Colin’s Column | What is Wrong with Haute Couture and Fashion Today

Countess Mona von Bismarck | Source: Conde Nast

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

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17 comments

  1. While I am no more pleased with the current state of affairs in the fashion world than Mr. McDowell, I tire endlessly of the incessant outcries that fashion today is “wrong,” that couture is “over,” and that things never will be like they used to be. Fashion today doesn’t have a “problem.” People have problems. Companies have problems. Fashion just is. Fashion was what it was in the 50’s, is what it is today, and will be something completely different in another fifty years. Put simply, fashion evolves. It is the current expression of the artistic inspiration of designers framed within a constantly-changing and ever-diverse set of consumer needs, not to mention corporate goals. The current democratization of fashion is undoubtedly threatening to the traditional artform of couture, and yet one need not look farther than Lagerfeld’s Chanel or Tisci’s Givenchy to see that couture certainly is not dead. It has simply changed. Nostalgia is selfish. Rather than focus on what we have lost from the past, we should look to see what we can gain from the future. Designers have more resources a their disposal today than ever before. I implore Mr. McDowell to continue to share his wisdom and experiences in the hopes that we, lovers of fashion, can all gain tools to demand more from today’s designers.

    Trevor C from Washington, DC, United States
  2. Thanks for a thought provoking article, Colin.

    I applaud your courage to write what many don’t like to hear. In this age of fast fashion and endless fad chases, the traditional connoisseurs are becoming rare. Large advertising campaigns often show glamor shots of super skinny models, who seem so distant to average consumers, instead of the craftsmanship and genuine creative soul behind the products which can bring intimacy and long-term loyalty. People often buy the hottest trends on the latest fashion magazines (again pushed by mass media) and on the Oscar red carpet, rather than develop their own 1:1 relationship with a brand, and connection with the artistic soul behind it. It’s actually possible now if there’s the well designed social technology platform to enable such a connection.

    However, the fashion world has fallen prey to flashy ad campaigns, glossy shots, and artificial poses (by designers), without revealing a more intimate side of its creative universe to build a deeper bond with its customers. This is what’s lacking, maybe as a result of the fast food culture in which consumers cannot read more than 146 characters.

    I do believe that the next wave of technology innovation will open to gate to enable such 1:1 relationships – a return to essence.

    Beatrice Pang from Moss Beach, CA, United States
  3. Lovely anecdote, but what a load of hyperbolic guff.

    Fashion hasn’t degenerated, it has evolved. There was no such thing as “conceptual” fashion or a “message” in the halcyon days of Balenciaga and his contemporaries. The shows we have now are far more profound than those orchestrated by a handful of maestros who dressed a handful of cosseted heiresses.

    If Colin so laments the democratization of fashion and yearns for a return to the days when shows were restricted to a select few, perhaps it’s time for him to retire. Then he wouldn’t have to sit through those long shows and breathe the same air as hundreds of plebs.

    As for Diana Vreeland, the claim that she was the “only” editor to have served as creative counselor and catalyst for daring design ideas is frankly preposterous.

    Unimpressed from Japan
  4. I feel that in many ways the only problem fashion suffers from is that it tries too hard to get back to what is suggested is its former glory. Therefore, designers come up overtly exaggerated designs or ones which entirely mimic those of the past. There is no point putting a ruffle here or there just because it hasn’t been done before- if it doesn’t look good, it’s not true style. To let fashion ‘just be’ may work or perhaps even better, to understand that design should be innovative but essentially timeless. I don’t believe it is that difficult to understand what is stylish- but then, maybe style is inbuilt.

    By the way guys, would be really grateful if you could check out the fashion and interior design agency Façonner. Façonner’s Editorial was launched yesterday with a London Fashion Week Edition. You can find it here: http://editorial.faconner.co.uk
    Thank you in advance- and as a great lover of this website for the intelligence that is fueled in to it, your feedback in particular would be very welcome!

  5. I totally agree with Trevor C, fashion was something different in the 50’s and is something else today. The main difference in my opinion, is that there was an appreciation for the craft, rarely apparent today.
    Nowadays it seems to be more about the business, the profits, the greed we are all too familiar with not only in the business of fashion but elsewhere too. The bottom line is money, where back then even though still businesses, the values were perhaps placed on the quality of the garments, the relationships between creator and clientele and vice-versa. It was a more honest expression of the brands core values, where I think today it is an artificial marketing strategy, since it is so impersonal, the brand is part of another brand, owned by another umbrella corporation.
    Diana Vreeland represented that era, and she was the essence of it. Anna Wintour is today’s Vreeland, and I have to say she does it very well, Vogue has become a quite mediocre publication but it makes money, therefore successful.
    The good news is that with fast fashion, mass market, mediocre ideas, reality TV, ordinary blogs, or the so called “democratization of fashion” the only way to go now is onto special things, beautiful craftsmanship, and the return to old values, at least thats what I see in the air!

