In the fashion system, things do change—styles come and go—but the process by which things change is always the same. Subversion, appropriation, commodification, dissemination; system processes.
Another new fashion magazine launches next week. It is called System and it looks like Apartamento and Paradis and sounds like Industrie meets CR and Vestoj. With a cover shot by Juergen and the first interview with Nicolas Ghesquière since his departure from the house of Balenciaga, it promises to be, as Eric Wilson referred to it, a “deep thoughts” magazine about the industry, the milieu, the system. Promises.
The fashion industry likes Roland Barthes for his legitimization of fashion as a subject of study (Barthes wrote the book on The Fashion System). Industry players like to forget—or maybe, more likely, never appreciated—that what Barthes was studying was how bourgeois society adulterates signifiers to reinforce its own power and prestige and sell things. The Fashion System was born from Mythologies (it’s simplistic mid-century Marxism).
Founded by Industrie’s Alexia Niedzielski and Elizabeth von Guttman, by the former editor of Numéro, Jonathan Wingfield, and by Paradis art director, Thomas Lenthal, with a debut issue guest-edited by the current senior fashion editor of W, a longtime Vogue stylist, and bud/collaborator to coverboy Ghesquière, Marie-Amélie Sauvé, System is like fashion system FUBU (For Us, By Us). The magazine is already being celebrated as an alternative to the Condé Nast roster, but that’s not to say that it’s alternative.
By its title, System is positioning itself as about “the fashion system” à la Barthes, about the sociology and economy of fashion. But the mag seems to, in a typical fashion, misconstrue Barthes, adopting his vocabulary and prestige, but forgetting his politics. In that way, System functions exactly as Barthes showed the fashion system to: appropriating an idea, distilling it to fit its interest, and selling it back as image. System is a perfect name for Niedzielski/von Guttman/Wingfield/Lengthal/Sauvé’s project, but not necessarily by design; it acts, not like Barthes, but as he described.
Maybe that’s intentional (suspension of disbelief).
My fashion industry dissent comes from a love of (some) fashion objects and the potential of the language; an optimism and desire for betterment; I hate because I love. It would be great if Niedzielski, von Guttman, Wingfield, Lenthal, and Sauvé presented a project that was alternative. With a $100,000-per-issue budget, culled from “consulting projects done by von Guttman and Niedzielski,” and a masthead of insiders, System has the freedom and access to *challenge the powers that be!* With a $100,000 per issue budget, culled from “consulting projects done by von Guttman and Niedzielski,” and a masthead of insiders, if precedent is at all telling, System is unlikely to challenge any power, except in the bolstering of its own.
As per Barthes, what’s “fashionable” will always change (as in, new trends, new faces, new imprints, in order to continue to sell new fashions), and always stay the same (as in, same power, same players, in order to continue to sell new fashions). System represents both: new look, same them.
Still, System is a welcome, new voice, as anything that stands out from the chorus of Vogue will be. The first issue’s cover story, the first interview with Nicolas Ghesquière since his departure from Balenciaga after fifteen years at the house, excerpted as an exclusive for Business of Fashion yesterday, sounds great. It finally answers the question who broke up with who? Nicolas opted to leave. Why? Profound, persistent dissatisfaction with the business operations of the brand. “It all became so dehumanised,” tells Ghesquière:
Everything became an asset for the brand, trying to make it ever more corporate – it was all about branding. I don’t have anything against that; actually, the thing that I’m most proud of is that Balenciaga has become a big financial entity and will continue to exist. But I began to feel as though I was being sucked dry, like they wanted to steal my identity while trying to homogenise things. It just wasn’t fulfilling anymore.
He goes on, complaining about the system that constrained his imagination:
The strongest pieces that we made for the catwalk got ignored by the business people… I started to become unhappy when I realised that there was no esteem, interest, or recognition for the research that I’d done; they only cared about what the merchandisable result would look like.
They keep saying they love fashion, yet they’ve never actually grasped that this isn’t yoghurt or a piece of furniture – products in the purest sense of the term.
When I got back to Paris I saw the press, and with all the commentary going on I actually learnt things about myself; it was quite beautiful in fact. Generally the reaction had been very positive, even on Twitter there were some very satisfactory things being written.
Sounds anti-system, except that this interview is public relations step numéro une in whatever Nicolas Ghesquière’s next career move ends up being.
I happen to like the “them” of System better than Roitfeld’s CR or Wintour’s Vogue and so I’m pleased with its publication. But I’m cautious to applaud it for its “deep thoughts” before it proves itself. System is still part of the SAMO system, it just strikes me as one of its more self-aware players. The best thing System could do, for its own claimed goals, is hire someone young, new, or outside. Hire Steve Oklyn. I mean, that cover—Nicolas in a baroque interior shot by Juergen Teller (washed tones, washed tones) with Paradis‘ floating serif-set title—it’s good, but it’s not new.