For our new series "ask Garmento," the fashion zine's Editor-in-Chief and Founder, Jeremy Lewis, answers your most pressing questions on clothes, style and fashion. Any reader can pose a question to Garmento here.
In her recent come-back essay for the NYT, Cathy Horyn wrote that "what was once noble is now a universal fast-track to fabulousness” suggesting that fashion today has become increasingly mainstream, and without a sense of risk. Your thoughts on this?
I can't say I completely agree with Ms. Hoyrn's diagnosis of the current state of fashion where she has essentially made the claim that it has been dumbed down. She cites Hedi Slimane, a designer who she has little appreciation for, and his contentious makeover of the house of Yves Saint Laurent, and Nicholas Ghesquiere, an industry wunderkind who has set more trends than many but has recently taken a relatively low-key approach to his new appointment at Louis Vuitton. She suggests that designers are no longer spurred by the same intellectual and creative impulses and that their designing of more straightforward and easily digestible collections is a sign of a new commercial prerogative in the age of the internet as well as a lack of ideas. But that's not how I see it.
Fashion today is not what it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It's a world that has engorged itself on the rampant consumerism that defines our entire culture. The coming and going of trends, a process that once happened naturally due to shifts in the zeitgeist, has become forced and artificial. Fashion has become over-saturated and overexposed. It's become banal. When I consider Slimane's new Saint Laurent, or Nicholas Ghesquiere's Louis Vuitton, as clearly as they are appeasing big business, they also feel like a retreat from the malaise of fashion. Slimane has set about remaking Saint Laurent into a French Ralph Lauren, a house of modern classics that can be reliably found season after season. In the case of Vuitton, the magic in Ghesquiere's clothes is not the big bold shock of a new silhouette or outlandish concept, but instead the small details in the make and construction of an otherwise classic style. It is not so much that fashion is being dumbed down but that luxury, true luxury, is removing fashion from its equation.
And really, what's so wrong with designers making clothes that people want to wear and thus buy and being honest about it? I once had a chat with Christophe Lemaire, the departing designer of Hermes's womenswear. He expressed that he had enough of the din and dross of fashion as well. For Hermes he designed what most houses call the "commercial" collection, the collection they actually expect to sell, first and then adds showpieces later. This is reverse of how most designers work. But it did not seem odd to him that the needs of the customers and the end users of his product should be put first before media hype. His goal is to dress women well, to make them feel better about themselves and to enhance who they already are. He didn't feel that fashion was enabling that.
And now we begin to uncover some of fashion's fallacies. Was fashion ever noble? Fashion is a business, it always was and it always will be. How designers have done that business can be shocking and many times it has little to do with the selling of any clothes. It was a common practice in the 1920s for fabric mills to back big name couture in order to boost their own prestige. Did the couture houses make any money? Rarely, but the orders from lesser but more profitable manufacturers were more than lucrative. In the '50s licensing became the hot ticket to a vast fortune and designers began licensing their name to everything from mattresses to cigarettes to toilet paper. In Yves Saint Laurent's heyday in the late '70s and '80s only a fraction of their profits came from selling clothes, the millions upon millions they were making came from an arsenal of licenses for products they'd prefer to forget they endorsed. Sure the collections were outstanding, they were creative, they were "magnifique," but they weren't quite the noble truth we'd all like to think. In the years Nicholas Ghesquiere was designing some of his best collections for Balenciaga the house was in the red and was subsisting on sales from handbags. The collections, as amazing as they were, couldn't keep the business going on their own. I mention this not to discredit Ghesquiere or Monsieur Saint Laurent, who are undeniably some of fashion's greatest talents, but only to add some perspective. When Saint Laurent today does double digit growth based on the sale of clothes, not licensed mattresses, it is possibly more noble than ever before.
Of course I do not feel that innovation and creativity must be sacrificed for the the sake of commerce. That is how dreadful clothes happen. But I do think the approach to designing, and how we assess good fashion design, needs to change. For designers like Christophe Lemaire, Adam Lippes, Veronique Branquinho or Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski (the incoming Hermes designer) the power of the clothes can't be perceived from a catwalk image. They are not designed to make good pictures in magazines. Their real value comes from being worn, by real people, in life. Surely this is enough creative fodder for even the most experimental designer.