LONDON, United Kingdom — Death and disgrace do not often darken the world of fashion. In the case of the first, a designer normally dies long after retirement and his demise is of only local interest. In the case of the second, it rarely happens and can usually be covered up by one means or another. But in the last eighteen months there have been two tragedies that can neither be covered up, nor ignored. They are, of course, the death by suicide of Alexander McQueen and the disgrace of John Galliano at Christian Dior.
Their effect, traumatic enough when the events occurred, have ramifications not merely for London and Paris, but for the whole structure of the international fashion world. And the questions they raise must be answered.
As even the most doltish are aware, fashion is a tough business where impossible timeframes and endless demands affect everyone. As companies grow bigger, they become greedier. Even the best beloved designer retains that status only as long as the sales figures stand up. The bottom line (that infamous bottom line!) is not ‘how good was it?’ but always ‘how good are the figures?’ And the first matters less and less.
Businessmen in the rag trade have rarely been known for their sensitivity to artistic attitudes. Even more rarely are they actually engaged with the beauty and originality of the product their firms sell. Normally this would hardly matter at all. You don’t have to love (or even understand) the goods you are pushing — ask any furniture salesman. Your job is to sell them and then balance the books at the end of the season. We all know that selling is a business. But it does matter very much if you are the man who is pressurising the other guy, for whom the product matters passionately. Mainly, of course, because the money man always makes the final decision and aesthetics or creative integrity are rarely considered. The men in charge of these things are rarely attuned to the world of high glamour sophistication. So, why does it matter?
Well it matters at this moment because it is apposite to the case of John Galliano, who was brought into Dior as a golden boy and created a standard of luxury and extravagance in both garments and presentation never seen before. He set the media of the world alight and was adored by all at Dior for the tact with which he re-invented the aesthetic of the man who’s work he revered.
‘Great!’ said the financial gurus. ’Let’s have more of this.’
‘Sure!’ says John, as any designer would.
After all, he had pulled the trump card and arrived in fairyland. Smiles all round.
But the years roll on. The designer’s workload increases substantially during this time — as do the profits. Everyone envies John and his ability to do virtually anything he wants to as long as the bottom line doesn’t waver. But other things are wavering. Things the money men do not understand. The creativity is beginning to sag. Some seasons are not as good as others — creatively or in sales. Senior press become increasingly lukewarm. John feels pressurised and leans more and more heavily on prescription drugs and booze to help him through the days. His loyal and loving staff see it and feel powerless. But instead of help from management, John gets criticism. Life becomes very much harder. Rumours that there are storms a-brewing in fairyland increase. The loyal team continue to see loyalty as keeping their heads down and their mouths shut when the bosses are around. It can’t go on.
Very few of us will ever know why Alexander McQueen decided to end his life. And that is how it should be. It is only for those closest to him to be privy to such truths. But we do know the pressures he was under because they are the pressures most young designers are under even if, on paper, they own their names and sometimes their actual companies. Of course, they are given financial rewards and help and, if they are lucky, are able to keep the company small and more or less under their charge. But, almost always, it is the smaller companies that feel any economic pinch first and I could roll off a lot of names of young designers who, at this difficult moment, are protesting how viable their companies are whilst actually clinging on by their fingertips.
So, what price freedom? Rather high. What price long term success? Rather low. Especially so if you are a young designer wishing to show in London Fashion Week where the fee for a place on the tent schedule with back-up security, lighting etc is a cool £12,000. But, in a ‘damned if you do; damned if you don’t’ scenario it is hard for a young designer to know which will be the most damaging for his young company — to spend a lot of money in order to show in the official venue and hope to get all the right people there or to show elsewhere and probably not get them. In the fight to keep solvent, neither seems terribly promising. Rock and hard place isn’t it?
Of course, London is a special case in that the BFC has dedicated itself to having more shows than anywhere else in order, somewhat naively perhaps, to demonstrate, to what I fear is a rather indifferent world, how buoyant their fashion scene is. And they could be right, if you believe that the old costermonger’s policy of piling them high and selling them cheap is a valid way to run a fashion week, make money and support young talent. And, of course, unless they are very naive, they know that the wastage will be high and appear to accept the fact. Sad for the young designers who drop off along the way, however.
This brings us to the related question of how Fashion Weeks themselves are going to remain in business. They are, as many would agree, a clumsy, inconvenient and costly way to show clothes each season. In the case of couture week (which, like London, takes rather less time than that) there are only one or two shows a day that it is necessary for the international elite to attend. But with typical French pragmatism, the Chambre Syndicale has quietly allowed the parameters of the week to stretch in order to include fine jewellery and probably, in the future, perfume launches as well. This not only works as far as everybody’s time is concerned, it reinforces the city’s traditional role as the world centre of luxury, exclusivity and glamour.
A shrewd move. But what about the other cities? And what about the burgeoning number of fashion weeks around the world? Can they, in any meaningful sense, now or in the future, have any value or viability in terms of international fashion, faced, as they currently are, by the highly organised competition of the huge conglomerates of the west? And will their designers be doomed to be small and always cash-strapped before quietly fading back into the woodwork or be taken up by one of those big conglomerates and possibly suffer the different fates personified by John Galliano and Alexander McQueen? Neither is a happy prospect, but I don’t see any solution until international fashion embarks on a co-ordinated root-and-branch investigation of its world and starts planning for a future that will be much more rosy for young designers than it is now, at this difficult time.
During the Couture week in Paris, there was a feeling of ostriches with their heads in the sand as luxury and excess swamped any new fashion ideas that might be there. For Chanel, Lagerfeld even replicated Place Vendôme in the Grand Palais, complete with column, but with Coco at the top instead of Napoleon. Megalomaniac? Moi?
There is a fear that, after the hype has been stripped away, international fashion will be left, not as a high-mettled glossy race horse bred for perfection over the generations, but merely the whitened bones of its skeleton.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion