Op-Ed: Fashion’s Postmodernist Phase

Op-Ed: Fashion’s Postmodernist Phase



New York – From the numerous editorial reports underscoring the end of the fashion season in Paris one of the leitmotifs was the lack of originality on designers’ part.

Paris is usually the cherry on the cake in terms of creativity, a critic’s reward for having to sit through the commercial blandness of New York’s shows, the campy antics of London’s, and the vulgar luxury of Milan’s. Not this time, at least according to Angelo Flaccavento and Robin Givhan, two of the most powerful fashion commentators.

In his wrap-up for Business of Fashion, Flaccavento lamented the rise of styling tricks that are pushing out genuine fashion design. “Contemporary fashion is less about clothes making and more about image-making,” he astutely observed. Givhan, in her Washington Post article, wondered why today, when fashion commands unprecedented attention and unrivaled prestige, there were so few interesting ideas on Paris’s catwalks. “Little is surprising. Few designers have been able to breath life into a dream. Few have even tried.” was her verdict.

Why is this so? The answer is that fashion has entered a postmodernist stage. Postmodernism is characterized not by genuinely revolutionary ideas, but by mixing the existing ones. This is why you see so much referencing of past decades on the catwalks, the very thing that the fashion critics are sick of.

The problem – if it is, indeed, a problem – is twofold. First is the so-called democratization of fashion. Once marketers figured out that “fashion” is a great way to sell clothes, overnight all clothes magically became fashion. Changing the name is the oldest – and cheapest – trick in any marketing textbook and it has worked incredibly well by providing validation to any piece of apparel. This has lead to destruction of all hierarchy in fashion, another characteristic of postmodernism. Everything is called fashion today, from Chanel’s haute couture to the rags in H&M’s clearance bin. The high/low divide has been erased by cheerful championing of fast fashion on the part of fashion magazines full of “get-the-look-for-less” articles and celebrities who proudly display their it bags next to their flip-flops.

The destruction of hierarchy can also be seen in the meteoric rise of streetwear. Today, two of the most-talked brands in the fashion press are Hood By Air and Public School, who churn out spruced up sweatshirts, sweatpants, t-shirts and bomber jackets. A pair of Nikes worn with a designer coat is as common of a site as a pair of Dior shoes.

The above simply means that today all propositions in fashion are valid and it becomes increasingly hard to champion one thing over another. The new generation has been told that sneakers and t-shirts are fashion since they could remember their first forays into personal style. That is why they crave the same things now as they did when they were teenagers. They wants something stylish, but also something that does not take them out of their comfort zone. And they are willing to pay premium prices for it.

Therefore it should come as no surprise that designers – or their suited bosses – rush to satisfy this demand. Nowhere can this be seen more prominently than in the runaway success of Saint Laurent under Hedi Slimane. Lament all you want that it looks like Topshop – Slimane has figured out that today the role of a commercially successful designer is to give people what they want.

If this is not good for creativity, it is good for business. For the unspoken truth is that postmodernism is the best friend of capitalism, because postmodernism’s golden rule “anything goes,” really means “anything sells.”

The second issue that has contributed to the rise of postmodernism in fashion is that contemporary fashion – and by that I mean fashion since the 1960’s when ready-to-wear began to wedge out haute couture – has acquired its own history. Until this decade designers were able to make waves because they were free to roam the virgin pastures of creativity. Cultural currents, especially pop music and art, were there for the mining. Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garcons, Ann Demeulemeester, Helmut Lang, and Raf Simons, just to name the few influential designers, had a lot to say and little to compete with in such favorable cultural climate.

The generations that came after them have had a harder time. The Internet and the social media make matters worse, as it is now seems virtually impossible to not look at other people’s work, and if you look, you are most likely to draw references. But while some influence can be good for creativity, too much influence is detrimental. When so much has already been done, Ezra Pound’s imperative “Make it new” becomes increasingly difficult to adhere to.

As Givhan rightly noted, “Culturally we have never been more fascinated by the style, aesthetics, personalities and glamour that the industry produces and attracts.” Today’s young creative generation is attracted to fashion as never before. In the 80s kids wanted to be artists. In the 90s they wanted to be musicians. Today, they want to be fashion designers. “Designers are the new rock bands,” Rick Owens wryly observed a few years ago, and he was right.

But, just like the ascent of postmodernism in art has led to an overproduction of art degrees, it is now leading to overproduction of fashion degrees. And, just like having too many artists inevitably resulted in a lot of bad art, having too many fashion designers results in a lot of bad fashion. Talk to any boutique owner or a fashion editor and they will tell you how inundated they are with requests by young designers to take a look at their lookbooks. Most of these end up in email trash bins, unopened.

This is why in 2015 we end up with articles that lament lack of creativity even in Paris. A lot has been done, much has been rehashed, hierarchies have been dismantled, old markers of quality have been destroyed and no new ones have taken their place. Fashion has gone from a business that told people what they want to giving them what they want. In such a cultural milieu, it is no wonder that for veteran fashion critics it becomes increasingly harder to find something to be excited about. Get used to it.


About the author

Eugene Rabkin

Eugene Rabkin is the founder of stylezeitgeist.com. He has contributed articles on fashion and culture to The Business of Fashion, Vogue Russia, Buro247, the Haaretz Daily Newspaper, and other publications. He has taught critical writing and fashion writing courses at Parsons the New School for Design.


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