Last week Raf Simons left Dior after only three and a half year tenure. Some weeks before that, Alexander Wang exited Balenciaga. Both designers cited the desire to concentrate on their own brands as the main reason for leaving and made the obligatory public statements of gratitude to their corporate employers. But some in the fashion press took the opportunity to voice the old refrain – the fashion system is broken and it needs to be fixed.
Of these, Suzy Menkes was the most vocal in her puff piece for Vogue Runway, “Why Fashion Is Crashing.” The problem, according to her (and many others) is that the fashion industry moves too fast and demands too much. There are too many collections to deliver, too many store openings and other events to attend, too many celebrities to take selfies with, and so on. There is too much work, too much travel, and ultimately, too much pressure.
All of the above is true, and people who are close to Raf Simons have told me that he quit because of the overwhelming demands exacted by Dior. But why should this mean that the fashion system is crashing? Last time I looked the corporate conglomerates – Prada excepting – have been raking in record profits with no sign of slowing down. The indefatigable Karl Lagerfeld, who designs both Chanel and Fendi, sounded as chipper as a canary in the last week’s T-Magazine profile, and Olivier Rousteing of Balmain – who just launched a collaboration with H&M – and Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy seem more productive on Instagram than in their ateliers and obviously pleased with it.
“Designers – by their nature sensitive, emotional and artistic people – are being asked to take on so much. Too much,” wrote Menkes. Cry me a river, as Lagerfeld would probably say.
Because, where is the other side of the story in Menkes’s account? The very high salaries that Raf Simons and Alexander Wang received, the astounding PR exposure for themselves and by extension for their namesake brands, the chance to work with the best artisans in the world and to play with seemingly unlimited budgets to stage fashion spectacles of the highest order, the access to the top of society – hell, being at the top of society? Please show me a designer who will say no to that in exchange for a grueling schedule for a few years or more. No, the fashion system is not crashing – it is alive and well, because there is no shortage of designers who will not want to try their luck in the gilded corporate cages. To be sure the demands on fashion designers in high positions are extremely tough, but no more so than in other industries. Being at the top of the food chain is demanding – that is the Faustian bargain those at the top usually make. No one is twisting anyone’s hand to accept these positions.
The fact that the fashion system is thriving and is in no shortage of fresh meat was proven by the fact that the relatively unknown Demna Gvasalia of Vetements was hired to helm Balenciaga in the wake of Wang’s departure.
When Wang was appointed to Balenciaga, many rolled their eyes, as Wang was considered to be a hyped designer not warranting serious critical consideration. In other words, it seemed like a marketing move. Vetements, a label only a few years old, has been making waves in terms of critical acclaim, for their Margiela-esque, oversized, distorted, deconstructed garments. It is really designed by a collective, and Gvasalia came to the forefront in the label’s second season because they realized that someone had to give interviews on behalf of the brand.
What made Kering take a chance on such an unproven talent as Gvasalia? “Balenciaga’s new appointment marks an important victory for design over marketing hype,” screamed a headline at the Independent, penned by Alex Fury. Really? Because it seems like Vetements is fast becoming the very definition of hype, just of the different sort than Alexander Wang. Wang is the hype born by his adoring fans, who tend to be young, lack historical fashion knowledge, and wouldn’t know good design if it fell on them from the sky. The Vetements hype is born by the fashion critics who, understandably, hunger for even a hint of conceptual design in today’s vast fashion desert.
I am not saying that Vetements is bad design – I quite like what they do and I would like to see the brand develop and flourish. But what they do is not a revolution the way Margiela was in the 80s and 90s. Which is fine – it does not have to be, but all I ask is that critics don’t treat it as such. That Alex Fury, one of the few fashion journalists worth reading today, was so enthusiastic about Gvasalia’s appointment came as a surprise.
And now the development of Vetements is in real danger because Gvasalia will surely have to channel his efforts into Balenciaga. It’s a classic case of too much too soon, and I am afraid Vetements will go the way of someone like Gareth Pugh, a young talent who got too comfortable by too much early praise and too much opportunity that he never took advantage of; whose creativity therefore sputtered, and who really has not produced anything noteworthy in years.
No, the fashion system is not crashing. It is alive and well, and “the lion’s den,” as Menkes calls it, has no shortage of new candidates.