A generation ago, the fashion industry revered experience. It celebrated its great maestros of design, those men and women whose clothes reflected their decades of learning in the atelier and who possessed rich wisdom gleaned from countless conversations with clients. It meant something that a designer had apprenticed in this house or that one. And in effect, all designers completed an apprenticeshio. That’s the way things worked. Back then.
Everything changed in the early 2000s. It wasn’t simply youth that was exalted; it was youthful inexperience. Fresh-faced cluelessness became all the rage. This seismic shift was centered in New York but it rippled across the Atlantic, where it has shaken even mighty Paris.
In 2002, two bold fashion students at Parsons The New School For Design presented their thesis collection. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez partnered on a line they dubbed Proenza Schouler – a moniker taken from their mothers’ maiden names. It was sportswear, but it had a grown-up, polished attitude with an emphasis on structured, bustier bodices. Notably, the two avoided the usual student clichés of heavy-handed irony, excessive frippery and an overload of angst.
Their clothes caught the eye of Julie Gilhart, who was the fashion director of Barneys New York. She bought the entire collection. A year later, Proenza Schouler was on the runway during New York’s fashion week and an industry-wide feeding frenzy led by Vogue magazine began. The charismatic young designers had good looks, an abundance of talent and a creation story that was impossible to resist. Everyone wanted to write about them. Everyone wanted to stock the collection. And customers, by God, wanted to buy it.
Also in 2002, a 21-year-old curly-haired novice named Zac Posen presented his first solo runway show in New York’s Lower East Side. Thanks to his many fortuitous connections, his front row included Barbara Bush (the former president’s daughter) and Anna Wintour (whose son Charlie was a buddy of the young designer’s). The collection was an ostentatious, unrestrained display of admirable technique.
Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez from Proenza Schouler.
Photo : Peter Lindbergh
Posen had studied at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and his evening gowns were highly structured, with intricate seaming. Posen, who was preternaturally self-confident, took his bows in formal tails.Posen was plugged into fashion’s inner circle; he had a vision; and he had personality to spare. The industry was fascinated.
The next year, when the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave out its award for best new talent in ready-to-wear, Posen and the fellows behind Proenza Schouler were all nominated. Each had barely been in business a year. Proenza Schouler won.
And in that moment, the fashion industry changed. Folks were no long just looking for the next new trend; they were looking for the next new designer. Who would be the next unknown to shock and dismay? There was no shortage of young hopefuls. Soon Kate and Laura Mulleavy arrived on the scene – self-taught designers without a hint of business experience, they brought their Rodarte (named after their maternal grandfather) collection to New York in 2005. Within a week after arriving – with no contacts and no pre-planned appointments – their work had made the cover of Women’s Wear Daily.
None of these designers – and a host of others – would have been noticed if they weren’t talented, but cultural changes and social shifts had created an environment that made them recipients of outsize attention, enthusiasm – hyperbole. It is no coincidence, for example, that so many of them had the chutzpah to hang out a shingle at all.
« And in that moment, the fashion industry changed. Folks were no long just looking for the next new trend; they were looking for the next new designer. »
Hernandez and McCollough studied at Parsons just as Tim Gunn arrived there to oversee the fashion program. Today Gunn is probably best known for his work on the fashion reality television show “Project Runway,” but before that he led a transformation in the way young designers are educated at Parsons.
When Gunn took over the fashion program, the curriculum had not been updated much since the 1950s, when the school focused on “educating designers to be assistants to great brands or work behind a titular designer head,” Gunn told me. Under his guidance, the program began to focus on educating “young, entrepreneurial-thinking designers.” Parsons began giving its students the tools – and, consequently, the nerve – to be business owners.
Hernandez and McCollough were among the first graduates of that revamped program, and the buzz they churned up marked a turning point in the way the industry perceived young designers. Parsons also produced Thakoon Panichgul. And soon enough, another former Parsons student, Jason Wu, gained notoriety as the wunderkind who created first lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 inaugural gown.
The industry is fetishizing inexperience because of its unshakable impatience. We are a culture that demands instant gratification. (We see a dress on the runway; we want it now. Next season feels like a lifetime away.) No one wants to wait around for some promising designer to gain experience. By the time that happens, the bright, young thing seems stale thanks to the constant barrage of social and traditional media that tell us everything we wanted to know – and a lot of things we didn’t – about every new personality.
I suspect our focus on wet-behind-the-ears new is also a backlash to fashion constantly trying to reinvigorate dormant design houses. Fashion’s runway schedules read like a roll call from Fashion History 101. Balenciaga, Dior, Chanel, Lanvin, Rochas, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Saint Laurent, Courrèges, Céline … what other brand can be raised from the (near) dead? Many have tried valiantly to revitalize Halston. Now investors are working on Bill Blass. Will Charles James be next?
For all of the mesmerizing collections that have been shown under those venerable names, there is a longing, I think, for brands that have no established DNA, no codes, no confining expectations. People hunger for names that are not easily found, that seem like a special secret. In an age when consumers are enamored with authenticity, people want to believe that the designer’s hand actually touched their garment. That’s more likely when the designer has a staff of five rather than a staff of 500.
The Jury of the LVMH Prize gathers some of the most influential people in the fashion industry.
Photo : Patrick Demarchelier
The good news is that fashion’s love affair with unproven talent has meant that the industry has worked to support them. New York has its CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund. Milan has “Who Is On Next?” Paris has its LVMH Prize. All of these programs provide crucial financing and mentoring to help inexperienced but talented designers get a foothold and grow their businesses.
The old guard has dominated fashion, and unless room is made for the new, fashion stagnates – no matter how many dazzling young stars are courted with lucrative contracts to come and reinvent some almost-forgotten house. The reinvention always comes with strings attached: a history that has to be honored, an anxious owner who wants an immediate return on investment. An unattached, unspoiled young designer is an irresistible clean slate on which fashion’s future can be written.
The danger, of course, is becoming so focused on the young that we push them too fast. We expect too much, too soon, and when they stumble they are too fragile to recover. We risk becoming even more fickle and impatient than we are. The hot new thing becomes old hat before they’ve even had a chance to build an aesthetic vocabulary. We miss out on a brilliant message because we couldn’t wait for them to find the right words.
We risk losing the richness of wisdom. The late Oscar de la Renta’s work was just as exciting – perhaps even moreexciting – in the twilight of his career than at its dawn. We risk losing a certain truth if we devalue olderdesigners who are best able to relate to customers-of-a-certain age, the women – and men, for that matter – who have the financial means to actually buy those expensive clothes.
Fashion doesn’t exist in a bubble. Like every other industry, it is being pummeled by new technologies, stymied by the millennial generation, exhausted by the relentless pace of change. The fashion industry is being pulled towards the young, daring and untested. Risk seems like a good answer to change. It probably is. But it doesn’t have to be the only one.
This article is an excerpt from the last issue of Antidote Magazine : Now Generation, available at our eshop.
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