Colin’s Column | Something Is Rotten in the State of Fashion

Chanel Couture A/W 2011 | Source: Ecouterre

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.

Finally, Armageddon.

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

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13 comments

  1. Eloquently communicated… but it’s something everyone is all too aware of. So more succinctly, what are the potential solutions? For me personally, I find the bravado of fashion shows sickeningly pretentious and utterly bare… I much prefer the tradeshows that bring people together and demand conversation, tangible connection and emotive response to the product that depicts the philosophy up close and personal. As for the pressures placed on top of illustrious designers at top houses, what a load of crap. They’re paid enormous sums to practically churn out the same designs every season… quite literally, mass regurgitation… compare it to the pressure of a typical premier league football manager and it’s peanuts. It’s time for this industry as a whole to grow up and develop some balls…

    jda from Richmond, Surrey, United Kingdom
  2. Colin McDowell unplugged. refreshing. and challenging. Now that he has spoken so succinctly on an industry that’s becoming a beast, lets hope that Mr McDowell will progress to outline some tangible solutions and examples of fashion creatives and businesses that are finding another way to reach their audience and sell their product. Indeed BOF excels at telling these stories, but how can these changes manifest to become a movement that restructures our consumption, expectations and aspirations of fashion? answers on a postcard please….

    fashsmash from London, London, United Kingdom
  3. Monsieur Arnault knew John intimately, maybe was enamored with his great talent and imagination and the extraordinary effect on the bottom line at Dior, even unto the allegedly dying Haute Couture. It was not a secret in the late ’80′s when I bought John’s collections produced by avarice-filled backers, three of them actually in a row, that John partied. He worked brilliantly but dangerously. No one was privy to the impulses of Alexander McQueen or his friends would have broken down doors; there was no knowing. The brilliant designer who made 2000.00 rock tshirts a necessary fashion item, along with the rest of his collection which influenced the street (not an easy thing for fashion) spent months in a psychiatric hospital. John’s lifestyle was known and funded carelessly, thoughtlessly and the indignity to not have his House stand behind him when he sunk to an out-of-control state, a state that has nothing to do with the character and gentleness of John, and assure him that they would support his getting help, however long his recovery, is hard to endure.
    And that Monsieur Arnault sulks to the press that if only John had called to apologize … really? Was that what it was about? Monsieur Arnault’s ego?

    The business is changing in a whorish way, some of which is delicious progress and some of it is opportunistic. The boutique buyers that developed the collections only had to compete with the department stores and later with designer shops, the flagships that tended to look rather honky tonk and hardly sublime (Chanel and YSL excepted of course). The mockery of designers selling directly to the customer, all that profit because they are selling at retail, and the designers relishing extinguishing high fashion designer boutiques will actually and almost immediately make it a simple bazaar. The association with discounters by the pound and some magazines contributing to this is continuing to degrade what was once madly creative, not always easy to sell and exciting.

    It’s dollars dictating the whole frame of business, with designers even snapping at each other like tarts on a street corner.

    I completely adore John and cannot understand who has not experienced someone in their life descending to painful bottoms from drink and drugs.

    The racehorse is available on your smartphone, at a discount and free shipping.

    Yuck.

  4. It’s a beautiful industry as much as it is an ugly one. Those in it have to love the beautiful part so much, that the ugly part can be bared. (I myself have a hard time with that part, and sometimes think a career in a different field would have been better…) Fashion, though, also as much as it is art, it is 100 times more business. Things must change both for the creative side and the business side, however, and who has the strength, love, and passion to do it?

  5. Colin at his insightful and eloquent best, but it is worth re-emphasising that what is true at the top of the industries colossal pyramid, is also true through its core and to the base.
    Every designer / designer business is encouraged, feted and flattered when seen to be doing well and it has long been part of the industries modus operandi to propagate the myth, sell the dream – and the frock!
    Ask any designer how they are doing prior to the launch of a collection and there has never been an answer other than ‘fabulous darling’!
    We who are passionate about creativity leave ourselves vulnerable to exploitation by the ‘bottom liners’ but the encouraging signs are here for us to see. More fashion students every year are questioning the ethical impact of their chosen profession.
    Importantly, Colin’s article clearly demonstrates that the fashion business model of the last three to four decades is no longer sustainable but the designers of tomorrow have intuitively understood this for some time now.
    The solution is not easy but essential. Designers must acquire the skills to manage their own triple bottom line not the single bottom line of the current ‘captains’ of the industry.
    It is after all the designers who create the wealth. The next generation must also decide on how it is distributed, how the industry behaves and what impact it has on the environment.
    Patrick Gottelier
    Head of the Department of Design
    University College Falmouth

  6. I appreciate your point of view Colin or should I say your defense of a badly behaved arrogant genius.

    If the pressure is too much: get out! Change your life! Oh but nooooo! You’re getting paid too much! The creative genius only focused on on his art is making too much money! And the attention, the press, the perks; can’t leave that!

