(12) Haute Couture & Fashion
Teri Agins’ significant 1999 book The End of Fashion described what she saw as the industry’s shift from fashion to clothing in the late 20th century. She argued that French couture had been slow to realize the need to focus on wearable classics at affordable prices, and was surviving on its franchises, in particular its worldwide perfume sales. At the same time, big European corporations had realized that American designers such as Michael Kors at Celine could bring in more sales for their stable of brands than the more dramatic British designers such as John Galliano at Dior. Agins outlined designers’ focus on innovation in marketing rather than fashion design. Concomitant with this was the public’s exhaustion with fashion, and increased interest in high-street chains including Gap and Banana Republic, which were reliable for wardrobe staples, as well as occasionally setting fashions. Agins’ argument was convincing, and came at the end of a decade that had seen international recession and market crashes in the Far East. As she noted, since minimalist designs had been fashionable, pared-down dressing was itself part of a trend away from elaborate fashions.
So, did fashion end in the 1990s? Was this the triumph of clothing? Agins certainly showed an important trend in the international market. However, what is perhaps most interesting is that it was a trend. As she said herself, minimalism was a fashion at the time and thus its presence at all levels of the market was it part of this fashion. It is important to note that other trends were also apparent. Young designers such as Alexander McQueen began successful careers in the early 1990s, and built labels predicated not just on franchising but on innovation in design. Significantly, the mid-1990s, the moment Agins identified as the turning point away from fashion-led clothing, was also the stage when a growth in interest in craft skills and detail began to emerge in designers including Matthew Williamson’s work. Perhaps what Agins identified was not the end of fashion, but rather an example of its flexible and constantly mutating form. As cultural, social, and economic contexts change, so too do designers’ inspirations, and consumers’ needs and, more importantly, desires.
Certainly, there was a major trend towards work wear-inspired fashions at street and high fashion levels, which encompassed everything from cargo pants to grunge, and stark, intellectual minimalism from designers such as Jil Sander. However, it is important to remember that various fashions exist simultaneously; there was also a revival of goth fashions, and dark and fetishistic styles in high fashion. Alongside this were Williamson’s fruit coloured fashions, which brought luxury details and vibrant prints back into focus. While America still favoured Gap, in Europe it declined its loose fit and anonymous style unable to compete with the rise of Top shop in Britain and Kookai in France, for example, as fashionable and exciting alternatives. Agins therefore wrote of a tipping point in American-focused fashion and clothing tastes and lifestyle, just as alternatives to this vision were beginning to take hold of the public’s imagination. She was therefore right to identify the importance of this moment in fashion history, but fashion’s apparent demise was actually the moment before its revival as a driving force from high street to couture level.
What Agins’ work did was remind us of fashion’s inherent ability to absorb outside influences, and to reinvent itself in line with, and sometimes even in anticipation of, new lifestyles and tastes. By the early 21st century, clothing was still an important part of the market, as it always had been, and, as Agins stated, wardrobe classics were as needed as ever. However, new couturiers, such as Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga, Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent, and Christoph Decarnin at Balmain, caused international excitement about French fashion once again.
Even if most could only aspire to buy their iconic handbags, their seasonal style statements were quickly seen in high-street chains. Younger designers in America still drew upon the country’s history for leadership in sportswear, but names including Proenza Schouler and Rodarte translated these styles into luxurious forms, decorated with couture-inspired detailing. In London, new designers such as Todd Lynn, Louise Goldin, and Christopher Kane showed a revived interest in fine tailoring, inventive and colourful knitwear, and seasonally changing silhouettes, respectively.
Other cities across the globe were equally keen to tap into fashion as an exciting visual and material form. This was perhaps most clearly seen in India, China, South America, and the Pacific Rim where fashion weeks began to promote indigenous designers and seek new national and international names. In China, investments in production capacities were superseded by interest in design education and promotional trades, in order to build towards a strong fashion design profile for the future. In India and Russia, rising middle and upper-middle classes meant that a new cadre of people were keen to express their status and taste through clothing.
New fashion magazines sprang up, both national editions of fashion staples such as Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire, but also new titles that were inspired by local styles. At street level, fashion was ever more evident, catalogued on websites such as http://www.thesartorialist.com , as well as sites that focused on the style of people in particular cities, from Stockholm to Sydney. These demonstrated fashion’s continued ability to express individuality in permutations of existing fashions and emerging youth fashions. Sub cultural fashion was equally vibrant, including reinventions of 1980s goth styles that spread internationally, and the allied teenage emo fashions. Club fashions were increasingly flamboyant, and referenced 1980s New Romanticism and Rave. As ever, fashion drew on its own history in order to move forward. It cross-referenced its past, and brought together new configurations of style. Thus, Christopher Kane was inspired by Azzedine Alaia’s 1980s figure-hugging dresses and Versace’s early 1990s vibrancy, but produced fashions that were new and fresh. New Rave reinvented its predecessor’s neon colours and oversized slogan T-shirts. In each case, the new century saw an interest in volume and colour, which had been missing in much 1990s fashion.
The early 21st century also witnessed a growing number of ethically inspired labels and websites, which focused on fashion’s impact on the planet as well as concern about workers’ rights. This represented an important response to reports of exploitation in factories from Mexico to India, where garments were made for big Western brands. Fashion’s need to address its production methods was a significant shift. While there had been calls for this since the mid-19th century, responses had been intermittent. It remains to be seen whether this boom in ethical fashion can infiltrate the industry as a whole and make permanent, far-reaching changes to the way textiles are made and clothing produced. It is to be hoped that this is a long-term trend, and not just a brief fashion.
Fashion had simultaneously grown as a subject of academic study, with increasing numbers of books and journals produced to examine its nature, status, and meaning. International museums presented fashion exhibitions to great acclaim and enormous fashion interest. At the other end of the market, the rise of celebrity culture spread fashions more quickly than even Hollywood had in its heyday. Cumulatively, these varied aspects of social, cultural, and political lifestyles and attitudes connected to the birth and dissemination of fashion, and its increasingly globalized character.
Fashion had not ended, therefore, but it had altered, and it was, potentially, on the brink of another major shift. As non-Western fashion systems grew in confidence, and recession set in, power could potentially shift towards the East. While it is unlikely that the Western fashion industry, which has evolved since the Renaissance, will be subsumed, it will have to adapt quickly to respond effectively to the global challenge.