Observing the changes in the art scene in the early 1970s, the great art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, “The artist today is primarily a maker not of objects but of a public image of himself.” The model for this new attitude was Andy Warhol, who spent more time cultivating his persona than making art, which quickly stagnated after his overwhelming success in the ‘60s.
Fast-forward fifty years and we are witnessing the same state of affairs in fashion. For plenty of creative directors of major houses their own image trumps their creative output. At the same time, there exists a tug of war between the primacy of the brand and that of its creative director.
This is, obviously, not to say that there is no fashion being produced — there is more of it than ever. It’s just that by and large it has become rather unmemorable – familiar garment archetypes with logos on them – eclipsed either by the personas of its creators or by the brand image. The winning formula for today’s successful creative director of a major brand is something like persona + merch = fashion; designer as celebrity pushing unremarkable product. Fashion design, as such, has taken a back seat to public image as a marketing device.
To see how this works, ask yourself what you remember about Marc Jacobs off the top of your head. Chances are your mind will wander to his 1992 Perry Ellis “grunge” collection that brought him a certain level of notoriety, or his last all-black show for Louis Vuitton. You will probably remember the Juergen Teller campaigns and Jacobs’s own newly-minted svelte body circa 2010 advertising his fragrance, aptly named Bang. And you will probably struggle to remember an outstanding show he has done for his eponymous line. That work is largely a blur, despite it being the hottest ticket in New York for over two decades. And while it is true that at Louis Vuitton Jacobs has created some ground-shifting moments, namely his radical work with the artist Stephen Sprouse, and much less radical work with Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami, your mind will probably wander to the bags and not the clothes. And yet as a personality, Jacobs looms large to this day, with plenty of selfies to satisfy his 1.7m Instagram followers.
You certainly know who Tom Ford is, and you can easily call to mind his suave, sunglassed visage, and his impeccable suits with a white handkerchief protruding just so. You will recall how he sexed up Gucci in the late ‘90s, something about “heroin chic,” but you will also probably struggle to remember a memorable show of Tom Ford under his namesake brand.
There is an indisputable aura about Hedi Slimane the designer, even though he has been making virtually the same collection of standard issue indie rock gear over and over again at Celine, interchangeable with those he turned out at Saint-Laurent. Virgil Abloh has held sway over not just fashion but contemporary culture for years before his passing, and even though he seems to have designed everything under the sun, one can hardly remember a signature style or a memorable Off-White show.
The granddaddy of the larger than life creative director is, of course, Karl Lagerfeld. For decades his persona has loomed large not just over fashion, but over popular culture, and it is worth stressing that it is rare that an average person outside of fashion would recognize a fashion designer. And yet, as far as Chanel clothes go, his collections were largely fungible, a vague, unmemorable amalgam of what passes for Parisian haute bourgeois uniform in foreigners’ minds.
This is not to say that the designers above are not talented. But what we mostly recall when we think about them, besides their personas, are certain items and not the shows or a unique aesthetic contribution that has moved fashion forward. At Chanel, the tweed suits and the quilted bags, at Off-White, quotation marks, at Marc Jacobs, the Sex and the City-era ballet flats with mouse faces, at Tom Ford… well, I’m actually not sure. By contrast, collections and aesthetic contributions to fashion by the likes of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Thierry Mugler, Martin Margiela, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto, just to name a few, are embedded into our consciousness.
To be clear, today’s luxury brands don’t want larger than life personalities to head their houses — just the images of such. The last grandiose, untouchable fashion designer was Lagerfeld. After his passing, we have largely been left with pliant company men. Those creative designers who still labor under illusions of grandeur are quickly reminded that the only formula that supersedes the one outlined above is brand + merch = fashion and unceremoniously shown the door. The latest victim of such a practice was Alessandro Michele. Yes, he was ostensibly let go because Gucci’s sales were flagging, but let’s not forget that he had increased its sales by multiples. What is clear, however, is that Michele’s personality was fusing with the Gucci brand, which may have made the management too uncomfortable. “When a designer such as Alessandro Michele becomes too present for a brand – and customers start developing an emotional attachment towards that designer – it actually threatens the shareholders and management who in the end do not want a house to depend too much on a single individual,” says fashion critic Philippe Pourhashemi.
This tug of war between the brands and the creative directors is a result of a parasitic relationship that we can see playing out across the board. Some brands promote creative directors from within ranks. Happy with their newfound roles, visibility, and salary increases, the newly appointed creative directors like Virginie Viard at Chanel and Sarah Burton at McQueen gladly stick to the brief of letting the brand triumph over the director.
Other houses, like Givenchy, still want creative directors who, like actors and musicians, in the age of mass media can project a certain image (and faithfully cultivate their Instagram accounts) to keep the sales going. The well-oiled marketing departments do the rest, though the record of their success is mixed as evidenced by Matthew Williams’s struggle to lift the house off the ground. His failure may be sending a strong signal to large houses that perhaps hype alone does not necessarily translate into commercial success.
To underscore his artwork-devaluing view, Warhol called his studio “The Factory,” implying that the stuff he churned out was akin to that of industry and that it was his brand that made it valuable. With the omnipresent logomania and the avalanche of collaborations that consist of not much more than slapping two logos together, it feels like something similar is happening in fashion today. It all seems designed to hide a lack of design. What the art world witnessed after Warhol, what with his — admittedly prophetic — quips such as “Good business is the best art,” and “Everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” was that in the age of mass media fame trumped art itself. What came after Warhol was the era of post-art. This proved to be great for commerce, but not great for art as art — just witness the sophomoric stuff turned out by the likes of Jeff Koonz and Damien Hirst, which only looks good next to that of the hypebeast favorites like Kaws and Daniel Arsham.
Something similar is happening with fashion today. And perhaps mediocrity is good for sales — it does not require much thought or effort on the part of an average consumer. Of course the danger is that people will eventually get bored of the whole thing, as witnessed today by the scores of young people who prefer thrifting to fashion. Whether such an attitude will come to pass is anyone’s guess. In any case, welcome to the world of post-fashion.