With this year’s more-than-usual fashion house designer replacements (Raf Simons to Dior, Hedi Slimane to the renamed Saint Laurent, Jil Sander back to Jil Sander, Stefano Pilati to Zegna), the fashion world has been thinking and talking about history, legacy, and what it means to be a designer. Most of this talk has centered around what the new designers will bring to the old houses, visually and for business. What will Raf restore in Dior? Why rebrand to SL Paris when Hedi will be designing from YS-LA? Will Phoebe Philo maintain her one-step-ahead design stride at Céline? And so on.
“Without the designer, clothes do not become fashion,” wrote Yuniya Kawamura in Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies from the Berg Library. In that book, Kawamura builds on the sociological and semiological study of “the fashion system” as grounded by Pierre Bourdieu and Roland Barthes: examining how meaning is constructed or what makes fashion Fashion. Designers, Kawamura decides, are the stars in the production of fashion. They personify fashion. Just as the artist makes it Art—signed R. Mutt and the urinal is put on a pedestal—the fashion designer is the one to invest clothes with the meaning we accept as fashion. Of course, they are not the lone investors. Value is produced in fashion through a complicated network that includes editors, journalists, models, tastemakers, et al. But the designer is the focal point of the brand, the one we believe in.
What the recent designer swaps and precipitating shoptalk reveal is how much more closely aligned the fashion system is with commercial production and branding than with art. Unlike the art system, where the artist is galvanized as an independent genius, a seer, and protected as such by curators and critics, the fashion system works to dehumanize the designer into brand. The designer founds the brand, her label, her image, and—if singular enough in vision and prosperous enough in business, if it stands the test of (compressed) fashion time—that label may be consecrated into “the house” (which is basically admittance that the brand is strong enough to carry on without its founder.) At that level, designers, like Coco Chanel, become something closer to Coca-Cola than to even the most commercial artists. Because, think, after Jeff Koons dies — even though his hand supposedly hasn’t touch his art in years — Koons won’t continue to have art made and sold under his name, his legacy carried on by one or more designers in cooperation with a board of directors for whom fiscal come first (although that would be very interesting.) This is what happens in fashion.
Even the so-called fashion avant-gardists aren’t exempt from this. This fashion month, we’ve seen défilés from Helmut Lang (the RL H.L. quit fashion seven years ago and this summer destroyed his fashion archives in the name of art), Maison Martin Margiela (founded with the self-aware name of maison, bereft of its namesake since 2009), and Alexander McQueen (the one we most readily called artist whose line is now designed by Sarah Burton.) I remember being surprised when it was decided the McQueen brand would live on without the man—if anyone’s vision was irreproducible, it was his—but that was naive: sales of McQueen products, especially his skull scarf, skyrocketed after his suicide (an ironic memento mori no one seemed to comment on) and the house was partnered to the Gucci Group, which is parented by the multinational holding company PPR. And what good parent lets their prodigy’s passing impede continued profitability?
This setup—of designer legacy and house continuation—is fundamental to the fashion system. Consensus says the first modern fashion designer (first modern meaning the first in the mold we accept now, of the persona/visionary/leader Kawamura described) was Charles Frederick Worth, who founded the House of Worth in 1858. Worth was the one who established the custom of affixing labels to garments. His designs and label were so covetable, he inspired some of the earliest knockoffs. He hosted showcases for his clients not unlike the modern fashion show. At his peak, Worth worked with a staff of 1200, and after he died, his house was carried on by family descendents until 1956 (the brand was relaunched in 2003, to so far little visible success.)