The controversial fashion critic Cathy Horyn recently surfaced (yay!) to decry the boring state of the Fashionverse. Particularly as summed up in the "straightforward commercial fashion" of Saint Laurent's Hedi Slimane who "doesn't seem to be trying very hard to be inventive." (It won't surprise you to know when she was still critic for the New York Times, Slimane banned her from the YSL runway shows.) "I’m no fan of Slimane’s, but he’s clever," says Horyn. "If you accept that fashion reflects the times — and I do — then you have to concede that in this respect Slimane has been impressive, even prescient. His Saint Laurent collections perfectly capture the mood and values of the present. The need for simple messages. The triumph of branding. The shortening of horizons due to economic factors. The lack of prejudice toward old ideas, especially among young consumers." (image)
Aside from the fact that the truth hurts, the question for me is: why? Why has branding trumped thinking to such an epic degree on the runways? Is it the fault of these younger consumers and their "lack of prejudice" about shameless mining of the past for ideas - or does the fault lie elsewhere? I would argue the latter. After all, designers that matter do more than simply make marketable stuff to wear. They present clothing that resonates conceptually and intellectually. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them," Steve Jobs once told Business Week, and the same applies to what walks down the runway. It's what makes a great designer great.
(Harper's Bazaar layout from the late 50s by Alexey Brodovitch & shot by Richard Avedon - via source)
Which begins with their formative influences. Scratch a sophisticated talented fashion designer and you'll unearth a wide-eyed kid who spent their childhood obsessed with magazines about fashion and filled with cool imagery. Designers born around 1950 were lucky: by the time their magazine habits were kicking in full bore, change was afoot. Illustration, then a key visual tool of the glossy trade, had evolved away from the simplistic portrayals of Norman Rockwell and shifted from "what-you-see-is-what-you-get to conceptual because the issues and themes covered in magazines were becoming more complex, more critical," explains design critic Steve Heller.
Rockwell era imagery was simply a pretty way to accessorize the text, but as the late 50s became the 60s, innovative art directors like Alexey Brodovitch (top, above, left) were upending the rules of layout. "Either an illustration was integrated into a format or given its own page adjacent to an elegantly and sometimes metaphorically composed block of text," continues Heller. "Conceptual illustration served two purposes: It provided meaning—and commentary— and gave a publication its visual personality." Instead of just being eye candy, design made the art as vital as the text and "was not only about simply making special effects on a page, it was about making messages." (image)
(Comme des Garcons catalog from 1987 shot by Peter Lindbergh - via source)
So it's no surprise that 20+ years later, designers educated by message-making magazines ended up creating the same kind of fashion. Like the visual arts of their formative years which spoke a "specialized language" (Susan Sontag), "clothes suddenly acquired meaning (think of the efforts to “decode” a Helmut Lang show or almost any by Martin Margiela)," says Horyn. "You truly needed to be an expert to appreciate why a jacket was worn inside out or why a dress that made you look like a bag lady was cool."
But by the 90s, illustration was in crisis, threatened by a flood of cheap stock-photography, a scary new weapon called PhotoShop and packs of young art directors "who admittedly had little interest in the art form." Without the kind of creative direction from talents like Brodovitch, art directors no longer provided a platform for innovative layout. The visuals not only suffered, but the very future of the industry was threatened. So much so that by 1999, over 500 illustrators were concerned enough to attend a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico dedicated to figuring out what to do.
And the future fashion-designers being visually weaned on the visual fodder of the 90s? Where designs once resonated with messages to be parsed, now straightforward and commercial imagery reigned. Instantly relatable, yes...but so what. "No one, "continues Horyn, has produced a style that matches in originality to Rei Kawakubo’s black-clad armies of the ’80s." "Then, too, young consumers don’t seem to care whether their clothes are original, a hang-up of my generation."
That's because her generation grew up on magazines filled with messages that challenged, unlike the bland, PhotoShop-filled glossies that today's fashion designers and buyers were raised on. So while it's easy to blame them for their crappy McTaste, the art directors of 25 years ago are just as culpable. Why? For failing to provide a solid and interesting visual substrate upon which to cultivate innovative, experimental and forward-looking fashion fare.
(1994 cover of Bazaar via source)
The people willing to pay Saint Laurent prices for this depressingly commercial aesthetic are members of the Supremium* fashion tribe. For more posts I've written about them and podcasts I've recorded, CLICK HERE. *If you want to know more about all the fashion tribes I cover, START HERE.
- Lesley Scott
Podcast music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com