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Op-Ed | Could Crisis Re-Energise Fashion? It Happened in the 1970s

Turbulence and trauma gave rise to Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace and more. It could happen again, argues Michael Coady, former editor-in-chief of Women’s Wear Daily and CEO of Fairchild Publications.
Designer Yves Saint Laurent with models Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise | Source: Getty Images
  • Michael Coady

Fashion designers gave up their roles as style leaders of society a decade or more ago. Could Covid-19 and the resulting social upheaval be the catalyst that energises the next generation of talent, ending a tired and painfully boring period in fashion? The fashion explosion of the 1970s suggests it could.

After a turbulent and traumatic 1960s, the American and European youth of the 1970s established new values and beliefs, resulting in dramatic cultural changes and new personal freedoms. The birth control pill drove the most profound shift of all, becoming a symbol of the sexual revolution and Women’s Liberation.

It was also when gay designers, who for the most part worked in the back rooms of fashion companies, developed their own brands. The gay subculture seized the new cultural freedoms of the time and breathed new life into a tired and struggling industry with several decades worth of brilliant, wonderful clothes.

Indeed, this period produced some of the greatest designers the fashion industry had ever seen: Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace, Halston, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and a dozen more. Most of these designers and their business partners built huge businesses, some becoming billionaires. But crucially they designed what they wanted, and since they owned their companies, they always had the final say.

Back then, fashion was all about style creating the persona you wanted to show the world. The more attention you received the better. A star was born with every collection. That was the motive of the designer.

Today, a tie-dye sweatshirt retailing for over $200 is news. But as the great designers of the '70s die off, retire or simply produce another monotonous collection of their now standard fare, the field for new fashion ideas is wide open.

Too many legacy brands, now staffed with second and third tier designers, are creating lines once again from the back rooms. These designers report to CEOs, who, if they’re lucky, at least have a marketing background. But their strategies are informed by customer research, not creativity, and this dictates much of the direction designers must pursue. Meanwhile, they believe social media will rescue an uninspired industry. The contrast is clear: in the '70s, big fashion businesses were run from the inside out; today they are driven from the outside in.

Fashion today isn't fashion. If it were the food industry, it would be junk food.

These principals have worked to a degree, turning major fashion brands into multi-billion-dollar behemoths. But giving the customer what they want rather than inspiring the customer with new great fashion ideas has its limits. Many if not most people do not have the taste to know what fashions are best for them.

Fashion today isn’t fashion. If it were the food industry, it would be junk food. But in fashion, marketing only works in the long term if what you are selling is new, creative and is about the best of the world we are going to be inhabiting.

And with the designer world boring itself to death with marketing, the fashion media is rushing right alongside it. Once powerhouse fashion magazines have lost most of their clout, starting with when they began favouring big advertisers in their editorial content. Now, social media has planted the final stake in their hearts.

There is a complete lack of really great fashion editors in the media today. Many of the top editors-in-chief at the fashion glossies are really advertising and circulation executives with just enough taste to make their magazines and websites look attractive. Meanwhile, newspaper columnists have lost their bite.

The economic crisis and social upheaval caused by the pandemic could set the stage for new elements to emerge. The breakthroughs may not look like past fashion revolutions, and may well come with platforms for greater dialogue with customers. But to seize the opportunity, designers will need to take the reins from the marketers once again, and design marketing into (not on top of) their lines.

The fashion world has gone dark; it is time to turn the lights back on.

Michael Coady was the Editor-in-Chief of Women’s Wear Daily from 1971 to 1986 and then CEO of its publisher Fairchild Publications until 2000.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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