Looking to break the fashion system: revolutionary or continual consistency?

Fashion commentators are almost unanimous: the current system is obsolete, fashion is dead, everything must change, etc. The following thoughts all stem from the same basket of eggs: pressure on artistic directors, too great number of collections to digest, and in particular the fact that fashion weeks as they are currently conceived are outdated. This means that the period between the presentation of collections and their availability in stores six months later no longer no longer satisfies both consumers and companies.

But is this really debate as new and revolutionary as it seems? Not really. Whilst Burberry, Tom Ford and Vêtements, to name but a few, recently announced one after the other that they want to break with the current system by offering, for example in the case of Burberry and Tom Ford, to sell their collections at the time of their presentations, they are only airing the obsessions that their illustrious predecessors have already nursed and resolved well before them. The only difference lies in the fact that these predecessors, who were truly visionary, were the only ones at the time to make their dissonant voices heard.

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Iconic designer Pierre Cardin inevitably springs to mind first. It was often said that the celebrated fashion designer was fired by the Chambre Syndicale, as he was the first person who dared to present a ready-to-wear collection in a large department store, in the Printemps store in fact, denigrating in passing the economic model for Haute Couture. Didier Grumbach more than once contradicted this legend; rightly, as it was the reverse that happened. In reality, it was Pierre Cardin who before anyone else absolutely rejected the system of calendar schedules, fashion shows and muses: in 1966, going against the traditional rules of the Chambre Syndicale, he flatly refused to adhere to the schedule laid down, refused to give the press certain documents, and sent a letter of resignation that was immediately accepted. “Why should I agree to put on my fashion show six months before selling the collection, when in the meantime all my models will be copied by Le Sentier?” he objected. However, this dispute which ended in the fashion designer being banned by the Parisian intelligentsia, is no less modern and talked about than all those of the designers and other visionaries of today.

"Anna Wintour scares everyone but when she sees me, she is the one who is scared."

Azzedine Alaïa also comes to mind as from the very beginning of his prodigious career, he refused to commit himself to the fashion circus of shows. The great fashion designer always preferred to show his creations in intimate settings (to which he invited whomsoever he wished, when he wished and without allowing his creative agenda to be dictated by any fashion institution) and never really cared about being snubbed by the major figures in the press. (he does not advertise and refuses to keep to the official schedules) He even went so far to declare a few years ago the following: “Anna Wintour knows how to run a business but she doesn’t control fashion. When I see how she dresses, I don’t ascribe to her tastes in clothing for a single second. She hasn’t photographed my work for many years but I am still one of the biggest sellers in the United States. The Americans love me and I don’t need her help. (…) She scares everyone, but when she sees me, she is the one who is scared!” Numerous designers, including Jérôme Dreyfuss, say the same today.

New-York versus Paris

So where does this sudden agitation in the fashion world come from, one which is looking at itself and thinking that the end of the system is nigh? The blow first fell in New York in the form of Diane Von Fürstenberg: not DVF the designer, but DVF the Chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (the equivalent of the British Fashion Council and the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs.) The respected Chairman commissioned the Boston Consulting Group to carry out a study to assess the future of fashion in New York. The results of this study (whose applications should not in principle be applied beyond the February fashion shows) were clear and comprehensive: fashion shows must become shows for the general public (which, in the circumstances, they already are to a large extent) and in particular they must present collections that are immediately available in stores (which is the new part to the fashion system).

These proposals are interesting. They also received open support from Linda Fargo, Senior Vice-President of Fashion at Bergdorf Goodman. But if they want to play Devil’s Advocate, they should say: 'Be careful you are not deceived by the effects of your statements or the hidden issues!' Without jumping to conclusions, the essence of New York Fashion Week is very different from the essence of Paris Fashion Week. New York is traditionally more commercial, with sportswear and less emphasis on on couture, and with more experimentation and pure creativity. Paris has a profound love for craftsmanship which neither the flow of the economy or the ferocious emergence of any large group can affect: it is a love bound by the city's history and its culture. The Fashion Council recommends changes and measure not necessarily for fashion in general, but for New York fashion in particular. The fact that collections will be available for sale on their presentation will certainly change their overall nature and these collections will have an interest in being more commercial, and in turn downgrade the status of the podium. This equation will suit certain labels fantastically well, but others lot less, for these designers the fashion show is also a time for showing off, sometimes to excess, the vision of a fashion house and skilled craftsmanship.

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In addition, the wish to generalise 'instant availability' (without wishing to enter into philosophical considerations) poses considerable problems in terms of stock, production and cash flow. This also means that collections must be designed a substantial period of time in advance, if only, firstly, to be offered beforehand solely to buyers and, secondly, to be produced on a reasonable scale at any given moment. Lastly, when it is generally known that designers no longer support their own creations once they have been completed, what this situation (presenting collections that they designed only months previously) will cause in terms of comical incidents on certain shows can only be imagined.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Ralph Toledano is the incarnation of the calm assurance of a venerable institution that has been through a lot. "The system has not broken down and the fashion industry is functioning well; our fashion houses are calmly expanding and business is excellent," says the President of the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, playing for time. In a meeting with WWD, the President of the Federation recognised the power of the Internet and the social media, saying, "Nevertheless, these technologies are still tools, and the role of tools is to help us, not to control us." He added, "We must be careful before casting this or that set of new rules in stone. After all, copying existed long before the Internet."

So, there is nothing new under the sun, it seems after all: supporters of revolution will end up on the one hand doubting themselves as to the relative merits of instant availability and on the other hand, others will go off to contemplate the career of Pierre Cardin and the singular and inspiring career of Azzedine Alaïa once more.

Originally written by Herve Dewintre for FashionUnited FR


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