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Thursday, December 28, 2006

LOSING FASHION AS ART

Fashion is a unique cultural phenomenon that stands at the crossroads of artistic expression, utility, and commerce. To regard fashion without considering all of its aspects is to paint an incomplete picture. Yet, in today’s world of conspicuous consumption, businessmen’s greed, and celebrity worship we are in danger of losing the first, and the most important aspect of fashion - its artistry. Trends are becoming the biggest sales driver, celebrities are rapidly replacing the designer as the source of fashion authority, and businessmen prescribe what should be produced, and how. The designer is losing his power both as a creator and as a business owner. He no longer dictates, he is dictated to. The signs are clear and urgent; in the past several years a slew of highly talented and influential designers were simply fired by their corporate bosses; Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and Olivier Theyskens are the most notable of those names. These designers have all redefined fashion in some way; Mr. Lang and Ms. Sander introduced minimalism that became fashion’s driving force in the 90’s, and Mr. Theyskens was responsible for revival of the venerable house of Rochas. They created beauty with thread and needle. They have emphasized a personal relationship between the wearer and the clothes. Their stories are different, but the bottom line is the same – they have failed commercially.

Both Helmut Lang and Jil Sander were bought by Prada in the late 90’s. The Prada corporate bosses promised to leave complete creative freedom to both designers, and to shift the burden of running a business to Prada’s business arm. What could be better? A year later, Jil Sander was fired after a clash over creative control. Five years later Helmut Lang, whose house Prada diluted by producing a huge number of jeans and tshirts that they could not sell at high prices, was shut down. Prada subsequently sold Helmut Lang to Theory, a mass-market brand that will re-launch the brand this spring. They will try to sell same jeans and t-shirts again, only at lower prices. Today, neither Jil Sander nor Helmut Lang design. Should they choose to design again, they will not be able to put their own name on the garment label.

The story of Olivier Theyskens is a different one. A while ago, Procter & Gamble acquired the house of Rochas for its lucrative fragrances arm. P&G then decided to gamble on reviving the ready to wear line of Rochas, and hired Mr. Theyskens to be the head designer. Mr. Theyskens chose to close his own house in order to concentrate on designing for Rochas; after all, Rochas is a part of fashion history, a label that used to rival Chanel and Dior. During his tenure at Rochas, Theyskens produced breathtaking (and very expensive) creations, painstakingly crafted in small Parisian ateliers. Procter & Gamble smartly kept their ownership under the covers – who would want to buy a $4,000 suit from a company that makes laundry detergent? Yet, despite constant rave reviews from the press, Rochas failed to make a profit. It seems that the days of old school aristocratic patronage are dead, and because Mr. Theyskens refused to produce an “It” bag, or cheap garish logo-covered accessories, or a diffusion line, or prostitute his talents otherwise, Rochas did not find commercial success with the general public. The label lasted three years, before short-fused suits from Procter & Gamble decided to shut it down.

Surely, it is not all bad news for fashion. There still exist a handful of talented designers who manage to create beautiful clothes and run a successful business who give a clear priority to artistry and craftsmanship. They let the garment speak for itself. Yet, if we carefully look at the most successful of them, we can see definite compromises. Martin Margiela sold his company to Diesel; it’s been a successful marriage, for now. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons is doing well in the high profit margin businesses of fragrances and retail, which lets her finance her ready-to-wear lines. Yohji Yamamoto has signed a lucrative contract with Adidas to create a line of sportswear (which has been a commercial success but hardly a design one, since Mr. Yamamoto does not design any of it himself, but “oversees” a design team). Yohji once famously declared, “I hate fashion.” This apparently contradictory remark has been interpreted in various ways – often as pretentious, or attention seeking. I think Yohji expressed nothing more than his disdain for the current state of fashion, and not for his love of design.

