A Bit Out Of Step With Style

Dear Diary: Sometimes, I look around the current fashion scene, and think I must be quite out of step with the times. Or perhaps it’s a sign of my incipient old age, but there are so many looks and fashions I find singularly unappealing, even downright insulting to the intelligence, even as my peers laud them to the skies and swoon with apparent delight.

Take, for example, Stephen Sprouse, whose Sixties-derived designs have inspired press adulation and spawned rivers of ecstatic prose. He’s been hailed as “prophetic,” “directional,” “influential” – the man of the moment, according to most members of the Fourth Estate.

The two-time cancellation of his New York shows has left many journalists in abject despair, deprived of the opportunity for further overblown praise of their current darling.

As far as I’m concerned, Dear Diary, as one who survived the mercifully short-lived Sixties styles, I can only look back on the thigh-high tunic dresses and psychedelic hose, the chalky lips, bouffant hairdos and tarantula eyelashes, and heave a giant sigh of relief. Researching the Sixties (essentially what Sprouse does) represents no great feat of design inventiveness. The Sixties weren’t that attractive the first time around.

As for the teens and 20s who haven’t lived through them, who might possibly find Sprouse’s graffiti-splashed minis and Courreges look-alikes amusing or novel, they’re most unlikely to be able to afford Sprouse’s overpriced styles – and the well-over 30s, who can afford them and have swallowed the hype wholesale, had best take a good, long look in the mirror.

Nor, Dear Diary, do I find the “Madonna” look charming. As a publicity shtick, it’s all very well for a rock star, but assorted bits and pieces of flesh, more or less covered with snippets of grungy lace, black leather, net and mesh; mixmaster hairdos plus perpetual pouts, sleepy eyelids and provocative poses do not add up to cute or titillating, especially on pre-pubescents.

And I find the current wave of spiked, peroxide-tipped, overgrown brush-cut hairdos sported by so many young men and women frankly hideous. Don’t they see how ugly they look? Does nobody want to look pretty any more? And, Dear Diary, I dread to think of this coming fall. Those stirrup ski pants that turned up on every runway, that somehow looked awkward on even the lithe, rail-thin models, are likely to be quite appalling on the vast majority of women, since they accentuate every figure problem. What’s more, you just know they’re going to be worn with all the wrong things, with high heels and contrast hose, for example. Tucked into sleek, flat bootlets for sport or leisure occasions only, they’re quite passable but, sure as death and taxes, they’re bound to be worn all wrong.

I also hate, loathe and abhor ankle socks with high heels, especially with skirts. Few combinations look more ungainly, yet I see them even in leading fashion magazines. Where is everyone’s taste? And where did they dredge up those pointy-toed, lace-up ankle boots that make everybody mince? Safely hidden under a Victorian ball gown, tucked under lacy pantaloons, they may have been all right, but with contemporary clothing and, horrors of horrors, ankle socks and miniskirts, they are truly grotesque. Nor do the other footwear alternatives represent my shoe of choice. Construction boots and orthopedic track shoes are hardly flattering options and they do very little for most fashions.

As for the recently introduced skirts for men, I confess to considerable skepticism and dismay. I like my men elegant, distinguished and authoritative and it’s a safe bet they’ll achieve none of those things wearing skirts. Besides, women have been trying to liberate themselves from those same skirts for centuries, because they are restrictive and limit freedom of movement. And since men haven’t had the benefit of generations of training in the fine art of navigating discreetly in skirts, they’re going to look pretty foolish showing off their hairy shanks, ankle socks and clumpy shoes.

As for graffiti makeup, beaten and bruised cosmetic effects, tattoos, diamonds embedded in teeth or fingernails, flotillas of ear studs, neon- dyed hanks of hair and symbols or motifs, landscaped or shaved into hairdos, the less said, the better.

And, several seasons after their introduction, neon colors in large doses still set my teeth on edge. Sadly, they’re not likely to go away in the near future. So, Dear Diary, we’ll just have to grit our teeth for the duration. But don’t the neon- lovers notice what terrible things vitriol green and bile yellow do to their complexions? Traditionally, men and women have tried to make the most of whatever assets we were blessed with, and done our level best to camouflage our flaws. It has to do with elementary esthetics, personal pride and a certain subtle form of good manners.

