Fashion’s “new” problem? Moving the needle forward in the age of infinite reference

Is fashion suffering a crisis of originality? We can’t seem to stop talking about who’s stealing from whom but appropriation is a thoroughly old-fashioned practice—the internet has just made it easier to track.

“You are nobody in this business unless you are copied.”

So said the late John Fairchild, who, in the 1960s, transformed his family’s trade journal, Women’s Wear Daily, into fashion’s bible. The industry titan was speaking to veteran fashion journalist and former Vogue Hommes International editor-in-chief Richard Buckley, who recalls, “When I worked in Fairchild’s Paris office, I would hear him on the phone with a select few New York designers, discreetly telling them the direction they should be taking based on the Paris shows. In those days, the New York collections came after the European shows, so it was easier to ‘improve on’ ideas put forth on foreign shores.”

Even before the days of Fairchild, at the dawn of modern fashion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, copying was king, with American buyers and European counterfeiters sending sketchers to Paris in order to reproduce coveted couture. Though American stores sometimes sought permission to copy the Parisian styles, this reproduction was frequently unauthorized. Some designers, such as Madeleine Vionnet, went to great lengths to deter copying. (Vionnet, who popularized the bias cut, went so far as to stamp her thumbprint on her garment labels to signify authenticity.) But other powerhouses, including Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, generally accepted it. “Being copied,” Chanel acknowledged, “is the ransom of success.”

At the end of the 19th century, economist Thorstein Veblen argued in The Theory of the Leisure Class that copying is essential to the nature of fashion. By a kind of Darwinian evolution, styles change ever so slightly, thus pushing last season’s looks out of favor and convincing those who consider themselves tastemakers that they must buy the latest wares. But as the fashion industry has become more and more of a money-making machine, the concept of newness has been blown up, distorted, and co-opted as a marketing tool. Consumers, editors, and executives are seemingly obsessed with the idea. Misused and misunderstood, “new” is now an imperative that too often substitutes for “good.” Similarly, “copying” is often used to signify “referencing” (despite the fact that the latter, in other art forms, is practically a prerequisite for critical acceptance). As a result, a considered evolution of a design is commonly interpreted as a knockoff, and its supposed lack of newness is deemed inherently bad.

“Instagrammers and industry insiders alike can’t seem to stop talking about who’s stealing from whom—and fretting about whether fashion is lately suffering a crisis of originality.”

Copying is hardly a fashion-specific phenomenon. “Good artists copy. Great artists steal,” said Pablo Picasso. Or maybe Igor Stravinsky. Or William Faulkner. Or Alfred, Lord Tennyson or T.S. Eliot or possibly Steve Jobs. On this point, the internet remains stubbornly inconclusive. Whoever the original speaker, the truth of the observation is unassailable: Celebrated creatives of all kinds have been plagiarizing for centuries. “We are all the heirs of millions of scribes who have already written down all that is essential a long time before us,” argued Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. “We are all copyists, and all the stories we invent have already been told. There are no longer any original ideas.”

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1597, was not based on an original idea. The prose may have been his, but the story came from Arthur Brooke’s 1562 narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which itself may have been a translation of a pre-existing French or Italian text. Picasso’s Proto-Cubist paintings bear an unmistakable resemblance to traditional African masks. More recently, Bob Dylan lifted lines and melodies from myriad sources, including Civil War–era poet Henry Timrod. The list goes on.

In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp interrogated the relationship between originality and art when he introduced his “Readymades.” “Man can never expect to start from scratch,” he said. “He must start from readymade things.” Decades later, his philosophical heir, artist Elaine Sturtevant, took his argument a step further by reproducing seminal works by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. “Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine,” Sturtevant advocated. “That’s the way to go.”

One could reason that an art form reaches maturity when it becomes as much about reference and reinterpretation as about newness. Consider the samples (and samples of samples) that have reigned in popular music since the ’80s, or the fact that a writer is hailed as “literary” when he acknowledges and engages with the authors who came before him. This makes the fashion industry’s obsession with the decidedly enigmatic concept of “newness” all the more curious. While top corporate brass demand new collections, products, and ideas at a rapid-fire pace, observers cry foul, which in recent seasons has escalated the boisterous debate about fashion’s creativity and the lack thereof.

