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Op-Ed | The End of Fashion Establishment Gatekeepers

A top tier of editors, photographers, stylists and buyers once decided which designers and which trends would dictate a season. But that validation no longer carries the same weight with customers.
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By
  • Chantal Fernandez

As the 2010s come to a close, BoF reflects on how the past decade transformed the fashion industry — and the culture at large. Explore our insights here.

A 2011 profile in American Vogue marked a turning point for Proenza Schouler designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. Photographed by Mario Testino, the design partners posed formally, conveying getting-down-to-business ambitions and representing, according to the magazine, "the voice of a generation." Actress Kristen Stewart, in peak "Twilight" fame, modelled their spring collection on the cover, a significant piece of real estate usually reserved for major advertisers. The wunderkinds — who famously sold their senior thesis collection to Barneys — had officially grown up.

A few months later, the duo would sell a stake of their business to prolific investor Andrew Rosen; a year after that, they would open their first store on Madison Avenue. Everyone was betting that the label represented the future of American luxury fashion.

Less than a decade later and Barneys, the ultimate partner for a new designer, is in bankruptcy liquidation. Mario Testino is banned from Condé Nast for alleged sexual misconduct. Proenza Schouler has sought new backers, twice, and closed its Madison Avenue shop. American Vogue has cut its budgets dramatically and learned to embrace streetwear. France and Italy are still streaks ahead of the US in global luxury fashion.

Proenza Schouler had everything going for it: Anna Wintour's approval, celebrity fans like Stewart, accounts with Barneys, Ikram and other influential stores across the country, awards from the CFDA and Vogue Fashion Fund, an it-bag called the PS-1. McCollough and Hernandez had the kind of A-list industry support most aspiring designers can only dream of, and they did everything right.

But it wasn't enough to turn Proenza Schouler — or any of their peers who found themselves "chosen" as the next generation of American fashion over the last decade — into the next billion-dollar brand, à la Michael Kors.

Fashion’s gatekeepers — a top tier of editors, photographers, stylists and buyers, mostly white, European men — once decided which designers and which trends would dictate a season. Those labels and silhouettes would filter down from the runway to the pages of magazines, the wardrobes of celebrities and the sales floors of department stores. They controlled the distribution not only of products but also information.

Their validation still matters to a new generation of creatives, who keep competing for the LVMH Prize, hope to get picked up by Net-a-Porter and send their pieces to editors for consideration. But it doesn’t ensure success. That kind of validation no longer carries the same weight outside fashion industry bubbles across the world, but especially the United States.

The internet, and the blogs, forums and social media platforms that came from it, shifted the balance of power from gatekeepers to regular consumers, armed with direct access to creatives and celebrities and endless options of what to buy.

They became savvier in researching products and brands, comparing prices and trialling new shopping models (direct-to-consumer, vertically integrated online brands; subscriptions; rentals). They traded magazine subscriptions for YouTube, where they gravitated to self-proclaimed experts for product suggestions. Fashion bloggers, later turned Instagram influencers, amassed larger followings than traditional fashion titles that were slow to digitise and adopt a vocabulary driven by social media. The king of validation became follower counts.

By the time Virgil Abloh had his first print feature in Vogue's October 2015 issue, he had already amassed almost half a million Instagram followers and presented Off-White at Paris Fashion Week. His meteoric ascent from Kanye West's artistic director to the helm of menswear at Louis Vuitton happened not because the industry was eager to embrace streetwear, but because online, a growing cadre of fans wanted more of who and what he represented. LVMH listened, and now Abloh straddles both the old and new fashion establishment.

The next Anna Wintour won't be a single editor. It will be, and already is, the hundreds of thousands of people online.

Fashion’s gatekeepers — from brands to publications — can no longer afford to maintain a one-way conversation with their customers. Culture moved on, without their approval. In the same way that streaming platforms revealed that 2010’s mainstream music tastes were out of alignment with what radio DJs were playing, so too did the Internet reveal a mass culture of niche fashion tastes, each with its own gatekeepers.

Now, a TikTok star is Celine's latest model; 17-year-old Billie Eilish is on the cover of Elle in her signature oversized aesthetic and Net-a-Porter has picked up cult-favourite LA label Dôen.

Balenciaga has fully embraced a kind of self-referential, ironic but stylised meme culture that appeals to cool and extremely online young people. These images are less about aspiration than they are a nod to an unspoken mutual understanding — if you need to ask, it’s not for you.

Meanwhile, shoppers at the fast-growing ultra-fast fashion site Fashion Nova take their cues from Kylie Jenner and Cardi B. The latter landed her first Vogue cover this month, in a move that was more targeted at boosting the reader base of the publication than growing Cardi B's already sizable fanbase.

This isn't to say that what Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour thinks doesn't matter to the industry, or that many "mainstream" celebrities aren't still eager for Annie Leibovitz to photograph them and for Gucci to dress them. Or that an established online brand doesn't need the boost of an account with Nordstrom.

Validation still matters. Co-signs still matter. Perception is a powerful tool in fashion, and in this industry, insecurities are rampant even among its most successful names. This past decade saw the fashion industry open many more doors to success, some feat in a business which is, increasingly, all about the bottom line.

But the next Anna Wintour won’t be a single editor. It will be, and already is, the hundreds of thousands of people online, seeking and finding the products they want and the people that inspire them. Approval be damned.

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