I’ve always liked pretty clothes, appealing colors, amusing accessories and enjoyed the purely feminine pleasure of getting dressed up and wearing makeup. Most of the men I know enjoy their role and take pleasure in looking fashionable. That’s why, Dear Diary, I’m puzzled by so many currently trendy looks which, with all due respect, make most people look needlessly unattractive.

Perhaps I’m an anachronism.

Imports to Canada from Europe spurred by currency slide

Silent but powerful, a Gulf Stream of Canadian cash is wending its way eastward across the Atlantic to take advantage of European bargains.

For Canadian exporters, the European market has been languishing behind the eruption of interest in a new trade deal with the United States and the tantalizing potentials of the Far East.

But importers have not missed the sharp slide in the value of European currencies against both the U.S. and Canadian dollars, and have been snapping up bargains at a record pace.

In 1984, exports to Canada from the member-states of the European Community jumped 38 per cent over those of a year earlier, an increase of $2.3-billion.

Although Canadian exports rose slightly, they remained below their 1982 levels, pushing Canada into a $1.3-billion trade deficit, the first time Canada has failed to report a surplus in its trade with Europe since the Second World War.

Such a dramatic turnaround has not been without its problems. The past year has seen well-publicized disputes over trade in major products including newsprint, footwear, beef, fish and liquor.

Diplomats on both sides insist that with $15-billion in two-way trade, such irritants are inevitable and what is important is that they be resolved.

And that indeed is what has been happening. The squabble over newsprint, created when the EC changed its quotas after Scandinavian countries gained duty-free access to its market, was resolved in December when Canada agreed to a new duty-free quota of 600,000 tonnes a year.

That month, Canada kicked off a new controversy when it responded to surging imports of beef by slapping on quotas that squeezed European exporters hardest, knocking them back to a small fraction of total imports.

The Europeans were already upset by Canada’s extension of footwear quotas until November, 1985, and decided to retaliate by raising duties on $170-million worth of Canadian exports unless a deal was worked out.

At the last minute, Canadian and European negotiators agreed to a deal under which Canada could keep its footwear quotas in place, but lower its import duties on $150- million worth of other European goods, a concession expected to cost the Canadian Treasury about $7.7-million this year.

Similarly, with the threat of retaliatory duties on another $70-million worth of Canadian exports hanging over their heads, the diplomats eventually struck a deal on the beef issue by raising the European quota substantially.

Before that dust had settled, the EC had demanded international arbitration over the pricing practices of provincial liquor boards, which add much higher mark-ups to imported wine and liquor than they do to domestic brands.

That one is stalled over the selection of members and the terms of reference for the arbitration panel, partly because it raises the interesting but touchy issue of whether provinces can be bound to follow international agreements signed by the federal Government on matters solely within provincial jurisdiction.

Then came the stories of overfishing by European vessels and the use of bribes to get Canadianfisheries officers to look the other way. Fish has been a particularly touchy subject ever since Europe banned the import of Canadian seal pelts.

Specialists may handle the negotiations for each dispute, but there is plenty of work for the 20 people in the EC’s Ottawa delegation and the 14 foreign service officers who look after Canadian interests at EC headquarters in Brussels.

Even the beef and footwear issues have only been resolved for 1985. “What happens next year remains to be seen,” said one Canadian official. “There won’t be any shortage of issues, but the mechanisms and the will are there to try and resolve them.” In the meantime, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Trade Minister James Kelleher, Industry Minister Sinclair Stevens and Treasury Board president Robert Rene de Cotret have all been to Europe, pushing the message that Canada will eagerly welcome European investors even if it has doubts about some of the community’s goods.

That welcome mat is already being put to the test, with the proposed purchase by British Telecommunications PLC of a 51 per cent interest in Mitel Corp. of Kanata, Ont.

But if nationalists are worried about the fate of domestic jobs and technology, Canadian companies are out shopping for European technology, and Canadian trade officials are putting an increased emphasis on industrial co-operation. “Europe is one of the few sources of high technology that is reasonably accessible,” said one official.