Witness the rise of @diet_prada, an Instagram account run by Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler dedicated to tracking “ppl knocking each other off” by displaying new runway looks side by side with their designers’ alleged source material. And in the less public but equally cutting forum known as the front row, editors are whispering about whose latest collection is “just old Helmut Lang” or “totally ’90s Raf Simons.” Instagrammers and industry insiders alike can’t seem to stop talking about who’s stealing from whom—and fretting over whether fashion is suffering a crisis of originality.

Fashion’s “new” problem? Moving the needle forward in the age of infinite reference

Maison Martin Margiela, F/W 2012 Couture.

To those who believe it is, the supposed crisis is framed as a uniquely contemporary phenomenon, stemming from uniquely contemporary conditions in the fashion industry. Among those conditions most frequently cited by critics are the ease of online research, whereby decades of designs can be conjured in an instant via Google Images; the reporting structure and workflow of many design studios, in which armies of interns and assistants pull visual references of murky provenance for their bosses to consider; the commercial imperative to churn out upwards of six collections per year in order to compete with fast-fashion retailers, which can reproduce runway trends in a matter of weeks and at a fraction of the cost; and the executive mandate to design bestselling “merch” and accessories in order to generate continuous revenue for shareholders.

Assuredly, when it comes to originality, today’s designers face a modern set of challenges. Appropriation, however, is a thoroughly old-fashioned practice—and the internet has just made it easier to track.

Copyright commentators like @diet_prada demand newness, but this construct, as it pertains to fashion, is a slippery fish.“‘New’ in fashion is something that happens in the flash of an eye,” offers Buckley. “It is something that intuitively and instantly feels and looks fresh…Paul Poiret, for example, took the corset out of women’s clothing. Coco Chanel radically changed the silhouette and formality of dressing. Christian Dior with the New Look, André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin’s futuristic silhouettes in the 1960s, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, and countless others have changed the conversation and moved things along.”

The operative word in Buckley’s explanation is “feels,” because even the visionary designers he names weren’t inventing strictly new aesthetics, despite the widespread perception of their originality. For instance, Dior’s 1947 New Look was a modernized return to extravagant, corseted, Belle Époque femininity. “It looked back to the pre-1914 styles, which were appearing again in 1938 to 1939, and which the outbreak of WWII put on ice,” said Dr. Valerie Steele, a fashion scholar and the director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, in New York. Dior was also inspired by the wartime panache of the Zazous, whose sartorial opulence represented a rebellion against Philippe Pétain’s regime and who themselves took cues from American zoot and Pachuco styles.

“What’s the point of hiring a visionary designer if his ideas will be watered down or, worse, steamrolled to make way for hype-friendly sweatshirts and sneakers?”

“Yves Saint Laurent is credited for introducing Le Smoking, a men’s tuxedo for women, in 1966,” adds Buckley. “I have always thought Saint Laurent’s inspiration for Le Smoking came from Marlene Dietrich, who wore one in the 1930 film Morocco.”

And Poiret, widely considered the godfather of modern fashion, also employed pastiche, borrowing from traditional Chinese garb and century-old styles. “[Poiret] was doing research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, looking at their Asian costumes and textiles,” says Steele. “A lot of his neoclassical things are almost exactly like things from the classical period of the French Revolution, to the point where caricaturists would show [them side by side], and they’d be like twins.” (@diet_prada, take note.)

In one sense, the current cry for newness is not just misplaced, it’s hypocritical. Not only is reference responsible for many of fashion’s most lauded achievements, but today’s shopping habits seldom reflect an appreciation for ingenuity.

“The world is dressing the same,” lamented Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director of womenswear at Louis Vuitton, in a May 2018 interview with The New York Times.

That sameness is hardly an accident. Glenn Martens, the ANDAM Award–winning designer behind Y/Project, blames social media for the homogeneity: “I can [find] somebody who has been living on an island somewhere in the Pacific for the last 30 years, give him two weeks on Instagram, and he will know exactly what to wear to [achieve] a certain coolness.”

