Desigual: Can They Pull Off Kandinsky? (and can ANYONE pull off their clothes?)

Paco Rabanne and Manalo Blahnik know how to do Spanish and do it well for a British market. Desigual are like a crass Glastonbury-chic Elmer the Elephant in a nightclub.

Have Desigual become Spain’s answer to Paul Smith? Admittedly there are some crucial differences. Firstly, Desigual are more high street than Paul Smith, despite not really appearing on any high streets outside of Spain. Secondly, Paul Smith tends to offer his customers a light and airy shopping experience where on pinstriped staircases hang signed Patti Smith LPs, covered in a generous coating of good old English dust. In contrast, Desigual stores are more reminiscent of nightclub cloakrooms, with shiny black everything and spotlights trained on specific items. Musicality is evident in all of Desigual's designs, but not in a Paul Smith Beatles-mania band way, but in a "gra-ta-ta" castanet way.

Patriotism is the first major similarity. Where as Paul Smith is generally seen to be a patriotic designer, always nodding towards Mini Coopers, Union Jacks or that classic and unbeatable stamp of Britishness – just beautiful plain boring. Desigual’s patriotism is borderline autocratic, a bit of a Franco fruitcake. They’re probably only two collections away from giving out omelette and jugs of sangria in their foyer. Desigual make Zara and Mango look like Anglophiles at the height of fashion treachery. The main tie, however, between Paul and Des is the loud shirt. The classic Paul Smith shirt with its loud reiterative patterns, and probably some distant homage being paid to Laura Ashley or perhaps the later paintings of Bridget Riley.

Fine art has always been the henchman of high fashion. Last year we saw obvious examples in Nike’s exclusive Mondrian trainers, McQueen’s obsession with Georgia O’Keefe’s skeletal fixation, and of course Harvey Nichol’s Andy Warhol t-shirt range. Desigual’s current Autumn/Winter collection practically plagiarises the Russian artist and thinker Wassily Kandinsky, as illustrated here on The Jack of Hearts. We have a shirt which at once embodies the legacy of Smith, the painting of Kandinsky and the alleged vibrancy of Spain.

Who’d have thought Westfield shopping centre could provoke such academic discussion. I’m not sure if I like Desigual yet. The word Desigual means uneven or unstable in Spanish and this neatly sums up my bearing on the store. Yes some of their stuff looks good on the rack, but would you want it hanging from your body? Who is Desigual’s target market? Who fits their imagined customer profile? Paco and Manalo know how to do Spanish and do it well for a British market. Desigual are like Glastonbury hippy chic meets Elma the Elephant.

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