We would like to announce our collaboration with Vestoj – the Platform for Critical Thinking on Fashion. Through an ongoing exchange of articles about recent fashion developments we will aim to delve deeper into the state of fashion and the fashion media today. In our first exchange we share reactions to a major piece published in T-Magazine of the New York Times. Stay tuned for the response from Vestoj to the article below.
WHAT REVOLUTION? T-MAGAZINE, GUCCI, AND VETEMENTS.
by Eugene Rabkin
Back in December 2015 I wrote an op-ed calling out the fashion media hype that has propelled Gucci and Vetements to the forefront of fashion’s consciousness. In some twist of irony that I will not get into, two weeks ago the New York Times’s T-magazine published a conversation between none other than Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia. It was the cover story of the magazine’s culture issue, titled “The Age of Influence.” The article’s author and the dialogue’s mediator was Alexander Fury, one of the most highly regarded fashion journalists working today.
It is no secret that Fury is a vocal champion of Michele’s and Gvasalia’s work. Here, the cheerleading continued from the title of the article and on down. “Fashion’s Revolutionary Couple,” proclaimed the cover’s subtitle. “These two guys are changing how we think about fashion,” trumpeted the title page inside. Upon close reading of the article, however, do these claims actually hold up?
In his writing Fury has shown an uncommon and commendable willingness to be critical of the fashion industry. And he starts out in the same promising vein. “Rules in fashion are made by the industry: the editors, the designers, the corporations who fund the whole thing,” Fury writes. Yes, they do, and to implicate his own profession in maintaining the status quo is a bold move. What are the rules? you might ask. And that’s when Fury leaves you hanging, because he gives no definitive answer. Such vagueness is the beginning of this long, frustrating ride of an article. Without defining what the rules are, his next question, “But what if the rules are broken?” rings hollow. And when a question is hollow, the answer can be pretty much anything. To his credit, Fury goes on to mention a couple, like the tyranny of the total look and seasonality, but it would have been better if he was clear at the outset.
Fury acknowledges that Michele’s Gucci and Gvasalia’s Vetements make an odd couple. Indeed, they do. Gucci is part of Kering, the second biggest luxury conglomerate after LVMH. Hence any kind of mention of a “revolution” here should be viewed as suspect. In my December article I wrote that I failed to see what is so revolutionary about Gucci. Revolution implies a sense of novelty, but Gucci under Michele seems dispiritingly retro. One hardly needs to go further than the aesthetic of its advertisements, which smack of 70s disco. I suspect that Kering’s marketing and PR muscle is more responsible for Michele’s success than his actual work. After all, why Gucci and not say, Valentino, where Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli produce fresh, awe-inspiring work season after season? Could it be because they don’t fly editors to New York and put them up in fancy hotels for pre-collection shows?
“Revolutionary” can also be hardly said of Vetements, which began as a brand treading the ground broken long ago by Martin Margiela, which Gvasalia freely admits. The brand went on to concentrate on logo appropriation and reworked streetwear. Gvasalia’s work is quirky, but its success could be easily attributed to media hype, Kanye West, and street-style photographers.
In his introduction, Fury goes on to say that even though aesthetically Gucci and Vetements are miles apart, their appeal is that “Rather than a tub-thumping, dictated silhouette, both Gvasalia and Michele propose individual, individualist items, designed to stand by themselves,” and he goes on to criticize the “total look” fashion. Ironically, the fashion shoot that accompanies the article featured only total looks from both labels (and Balenciaga, also helmed by Gvasalia), though this is probably the fault of the editor not coordinating between the photographer and the author.
Right before, Fury quotes Michele who, pointing at a Gucci menswear rack, says, “Make it yours.” Well, thanks, but that’s exactly what any wearer with a modicum of autonomy had always done, without a designer’s encouragement, and is a statement that has little to do with Michele’s actual designs. If anything, Gucci today is as aesthetically coherent as any brand out there.
“Their clothes also don’t change much from season to season, which is breaking another rule: that of perpetual change…” Fury writes. Revolutionary? Hardly. See, Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, and Rick Owens, just to name a few.
Fury’s cheerleading continues when he says that through their designs Michele and Gvasalia surrender control to the wearer and that “the individualistic look rather than the one dictated by a fashion designer or a fashion magazine – is at the root of their success.” It’s an astute observation about the way fashion’s influence is changing, but it is far from being limited to Gucci and Vetements. Besides, the notion of consumer autonomy is vastly exaggerated. Yes, fashion magazines and designers no longer directly dictate what consumers wear – they do it through carefully cultivated relationship with celebrities and Instagram stars. All roads still lead to Rome, only they are paved differently.
What of the dialogue between Michele and Gvasalia itself? It was done in haste, hours after the Balenciaga show and before Michele had to get on a plane, and it shows. It was filled with platitudes, such as Michele’s “But ugly is beauty. No?” and Gvasalia’s “Beauty is in everything, if you look for it. I mean it’s too easy to say something is classically beautiful.” A statement that might have been revolutionary in 1916, but not in 2016.
Other pronouncements on these designers seemed simply like wishful thinking, a pre-conceived reality to fit their own narrative. To wit, from Michele, “… we don’t have a ready-to-wear story.” Really? Because, I seem to recall a man named Tom Ford whose ready-to-wear story for Gucci was the definitive one not that long ago. Then, “Reality is a huge piece of our work.” How, when those aforementioned Gucci ads are selling some over-embellished retro disco fantasy?
“I think that fashion, for a long time, has been in prison,” Michele goes on. “Without freedom. I think that without freedom, with rules, it’s impossible to create a new story.” An astute observation, indeed. One can only hope that Michele understands the irony of his situation as much as his employers at Kering do.
Next comes a contradiction in views, when Michele and Gvasalia talk about creating fashion tribes, which goes against the individuality and autonomy argument that Fury proposes several paragraphs up. “And the most important thing now is also to give a real attitude to fashion. Because people want you to suggest the idea that you can really put together and create a personal point of view,” Michele says. Again, it’s an admirable sentiment, but by now, at least for this reader, the cognitive dissonance has already set in.
“There’s also that idea that sometimes someone wears it who maybe… doesn’t have the right attitude,” Fury notes. A risky, if accurate, statement to make in a postmodern, politically correct world. “But it makes her have it,” Gvasalia jumps in. Does it though? When I see rich women on Madison Avenue shopping in their Rick Owens biker jackets that they usually pair with a Chanel bag and a pair of Tory Burch riding boots, they look exactly like rich women shopping on Madison Avenue. I don’t see the change in their attitude just because they have donned a garment from a designer whose hard-hitting esthetic is rooted in drag queens, goths, and other outsider cultures. If anything, I see the garment itself lose whatever attitude its creator intended. And when I see people in Vetements, increasingly they look more like fashion victims than anything else, self-conscious and uncertain.
The most honest statement comes at the end of this tortured dialogue. “I do things that I love,” says Michele. Perhaps that’s what it all comes down to, and we can dispense with all the silly talk of fashion revolution.