Even with an economy dazed and numbed, the United States remains the world’s largest market for fashion, and New York is unquestionably the center of the global fashion image machine. True, consumer pocketbooks seem to be on temporary lockdown. But the assembly line keeps cranking all the same; the maw must be fed.
But who will do it? Cast a seasoned eye across a landscape ornamented with scores of shows during the next nine days (officially Fashion Week runs today through Sept. 12) and what’s immediately apparent is that while fashion is healthily supplied with journeymen there is no clear visionary, no obvious genius in sight.
“The business is much too safe,” Julie Gilhart, the fashion director of Barney’s New York, said last week. “There’s just too much money at stake.” Thus, we should not expect a season in which designers go out on a limb and propel models down catwalks in get-ups concocted from seaweed or kitchen utensils. (Both have actually happened.) This is not to suggest, as Ms. Gilhart also noted, that New York is suffering from talent shortfall — far from it. Among many others, we have the team of Proenza Schouler, with their knack for making middle-of-the-road design seem indie and cool. We have cartoonish pop cultural gadflies like Isaac Mizrahi, and chaste classicists like Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein. We have elder statesman like Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren, who, far from seeming moss-covered and passé, have been more alert to shifts in the cultural marketplace than some who were zygotes when those men first hit professional stride.
We have loopy design theoreticians like threeAsFour, holding up the fort for Downtown Style. And — back from a barkeep hiatus in Majorca that followed his Big Apple flameout—we have Miguel Adrover, the man who captured the imagination of the fashion establishment with clothes made from a recycled mattress and Yankees caps.
Pat Yanez is always searching for the next Big Thing in fashion. Will this be it?
Still, there is no world-beater. There are no names that suggest clear-cut potential both to reshape fashion and somehow with it the global culture of style. There is no one, to take the obvious example, likely to replace Yves Saint Laurent, who died in June and seemingly took with him not merely a genius for conjuring glamour from whole cloth, but also for draping his designs to suit the mood of his time.
What seems disorienting about this absence is that fashion is no longer a discipline of interest mainly to female consumers and a cult of aesthetes. Like it or not, fashion has become something larger, a viral cultural force that sometimes seems only incidentally concerned with clothes. Cocteau wasn’t kidding when he said style is a simple way of saying complicated things — a point the United States Olympic Committee clearly noted (American teams may not have dominated in the medals, but in the parade of nations they killed the competition in jauntily classic Polo Ralph Lauren uniforms), as do politicos. Were the Dead Sea scrolls subjected to more exegesis than Michelle Obama’s floral print sheath at the Democratic National Convention in Denver? (Thakoon, by the way.) The voices of the blogosphere say, No.
Yet, contradictory as this may seem, the notion of a Next Big Thing in fashion may itself be culturally discordant. As in film, music and other arts, consumers have wearied of big names and labels. Except on TV, they are bored with diktats, with taste legislated by self-appointed “experts” and with camphor-scented archaisms like “stars.”
They have lost the desire to partake of media in hunks: an entire musical album, or a single artist’s whole career.
The D.I.Y. ethos prevalent among young consumers has led to an overall relaxation of the boundaries of style. Given that a 12-year-old with a MySpace page and access to digital “mood boards” or electronic makeover applications (girltech.com) can become an instant authority on fashion, is there truly a need for the dictators of the front row, the editors who once chose the stars?
“No longer is fashion force-fed to the consumer,” said Robert Burke, a former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman who is now a luxury goods consultant. “They don’t have to wait for magazines and editors to tell them what they must buy and must have.”
Fun as it is to indulge in the game show fantasy retailed by programs like “Project Runway,” with its winners and losers and dubious jackpots, it is probably time to face the truth about the In or Out divide, which is that it is subjectively judged and decreed by a posse of Heathers.
“I really never understood the next big thing,” said Kim Hastreiter, an editor of Paper magazine. “How can someone be a genius this season and next season they’re not?”
She added: “This completely drives me crazy. Everyone can be raving one season about how great a designer is and then the next season they’re dumped.”
People do not become “un-brilliant,” Ms. Hastreiter said. “Designers really suffer from this because you get lifted up and put in this place and then someone else comes along and is put in that place and it’s never really about the work.”
Passionate fandom, the widespread devotion that also helps invest a star with authority, seems quaint today. Every anonymous nobody with a social networking page or a “fun wall” can build a cohort, whether imaginary or virtual. Appended to the snapshots of everyday people and their sartorial innovations on blogs like Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist (thesartorialist.blogspot.com) are kite-tails of commentary from scores or even hundreds of commentators, who hold highly evolved (and occasionally creepy) views about what fashion is and should be.
In a lot of ways, the life and career of Saint Laurent are instructive and also helpful in understanding why it is futile and also probably dumb to sit around waiting for his avatar. “That world is gone,” his former partner Pierre Bergé said days before Saint Laurent’s death.
By that Mr. Bergé meant, as Jill D’Alessandro, an associate curator at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, recently explained, that “fashion was more about artistic and creative output” when Saint Laurent held his first runway show in 1962 than it was about celebrity name-checking and the creation of the latest “It” bag. “He was adapted to his times,” Ms. D’Alessandro said. “He was someone who wanted to help with social change. The world was also changing a lot then, and he very consciously wanted to be part of that.”
The extent to which he succeeded should be clear come November when the de Young presents a full-scale Saint Laurent retrospective.
The film director Jean Renoir once wrote a letter to Ingrid Bergman, motivated by what I am not quite sure, in which he cautioned the actress against falling for the hype axiomatically attached to the next big thing. “The cult of great ideas is dangerous and may destroy the real basis for great achievements, that is the daily, humble work within the framework of a profession,” Renoir wrote.
And it’s that quote I plan to take with me into the Fashion Week fray, with a hope that the onus of expectation placed on any single designer (even New York’s favorite son, Marc Jacobs) will eventually yield to something more flexible, plural and modern, to use a hated fashion term. The next big thing may not be a single person at all but a yeastier and more broadly based network of shared information and connections.
It’s an optimistic thought, and none too reasonable, given the financial stakes. But there has to be a role for fashion more interesting than producing a few hype artists whose greatest skill is slinging a dumb It bag off the licorice-whip arm of this season’s hot socialite.
“Very few people have this ability to be the great designers and
also generate the necessary buzz and excitement,” Ms. Gilhart of
Barneys said. “It’s a trap.” So formulated around star-creation
right now, she added, that the business may actually be “closing out
a lot of opportunities for people who are original and good and who
actually have something to say.”