NEW YORK, United States — This weekend, I read a curious piece of writing by the highly esteemed, recently departed New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. Horyn, who has devoted twenty years of her life to writing about fashion, argued that today, above all, she and many women like her, want clothes that offer comfort. “The desire to be comfortable is profound, shaping attitudes and markets,” she wrote. Comfort, not in the sense of wearing sweatpants all day, but unfussy clothes.
This seems fair enough. But as the article unfolded, Ms. Horyn pointed her pen at the fashion avant-garde: “From my perspective, having written enthusiastically about the conceptual, art-inspired fashion of the past 20 years — whether by Martin Margiela, Miuccia Prada or Raf Simons — I can say we’ve become increasingly weary of this approach.” The alternative, according to Horyn, seems to be higher-end, mass-market brands like Vince.
But this begs the question: What is the purpose of fashion? What makes fashion distinct from mere clothing? Much ink has already been spilled in search of answers. And it seems that fashion critics and scholars are still unsure. That’s because it is extremely difficult to put into words the ineffable qualities of fashion and the surrounding economic and cultural “system” that surrounds it.
But let’s try. Consider that fashion — as opposed to clothing — comes with a set of intangible values. Fashion is valuable when:
1. It makes a strong aesthetic statement
2. It has a theatrical element
3. It has meaning
The first is easy enough to understand. One could argue that the central role of the fashion designer is to make a strong and unique aesthetic proposition. And though this has become increasingly hard to do, as contemporary fashion builds a history of its own, it is not impossible. Just in the last decade, designers as disparate as Rick Owens and Alber Elbaz at Lanvin have done it. Neither is original in the strict sense of the word, but suffice it to say that if you are familiar with their clothes you can tell them apart.
In her article, Ms. Horyn lauds the 90s minimalists Helmut Lang and Jil Sander for their sensible clothes, which stood in stark opposition to the pomp of Gaultier and Mugler. But the critical point is not their sensibility per se, but the fact that these designers made sensibility a new aesthetic proposition. They reflected a newfound sobriety after an age of excess.
The second element is trickier, because unfortunately, theatre can often veer into burlesque. But fashion as theatre is important, as designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and, lately, Thom Browne have shown us. Their shows are purposeful exaggerations that make fashion exciting and provide food for thought.
To be sure, some of what is shown on fashion runways verges on the ridiculous. And even a cursory glance around New York Fashion Week will turn up the kind of “fashion victims” that can make anyone with a modicum of common sense long for sweatpants. On the flip side, much of what we see verges on boring. Indeed, the insistence on comfort as the primary purpose of clothing is, no doubt, partly the reason why so many fashion professionals, though few will say it out loud, think New York Fashion Week is a snooze-fest of nice, sellable sportswear and cocktail dresses.
Fashion as meaning is perhaps the trickiest element of all, but also the richest. Consider that a fashion designer has automatic license to destroy all meaning and create it anew merely by putting his own name on the product. Thus, jeans become Saint Laurent jeans, a bag becomes a Chanel bag and so on. But with this comes the responsibility, even the duty, for designers to infuse these products with something deeper through their design skills. The designer who manages to do this well receives critical acclaim.
Yes, much of so-called meaning is merely marketing, but Horyn is wrong to suggest that all meaning is superimposed, or in her words “attached” to fashion. When I interviewed Ann Demeulemeester for the first time, I asked her about some of the intangible elements in her work. She took a jacket off her back, spread it out on the table and proceeded to explain how this seam and this angle of the cut reflected the fragility and imperfection of man that she wanted to manifest. She literally cut meaning into her clothes.
Yohji Yamamoto, no slouch when it came to revolutionising fashion, once said: “You can say that to design is quite easy. The difficulty lies in finding a new way to explore beauty.” That’s what fashion is for.
Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of stylezeitgeist.com
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