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America Needs to Rethink Its Role in Fashion

The most interesting businesses and brands coming out of the US have little to do with the traditional system.
Dôen's Prem Dress | Source: Dôen
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — With New York Fashion Week comes a long list of grievances.

There are too few "important" shows. Too many uneventful ones. Too much referencing. Too little creativity. Even Vox, the general interest site whose archetypical reader is a progressive millennial male they've nicknamed "Brett from Boulder," felt the need to publish an explainer about how fashion week doesn't matter anymore.

Outside the US, editors and buyers have been debating for weeks over whether to make the trip, fearing there wouldn’t be much to see.

Call it snobbery, but it's really just common sense. For one, runway shows no longer serve a function to the trade’s buyers and editors. And in New York, both genuine creativity and must-see megabrands are in relatively short supply. But it’s not just New York fashion week that needs a rethink; it’s America’s place in the global fashion ecosystem that needs reconsidering.

For decades, American fashion has followed Europe's lead. In the middle of the 20th century, it opened ateliers in the vein of Balenciaga and Dior. When Europe's luxury conglomerates rose to power in the late 1990s, they tapped several American designers in exchange for funding their own brands. By the 2010s, the idea that the US needed to build its very own LVMH became an industry obsession. But does the world need another luxury group? And is luxury in the European mold really what Americans are good at anyway?

It's worth remembering that Geoffrey Beene and Halston, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan were not successful because they followed some European playbook; they were successful because they didn't.

Just as people never stopped making music, people are never going to stop making clothes.

When I think about the things I've appreciated about New York fashion over the past few years, they have little to do with that playbook. Instead, it's the L-shaped back pockets on Eckhaus Latta jeans, the cult of Rachel Comey, the industry's growing interest in the work of Kerby Jean-Raymond. I'm also happy to see labels like The Row and Gabriela Hearst, which possess the magic combination of talent, dedication and resources, go slowly and not let outside forces determine their next move, building credible brands that confidently speak to a luxury consumer on their own terms.

But most of today’s most compelling American fashion businesses have little, if anything, to do with the traditional system. One could easily argue that the hottest “ticket” in New York this week was not to a fashion show, but the queue at Doen’s sample sale, where more than 500 people stood waiting on Tuesday to stock up on the LA-based label’s flattering prairie dresses and soft-cotton t-shirts, which often sell out and rarely go on sale.

Digital brands like Doen and Reformation and streetwear brands like Supreme do something that feels impossible to many traditional ready-to-wear labels: They sell clothes at full price. How novel. People like these upstarts because they make good stuff that feels special, and they are smart about how they communicate.

If the American fashion industry's  buyers and editors and executives who still hold gatekeeper status could celebrate the disruptive spirit of these labels as much as they do stalwarts like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren — not to mention the generation of middling fashion businesses that followed the traditional template with diminishing returns — there would be less reason to complain and more reason to clap.

Just as people never stopped making music, people are never going to stop making clothes. But let’s stop pushing an outmoded model of what an American fashion business should look like and embrace the entrepreneurial, outsider spirit at the heart of Americanness, inspiring a new generation to shake things up.

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Inside the $7 Billion Dior Phenomenon