the UK Treasury. Principally advising Government Ministers on the economic forecast and related macroeconomic developments. He also worked for a period for the Scottish Government on economic issues.