On the other side of the Atlantic, one of the biggest concerns of European officials is Canada’s relationship with the United States. They are watching carefully as Canada ponders a major bilateral trade deal, and their worries go beyond the basic fear that such a pact might create a North American trade fortress, with barriers raised high against all outsiders.

Dietrich Hammer, head of the permanent EC delegation in Ottawa, said he thinks Canada might lose interest in pushing for more liberal international trade rules if it can solve most of its own trade problems with a single deal with the United States.

Trade with the United States makes up three-quarters of Canada’s total. “There is at least a danger that if you go bilateral, the multilateral approach will lose its attractiveness.” The EC’s top trading partners include such diverse countries as the United States, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia andJapan, and as a result, it is more interested in reaching a multilateral trade deal.

Ireland learns to adjust to reduced EC benefits

The Irish are beginning to find out that they are not, perhaps, as good Europeans as they thought they were. In the first 10 years after membership in 1973, funds from the European Community rolled in, especially to the agricultural sector, giving a substantial boost to the economy and transforming rural life.

This phase is now over, with Irish farm prices adjusted to EC levels and the effects of the stricter attitude to agricultural spending becoming all too obvious. In retrospect, the 1984 negotiations on curbing milk production may be seen as a turning-point when Ireland came uncomfortably of age as a community member.

Milk is more important to the Irish economy than that of any other member-state, accounting for 15 per cent of gross domestic product, and Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald was determined that Ireland should not bear a disportionate economic loss by accepting the same production quotas as other countries.

Even though Mr. FitzGerald is an old European hand, it still took a walkout before the other leaders would agree to special treatment for Ireland. The Irish won that battle but realized that they had used a lot of ammunition and that life was going to be tougher in the future than in the past.

One senior opposition politician went so far as to suggest that Ireland should consider associate membership in the community. His remarks were not taken up because most people know there is no alternative to full membership, but Ray McSharry, as a member of the European Parliament and a former agriculture spokesman, knows better than most that in the long term, the proportion of community spending going to agriculture is likely to decline.

Irish Foreign Minister Peter Barry sounded a different warning recently, when talking about moves to integrate the EC into something more like the founding fathers’ ideal of European union. He said that such a development could not be countenanced within the present financial resources of the community.

Ireland benefits more from EC membership, proportionately, than any other member-state, so Irish concern is understandable. It is estimated that transfers from the community represented over 10 per cent of gross national product in 1978-79 mostly to agriculture. The proportion has declined since then but still represents about 6 per cent of GNP.

Irish membership in the community has also contributed substantially to the influx of foreign industry, which is so marked a feature of the economy. Foreign firms, mostly from the United States, now account for roughly a third of manufacturing employment and two- thirds of manufactured exports. The Irish must compete for such investment with other EC states but very few of these firms would have located in Ireland if the republic were not a member.

Over-all numbers employed in manufacturing have declined since membership and a new problem has emerged. The fact is that the linkages between the foreign companies and the national economy are much less than with native firms. Ireland is in the peculiar position of recording spectacular growth in exports (averaging 11 per cent per year in recent years) and industrial output (up 70 per cent since membership) while having a general decline in employment.

Analysts increasingly separate out the foreign firms when examining the Irish economy and find that the indigenous sector has not coped well with EC membership. It displays poor productivity, indifferent marketing and export sales, and an over-all decline in output and employment. Government polices are turning more toward the correction of these problems, rather than luring ever more high- technology foreign companies, although the latter will never be turned away.

Over-optimism about the prospects for the Irish economy may have been one of the reasons governments in the 1970s engaged in the spate of foreign borrowing which is now causing such problems for Ireland. The heavy debt repayments now amount to over 1 per cent of gross national product. The combination of debt repayments and a rising population means that living standards have been stagnant for the past three years, while unemployment has risen steadily and to 17 per cent of the work force. It is estimated that the Irish labor force is growing by about 4 per cent a year, a situation which is unique in the EC.