What creative designers emphasize is relationship between the wearer and the clothes. Ideally, this is all there needs to exist – a judge, and the object he judges. This relationship is no longer in equilibrium. That balance has been upset by those who worship material culture, and by those who despise it. Both groups are reactionary. The worshippers follow trends, celebrities and the magazines, and slavishly acquire the advertised goods. Their purchasing decisions have absolutely no meaning, except that of desire to be trendy and fear of being ridiculed for not being so. The others scoff, understandably, at the shallowness of the former, and often write off fashion altogether as a mere playground for the idle and the facile. By emphasizing the material aspect of fashion, both groups deemphasize its artistry. Both sides are thus responsible for the loss of beauty, of a sense of craftsmanship and artisanal tradition, for the loss of quality. Such losses impoverish culture.

If you think that you stand outside of fashion, consider this; dressing down is as much of a fashion statement as dressing up. Care and carelessness in dress are both a form of personal aesthetic expression. When Wim Wenders, a German film director, was commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou to film a documentary about fashion, he was at a loss. “Fashion. I’ll have nothing of it. At least that was my first reaction…” until he tried on a jacket at the Yohji Yamamoto boutique in Paris. “I looked in the mirror and felt transformed,” Wim Wenders recalls. What he did was simple – he paid attention to the garment. He realized its beauty, and sensed a personal connection with it. He felt enriched and moved. He talked of Yohji’s “philosophy and craft.” For a moment, he forgot his socio-cultural views that have previously turned him away from fashion. Subsequently, Mr. Wenders produced a memorable documentary on Yohji Yamamoto, “Notebook on Cities and Clothes.”

Fashion would be in a great position if most people appreciated its artistry the way Wim Wenders has learned to. After all, conceptually, how much difference is there between creating a garment and creating a painting? The designer’s needle is his paintbrush; the fabric he chooses is his paint – both require talent, creativity, and skill. One may say that at the end of the day the clothes are mechanically reproduced, but so are the lithographs and posters of Warhol’s, and Dali’s work. Still, with a few exceptions, fashion is not recognized as a form of artistic expression. Art enjoys a huge corporate sponsorship that recently swelled to new heights with the rise of the hedge funds. It has become en vogue for governments to commission projects by famous architects. Fashion has no such beneficiaries. With a few exceptions, such as the Council of Fashion Designers Association, and the Swiss Textile Association, who hold annual competitions and award monetary prizes meant to help young designers, there is no organized support for fashion. Art is considered refined, and architecture intelligent. Yet no one pauses to ask why so many artists and architects wear designer clothing. Could it be that they find same artistic aspects in fashion as they do in their own work? What a revelation! Alas, that is not the image of an individual interested in fashion that usually comes to one’s mind. Instead, again and again, fashion must grapple with the image of a careless idle bubblehead carrying too many credit cards in her “It” handbag, summed up in one despicable word, “fashionista.” It is high time we divorce fashion from that image.

Today, fashion is confronted with kitsch, just like the art world was at the time of Modernism. In his 1939 essay, Clement Greenberg gave the following definition of kitsch,

"Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money -- not even their time."

Mr. Greenberg could not have been more precise were he asked to describe the state of fashion today. One needs to look no further than these two fashion-related phenomena: trends and celebrity “designers.”

Trends, mechanical and formulaic, are the sole biggest driver of fashion sales. They are a blessing to fashion kitsch, because it saves the kitsch-producers time and creative effort, because they have none. All designers have to do is produce pre-formulated trendy clothes, if they want to sell them. They consult a number of trend-forecasting agencies about what color, cut, and length will be “hot” in a year from now. Obviously, these agencies don’t have a magic ball that predicts the future. Instead they serve as a legal vehicle for designer collusion. As a result, fashion shows, especially those in bottom-line oriented New York, have become a boring, monotonous blur, albeit a commercially successful one.

The case of celebrity “designers” also precisely fits within Greenberg’s definition of kitsch. All celebrity “designers” want is people’s money, and not even their time. As a matter of fact, the less time the better, because, given time, a consumer might actually discern a fraud. Fueled by corporate investment and large egos, celebrities capitalize on public’s ignorance. Their business model is simple – build an image of high fashion and sell your low-quality wares produced in the third world sweatshops at a huge profit. Jennifer Lopez, P.Diddy, Beyonce, Gwen Stefani – these are the names that occupy prime time catwalks during the New York fashion week, and that make it into a farce despised by the entire fashion industry. Yet, they laugh all the way to the bank. Their shows are nothing but a sham – they got rid of the original purpose of a fashion show, a presentation of a new collection. Their shows have become just another form of advertising.

