by Debra Scherer
I recently bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in many years, a great artist in his own right, who like me, had receded from the front row of the fashion business in the last decade or so. It was like seeing a ghost from another lifetime, a voice from the distant past. After the usual niceties, "how-have-you-been?" and "what-are-you-up-to-now?" We both kind of looked at each other with a bit of a shrug and a sigh. I could see on his face we were thinking the same things without saying a word. "Boy has the industry changed. Yep, not what it once was."
Let's sum up the obvious: celebrity culture has altered the fashion industry. True creatives are getting crushed under the machine that has risen from the never-ending expansion of a once boutique, smaller, insider and exclusive system. Fashion criticism is dead. Retailers are hyper-discounting themselves into a corner, and brands themselves are committing suicide by eternal need for growth. Edgy is a cliché. In fact, fashion itself is just a big marketing scheme. Ok, so there, we said it.
So Who Are We Working For Now?
Welcome to the wonderful world of entertainment technology. This is it folks! It's a vertical on a website that hopefully gets instant articled and re-whatevered on social media. Oh, the horror. We thought we were so important. We thought we would work forever in niche media and then trickle it down to the masses slowly and on our schedule, predetermined by the fashion calendar and the whims of a creative happy few, chosen by us. Wait! When did we become just a category? Oh yeah, that was technology knocking on the front door, and instead of graciously letting them in, we raised our noses, and instead, those pesky fashion bloggers snuck up through the basement, and red carpet arrivals invaded our living rooms. The industry was transformed in the 21st century by an unstoppable monster. The world wanted more fashion, and fashion kept obliging. But perhaps the industry was already in a kind of disarray before the crushing mass market made their lofty demands.
Dancing On the Deck Of the Titanic
At first, it certainly didn’t seem that way. There were more shows than ever. NYFW kept outgrowing their venues, the brands were expanding like crazy, young designers thought they had great opportunities when the big guys showed interest. Vogue was more powerful than ever, the retailers were expanding, opening stores on every corner and outlets to boot, and Project Runway began making celebrities out of young up-and-comers (and Michael Kors too!) The CFDA came up with all sorts of ideas to make entertainment out of fashion, teaming up with IMG and having star-studded events all year round. The great companies that can afford it now have outlandish shows and presentations every couple of weeks. Everyone embraced Instagram and Insta-shows and Insta-models and hashtags as the new way. E-commerce and editorial perfectly entwined to Insta-sell all of these Insta-styles and Insta-ideas and Insta-cross marketing campaigns. It was all moving so fast and growing so fast, it was amazing to watch. That is, until it all started tumbling down this past year.
Adding yet another fashion week this past summer to placate struggling retailers, the unstoppable brands like J.Crew and Gap are coming to a screeching and unfixable halt while true top fashion creatives are stepping down and snapping at the chains of their corporate overlords. In fact, I believe there is a relationship between those two extremes if you think hard about it and follow the timeline.
Follow The Leader
How did it get so overtaken while amazingly still avoiding any true disruption? I believe it has a lot to do with Anna Wintour. Not Anna herself, this is not an attack on someone who is absolutely brilliant and whom I admire. It's the oldest story in the world. How was one editor, with such an “individual” point of view, allowed to amass so much power? How can the CFDA, whose mission it is to “strengthen the impact of American designers in the global economy,” consider J.Crew a designer?
Why do they team with Vogue, which has an intensely narrow view of design and creativity, for the television gameshow that is the CFDA/VOGUE fashion fund? How did the Met’s Costume Institute, whose gala was dreamed up by Eleanor Lambert and whose creative gravitas was instilled by Diana Vreeland, get named the Anna Wintour Costume Center? How did all of the retailers become so intwined with the pages of Vogue? And how did fashion editorial, its movers and shakers, become so dictated by one point of view?
The answer, though it may seem cliché, should be obvious: money and power. Just take a look back at the 2007 documentary of the making of the Vogue September issue, and instead of being enchanted by Grace Coddington, watch for the scene where Anna meets with Burt Tansky of Neiman Marcus and hands him and his entire buying staff a several hundred page report called "Page by Page” outlining in exact detail which items Vogue will be featuring in the coming months, and by gosh, these retailers better follow along. Or else. Everybody laughs nervously as the retailers timidly ask if Anna could speak to “the designers” on their behalf about shipping and production schedules. Is that really happening? Shouldn’t the retailers be able to have their own relationships with the companies they are actually in business with? I guess it's better to have someone make them an offer they can’t refuse.
It has been a long time since Vogue itself left fashion behind and instead concentrated on pure power. It shows this obsession in its peculiar embrace of a kind of celebrity and its shameless relationship to a very particular part of Democratic politics, but what it tries not to show is its choking grip on the rest of the industry, with consulting and advice given more as directives in an almost threatening tone.