    BG from New York, NY, United States
  6. None of the people the author sited seem like very likeable, rational, compassionate, or even terribly generally interesting people (outside of fashion). Maybe that’s why that era died.

    Observer from Cedar Hill, TX, United States
  7. You write beautifully but I’m so confused by what you mean in your writings. You start out lamenting the loss of Balenciaga. A designer who incidentally says he doesn’t do “ideas” but simply improves what he offers for each client and each season. Then you go on to say Vreeland is great because she guided and helped designers have daring creative ideas. Do you miss Balenciaga or Vreeland? The principals of each as described by you are in contradiction.

    Fashion isn’t what it used to be because time always moves on. Vreeland wouldn’t resonate with Vogue readers today, anywhere. She’s the best product of her times. It’s better to leave her at the top of the mantel in history.

    niche from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  8. i agree with the diagnosis but not the treatment. there is something wrong with fashion these days – it makes HUGE amounts of money but there is no ‘soul’. (on a tangent, in fact fashion is horrifically amoral. designers have confused exploring taboos with exploring the dark side.)

    but that’s by the by. the industry is in transition. it has been since before 2000 with the rise of retro. but that too is a red herring. in fact what has been going on is that women have been taking control of the fashion industry in a process that is now almost complete.

    i think we have a couple more years to put up with this awful jaded feeling then a new industry will emerge from this new direction and I for one am quite excited by it.

    that’s bad news for gay men, too bad we’ll have to find something else to do.

    andy p from Hemel Hempstead, Hertford, United Kingdom
  9. Perhaps one major cause for the differences between high fashion during the Balenciaga era and couture today is a shift in age of the target customer, from adult to post-adolescent. Clearly the women who patronized this designer were mature adults, while today the customer profile is a much younger woman or girl. It’s no surprise that couture label fashion today is most often seen on the back of a very young actress or heiress. I believe that in the late 1960’s Balenciaga saw this youth movement coming, and bailed!

  10. It is what it is… Couture is there to make us dream. Its all about escapism. I fear, most fashion companies have become almost formulaic in what they expect. Do couture, then the ready to wear and then the diffusion lines hoping all of this “Package” will sell perfumes and lipsticks. I feel one must always be respectful of the past, there is nothing you are doing that hasn’t been done before. It is naive to think so. There is a reason History is part of every national cirriculum, for it is through history we learn not through predicting what hasn’t even arrived yet. Yes it is about looking into the future, but at what cost? Ignoring the past? Never. We should look back at our archives, look at our biggest resource of information and use it extensively to extend our creative and design processes. Nature is the oldest designer, yet we use her so sparangly…

  11. I feel really reliefed to read this article…. It’s been a while that nothing really gets my attention. I just feel everything is so boring and quickly changeable. It’s given too much attention to such an empty thing. I don’t want either to live in the past but would like to have a deeper relation with fashion as a fair trade business. Anyway I also feel a lot of people is thinking the same as me and is searching for this conection.

    Manu T from Thailand
  12. There are many accurate and incisive comments posted above and I cannot add much to them, except perhaps this:

    37 years ago I attended my first, private, couture show (by YSL) in Paris as a teenage, textile design student. The small audience of buyers were knowledgeable and informed, both by the mistress in charge, the cat-walk shows and attendant publicity at that time. It was professional, relaxed, and business like.

    What has changed beyond all bounds since then? Couture, and indeed high fashion, has become over-hyped. The advertising campaigns are facile, clichéd and ultimately counter productive.

    What now surrounds ‘the fashion business’ is a tawdry, seedy reality-show. It does not seem a good idea to deliberately wash dirty linen in public to try bring attention to beautiful clothing. Even better, perhaps, that there was less dirty linen in the first place.

  13. The court of Versailles, better known as the fashion world, has its Kings, its players, unique personalities, major domos, courtesans, lords, ladies and fools. Whoever said that fashion was democratic, didn’t read their history books. The revolution, has come. The people are rising, and, the King, is dead. The era of the Great Artist, is over, and, now, if the kingdom is to survive, they will have to let the people, choose. The power of the people, will define the new movements in fashion. It is a collective voice now. There will be some unique artists that emerge, they will be voted on by the people, but in Western cultures this oligarchy, patriarchy of fashion is over. That is why the court of Versailles, is moving into underdeveloped countries, to begin the cycles, all over again.

    ARTIFICE from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  14. good take. i have an extended version of this episode in my book “oak point” a roman a clef about mona and balenciaga. she was my neighbor, and i used to spend a lot of time at her astounding estate on long island.

    balenciaga only had ONE interview with the press in his entire career, with the times of london, to announce his retirement. they do not make them like THAT anymore.

    to the immortal cristobal balenciaga: Ole, Maestro!