Sarah Richardson, fashion director of Document, concurs. “Social media and bloggers have given way to the misconceived idea that everyone has style and is style counsel. Democracy is a wonderful idea, but within fashion, it can create mediocrity and neutral dressing.”

And if everyone is dressing the same, then it stands to reason that wildly original designs aren’t driving revenue. “New” may be fun to talk about, but for fashion executives, it represents an untenable financial risk. “Everyone wants the next new thing, up to a point,” says Buckley. “I think real creators, like artists, strive to make something new. But it is hard to do ‘new’ when it doesn’t sell. I remember, when I first started my career in the late ’70s, I would see photos from the runways of the Paris collections, and most of those ‘directional’ clothes never made it into stores. Only the ‘safe,’ salable pieces did. Where is the innovation in that?”

Today, designers are still pressured by executives to reintroduce old styles that have sold well or to make something that resembles another brand’s popular product. Granted, fashion is a business, and designers don’t have the same freedom as artists, but in order for creativity and originality to thrive, these executives need to take risks. After all, what’s the point of hiring a visionary designer if his ideas will be watered down or, worse, steamrolled to make way for hype-friendly sweatshirts and sneakers?

Commercial considerations aside, some critics insist that it’s not just rare for designers to come up with new concepts—at this point, it’s impossible. “There are only so many ideas out there,” says Buckley. “And they keep circulating. The longer a designer stays in the business, the quicker the trend rotation comes around.”

“‘Margiela is a school,’ says Martens. ‘He’s somebody who created a way of thinking, and the kids in my generation who grew up in the Margiela era will always relate to that.’”

Steele thinks of things less in terms of a circle or cycle and more in terms of an arc—specifically, that of a pendulum. She cites the recent, meteoric rise of designer Alessandro Michele as a case in point. After being appointed creative director of Gucci in 2015, Michele charted a new course for the house, proffering collections that exploded with eccentricity and quirk. Michele’s Gucci, says Steele, “was new in the context of what was happening. We’d been in the midst of several years of minimalism, dominated by Phoebe Philo at Céline, and [Michele] did maximalism with a vengeance. Have we had maximalism before? Of course we have. But fashion is all about a pendulum effect. Skirts get shorter and shorter until they can’t get any shorter, unless you’re willing to show off your underpants. Then they get long again.”

Craig Green, a Central Saint Martins graduate who is widely considered one of today’s most exciting young menswear talents, generally agrees that there are few, if any, new ideas in fashion. “But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to push things further,” he argues. In designing his collections, which are rooted in traditional workwear, Green leans heavily on fabric innovation and process. For Spring 2019, he proposed what he calls “vibrating florals,” which comprise three layers of fabric (Lycra, nylon organza, and power mesh) printed with flowers. The layers are set off the axis from one another for a three-dimensional effect. “I find a lot of newness can come through fabrication,” he says.

However, even one of fashion’s most inventive and esteemed fabricators, the late couturier Azzedine Alaïa, was skeptical about the state of originality in modern fashion. “We appropriate,” he explained to The Independent in 2008, describing the modus operandi of his fellow designers. “We do some vintage. [But] individual vision no longer exists. The last one [with vision] is Margiela.”

Today, perhaps no designer is as revered—and, as many critics contend, ripped off—by young talents as Martin Margiela, whose cerebral, deconstructed designs were born out of the unorthodox approach to beauty typified by Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. “Margiela is a school,” says Martens. “He’s somebody who created a way of thinking, and the kids in my generation who grew up in the Margiela era will always relate to that. I started thinking differently about clothes thanks to Margiela’s work.”

Fashion’s “new” problem? Moving the needle forward in the age of infinite reference

Vetements, F/W 2018 RTW.

It bears mentioning that Margiela, who quietly left his label in 2009, acknowledged looking to the past for ideas. For his Spring 1991 collection, the Belgian designer purchased several 1950s ball gowns from a flea market, cut them up, and sent them down the runway with jeans. Quite literally, he was showing old clothes. “At the time… people were horrified and talked about our lack of respect for old garments,” Margiela told Interview in 2008. “It was all about giving a new life to old and abandoned pieces so they could be worn again in a different way.”