The economy has been growing, by an estimated 3.8 per cent last year and an expected 4 per cent this year. However, when debt servicing and the repatriation of profits by foreign firms are taken into account, these figures fall to 1.7 per cent and 2.7 per cent increases, respectively, in GNP. This level of growth is not sufficient to give rising living standards or reduced unemployment to a growing Irish population.

The outlook is for little change. Net investment is expected to rise by a little under 4 per cent this year but this hides sharp falls in some sectors with the highest labor content, particularly construction. Consumer spending shows a marked reluctance to grow, despite the hopes of economists that people might start spending again after three years of recession.

The high taxation imposed on incomes and goods in an attempt to correct the public finances has undoubtedly dampened retail spending. Finance Minister Alan Dukes reduced some rates of value added tax in the January budget and abolished the top rate of 35 per cent. This was partly to reduce cross-border purchases in Northern Ireland and partly to boost the economy, but the net effect of the budget was still mildly deflationary.

The Government has had most success in bringing down inflation and the balance of payments deficit. Inflation this year should be about 6 per cent, having reached 20 per cent just three years ago. Ireland showed a record trading surplus in the month of April and, even when debt payments are included, the balance of payments deficit should be about 500 million punt or less than 4 per cent of GNP.

This combination of economic circumstances has made it difficult to produce any marked improvement in the public finances.

Italy wins commendation for handling of presidency

Italy is now two- thirds of the way through its six-month- long presidency of the European Community’s Council of Ministers, a position which rotates among all the community’s members. Already the Government of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi has won high marks for its successful handling of some highly contentious issues.

In some ways it is appropriate that it should be Italy that solves the EC’s problems over the admission of Spain and Portugal to the community, and the latest emanation of the controversy over the budget. Not only is Italy probably the major EC country with the fewest reservations about being a member of the community, but it is also a country that is riding high in Europe at the moment in terms of economic growth, success of Italian industrial companies and political calm.

Italy is not a country that doubts for a moment that it ought to be in the community. The political parties vie with each other to be the most European of all, and it has a strong commitment to the somewhat nebulous goal of European unity. The leaders of Italy in the early postwar period were convinced that only in a wider entity such as the EC could Italy’s serious internal political differences and the great disparities of wealth between north and south be overcome.

They also hoped that the community would bring them financial resources and economic advantages that they would otherwise lose – a hope that has on the whole been justified.

Yet despite this commitment to the ideals of the community, Italy’s membership has been characterized by the ambiguity so common to things Italian. As Francesco Forte, Italy’s Minister for European Affairs, said at the start of the Italian presidency: “Most of our politicians and bureaucrats think and operate in a basically un-European way.” The fact is that alongside its commitment to the aims of the community Italy has sturdily protected its own interests – in some cases claiming that to enforce community regulations may be impossible, either for political or bureaucratic reasons.

Lately, however, Italy has been on its best behavior. Shortly before it assumed the presidency of the EC it accepted a community policy on wine production that hardly squares with its interests since it is the community’s biggest wine producer. It also backed down from the nit- picking interpretation of import regulations that were holding up the import of Scotch whisky into Italy at a time when Italians are gradually moving away from a preference for national brandies toward the British product.

Partly, no doubt, the change of attitude was politically necessary if Italy was to carry any conviction as president of the EC. Partly, however, it seemed to reflect a more orderly attitude to relations with other EC partners, a clearer view of what Italy ought to be able to obtain from them and of the concessions it ought to be prepared to make. One reason for this was the arrival at the head of the Foreign Ministry of Renato Ruggiero, a civil servant with an unusually broad grasp of Italy’s needs in economic relations and the drive to get the sluggish Italian bureaucratic machine to go for it.

If the Italians are now getting their act together better, as reflected in the skilful handling of the presidency, it may reflect a greater self- confidence in the country as a whole. Italy has since the Second World War been a country of political stability – the same Christian Democrat Party has been in power all that time – but of governmental instability: more than 40 governments over that period.

But for the past 21 months Italy has had the same Government, led by Mr. Craxi, the country’s first Socialist prime minister. It has tackled some serious problems, thought about other ones and provided a degree of continuity that had not existed for years.

