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Colin's Column | Designer Hokey Pokey

(Clockwise L-R) Ricardo Tisci, Phoebe Philo, Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, Sarah Burton, Jil Sander
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — Now that the dust has settled on the last of the four major international runways, it's time to take stock. Watching the shows, I was reminded of British artist Richard Hamilton's comment on Pop Art, which he described as "transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced and… big business." This seems an almost spookily apt description of at least 70 percent of the collections I have seen this season, although the big business part is less clear.

The financial crisis has affected everyone — even those companies that have been posting impressive trading figures for the last year or two — and nobody quite knows what to do about it. Now, I think the trouble in the air is undermining creativity as fashion CEOs come to think of replacing head designers as, if not a solution to their troubles, then at least a sop to worried shareholders and backers. But I can think of no more obvious way to unsettle a design studio.

In this context of uncertainty, it’s perhaps little wonder that some creative directors are losing their way. Many don’t even know what their job description is any more. Is it to be seen at parties and openings; to work on glossy tomes; to make marketing films; to open new stores with architects who know very little about selling clothes? And when they take up a new position at the top of a design team, are they given a clear brief and adequate time to deliver results? Or must they face the Herculean task of showing success after only a brief six months in the job?

How is it that a top designer like Jil Sander goes in and out of her eponymous label as if she were dancing the hokey pokey: "You put your right hand in / You put your right hand out / You put your right hand in / And you shake it all about / You do the hokey pokey / and you turn yourself around / That what it's all about!" Will she still be at the Jil Sander brand in three years time?

And what about Raf Simons? Like Sander, he has absolutely unimpeachable fashion credentials. Touted as the "right" man for just about every label that has appeared to be headed for hard times, the poor lad must have been through more interviews than anybody else. But he was still not selected for the Yves Saint Laurent job, which everybody now knows has gone to Hedi Slimane.

Although he has never designed womenswear in a commercial setting, Slimane has the uncompromising, divine madness that all true creators must have and that is probably justification enough for the appointment. Nevertheless, it still leaves open the question: what exactly is PPR, which owns YSL, looking to achieve? I suspect the appointment has been made based on the undoubted cool of Mr. Slimane and the immense cult following he generated for Dior Homme, although he didn't always manage transform this adulation into convincing sales.

It is pleasing to see that, after the trauma at Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton has not only managed to develop Lee's original aesthetic on which she worked from the very first years of the label, but to also inject her own point of view. She was, of course, also helped by a massively successful museum exhibition and a certain royal wedding, but it seems that Burton is well-settled and the McQueen label is in highly capable and safe hands.

Indeed, it must be hard for LVMH chief Bernard Arnault not to look wistfully across the Channel. And why not? After all, look at Chanel, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. Maybe it is female designers who will lead us out of the current doldrums.

At Celine, Phoebe Philo has managed to please women who want beautiful clothes in fabulous materials. These are clearly not meant to be statement clothes and are very much loved by many precisely for that reason. Indeed, they are an interlude of calm breathing in a fashion world gasping for breath. But not even the greatest Celine fan could claim they are an indication of the future of high fashion. They are rather more like a remake of a classic film, and we all know they are never quite as good as the original

And so we come to the tragic case of Dior. And it is tragic on more levels than one: that a label needs a designer and that a man, for all his transgressions, needs a job. Fashion needs that man. To insert Bill Gaytten — an undisputedly brilliant technician, but not a designer — into the gap at Dior can be nothing but a temporary solution. It’s high time this gap was closed. But why not with somebody young and untested, as Yves Saint Laurent was when he took over the reins at Dior at the tender age of twenty-one and went on to revolutionise women’s clothes? I still believe that designers with genius and courage, traits which are invariably independent of age, are more likely to thrive at a grand Paris label than at brands in any of the world’s other fashion capitals at this point.

And finally, how does a Riccardo Tisci happen? I am sure that every fashion CEO would love to know. Over a period of many years, this man has made Givenchy his own, as successfully as Galliano shaped Dior. Is it because LVMH was as bored as all of us with the succession of glittering entrances and quick exits of so many hopefuls at the label? Galliano, McQueen and MacDonald all came and went shockingly fast. And none of them were able to make the house's aesthetic their own, due to lack of strength or time, or both.

But Tisci has done just that. And he has done so by working cautiously, and even modestly, to develop his unique sensibility and take us on the journey with him. Dangerous as it is to predict even one season ahead in a world as volatile as fashion, I am convinced he will stay where he is, until he wishes to leave. What could a man like Riccardo Tisci not produce if he had the same sort of long innings at Givenchy as Galliano had at Dior?

In fashion, as in most things perhaps, you either have it or you don't. As Kurt Vonnegut says in the marvellous Slaughterhouse Five: "So it goes."

Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion

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