LONDON, United Kingdom — Whereas previous fashion seasons were dominated by designer departures, meltdowns and final exits, this season the narrative focused on two of the fashion world’s most celebrated designers, Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane, and their respective ready-to-wear debuts at two of the industry's most important houses, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.
On the first day of Paris Fashion Week, BoF ran a piece that set the stage for the historic events to come. The next day, Women’s Wear Daily splashed a dramatic photo of Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane on its front page, calling it a “Paris Face-Off.” A day later, the International Herald Tribune ran an image of a poster advertising a boxing match, with the headline “Battle of the Champions,” pitting the two designers against each other. So real-looking was the montage that when Dazed Group’s Jefferson Hack first saw it, he thought a creative young Parisian had actually taken the season’s dominant plotline and turned it into a bit of street art affixed to a graffitied wall in a Paris side-street.
Alas, it was just a mock-up, but from the very first days of New York Fashion Week, right up until the big debuts in Paris several weeks later, the industry’s obsession with Simons and Slimane was clear. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of other action that had the industry talking. And as always, BoF was there to absorb it all.
So without further ado, in what has become a bi-annual tradition, it’s time to look back and take stock. Here’s to Spring/Summer 2013, the season that was.
DIOR AND SAINT LAURENT POLARISE CRITICS AND BUYERS
First, the results of that ‘battle royale’ between Simons and Slimane.
Raf Simons’ ready-to-wear debut for Dior won over many of the fashion world’s most respected critics, who were looking to the designer to push fashion forward and modernise the hallowed house of Dior. WWD said it was “worth every drop of anticipation and every second of the wait,” Cathy Horyn called it “a fantastic treat,” and Style.com’s Tim Blanks said it was “a special kind of twenty-first-century glamour.” Perhaps the greatest praise came from IHT critic Suzy Menkes, who declared the collection “one of the best regenerations of the spirit of a heritage brand seen on the runway since Karl Lagerfeld first reinterpreted Chanel almost 30 years ago.”
But not everyone was as impressed. Some editors and buyers were left scratching their heads. Indeed, there was another widely held (although quietly stated) point of view: that Raf Simons’ Dior was hard to understand. Some said it was too similar to his well-received Couture collection and not daring enough, while others thought it lacked cohesion. But it was the buyers who seemed to express the most concern; that apart from the opening looks, built around modernised Bar jackets and trousers, and the closing looks, composed of shimmering, full-skirted balldresses, many of the other ideas in the collection would not work commercially.
As for Hedi Slimane’s debut for Saint Laurent, the situation was the opposite. Critics were almost universally underwhelmed by a show that, while faithful to the YSL spirit, was overly constrained by the codes of the house. “Interesting, to the point of odd,” wrote WWD. Others, like The Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong were less kind. The show lacked the “frisson of the unexpected — that challenging jolt that only a really strong show delivers,” she wrote.
But a number of women, of many ages and backgrounds, told me that what Slimane sent down the catwalk was exactly what they wanted in their closets. There’s no doubt that the collection contained many covetable pieces: especially the leather pants, chiffon dresses and cropped blazers — all in that unmistakable YSL style. No wonder the buyers were so pleased.
So, call this round a draw. For buyers, Slimane won the stakes. While for editors and critics, the victory went to Simons. But the ultimate decision-makers will be end consumers, who will issue their collective verdict at cash registers around the world come the New Year and, here, it seems Slimane may have an edge. Stay tuned for Round 2 next season.
AS MILAN FADES, A NEW WAVE RISES IN NEW YORK
Perhaps it’s because Paris was so important this season, while London continues to rise as a setter of global fashion trends, but Milan seemed to get short shrift from editors, buyers and bloggers forced choose between the main four fashion weeks.
Certainly, editors of big magazines which rely on the equally big advertising budgets of powerhouse Italian brands cannot skip Milan. Neither can major retailers for whom these same brands constitute big business. But amongst many other members of the fashion flock, this season, I witnessed a noticeable shift in attitude towards Milan.
