Colin’s Column | Designer Hokey Pokey

(L-R from top) Riccardo Tisci, Phoebe Philo, Raf Simons, Jil Sander, Sarah Burton, Hedi Slimane

LONDON, United Kingdom — Now that the dust has settled on the last of the four major international runways, it’s time to take stock. Watching the shows, I was reminded of British artist Richard Hamilton’s comment on Pop Art, which he described as “transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced and… big business.” This seems an almost spookily apt description of at least 70 percent of the collections I have seen this season, although the big business part is less clear.

The financial crisis has affected everyone — even those companies that have been posting impressive trading figures for the last year or two — and nobody quite knows what to do about it. Now, I think the trouble in the air is undermining creativity as fashion CEOs come to think of replacing head designers as, if not a solution to their troubles, then at least a sop to worried shareholders and backers. But I can think of no more obvious way to unsettle a design studio.

In this context of uncertainty, it’s perhaps little wonder that some creative directors are losing their way. Many don’t even know what their job description is any more. Is it to be seen at parties and openings; to work on glossy tomes; to make marketing films; to open new stores with architects who know very little about selling clothes? And when they take up a new position at the top of a design team, are they given a clear brief and adequate time to deliver results? Or must they face the Herculean task of showing success after only a brief six months in the job?

How is it that a top designer like Jil Sander goes in and out of her eponymous label as if she were dancing the hokey pokey: “You put your right hand in / You put your right hand out / You put your right hand in / And you shake it all about / You do the hokey pokey / and you turn yourself around / That what it’s all about!” Will she still be at the Jil Sander brand in three years time?

And what about Raf Simons? Like Sander, he has absolutely unimpeachable fashion credentials. Touted as the “right” man for just about every label that has appeared to be headed for hard times, the poor lad must have been through more interviews than anybody else. But he was still not selected for the Yves Saint Laurent job, which everybody now knows has gone to Hedi Slimane.

Although he has never designed womenswear in a commercial setting, Slimane has the uncompromising, divine madness that all true creators must have and that is probably justification enough for the appointment. Nevertheless, it still leaves open the question: what exactly is PPR, which owns YSL, looking to achieve? I suspect the appointment has been made based on the undoubted cool of Mr. Slimane and the immense cult following he generated for Dior Homme, although he didn’t always manage transform this adulation into convincing sales.

It is pleasing to see that, after the trauma at Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton has not only managed to develop Lee’s original aesthetic on which she worked from the very first years of the label, but to also inject her own point of view. She was, of course, also helped by a massively successful museum exhibition and a certain royal wedding, but it seems that Burton is well-settled and the McQueen label is in highly capable and safe hands.

Indeed, it must be hard for LVMH chief Bernard Arnault not to look wistfully across the Channel. And why not? After all, look at Chanel, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. Maybe it is female designers who will lead us out of the current doldrums.

At Celine, Phoebe Philo has managed to please women who want beautiful clothes in fabulous materials. These are clearly not meant to be statement clothes and are very much loved by many precisely for that reason. Indeed, they are an interlude of calm breathing in a fashion world gasping for breath. But not even the greatest Celine fan could claim they are an indication of the future of high fashion. They are rather more like a remake of a classic film, and we all know they are never quite as good as the original

And so we come to the tragic case of Dior. And it is tragic on more levels than one: that a label needs a designer and that a man, for all his transgressions, needs a job. Fashion needs that man. To insert Bill Gaytten — an undisputedly brilliant technician, but not a designer — into the gap at Dior can be nothing but a temporary solution. It’s high time this gap was closed. But why not with somebody young and untested, as Yves Saint Laurent was when he took over the reins at Dior at the tender age of twenty-one and went on to revolutionise women’s clothes? I still believe that designers with genius and courage, traits which are invariably independent of age, are more likely to thrive at a grand Paris label than at brands in any of the world’s other fashion capitals at this point.

And finally, how does a Riccardo Tisci happen? I am sure that every fashion CEO would love to know. Over a period of many years, this man has made Givenchy his own, as successfully as Galliano shaped Dior. Is it because LVMH was as bored as all of us with the succession of glittering entrances and quick exits of so many hopefuls at the label? Galliano, McQueen and MacDonald all came and went shockingly fast. And none of them were able to make the house’s aesthetic their own, due to lack of strength or time, or both.

