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How ‘Fashion’ Became a Bad Word

Many New York designers are so frustrated with the state of America's fashion system that they want to break away entirely, writes Lauren Sherman.
Image | Jan-Nico Meyer
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — In New York, the epicentre of America's fashion industry, fashion is not so fashionable anymore. And designers, the ultimate arbiters of trend, can feel it.

"I don't understand fashion today, at all, as a fashion designer. I'm also sort of burned out by it and really not interested in a lot of it," said Narciso Rodriguez backstage after his Spring/Summer 2019 runway show, which took place a few weeks ago, on the same day he received an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) for a lifetime of achievement. "The bigger the fashion show, the better the show, the more you spend. And that's great, and it's all fashion so you celebrate it, but it's also the part that makes me want to turn away from it."

Rodriguez, who was once, many years ago, the creative director of the LVMH-owned fashion house Loewe, doesn’t need the buzz of September to give his clothes weight: he’s at a point in his career where he seems content to please his clientele with draped silk blouses, elongated trousers and curved shoulder jackets that will simply wear well.

Like many of his peers, Rodriguez appears to have grown tired of Fashion with a capital F. Why?

It’s not like people aren’t spending money on clothes and accessories. The luxury market grew 5 percent last year, according to Bain. But upstart digital brands and European luxury houses with highly creative designers and direct-to-consumer business models have captured much of this growth, while many of New York’s labels — which depend on ailing American department stores for distribution, don’t stage the kind of high-impact runway shows adored by the internet and have been less successful at renewing themselves creatively — have suffered.

For many Americans, traditional name-on-the-door designer labels don’t have the emotional impact that they once did. Consumers are more likely to spend on internet-born, un-fashion brands like Everlane or an experience that plays well on their Instagram feed.

For instance, have you ever heard of the Los-Angeles brand Doen? It only has 117,000 followers on Instagram and is “designed” by a collective of women, not a star talent, but its uncomplicated bohemian silhouettes sell out regularly, which underscores that it’s the fashion industry, more than the market for cool clothing, facing a reckoning.

That's why designers and brands are dissociating themselves with "fashion" — there's a reason it's called Vetements, not Mode — or looking for ways to escape entirely. Some are betting that adopting the streetwear model, which focuses on continually "dropping" small capsules of product rather than an entire seasonal collection at once, will keep customers interested.

The CFDA even recognised the bandwagon's current obsession, Supreme, a line of skater T-shirts that has done well by keeping its community close, as Men's Fashion Designer of the year the same night Rodriguez was honoured. (He graciously accepted the award even though he said on stage that he has never considered himself to be, well, a designer — or Supreme to be a "fashion company.") But who knows if Jebbia's approach will solve the underlying problems long, or even short, term.

"I think it might be nice if fashion — the fashion industry — falls out of trend in a way," the New York-based designer Rachel Comey said a few weeks ago. "It could recalibrate." Days before our conversation, Comey presented her latest collection in Los Angeles, in a glamourous old department store, for an audience of clients and friends, many of whom had never attended a runway show. Comey's non-traditional approach to fashion shows — host a dinner in a museum one season, a runway on a New York City sidewalk the next — has been good for her soul and her brand. She's been in business for more than 15 years, and she seems to still enjoy designing and making clothes. One way to overcome malaise is to throw away the old rules.

Here’s an encouraging thought: All of this uncertainty, frustration and confusion could actually result in something better. Americans, after all, remain the ultimate optimists and hustlers. More US brands will no doubt have to shrink or die, but perhaps the growing disdain for fashion will force the industry to shake off its shackles and build something entirely new. What that will look like is anyone’s guess, but when it’s all over, it might not even be called fashion anymore.

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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
State of Fashion 2023
© 2022 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions and Privacy policy.
State of Fashion 2023