“The schedule is too tight.” “The shows are too packed.” “There is only one big show to watch.” So said some of the people I spoke with about Milan’s waning influence. One might also add that Milan lacks the creative boost that younger designers bring to fashion weeks in the other cities. Where is Milan’s equivalent to exciting emerging designers like Dion Lee and Thomas Tait in London, Pedro Lourenço and Cédric Charlier in Paris, and Joseph Altuzarra and Creatures of the Wind in New York?
Speaking of new energy, this season also saw the successful debut of the Parsons MFA show, overseen by Shelly Fox, the Donna Karan Professor of Fashion Design at the prestigious New York fashion school and a former Central Saint Martins graduate and research fellow. Fox has spearheaded Parsons’ new graduate program with impressive results and the show drew a great response from a top notch crowd of fashion critics and insiders. To wit, the formidable Louise Wilson of Central Saint Martins was in attendance, an important endorsement for one of her former protégés. This can only bode well for future generations of designers on both sides of the Atlantic.
THE CONTINUING INTEGRATION OF FASHION AND TECHNOLOGY
Following in the footsteps of Burberry, this season, British high-street brand Topshop trumpeted a slew of social media initiatives around the livestream of its Topshop Unique collection at London Fashion Week. Topshop partnered directly with Facebook to develop ‘Shoot the Show,’ a camera button placed on the corner of the video stream that enabled users to take and share snapshots of their favourite looks as the show unfolded. Viewers were also able to customise certain looks and order them for delivery “3 months ahead of industry lead times,” according to a Topshop statement.
After the show, Topshop claimed that it had reached the largest ever online audience for a livestreamed show, with over 2 million people tuning in from over 100 countries and 200 million more exposed to images and content from the show, across multiple platforms and devices.
Elsewhere, a number of brands and retailers, including Net-a-Porter, ASOS, Urban Outfitters and Dunhill, have been experimenting with new consumer experiences that leverage image-recognition and augmented reality technologies. This season, Tank collaborated with London-based iBiblios to create what Masoud Golsorkhi, the publication’s creative director, dubbed “magazine 2.0.”
For its regular O by Tank supplement, to be distributed bi-monthly with the Saturday edition of London’s Guardian newspaper starting next year, the Tank team embedded digital video content, discoverable via a mobile app, directly into the printed page. Between shows at LFW, the BoF team experimented with the app and watched some of the videos, including a cute welcome message from Tank editor Caroline Issa.
Once over the hurdle of downloading the app, the experience was smooth, enjoyable and engaging. “It gives marketers and advertisers, who are so frantically ditching paper in favour of online spend, some food for thought because we are connecting their standard advertising campaign to all that expensive content they are creating,” said Golsorkhi. “It allows them to join the dots.” The app has racked up over 280,000 video views since the launch on 15 September, according to statistics provided by Tank.
3.1 Phillip Lim also made interesting use of mobile image recognition technology this season, linking products embedded in “Kill the Night,” an original comic written by Phillip Lim and John Ostrander and illustrated by Jan Duursema, to digital content and e-commerce. The number of app downloads was less than 1000, but the Phillip Lim team characterised the move as an experiment and a spokesperson said the project has sewn the seeds for future mobile marketing initiatives in seasons to come.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
While Raf and Hedi were duking it out on the runways of Paris, another fashion battle was taking place online. As the fashion world accelerates, so have the various providers of imagery, reviews and other information that we all rely upon to take stock of the growing number of collections.
“The definition of speed has changed over time,” wrote Dirk Standen, editor-in-chief of Style.com, in a post at the beginning of fashion month. “In the old days — and by old days I mean four years ago — people used to express amazement that we could post runway photos within 24 hours.”