    John Galliano and Alexander McQueen both were the creators of their own life wonderful crazy life. Blaming the fashion industry, their business men or anyone for that matter is not going to solve anything or move things forward.

    Let’s all take full responsibility for the life we create, shall we? Let’s influence the world around us -including the fashion world- in a more positive way every day.

  7. A strong backbone is required in the fashion business, no more so than when leading a creative team in the face of sometimes incompetent, but more often than not, talentless money men.

    However, it also behoves the designer never to lose sight of the reason for being in business – to make m0ney. In the strictly profit-and-loss sense, a function within a larger structure may be peripheral, like haute-couture, which these days is more a promotional/marketing tool than a profit generator. Even then, there are limits.

    In short, a coherent team is required to be successful. In my experience the weakest link is usually financing. Particularly in the UK, financial expectations are unsustainable from the outset, hands on fashion experience is shallow, and egos are high. Ours is not a place for modest and indifferent talents and I have found accountants particularly to be well versed in regulation and process, but lacking in flair. The Americans, Germans and Italians have different styles of financing, all are superior to the Anglo-Saxon anal-ism. Something has gone awry in France over the past 15 years. Too many Brits in Paris boardrooms, probably.

    Our business is a marathon, not a sprint. Regrettably most money men are 20 metre hurdlers.

  8. I think Patrick nailed it with his statement that this should no longer be a bottom line business but rather designers (and the industry at large) should embrace a triple bottom line approach – people, planet and profit!

    While young designers face enormous pressures and high costs, the much bigger issue is what this industry is doing to our planet. From the gallons of water required to make just one cotton t-shirt, to the unfathomable amounts of chemicals that are used; from the sweatshops (that really do still exist, even in North America!) to the millions of tonnes of textiles in landfill each year – this is an industry in turmoil.

    We as consumers can no longer afford to feed this sick and diseased industry whose health really is within our control. If we change the way we buy our clothes – by buying less and investing in our wardrobe, by saving up to buy something made free of chemicals or made fairly – then we really can make a difference. If we vote with our wallets for sustainable fashion, then the existing apathetic industry will have no choice but to pay attention.

    Kelly Drennan
    Founder & Executive Director, Fashion Takes Action
    @ecofashionista

  9. I don’t think its the responsibility of the business to coddle high-strung designers. That is what family and friends are for, not your boss. Many of these mega brands don’t want to lose their profit rainmaker and, I think if allowed, they would pay for any help required. Galliano is known for refusing to meet Toledano so how can the company help him if he refuses to meet management or express his needs? Dior’s high profile success was his leverage.

    Designers who cannot or refuse to handle the pressure should leave that environment. Look at Alaia, he doesn’t want to be a part of it and he sticks by his choices. Another example is Phoebe Philo, this site linked to an article where she said that she clearly stated her boundaries and her needs when the Celine offer came up. Arnault is not an idiot and he agreed to let her work in London because he sees the potential for success with a talented designer. I doubt that investors and management at either LVMH or PPR would rather lose Galliano or McQueen than help them. It would be bad business to do so.

    niche from Surrey, BC, Canada
  10. A very good reading of the present state of the fashion world/business, but I think Colin’s insight should have gone a little farther in order to explain the inherent contradiction in Mr. Arnault’s declaration of the death of the star designer and his nurturing of Phoebe Philo at Céline. I think what he’s saying is intended to soothe very specific people’s minds, those people being the Dumas family who own Hermés. Mr. Arnault has made no secret of his intention of adding Hermés to his very impressive roster and the only thing standing between him and ownership of the ultimate luxury brand are its present owners who have publicly voiced their concern for the future of Hermés and the artisan work it stands for under LVMH. A statement such as the one Mr. Arnault made clearly addresses those concerns with the intention of winning over at least some of the members of the family so he can breach the front against him… and get what he wants.

    Paulo from Sintra, Lisbon, Portugal
  11. Something indeed is quite rotten but not only in Fashion. I understand that the minds that manipulate the masses for maximum gain are not at all interested in how the money is made but only how more of it can be made, how else can one explain that the shape of architecture, automobiles, and apparel which has, for the most part, not changed in over 70 years! Its quite sad that creative people need money and lots of it to see their vision come to life in their living years. If i were Van Gogh and were made aware of the fact that my work would be sold for millions of dollars after my death i would have made sure that all my work was burnt before my death. I was awfully saddened to hear about McQueens passing and the recent firing of Galliano,not to mention Tom Ford when he was with Gucci. Call me crazy and see if i care, but i see it as a systemic eradication of creativity in the fashion industry, like a warning to those who think that their talents are their own to do with as they please. Its a very sad conundrum that art and the creation of it requires money and those who have money would have nothing to do with it if it did not make them more money. I agree with some of the comments above that indeed we create our realities, but one can only work with the set of tools it has, and as long as we continue to acquiesce to the monetary system, creativity will continue to be stifled and stagnated.

    Bilal from Van Nuys, CA, United States