That continuity is complemented by the realization, both in Italy and abroad, that Italian industry is now among the most impressive in Europe. Fiat, the privately owned conglomerate, is the first or second- biggest- selling car producer in Europe. Olivetti, the data processing equipment maker, is virtually the largest European- owned company in its field, and probably the most profitable. Pirelli, the tire and cables maker, is an obvious survivor in the tire industry and a company that produces respectable though not glittering financial results. One has only to compare these companies with their European rivals to see just how far Italian industry has progressed in the past few years in rationalization, investment and labor relations. Only West Germany matches or exceeds Italy in industrial prowess and confidence.

The performance of these leading private sector Italian companies is matched by that of other concerns, including several in the state industrial sector, which is gradually being reformed and slimmed down.

Unfortunately, Italy’s industrial success does not of itself ensure that the usual indicators for the Italian economy all point in the right direction. Because of governmental instability Italy reacted very late to both the 1974 and 1979 oil shocks. Only by 1983 had the Italian authorities put their balance of payments current account back into equilibrium, thanks to stern restrictions on monetary expansion rather than to fiscal measures. Only in 1984 did inflation finally drop below 10 per cent, having been over 20 per cent at the beginning of the decade.

The Italian economy is resilient and enjoys considerable vitality, taking the form of fast spurts of growth. This is due in part to the hard- working nature and imagination of many Italians, and to the fact that many less- developed parts of the country are still catching up with the rest of Europe.

But it also suffers major defects. It is prone to balance of payments difficulties because of its near total lack of raw materials and indigenous energy supplies. Governments can rarely take unpopular economic action and the inefficiency of the civil service administration, local government and the state industrial sector means that government expenditure is always rising – far above taxation.

When the Craxi Government came to power in August, 1983, the economy was at last able to resume expansion, the balance of payments registering a current account surplus of over one trillion lire that year. Although gross domestic product declined in 1983 by 1.2 per cent, it grew by nearly 3 per cent in 1984. Bold action to cut wage indexation helped bring down inflation in 1984, which closed the year at about 8.5 per cent. The Government also managed to keep the public sector borrowing requirement to about the same level as the year before, about 93 trillion lire. This, however, is still more than 15 per cent of GDP, far above the level registered by almost all other industrial countries.

Yet 1984 closed with a current account deficit far above the original estimates – it exceeded five trillion lire. This was due in part to Italy’s traditionally high propensity to import, but also to disappointing export growth. Italy’s major European markets, led by West Germany, grew disappointingly slowly and the strength of the lira weakened Italian competitiveness. A series of setbacks prevented Italy from winning its due share of contracts in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and in Algeria, a major energy supplier.

The same problems seem to be persisting this year, for which the semi- official forecasting agency Isco is predicting a current account deficit of 8.5 trillion lire and rather slower growth of about 2.3 per cent.

The same forecast also put this year’s average inflation rate at 8.5 per cent, instead of the Government’s target of 7 per cent, and with last year’s average of 10.5 per cent. The fact that inflation is no longer declining is attributed in large part to the fact that the Government is not succeeding in cutting its spending. The deficit is expected to go on rising in money terms and to continue to account for at least 15 per cent of GDP. National debt – the accumulated borrowing by the Government from the economy – will this year exceed national income.

The Government has not been able to hold down spending partly because of the sheer difficulty of finding items to trim, and partly because of the strong pre-electoral pressure for extra spending, notably a carefully timed rise in pensions. And the Government faces a further threat in June in the form of a referendum on wage indexation that could lead to a partial restoration of the cuts made last year and thus to a further boost in labor costs.

In this month’s local elections, voters seem to have signalled that they want the present coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists, Republicans, Social Democrats and Liberals to continue. The opposition Communist Party lost support and the share of the vote won by the coalition rose, surpassing the results of the 1983 elections, after which it came to power.

In late June the Italian Parliament will have to elect a new president of the republic. That event and the local elections should determine whether Mr. Craxi continues as Prime Minister, or whether he gives way to a representative of the Christian Democrat Party.

Whoever governs the country will have an extraordinary advantage: a lull of three years before any more major elections are due.