It’s ironic, then, that several of today’s most celebrated young designers have been deemed “unoriginal” by some editors and Instagrammers for riffing on Margiela. Before founding the brand Vetements in 2014 and being appointed artistic director of Balenciaga in 2015, Demna Gvasalia was a designer at Maison Martin Margiela beginning in 2009. In response to those who pointed out his frequent Margiela references, Gvasalia brought his influence front and center, dedicating his Fall 2018 Vetements outing, The Elephant in the Room, to Margiela. He went so far as to send Margiela’s most famous shoe design, the split-toed Tabi, down the runway. (It should be noted that the original Margiela Tabi boots, unveiled in 1989, riffed on Japanese Tabi socks, which date back to the 15th century.)

“Last season, it was [about] going back to understand my creative roots,” Gvasalia said of the Elephant in the Room collection, in a conversation with the press following his Spring/Summer 2019 show. (During the interview, he wore a t-shirt with a target print and a bullet hole—make of that what you will.) “That’s why there was an elephant in the room. [I was] questioning my creativity and where I actually learned it.”

Similarly, Virgil Abloh, who launched the label Off-White in 2013 and earlier this year was appointed artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, has been compared to his fashion heroes. To be sure, he samples his influences—among them, Margiela, Helmut Lang, and Raf Simons—the same way that he mixes music tracks on his turntables. (In addition to being a designer, Abloh, who studied architecture and engineering and began his fashion career as Kanye West’s creative director, is an internationally acclaimed DJ.) But Abloh has never claimed ownership of the ideas of Margiela, Lang, or Simons, a fact he subtly referenced in titling his Fall 2017 Off-White show Nothing New. Rather, he weaves their diverse fashion codes together in a manner that educates his young fan base and reinserts his idols into the contemporary consciousness.

In his 1973 book, The Anxiety of Influence, literary critic Harold Bloom proposed that a poet must fight to escape his predecessor, effectively undertaking a Freudian creative struggle in which he must defeat his literary father. In so doing, the successor poet lends significance to his predecessor’s work, rather than the other way around. One interpretation of Bloom’s theory is that the young poet, indebted to his predecessor’s work, builds upon that work, thus ensuring its continued relevance even as the young poet develops his own, distinctive voice.

By this logic, young designers like Gvasalia and Abloh are reinforcing Margiela’s legacy, introducing his work to a new generation of design enthusiasts, even as they develop their own voices and move the fashion needle forward.

“‘The speed is too much,’ says Meier. ‘For us, a “new” approach feels like making the right thing, the really great, high-quality thing that you stop and actually appreciate.’”

In an article about the recent Margiela retrospective at Paris’ Palais Galliera, curator Alexandre Samson, who worked with the designer on the show, told The New York Times that Margiela is “quite sad about how it is…. He said he couldn’t have been Martin Margiela if he had to create that.” By “that,” he was referring to today’s hyper-commercial, warp-speed model of designing.

Steele shares his concern. “It would help to slow things down a little so people could think through what they’re designing and [not be] scrambling to put the next collection together.”

Slowing down has been Luke and Lucie Meier’s approach at Jil Sander since taking the brand’s reins last year. “What feels new to us is ‘less, but better,’” says Lucie. “Over the last five to ten years, people have been overwhelmed with a [massive] amount of things,” Luke adds. “The speed is too much. So, for us, a ‘new’ approach feels like making the right thing, the really great, high-quality thing, something that you stop and actually appreciate.

“The ultimate luxury is time and consideration,” he continues. “We’ve lost the plot a little bit. Total speed doesn’t feel modern anymore.”

The Meiers, whose poignant, critically acclaimed Jil Sander collections have moved editors and buyers to tears on more than one occasion, stressed the importance of having passion and a personal connection to what they do. Those elements, they assert, are vital to powerful design.

Their approach recalls that of the late Alexander McQueen, who aimed to inspire emotional reactions to his work. “I don’t want to do a show that you walk out [of] feeling like you’ve just had Sunday lunch,” he said in an interview featured in the 2018 documentary McQueen. 210 “I want you to walk out either feeling repulsed or exhilarated…. If you leave without emotion, then I’m not doing my job properly.”

“You should feel something when you look at a collection,” says Martens. “It should have a soul. And the soul is something you can never copy.”

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