PARIS, France — Any designer worth their knicker-elastic will tell you that the fit is everything in fashion. That’s the much-vaunted point of both haute couture and Savile Row’s bespoke tailoring. If the fit is poor, no matter how well executed, it’ll end up looking a mess.
You wonder if large luxury conglomerates ask themselves that question: if the fit of a given designer with an existing house is really right? I frequently muse about how those decisions are made, particularly as so many seem, currently, to be lacking spark.
I’m thinking not only of relatively minor appointments — Alessandro dell’Acqua at Rochas, for instance, who relies on his stylist to pull a feasible identity out of the mundane clothes to which he attaches the house’s labels — but major names. Alexander Wang’s Balenciaga is yet to distinguish itself, although I have been told it sells well. But why would you put Wang — a young American sportswear designer, whose own-label clothes are cheap, cheerful and derivative — into a house known for its arch couture sensibilities under its founder and pioneering innovation under Nicolas Ghesquière?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not dismissing Wang’s talent outright. He’s a fantastic contemporary designer, who knows what young women want to wear almost before they do. I just don’t think his clothes fit Balenciaga. Likewise, there are the designs Hedi Slimane has been producing for Saint Laurent — simplistic, run-of-the-mill separates, sometimes in superlative fabrics, sometimes not. Material alone, however, doesn’t justify them. One British editor posed me a simple question: “Would you have such a problem if the label didn’t say Saint Laurent?” Possibly not.
There are different ways to fit, of course. I was told a wonderful story (possibly apocryphal, but I hope not) about a directrice at a major Parisian haute couture house who instructed clients as to the best surgeons to use to reconfigure their bodies to fit forthcoming garments. The late Nan Kempner retained a pin-thin physique to ensure she fitted into Yves Saint Laurent’s couture samples, which she purchased for a comparative bargain. Some designers do the same. Look at Raf Simons at Dior. His work is a marriage between his personal obsessions and the seemingly antithetical aesthetic of Dior. Simons makes himself fit and is transforming the house from within.
Which I think is a good thing. The label Saint Laurent — like Balenciaga, Dior, Chanel — means something in the annals of fashion. These are labels attached to weighty legacies, to be respected and honoured. Maybe I’m old fashioned. “Irrelevant,” was the vitriolic comment spat at me in response to my criticisms of what Jeremy Scott is doing at Moschino. Namely, because I object to Scott reducing Franco Moschino’s legacy down to a gag shoved on a t-shirt, one size supposedly fitting all. Franco was cleverer than that. Scott used to be, too.
The alternative? Alter the clothing — or the house — to fit the person inside. The trouble is, you can only alter something so much, until you just rip the whole thing apart and completely remake it. Or until it falls apart under the strain. Neither are good for the fabric.
Back in 1997, freshly-installed as head of the couture house of Christian Dior, John Galliano spoke of himself and the late Lee McQueen, then the designer at Givenchy. “We haven’t come here to chop these wonderful trees down,” he said, “but we’ve come here to prune them.”
Slimane, Wang, and Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson, have razed their respective houses to the ground to reconstruct.
How times have changed: today, indeed, the opposite is true. Designers as varied as Slimane, Wang and Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson have razed their respective houses to the ground to reconstruct. New designer, new start — generally, with a new logo, new shop-fit and new advertising. In short, a new identity. Gucci are doing just that under Alessandro Michele. He's just shot his first campaign for pre-fall, the final collection created under the leadership of Frida Giannini. It will, nevertheless, be marketed via Michele’s vision. Gucci flagship stores are also being revamped, worldwide. Michele has the dubious benefit of anonymity. Unlike a marquee name with an established personal aesthetic, no-one can challenge Gucci on whether Michele actually fits.
That’s why, presumably, designers want to iron out the kinks and take total control over their fashion fiefdoms. “I think we needed to change; Loewe had to fundamentally get a fashion culture overnight,” stated Jonathan Anderson at the start of February, a month before his sophomore Loewe womenswear show. “When you go in to a brand like that you have to work out how to make longevity… it’s a new brand. That’s the way I look at it. Yes, it’s got 200 years of history but…”
But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the now and the next. Anderson is relatively lucky, in that Loewe’s fashion identity is shadowy at best. At worst, it’s Loe-who? Like the anonymity of Michele, Loewe gives Anderson freedom to invent, to edit the brand's history and rebuild it how he wants. He was also able to change the design of the label’s logo without, say, the furore that met Slimane’s stripping of Saint Laurent’s “Yves.”
Slimane, however, is the new blueprint for label revival — revival without responsibility or respect. It’s paying dividends. Saint Laurent’s sales have doubled during Slimane’s tenure; Moschino sales grew 7 percent last year. There’s a customer for this. Perhaps those customers don’t care whether the designers fit the label, but only whether the clothes fit them. Maybe they don’t care what the label is at all.
Alexander Fury is fashion editor of The Independent and i newspapers