What Could have Been
How did this happen? I believe it can be traced back to the untimely death of Liz Tilberis, who we all thought would be the counterbalance to Anna’s point of view. She would have been a creative rival of her equal, of another way to approach all things fashion at the helm of Harper's Bazaar. It scared the power of Vogue so deeply they even forced the photographers (as well as other industry creatives) to choose. That certainly was a sign of equal power. But sadly, her death left no new or next, no chance of an equal, no room for balance.
What would have happened? Who knows, but maybe J. Crew and Banana Republic would not be considered designers who have outsized roles at the CFDA. Maybe Victoria’s Secret would be having a “show" and not a "fashion show.” Maybe if there was balance, there would have been choice. More importantly, if there had been balance, this new generation of fashion enthusiasts would be better educated and more discerning. There would be less acceptance of this status quo--that it's ok to keep buying the same thing over and over again. That Kanye West is a designer and fashion is a form of entertainment interchangeable with living in a house for six weeks with seven strangers.
In the final months of 2015, fashion's year of discontent, the CFDA did the unthinkable; exploring the idea of letting the shows detach from the calendar and having them be “consumer facing," while J.Crew was forced to devalue their goodwill from billions to zero, top creatives sitting on the thrones of the major houses began to abdicate, all while Anna announced that "Brooklyn is the new Silicon Valley” and invited Jony Ive to co-host the Met Ball.
So what's going to happen? Can anyone bring back balance? We will be left with all Kanye (and those like him) all the time, with Anna sitting front row as her view becomes even narrower and her power even greater.
To Arms Fashion Flock! Here comes 2016 and the creatives revolt!! It's an unusual situation best exemplified by recent events at three houses: Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia, a creative with a business-minded brother to back his talents goes all-in with his own definition of a show and a calendar, eschewing the industry's tight grip; Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, once purely the creative, in an unusual move finds himself as the CEO with the power to assert control of the company's destiny in disruption; and Tom Ford finally realizes how much power, especially in the age of celebrity, he already has. It's a revolt without precedent in the industry; the closest reasonably comparison is the second coming of Steve Jobs' at Apple in the late 1990's. There was not a businessman or an engineer at the helm, but a true creative, with that special talent of being able to see what nobody else sees. And we all know where that lead us.
Return To Balance
It's really happening and the consequences will be epic, though I predict the pendulum will swing right back to where we all started. This disruptive act addresses the need for the shows to correspond more closely to customers' behavior. More simply, when they see it on Instagram, they want to buy it at that moment, not six months later. Additionally, it addresses the growing sense that menswear and womenswear can live peacefully together in the hearts and minds of the fashion flock. In fact, it's a much better way to tell a brand's story to have the sexes mingling in these presentations that correspond to real time “je ne sais quoi.”
I believe that rather than houses striving to imitate fast fashion, the ones who begin to rethink supply-chain paradigms, meaning, bringing manufacturing back to where the houses originate from, will be robust successes. It's not a nationalistic response, it's just an obvious logistical play. Watch Moschino brag about producing their “ McDonald's" collection in two seconds right off the runway, and you can thank its Aeffe ownership for that. There is already a shift happening between China’s growing middle class and the West's shrinking middle class that will eventually be rectified so that the Chinese can go back to inventing things as they historically always have.
The End Of Demographics
And so what happens to the power of Anna? The power of magazines? Again, she is one of the people I admire the most, but Vogue is certainly one of those kinds of publications that will lose its ability to direct in the short term, as it is intrinsically tied to advertising and the schedules and verticals built around it. In fact, the magazines themselves were only made up to serve the advertising industry, which is why they are broken up into the categories that exist today, like fashion, women's fashion, young women's fashion, young-women-with-and-without-education’s fashion, and so on. Demographics were invented by marketers and focus groups, and the magazine brands, from Vogue to Southern Country Living, are made to prop-up the ads with information, sometimes beautifully done, sometimes not.
Therefore, these new fashion shows; calendar-fluid, gender-fluid, brand-building, consumer-facing, immediate and held at Madison Square Garden while dropping a new record themselves become the new ads. And boy, do the publishers have a lot to figure out now! I believe something new will arise, something really fun, and the designers will hold very private showings, just like they did in the 1950’s, to certain people in the know. It is the Haute Couture, which must have a lead time due to its made-to-measure, one-of-a-kind nature, that will be something really special with limited exclusive coverage. The magazines will have to think of a new plan, and luckily, they have the creative talent who will like nothing more than to lean in on creativity and leave the dreaded “coat story” to the digital sphere.
So we live in interesting times, when the very definition of fashion is in flux. It’s musical chairs mixed with a little Game of Thrones, but in the end there will finally be a great transformation, with new visual and visceral expressions of the fantastic that will influence the way we express ourselves through the art of costume. Wasn't that the point all along?