The celebrity has gone through an interesting transformation. In the past what celebrity wore was inaccessible to most. It helped create an aura of uniqueness about them. Now, celebrity has become a walking billboard. It is a fact that the big fashion houses will pay celebrities to wear their clothes, or give whole wardrobes to them for free. Rappers are paid to put designer names in their lyrics. The most enterprising celebrities start their own clothing lines. The result is completely reversed – from exclusivity to inclusivity. To quote Greenberg again;

"…Discovering the new capacity for boredom …the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide."

So, what is the demand for the new new market? Today, consumers want the Warholian 15 minutes of fame, and they believe they can buy it with their dollars. Everyone wants to be “glam,” and for a suburban teenager girl buying a $100 pair of jeans with “JLo” written in glitter on a back pocket means just that. What Greenberg blamed on urban boredom has now become suburban rock-star fantasy. “Glam” has become the new word for kitsch.

The Modernists made a conscious effort to expose kitsch as such, and distance themselves from it. Today, we can do the same for fashion. By “we,” I mean journalists, magazine editors, museum curators, and simply people with good fashion knowledge, and – dare I say it? – good taste. To cultivate taste in dress is not that far from cultivating taste in painting, music, or any other artistic enterprise. We have the power to educate the public by praising the good and criticizing the bad – this is how taste develops. There is plenty of room for dialogue, from newspapers and magazines to blogs and Internet forums – and there is nothing condescending in teaching and learning. After all, one makes a value judgment based on the sum-total of one’s experience and knowledge. To be sure, I do not envision a world where everyone is dressed in expensive designer clothes – that would be as silly as imagining a Picasso painting in every house. It will be sufficient if the so-called “tastemakers” promote designers based on their creativity, instead of promoting those with celebrity connections and large advertising budgets. The rest will trickle down through mass-market store chains that will imitate high fashion in their own ways, and there is no shame in that. The only shame is losing beauty of clothes we put on our bodies. It is as bad as losing the beauty of art that gratifies the mind.

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This article is protected by Copyleft. It maybe reproduced in part or in full without my permission – however, you must link to this post and mention the article source, fashion-critic.blogspot.com

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rock on!

2:00 PM  
Blogger Candid Cool said...

Brilliantly written

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Leo said...

Extremely well-articulated article. I could not agree more.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great and well written story. However, please note that Mr. Lang was not fired from the house that bears his name. He resigned.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous designersheep said...

Thank you for the insightful and wonderfully written article.

Although this is my first time leaving a comment on your blog, I always enjoy reading your insights.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous laika said...

Very thoughtful and well articulated! I'm rather surprised to hear you promoting modernism though.
I'll be very curious to see how you expand this topic--it lends itself to a lot of complexity.
I must remember to check over here more often.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Fashion Critic said...

I am curious to hear as to why you are surprised? I would not say I am promoting modernism as such, but it's a good historical example of how there can be a conscious effort to battle kitsch. And I agree, this piece opens itself to criticism - that's the idea!

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Without a doubt, one of the best written articles on the state of fashion today, and as it turns out, for quite some time. You used examples, and were able to not sound, simply put, snobby.

I just wish more people would understand what you wrote. It's about how clothes make me feel, and the things they remind me of, IMO. Sentimental and kind of cheesy? Well..yes, but it seems better than buying pants with J.Lo on my ass (excuse the language) just so I can say I've got them.

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i must say ive enjoyed reading this article.I though every point was hit and you managed to have me hooked on what was going to be said next,this ladies and gents is a very well written article!!

8:31 PM  
Blogger Katharine "K" Lina said...

I very much enjoyed your essay and have posted a response on my blog: linaslookbook.blogspot.com. Thanks!

6:20 PM  
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