But Tisci has done just that. And he has done so by working cautiously, and even modestly, to develop his unique sensibility and take us on the journey with him. Dangerous as it is to predict even one season ahead in a world as volatile as fashion, I am convinced he will stay where he is, until he wishes to leave. What could a man like Riccardo Tisci not produce if he had the same sort of long innings at Givenchy as Galliano had at Dior?

In fashion, as in most things perhaps, you either have it or you don’t. As Kurt Vonnegut says in the marvellous Slaughterhouse Five: “So it goes.”

Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion

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  1. I was with you right up until you mentioned Tisci. What that man has done to Givenchy has been horrific. And not in the way he intended. The fact that you are lauding him for his efforts plays precisely into the problem facing the industry. Big labels are shuffling designers around like commodities because they WANT a Tisci. The man is talented, no doubt, but nothing he has ever put on the runway can possibly be called truly Givenchy. So we are now in an era where all we want is revolutionary new designers but a label we can sell. A name that gets your heart racing, and a design that keeps you interested, but the two no longer have to be related. It’s lazy and it will damage the industry. What happens when a very old, very noble French luxury goods house puts out a collection inspired by S&M and Fetish wear? Or when a label with a very elegant, gown-centric past like Givenchy starts churning out collection after collection of hard-edged goth looks? Fashion needs to change, it needs progress, but I feel we’re mostly heading in the wrong direction. Raf Simons took Jil’s signature and slowly, but steadily, reworked it. Phoebe Philo took core tenets of the Celine brand and worked a new aesthetic into it. Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Churi have managed to drop the cliché of Valentino and focus on what people expect from the label, but never verbalized before. Yet you guys still hold the Riccardo Tiscis and the Marc Jacobs’ in such esteem, but they aren’t the ones contributing anything worthwhile to the houses. I would wager that if Riccardo Tisci had his own label, it would be identical to the crap he’s shilling at Givenchy. So what you are really looking for is a new wave of designers to make their own labels, but cut and paste significant brand names onto them.

    Enough of this. Hard working designers are making exceptional womenswear, but they get sidelined for designers who make attention-grabbing collections for houses that ultimately just sell handbags and nail polish and little else.

  2. The media and corporations go hand in hand. If there wasn’t the insatiable need for change and drama, we would have been spared Lindsay Lohan and all this depressing shuffle.
    I’m afraid you fall prey to it as well, calling Bill Gaytten nothing but a technician. Really? Even though sales have GONE UP since Galliano’s departure? Should we not give him time to “find his mark” on the label before we all dismiss him, as your article suggests?

    Robert from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  3. Isn’t it the Hokey Cokey rather than the Hokey Pokey?! Hokey Pokey is honeycomb where I come from…

    Confused from London, London, United Kingdom
  4. It’s become a very democratic fashion world but with all of the opinions about fashion, and my own deep deep joy at seeing Galliano’s work, Bill Gaytten should not be dissed. Sales are up under his care and fashion is a business. That is impressive and his clothes are beautiful.

    Tisci? A tad vulgar for my taste. Haute couture and crotches make me wince.

    Monsieur Arnault could have had it all, John and Bill as before, if he’d had the humanity to stand by his designer and friend. Perhaps he is one of the very few that has not had a friend or loved one lost to the grips of addiction and his anger at John was genuine? I think not. A very good businessman certainly but I find him wanting.

  5. Thank you Colin for point this putting brilliant creative minds in the center stage. I wish fashion CEO’s learn how to deal with creative, and respect their way to work giving time and trust to let them be and do how they know and feel, what is a totally different way business man acts. The world needs glamour so much, and how could that be possible if fashion executives don’t want this accomplished even for the creators of their brands? Don’t they understand that the audience doesn’t only buy clothes but also a piece of the creator’s reputation and what this “almost divine person” represents for them? Is the aura of the creator that makes a high fashion house, otherwise would be only fast-fashion that also needs this minds to feed them.

  6. This column was simply all over the place.

    S. Aguirre from Eugene, OR, United States