When it comes to Fashion Week, the key to knowing what's cool is not knowing anything
To be cool is to rule according to 20th century attitudes — where rejecting such inelegant notions as effort, enthusiasm, and of course desire elevated your status. No one stated the fashion establishment’s party line pithier than Coco Chanel: “Elegance is refusal.”
To want is to be a wannabe, to try is to be a try-hard. These natural impulses must be concealed and suppressed at all costs. No wonder that, in fashion, fronting is traditionally accepted at face value. Even obvious lies, with repetition, are somehow treated as revelatory dissidence, when in fact they are commonplace.
Plausible deniability is the essence of cool. “Oh, what, this old thing?” the carefully coiffed socialite simpers to the cameras as she shrugs, as if her new designer jacket fell on her by accident instead of being positioned on her shoulders by a publicist. “I loathe fashion week,” the editor moans as she smugly sits in her front-row seat — of course she doesn’t hate it enough to allow her assistant to sit in her place, or maybe she didn’t have anything else to do that day? Disingenuous distancing is de rigueur.
Without fail, fashion’s increasingly ancient critics lead with the same bad news every season: Fashion is broken! There’s too many shows! Too many bloggers, wearing too many accessories, getting too much attention! Suzy Menkes wonders, “If fashion is for everyone, is it fashion?” Was fashion really so much better in the olden days, when the wealthy didn’t have to share it, when the audiences at fashion shows wore tasteful all black instead of an assaulting riot of color? Veteran designers like Tom Ford and Oscar De La Renta are attempting to turn back the clock and lock down their shows, but to what benefit? Should the fashion industry cut the guest lists so the elite don’t have to rub shoulders with the aspiring? Hide the venues? Keep fashion for the insiders and keep the outsiders out? Maybe all these hopeful no-hopers are just a fad, and everything will just return to the way it was before in a few seasons. It’s all so frenetic, so confusing. How dare fashion change!
Twenty-first century fashion is changing, as fashions do every century. It feels like a heat wave. Not a cool front. Like climate change, it’s chaotic and frightening, and yet irresistible and impossible to contain. You would think fashion writers would be reporting on these new developments with enthusiasm — after all, change is the only constant in fashion, and without it there isn’t anything to write about. But instead, almost all the fashion writing I read evokes hegemony. There’s no thoughtful exploration of why the changes we see are happening, or where they came from, or what they may mean for the future of fashion. Open a magazine and the stories are a laundry list of celebrities, names you’ve already heard of, reinforcing the existing hierarchies, equating “recognizable” with “good,” making every season seem the same. Open a newspaper and the stories are a series of complaints, harangues about how fashion used to be good but now it’s all gone to hell, and what an awful slog it is, attending fashion shows and writing about them. Still, those “end of fashion is nigh” articles rack up way more reaction and rebuttals than any show review, so fashion critics will keep writing them.
Fashion is a constant series of reactions, and whether you approve of it aesthetically or not does not make it any less relevant. The job of the fashion writer should be to report on what’s new, not reject it in favor of maintaining the status quo. Disorder and malaise historically produces revolutionary fashions, whether it’s war liberating women from corsets or a broken Britain birthing punk. Chaos is the catalyst for whatever is coming next. So bad news is good news for fashion.
If the critics of fashion hate it so much, why don’t they just quit? The reason fashion feels so stagnant at the moment is because it is always the same people writing about the same designers dressing the same celebrities. Everyone who came of age professionally in the past century is defending their position in the hierarchy so hard, there’s barely any space for new faces. The people who think change is the problem never seem to consider that change is their problem. They’re scared of losing their front-row seats. Fashion, like the weather, is a force of nature, an uncontrollable phenomenon — it continues regardless of the individual players. When people say that fashion is doomed, they are admitting only that fashion is moving on without them.
I attended a handful of this season’s shows in New York. I lurked outside Alexander Wang and watched the ebb and flow of waves of paparazzi around this or that celebrity, felt the ebullience of recognition ripple through the crowd. There’s Solange! There’s Carine! There’s Courtney Love! Despite being among the uninvited, being part of the scene outside was fun. My friends and I even got to play a part in the action, coming up with facetious fashion commentary for another outsider with a video camera. I overheard a guy showing off on two tiny skateboards (one on each foot) mock the carnival he was helping create. “People are so ridiculous,” says the ridiculous person.
Every season, the crowds outside the venues seem more and more unmanageable. Stressed-out security guards try to herd the cool cats out of the way of oncoming cars. “This is not a photo shoot,” they shout as shutters clatter like hail and flashes flare like lightning.
