December 4, 2012

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
-William Gibson

Sometimes I’ll hang out with borderline conspiracy theorists and I’ll be persuaded that we can know the future from today. I’m a skeptic by first nurture though —  my conviction in truth is so weak, I usually barely believe in what I know about today, let alone what is to come. But sometimes, despite all reasoned skepticism and no matter what company I’m keeping, I’ll sense an early movement of certain change.

Because something is happening here. In the fashion industry. I see people’s belief in the integrity of the fashion system wavering. That’s the belief of the few remaining believers that’s wavering — the few who were somehow still enchanted, supported in their belief by producers like the dearly departed Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela, and Nicolas Ghesquière.

Yesterday, at the first hearing of their trial, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s solicitor requested that the charges of tax evasion brought against the design duo be dismissed; the request was rejected. The trial will go on. Fashion reporting typically serves to perpetuate the myths of industry (of the designer as artist, of the editor as visionary or shipmaster, together setting the course that the rest will follow). Hard news is blanketed by the pashmina of trends and celebrity. This past week — thanks in large part to the announcement that green Wang will replace the full blossom of Ghesquière as the lead designer for Balenciaga, but also following the discombobulating Maison Martin Margiela with H&M, and haunted by John Galliano’s xenophobic tourettes — we’ve read a number of smart, skeptical op-eds about high fashion, and not just on business misdoings of the likes of Dolce & Gabbana; I mean paradigm questioning.

In a piece published in The New York Times this past Friday, Suzy Menkes commented on a “new, commodified attitude” reigning in fashion. “[N]ow that the concept of each fashion house as a ‘family’ has mostly vanished,” Menkes wrote, “Instead, there is a cut-throat, market-driven industry, with mutual distrust rife between fashion houses, their chief executives and their designers.” She goes on:

Designers are now seen as commodities, brought in to revive flailing houses and to be disposed of when a fresher name comes along. The most appropriate analogy might be with professional sports, where players are bought and sold regardless of their country of origin.

Menkes’ concern is largely for the designers, for the exacting production schedules and capital expectations that cause creatives to turn to substance abuse, or to expect the same banal levels of luxury as their corporate sponsors. Menkes remembers when fashion was elite, a luxury, when its creativity sprung from the freedoms of the leisure class. Her vision of day trading and sports picks is on point but her concern that the commodification, “whether as cheap clothing or as entertainment via celebrity red-carpet dressing and museum-style displays,” of “this decorative art form that we call fashion” will exact a price she’s not willing to pay — that’s just exchanging one elitism for another.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, in a profile on Jil Sander, Dana Thomas (who wrote the very interesting Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster; check it) rehearsed many the same observations Menkes made. “In the last two decades,” Thomas wrote,

…fashion has shifted from small family– or founder-run companies to global publicly traded corporations that do billions of dollars in sales each year. Along the way, brands have been traded like Monopoly properties and have often been mismanaged or misunderstood by the new owners, who bank on a quick profit and are disillusioned when it doesn’t come.

Then, in Time, William Lee Adams tried to explain what Alexander Wang’s appointment at Balenciaga means (with a more objective/journalistic approach than the rest of the internet; an amuse bouche: “Giving AWang Balenciaga is like having a Kardashian write a sequel to a Godard film… so pissed”). Adams reports that, despite Ghesquière’s coy avoidance of the reasons for departure, “speculation is rife that he disagreed with PPR bosses who wanted to emphasize the commercial aspects of the business, presumably at the expense of his creative freedom.” Adams notes that:

Wang brings the commercial appeal that PPR [Balenciaga and Wang's parent company] covets. His line is already stocked in top-flight department stores from Bergdorf Goodman in New York to Selfridges in London, and has a growing global footprint. He amassed a turnover of $25 million by the time he was 25. An entrepreneurial spirit may be in his DNA. His parents, Taiwanese immigrants, worked in the service sector before setting up a successful business that manufactures plastics.

Because something is happening here. But I don’t know quite what it is. One reader wrote in to Bullett last week asking what we thought of the fact that, unlike previous collaborations, the Maison Martin Margiela with H&M line did not sell out that very launch day; in fact, items were left in the store so long, they started discounting them. Despite my attention to the MMM HM phenomenon, I had no real answer. What does it mean?

What does it mean that Wang is at Balenciaga? That the kid practically held a slumber party in its archives (good student ethic for a Parsons dropout)? Menkes’ surprise at the commodification of fashion makes me think she has never read any globalization theory. “We wanted someone with global thinking, a citizen of the world, and someone who could understand the digital world and the direction of fashion and retail tomorrow,” Balenciaga CEO Isabelle Guichot commented to WWD on the Wang appointment. In his Time article, William Lee Adams noted that Alexander Wang’s “background may also pave the road to riches in the ever-expanding Chinese market. Wang speaks Mandarin, his father lives in Hong Kong, and his mother resides in Shanghai. Frequent visits to see his family have helped him understand the aesthetic and desires of the Chinese consumer.”

And, ho ho, here’s Menkes again:

The big conglomerates or global investors know that, while within the fashion world the designer Christopher Bailey is synonymous with Burberry, and Lagerfeld is absolutely identified with Chanel, that is unlikely to be the case in emerging markets. In the Far East — especially China — marketing is constructed around the brand name. The name Salvatore Ferragamo draws interest — even though the famous shoemaker died over half a century ago. The focus is never going to be on Massimiliano Giornetti, the company’s current artistic director, who has worked for Ferragamo for the past 12 years.

So what’s going on? The fashion industry is revealing itself for the industry that it is (duh) and old school insiders, believers in genuine luxury, are feeling disillusioned. Maybe if mass market luxury, like Wang for Balenciaga and Jacobs for LV, is proven in its commerciality, we can stop pretending in the essence of luxury and a proper fashion counterculture can arise (and I’m not talking about MMM HM). Or not. I don’t know. All I am certain of is how little I am certain of. And something about China. 

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