Fashion Highlights 2013

The time that exists between the major fashion shows can often be a snooze, but the past few years have shown by example that the industry doesn’t slow for a minute. This year in particular has been full of surprises. Even though the year hasn’t quite come to a close we’re far enough along to revisit four of 2013’s most important moments.

1. Nicolas Ghesquière takes over Louis Vuitton.

Only yesterday, LVMH, the French conglomerate that own Louis Vuitton, Marc, Jacobs, Donna Karan, Fendi and Dior among other labels, named Ghesquière artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s womenswear.

Ghesquière first came to prominence in the late 1990s when he became head designer of Balenciaga, what was then a dormant and nearly forgotten label from haute couture’s golden age. He invigorated the brand with edgy, futuristic designs and remained at Balenciaga for 15 years until leaving a year ago.

This appointment makes him only the second designer to ever design clothes for the brand. Marc Jacobs was the first and his last presentation for the brand was in October.

2. Marc Jacobs leaves Louis Vuitton.

Marc Jacobs seemed like an odd choice when he was appointed as the first designer to make clothes for Louis Vuitton in 1997. At that time Vuitton was small trunk-maker whose name was largely known only to those with a great deal of money to burn.

After 16 years, numerous artist collaborations with the likes of Takashi Murakami and increasingly elaborate runways shows, Jacobs turned the company into a brand known around the world.

The company is not only famous, but has the funds to back up its name with roughly $9.5 billion in annual sales, with the label’s actual value even more than that.

Jacobs plans to focus on his namesake label and is said to be preparing to take his company public within the next few years.

3. Alexander Wang replaces Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga.

I realize that listing these shifting designers might seem ridiculous to some, but it speaks to the nature of the fashion industry at the moment. Designers are now seen as commodities, cards to be traded or cast away rather than nurtured and encouraged. All of them were in place for more than a decade and such a shakeup is worth taking note.

Wang is a young designer entrusted with one of the crown jewels of French fashion. Despite continued American success in the arena for several decades, many Europeans still see American designers as unoriginal, redundant and boring. Wang’s placement caused much controversy as the uncertainty of whether or not a sportswear designer could produce high French fashion grew.

Wang has been met with positive reviews and has pleased even his harshest critics, like the New York Times’ Cathy Horyn.

4. Disgraced designer John Galliano teams up with Oscar de la Renta.

John Galliano was once the foremost designer of his generation who made his way from the rough neighborhoods of London to being the creative director of Christian Dior. In 2011, Galliano’s troubles with addiction came to light when an alcohol-fueled, anti-Semitic rant was captured on tape by diners at a Parisian café.

After nearly two years out of the spotlight and post-treatment, Galliano was announced as a “designer in residence” in de la Renta’s New York atelier. De la Renta, a favorite of ladies who lunch, has been a fixture of New York City’s 7th Avenue for decades and the combination seemed unusual to many.

In February de la Renta presented his Fall 2013 collection to positive reviews. Hints of Galliano could be found throughout the collection, whether in the cloche hats, drape-y tailoring or dramatic color combinations. Time will tell if Galliano can translate this one success into a second chance.

Now Trending

The concept of trends and fashion have been linked since the dawn of the modern fashion system in the early 20th century. Trends allow fashion to be divided into digestible chunks for the general public who may not be familiar with all its nuances. But how do these trends emerge? Here’s how you can spot and predict trends like a professional.

1) Consider politics and world events:

Although the world of fashion can be quite insular, people within the industry are not immune to the leading issues or movements of their time. The past few years have seen rapid growth in countries such as China and India and that has been reflected on the runways. Asian themes of all kinds found their way into clothes from all over the world. Also, when America went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, a clear militant trend emerged in the collections and lasted for many years.

2) Think about any major art or fashion exhibitions of the recent past:

While the debate regarding fashion’s validity as an art form may never be resolved, the two communities are quite close and share a great deal. Yves Saint Laurent responded to the work of Mondrian in his collections and Marc Jacobs makes frequent references to the work of Cindy Sherman and Rachel Feinstein, especially after Sherman had a retrospective at MoMA a couple of years ago. Art aside, fashion often inspires other fashion and the Madame Grés and Yves Saint Laurent shows of recent years have inspired numerous designers.

3) Find out who the top editors and stylists are:

To a degree, trends are completely fabricated. Just because the industry decides that pink or ballet-inspired skirts are the most prominent concepts doesn’t mean that other ideas didn’t circulate throughout the collections as well. All editors and stylists have their personal preferences, just like everyone else, and the favoritism can show. A certain stylist might really love slim pants, while an editor adores short fur jackets. Before long those things end up in the magazines and, eventually, on bodies. Trends are ultimately the choice of those who dispense images of fashion to the public.

4) Culture is key:

Until the 1960s it was expected that young women in the Western Hemisphere would dress exactly like their mothers no matter how old they might be. The 60s brought youth and energy into fashion (and everything else) and changed the rules forever. The emergence of social media and other digital technologies has had an equally profound effect on the youngest generation of designers. Be conscious of societal evolution and it won’t be long before those ideas are incorporated into clothes.

Fashion Culture Clash

Paris Fashion Week ended less than a week ago, but some prominent themes and trends have already crystallized. One of the most ubiquitous elements running through the collections was a tribal theme. This brings about serious questions regarding cultural appropriation in fashion and how it relates to body image. I spoke with Gillian McGhee, an anthropology student, to get her thoughts on this particular aspect of the season.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Martin: How do you feel about fashion appropriating the dress or aesthetic of other cultures?

Gillian: I don’t think it can always be a negative thing. A lot of times we see, Halloween is a great example, you dress up as a different culture and it’s branded as racist. But I don’t think it always has to be this venomous cultural appropriation. I think there are ways of incorporating a different culture’s fashion into your own that isn’t offensive and it can be used as a learning tool. Then it makes it more familiar to you and it’s not scary.

M: When it’s done poorly, what do you think makes it an inappropriate reference?

G: I think if the people’s culture you’re appropriating from take offense to it then you’ve done something wrong. A lot of times you find…some people just get offended off the bat as soon as you bring a different culture into fashion and say ‘that’s racist.’ If the original group doesn’t take offense to it and it’s not being used in a derogatory manner, generally, I don’t see a problem with it.

M: How do you think fashion affects our culture’s understanding of itself?

G: I think fashion is a really important medium that can reinforce and express different cultural values in a way that is very individual because you use your agency to choose what you wear and it also shows, as a collective, what group you belong to within a society and in society in general. I think fashion’s a really cool identity marker for a culture and for a person and that’s why I think we place so much emphasis on it, and it’s also an art form.

M: Do you think that that marker or identification system brings more people together or is more divisive?

G: I think a lot of the time it can be divisive, at least in American culture because we focus so much on ‘I’, the individual and what ‘I’ do. We want to each be separate and unique from one another. Clothing is something people bond over all the time so I think it can do both.

M: How do you think fashion affects how people perceive body or conceptualize body image, either their own or in general?

G: If we want to talk about the fashion we’re bombarded with in media, I think because we have these body types, these models, who have relatively unachievable body types for the average American woman, just seeing those clothes—the clothes that are made for them, the clothes that look good on them—doesn’t necessarily look good on other women, but we want to consume those items of clothing. But what I think fashion can do, it can liberate you from those constraints. I think you can find what fits your body type—finding a dress that you look good in or a blouse that is really flattering—that can really boost your confidence and your image. I think it’s all about finding what fits each person.

M: How do you think it differs for men and women?

G: I think because men aren’t hyper-sexualized the way women are, to the same degree at least, I’m not saying they’re not sexualized because they are, there’s less pressure to conform to that norm that isn’t even a norm for men. Just the way clothing is designed to fit men is not necessarily skin-tight. You can get away with a large beer gut with a large T-shirt and there’s less of a revealing factor for men. Men are covered up for the most part in day-to-day living. Going to the beach is a different story. And I think the way clothes are designed to fit men in this culture kind of gives less pressure to look a certain way, but men are still susceptible to all the pressures from media. Even in celebrity culture you see women swooning over these men that have a certain look and are a certain way and not being able to conform to that can be negative.

Stepping Beyond Fashion

On September 26, Rick Owens showed his Spring/Summer 2014 collection as a part of Paris fashion week. Besides the spectacular clothes, something else about the collection was particularly striking: traditional models were nowhere in sight.

These models were not only non-traditional, i.e. white and emaciated, they were not models at all, but rather a collective of different step dancing teams from various U.S. colleges. The group sporting the clothes was predominantly black and none of them would fit a typical runway sample size.

“We’re rejecting conventional beauty, creating our own beauty,” said Owens.

For years there has been talk about the lack of diversity represented on high fashion runways and little has been done about it. Owens’ aesthetic and mentalityhave always run counter to the norm and I believe his effort to showcase something different to be a sincere one. However, I do not believe the rest of high fashion will follow suit any time soon.

The response to the clothes and the women wearing them was overwhelmingly positive, but I believe that the presentation was something most of the fashion crowd couldn’t truly grasp. This type of step team is foreign enough to Europeans and people from other parts of the world, but equally so to the wealthy Caucasian men and women who comprise a majority of those with influence in fashion.

The inability of many who viewed the collection to perceive and understand this different kind of beauty was troubling. Many of the guests interviewed afterward described the women as “powerful.” Most people would consider this a positive use of language, but to my mind this is much like fashion’s use of the word curvy—a backhanded compliment. If you’re not thin and pretty, at least you can be powerful.

They assigned the dancers power rather than beauty. Their reactions seem to suggest that the idea of women being powerful while outside of the established codes of beauty is not possible. Their comments also bring forth their subconscious belief that women can only achieve power through predetermined beauty standards.

What Owens’ recognizes that so many do not, is that women who are powerful are beautiful. They are more than hangers with a pulse. They have agency. In this case they may be ferocious, but ferocity can be beautiful even if it doesn’t come with a smile, not that runways normally have many of those floating around anyway.

What’s more is that these women were showing their highly honed step dancing skills. They are not simply there to be viewed. They are there to express their own unique rhythms and that can only add to the potency of the clothes.

The show was not meant to be representative of all black beauty, although some took it that way. It is simply a small portion of what beauty can mean in the modern world. It is important to note that not all of the brilliant dancers performing were black or part of another minority group; some were white.

Diversity such as this is a rarity in fashion. For years there was only one shade of makeup for black models, as though everyone with brown skin possesses precisely the same complexion. Asian women have only recently come into the mainstream and many other groups of women have yet to receive any attention whatsoever.

More than anything else, fashion has a tendency to create outliers rather than changing the unspoken standards nearly everyone adheres to. It is people like Owens who make everyone a little uncomfortable. And we’re all the better for it.

Where Have All The Women Gone?

Some fashion's most coveted labels.

Combing through the racks of any luxury retail establishment will quickly reveal something very unusual. Among the hundreds of designer label carried by Barney’s, Blake or Ikram, most are designed by men despite the fact that so many of the customers are women.

While it’s true that the past few years have seen a resurgence of influential female designers (Phoebe Philo of Céline being one notable example), most luxury labels are helmed by men. This trend in design goes back to the end of World War II and has yet to show any significant signs of reversal.

Before the advent of World War II women like Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and Elsa Schiaparelli were the most formidable purveyors of high style. The violence that consumed Europe caused the temporary or permanent closing of many of these businesses.

After the war, names such as Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior elegantly passed through everyone’s lips. Today men like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Alber Elbaz, Azzedine Alaïa and Ralph Lauren outnumber their female counterparts in the realm of high fashion.

Why is this the case?

Here are my top three theories on where all the women have gone:

1)    Though fashion is a joy and a luxury it is, ultimately, a business. It should be noted that the male designers mentioned above are the directors of companies worth hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars. For centuries, men have had a fundamental mistrust of women’s ability to take charge of finances. These reasons are without merit and based on blatantly sexist notions, but they still prevent female designers from receiving the critical financial backing they require to enter today’s tough market.

2)    The fact that women have children frequently works against them in nearly every field. Neither Chanel nor Vionnet nor Schiaparelli ever had children. Since the name of the designer rests above the door, that person is unable to take a significant break of any kind, especially with today’s dizzying fashion schedule. Donna Karan famously finished designing a collection for Anne Klein only days after giving birth to her daughter. There is no maternity leave in fashion, but powerful female designers are beginning to break the rules.

3)    Strangely, men have been the definers of what is considered feminine. Male designers sell the world a fantasy through breathtaking runway shows, but the clothes aren’t always the kind that function in the real world. However, that fantasy often receives the most attention. Luxury is a fantasy of sorts and women have just begun to wrestle their aesthetic agency back from men. Women produce clothes that are as dazzling as any man’s, but the fantasy is different. They aren’t dressing a woman up like a doll so much as they are dressing her up in the raw intelligence of her own imagination.