I attended the Hervé Léger show, which somehow contained every excess of American fashion in one heaving, overpopulated tent. So many plasticized bodies wrapped in elastic bands, so many stressed-out officious volunteers, so many bloggers with business cards, so many cameras, one physically tiny yet psychically huge celebrity named Nicki Minaj outshining everything else, and apparently there were clothes too? It almost felt embarrassing to be there. Like I was the only open eye in the hurricane.
What happened? How did fashion turn into such a hot mess? Let’s revisit the previous century.
Sure, things might have been much clubbier on Seventh Avenue in the 1970s, but I don’t believe it was the halcyon days the grand dames of fashion criticism seem to remember. Back then the main tension was between designers and manufacturers. Fashion designers were well-off but they wanted more. Designers wanted more control — more publicity for themselves and more money. Halston represents a definite watermark in the rising tide of mass mayhem in fashion. He wanted to be famous and wealthy on a grand scale, and he adopted the Factory model to achieve it. Blame Warhol.
You can make some money by selling a few expensive evening gowns to a few rich women on the Upper East Side, but that’s small business. The way to make a lot of money was to sell a lot of things to a lot of people. The way to do that was by licensing designer names for mass-manufactured, inexpensive consumer products. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, designers hocked the glamour of their high-society clientele by putting their name on cheap cosmetics, jeans and T-shirts to sell to the millions, turning that money into lavish lifestyles, which made their name even more sellable, on linens and housewares, to more consumers.
Halston took his money and hosted heady, famous-person-packed fashion shows high in his glass tower. Other designers, like Calvin Klein and Karl Lagerfeld, followed his lead, and the fashion show frenzy we recognize today emerged. In the 1980s, on the heels of the print media, came television cameras, backstage scrums, and soundbites. Television intensified the obsession with sex and beauty, with the screen-friendly faces and ultra-kinetic bodies of supermodels. This is how fashion became a mass-media phenomenon. What came next? Once the effectiveness of plain old brand names on T-shirts wore off, the fashion industry in the 1990s developed fast fashion, the apparel equivalent of crack cocaine — at last making runway trends feel within reach to almost anyone.
These developments resulted in a gold rush for fashion schools. A generation of youth was brought up consuming highly persuasive fashion media displaying the grand mansions of fashion designers, the starry glamour of fashion television, the hypnotic beauty of supermodels, the never-ending novelty of H&M. The fashion industry wanted to sell us perfume and accessories, and it did that by selling itself.
It worked a bit too well. We didn’t just want designer bags with designer names on them — we wanted to design bags with our names on them. We wanted to be celebrated and envied like them. We wanted their obscene wealth. So our generation applied to fashion school. On credit. Then we accepted internships, got paid with prestige not cash. Because it would pay off big, right? Anyone could be the next Alexander McQueen, right?
This is the generation crowding uninvited outside the gates like an invasive species, filling up the back rows and spilling out into the aisles, sucking attention away from the runways like parasites. The fashion industry got what it deserves. It wanted our money, but it didn’t want us. Well, too bad. It’s got us now.
The contradictory nature of cool again. Establishment fashion says, “Look at me, don’t look at me.” So-called millennials are not so coy. Open your ears to their music. Contemporary hip-hop and pop have no time for plausible deniability. Rappers like their status symbols delivered straight-up. There’s no irony or distancing to be heard in the bigger-than-thou boasting. Kanye West is not cool — he’s too earnest, he wears his considerable effort on his extremely sophisticated, fashion-conscious sleeve. This generation’s most important pop star, Lady Gaga, is remarkably sincere about her desire for fame and doesn’t try to conceal how hard she’s worked for it. The heat is palpable.
There’s a reason the insanity outside is a higher-traffic story than the shows inside. Would-be street-style stars exhibit more of Gaga’s influence than runway influence, and Kanye is spreading his elevated taste for high-brow fashion to street level, making the lack of diversity in model casting seem bizarrely out of touch with fashion’s ever-growing audience.
Since the promise of money is broken, far out of reach, young people’s currency is attention. They revel in it, do whatever it takes to get it. Every individual is their own media outlet now, and the kids say: “look at me, LOOK AT ME!” Their values will outlast those of the generation that tries to capitalize on them and control them without offering anything in return. That’s why this tidal wave of craziness is fascinating and not to be feared. In fact, it is what makes each new season so exciting to watch.
Media-saturated young minds reject disingenuousness. Kids know how to recognize the phoniness of fashionable fronting from their own experience in broadcasting their lives online. That’s why J.W. Anderson, a young 21st-century-formed designer, is refreshingly honest about how hard he struggles. There’s no glamorous lifestyle, no money, no false ease — just his charisma and ideas. He speaks directly to his contemporaries. Their attitudes are what will form the future of fashion. The old-fashioned notion of elegance carries very little weight in this century. What we refuse is refusal.