Indeed, once upon a time, Style.com was the undisputed leader in the business of show images and reviews, enabling fashion fans to “see fashion first,” as their tagline promises. But a few seasons back, some of Style.com’s most notable reviewers, including Sarah Mower, decamped to the newly launched Vogue.com, which began to publish its own reviews and images, alongside a growing number of other fashion websites like Elle.com, Fashionista.com and Fashionologie.com. For Style.com, publishing images faster than the competition was critical to maintaining an advantage.
Then another game-changer emerged. Nowfashion.com, which, as the name suggests, offers show imagery literally as the clothes come down the runway, has taken the speed stakes up a notch and become a go-to show imagery site for many industry professionals I spoke with. Nowfashion initially put pure utility front and centre, but is now building editorial around it with newly appointed editor-in-chief Jessica Michault posting her show reviews on the fledgling website.
In truth, this is more a situation of 'David and Goliath'. Nowfashion still only has a tiny fraction of the audience of Style.com, however, which upped its own game this season. Indeed, in an apparent response to the emerging threat from Nowfashion, Style.com began to offer its own version of instant runway imagery. “Starting with the Spring 2013 ready-to-wear season, we will be transmitting runway images directly from the venues for multiple shows a day. Now you’ll be able to see the top looks in as close to real time as possible,” wrote Standen.
Unfortunately, the new feature didn’t always function as smoothly as one would have hoped. But once the bugs are sorted out, as they surely will be, and speed is no longer a source of competitive advantage, the battle will come down to user experience and content, an area where Style.com has demonstrated prowess, both with its redesigned website and rich, easy-to-use iPad app that is by far my favourite way of catching up on fashion week from the comfort of my sofa.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A FREE FASHION PRESS
Sometimes at the shows, when I am lucky enough to be seated next to Suzy Menkes, she will whisper some rapid-fire thoughts into my ear as the collection goes down the runway, or ask me a question or two about what I think. But for the most part, it is rare to watch a show as it happens while having a realtime discussion with a renowned fashion expert. Suzy, as we all know, is not one to mince her words. Indeed, she is a treasure in fashion criticism today.
For me, this gets to the heart of why possibly the greatest innovation this season came from Nick Knight’s pioneering website SHOWStudio, which offered unedited live commentary on the shows, as they happened, with a format akin to the play-by-play analysis more common to sporting events.
I was fortunate to be one of the people asked to join a panel offering live commentary on this season’s Prada show and valued the experience of trying to make sense of a collection, in realtime, alongside other fashion observers. From the reaction on Twitter, many viewers seemed to equally enjoy following the shows this way.
But SHOWStudio’s live panels also raised another issue that the fashion industry needs to think about carefully. Over the past few years, fashion critique has been unmistakably watered-down, even in some of the most respected forums. I know from speaking to some of the top reviewers and bloggers that they feel they are not always able to communicate their genuine opinions for fear of damaging important commercial relationships or losing the all-important access to shows that they need to do their jobs.
Indeed, during SHOWStudio’s final live panel of the season (on Louis Vuitton) a reflective Nick Knight revealed: “Some people would not appear on these panels…editors of magazines, stylists, who refused to come and talk because they were too frightened of losing advertisers. And, that’s a bad situation for any art form to be in.”
“Like any other art form, fashion should be critiqued,” he said. “Just as theatre is, just as sports is, just as music is. This is part of what we are trying to do here. Fashion deserves a strong critical forum. Not sycophancy. And it’s going to hurt. I hate having criticism of my work, but I need it. I need it to understand how my work appears," he added. "An art medium without a critical forum is not a healthy art medium.”
I couldn’t have said it better. The fashion press has a responsibility to foster an intelligent debate through free expression of ideas. We must responsibly report what we see, when we see it, and how we see it. Indeed, the growing open and global conversation around fashion, enabled by social media, is one of the things that makes working in today’s fashion industry so exciting.
It would be a shame if important opinions were left unexpressed just to please the powers that be.
Imran Amed is founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion