“Fashion brands are like toothpaste brands now,” the fashion journalist Lauren Sherman told me in a recent conversation on our podcast. I understood what she meant even before she launched into a car market analogy, that many brands today offer similar products, with the logo being the primary differentiator. What the luxury consumer has to decide today is not what garment to buy, but what brand to buy into, because their wares are increasingly interchangeable.
The result of such a milieu looks quite dismal, a parade of homogeneity, with a logo serving as the primary differentiator. And while women still have a wider choice when it comes to fashion, the menswear landscape looks increasingly monocultural – same sartorial archetypes with a slight twist here and there. Whenever a brand delivers a hit product, such as the Bottega Veneta Lug chelsea boot, similar versions quickly pop up not just in the mass market, but at other luxury brands. And whenever the market decides that something, say a bomber jacket, is trendy, luxury brands rush in to cash in.
This is a far cry from what fashion used to be – and here it’s important to note that by fashion here I mean designer fashion, and not fast fashion or mass-market apparel; nor do I mean style, which is how one puts clothes together to create a look. Up until two decades ago, fashion was full of unique voices that allowed their fans to align themselves with a certain sensibility. Whether you were a Yohji Yamamoto person, or a Helmut Lang person, or a Martin Margiela person, you signed onto an aesthetic universe underpinned by a wider cultural ethos. These designers’ clothes meant something, a combination of fabric and construction gave life to something bigger than its parts. By wearing their clothes one signaled not only a certain level of sophistication, but also a certain level of cultural knowledge.
“Fashion” and “luxury” have been interchangeable for a long time because we have accepted that the high prices demanded by fashion brands have two components – creativity and quality. Designers like Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier may have been breathtakingly creative enfants terribles hell-bent on upending the status quo, but their technical roots were firmly implanted in Parisian haute couture tradition.
In the past two decades however, creativity and quality have been increasingly driven apart. Despite the spectacle of big budget productions, the actual runway offerings of many luxury brands rarely hit the stores or are watered down when they do. What creative directors of major luxury houses produce is often dictated by the demands of merchandisers who are in charge of increasing sales by giving people what they want, instead of doing what fashion used to do, giving them what they don’t know they want yet. In a recent meeting celebrating LVMH’s 2022 financial results, Bernard Arnault said, “Our record year is the consequence of the exceptional work by teams of artisans, boutique managers, executives and creators.” That creators were last on that list is telling.
Conversely, many fashion designers working today no longer deem quality necessary. For many younger brands aesthetics are far more important than quality. And even though quality has decreased across the board, it is particularly egregious for those young, hip fashion brands. Part of it may have to do with high prices for premium fabric and manufacturing. But another part is that these designers have already grown up in a world in which quality has been consistently decreasing in order to satisfy the constant demand for bigger profit margins. Couple this with the rise of the type of the creative director who has never had a formal education in garment-making nor went through a rigorous apprenticeship, and such an attitude becomes unsurprising.
In fashion, there are still designers, such as Rick Owens, Rei Kawakubo, and Craig Green, with strong, unique voices, which is what fashion needs in order to continue being an exciting and vital cultural discipline that gets people interested in it. The crucial difference between the aforementioned designers is that, unlike the luxury brands, they do not try to be all things to all people. Luxury, while still championing quality and longevity, has done exactly that by largely taking design out of the equation.
At this point the continuous commingling of fashion and luxury seems to be a disservice to both. Luxury that wants to be called fashion makes fashion look unexciting, and fashion that produces products with subpar quality devalues luxury. Few brands still do both. Perhaps it’s time to separate fashion and luxury in our minds and start calling each by its proper name.