Today we are honoured to welcome Colin McDowell to our team of contributing editors at The Business of Fashion. In his regular column, we will hear his personal stories, reflections, and insights from over thirty years working in fashion as a designer, educator, critic and commentator.
PARIS, France — In the wake of the couture shows in Paris, I have been thinking about what is wrong with current couture and, indeed, fashion generally at the moment. To begin with, I want to tell you a true story told to me by Diana Vreeland, the doyenne of mid-twentieth century fashion, about the closing of Balenciaga’s fashion house in 1968. Coming without warning, it shocked the fashion world to its core. He did not even think it necessary to tell his devoted staff, many of whom had been with him for over twenty years. His only comment was, ‘It’s a dog’s life’.
Vreeland was staying with Mona Bismarck, one of Balenciaga’s most devoted clients, at her villa on Capri when the news came through. Its effect on her hostess was electric. Mona disappeared to her bedroom where she locked herself away for three days, seeing nobody. When I asked Vreeland what she thought Mona was doing in that time Diana’s reply showed her surprise at such a question. ‘She was GRIEVING, of course’, she said with that instant hyperbole that was a Vreeland trademark.
‘Over clothes?’ I thought crassly. But I should have know better. I had already learned the power of couture having worked for some years for Pino Lancetti, Italy’s greatest couturier after Roberto Capucci. I had lived with the passion and intensity. I knew about the almost religious fervour on both sides of the runway. But I had never realised the devotion that true couture customers had in those days. And were expected to. When on another occasion I asked Diana Vreeland how Balenciaga would view a client patronising another couturier her reply was succinct. ‘He would dismiss her immediately as a person who merely liked clothes and was therefore not worthy of being a client.’
Those women were votaries, keepers of the flame, in their dedication to perfection. They simply don’t make them like that any more and that I think is what is wrong with current fashion. It is an impersonal thing, without soul, because the relationship between the maestro and the devotee simply doesn’t exist in these days of dozens of different collections every year, fashion shows childishly indulgent in their length and audiences sometimes hovering around the 1000 mark. How can that number of people understand what a designer is doing in such an intimate discipline as clothing unless he makes his message crudely obvious? In over thirty years in fashion I have seen a minor but exceedingly disciplined and beautiful art form degenerate into the bread and circuses of the creative world, frequently no more subtle than the world of football — and quite as manipulative of its followers who demand not goals but endless new ‘ideas’.
Again, Balenciaga comes to mind. A crassly eager fashion journalist once asked him what new ideas he was introducing for the next season. His withering reply was, “Madam, I never have new ideas.’ And he was right. For him, fashion was a slow-moving stream able to be gently revisited and subtly revitalised over a lifetime of creativity. Instead of ideas, a few millimetres in the roll of a collar was exciting development enough for a new season and, usually a revolution in the shape, balance and poise not only of a garment but of a complete collection. Hard to imagine now, but the entire artistic thrust came from a philosophy of creativity and a steady view of the needs of individual women who were not abstracts of femininity but respected individual customers.
So, what is needed now, when both designers and customers are increasingly showing signs of battle fatigue and high streets and shopping malls across the globe have a tired deja vu feeling to them?
It is instructive to turn to ballet at the turn of then last century. Tired and formulaic, it had lost all creative energy. And then up popped Diaghilev and changed everything for ever. Although basically an entrepreneur, he understood creativity and creators and knew how to inspire the dancers, composers and choreographers who worked with him to the limits of their creative span. The result was the Ballets Russes and a movement that literally affected all the visual arts for the rest of the century.
Sadly, fashion is not ballet and it is unlikely to produce a Diaghilev. There is nobody who can say, like he did, ‘Astonish me!” and get an immediate response. But we once had that person, in Diana Vreeland. Big enough, confident enough and totally inspirational, she was the only editor of a fashion magazine who fulfilled the role of creative counsellor and catalyst for daring design ideas. By her fearless questioning of all assumptions, and rejection of all formulaic approaches she made US Vogue a beacon followed by all who believe that there is more to fashion than an endless trail of rip- offs. By her example she gave people the courage to dare. And the fate of this truly inspirational woman? Conde Nast sacked her.
It somehow says everything about why fashion is so adrift and lost at this moment. And why it must very quickly find its way again before it is too late.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion