London Reigns: Hot Fashion, a Pulsating Club Scene and Lots of New Money Have Made This the Coolest City on the Planet
McGuire, Stryker, Elliot, Michael, Newsweek
THE MONENT MAY HAVE COME two weeks ago, when the grand Paris fashion houses Givenchy and Dior decided to install two brash young London designers as their top couturiers. Or perhaps it came in September when Trafalgar House unveiled its plan to build the 92-story Millennium Tower in London's financial district on a site badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1992. Or was it, less grandly, two weekends ago at the Ministry of Sound, when one of the London club's bouncers was frisking a striking Australian girl and turned up a batch of shiny foil-wrapped condoms? The precise timing matters less than the consensus opinion: right now, London is a hip compromise between the nonstop newness of Los Angeles and the aspic-preserved beauty of Paris, sharpened to a New York edge. In short, this is the coolest city on the planet.
The fun won't last, of course. London swings violently between booms and busts. It was stuffy in the 1950s, when you couldn't find a decent meal in the place; it was "swinging" in the 1960s, when pop music and Carnaby Street injected a dose of classless style. It was almost destroyed by grandiose redevelopment schemes in the early 1970s, then rescued again by the entrepreneurial energy of punk. In the early 1990s the city was mired in a deep recession. Now it's back. Nobody planned this; nobody ever has. For 400 years, London's fabric has been built, knocked down, rebuilt and knocked down again not according to any official blueprint (London doesn't even have a citywide government) but by the invisible hand of the market. London has been made by thousands, millions, of individuals anxious to make a quick pound or two. In the apt phrase of the historian Roy Porter, London is "a muddle that worked."
Crucially, it isn't just a British muddle--that would be deadly. London dominates the economic and cultural life of the country, and yet it is the least British place of all. Of the 7 million Londoners, one fifth belong to an ethnic minority, a proportion that will rise to a third over the next 15 years. American designers Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan use London as their international launch pad, while European fashion biggies like Christian Lacroix take their cues from the place: "London," Lacroix told the fashion magazine W, "projects the rhythm of today." Eurostar, the high-speed rail link between London and Paris, has brought the Continent right into the heart of the city, enabling young Europeans to visit the clubs and bars more easily than ever. Of all French tourists to London, 45 percent are under 25. English is rapidly becoming the lingua franca of Europe; so while German politicians may like to visit Paris, German kids find it a lot easier to navigate the West End than the Leff Bank. (Astonishingly, they might eat better in London, too.)
An international muddle, on its own, wouldn't have produced this year's buzz. London is happening because London is rich. The British economy has seen three years of sustained growth. And since the Thatcher revolution, the City has consolidated its position as a center of international finance. The stockbrokers of the 1950s would have bought a house in Wiltshire and a decent pair of shotguns. But Thatcherism was about not just making it, not just spending it, but flaunting it, so today's millionaires buy a painting or bankroll a club.
There's plenty wrong with London. A crescent of deprivation curls round the east and south of the City and West End. The gap between rich and poor is widening; house and car break-ins are unpleasantly common; the incidence of violent crime rose 8 percent in London last year. The average speed of rush-hour traffic in central London is no faster than it was a century ago; rising pollution levels are blamed for a spiraling incidence of asthma among children. But to dwell on the downers misses the point. Henry James put it best, after he lived there in the 1870s. London, wrote James, "is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. …