There is a tendency, across fashion exhibitions and publishing, to portray the fashion designer as a creative genius. The ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2015, for example, emphasised its demonstration of ‘the extraordinary talent of one of the most innovative designers of recent times.’ Such a depiction positions the designer outside the realities of the fashion system, as a uniquely autonomous figure of otherworldly measure: as god, or king. While this mode of representation may be customary, even habitual, it is deeply misrepresentative of the designer, and the contemporary fashion system in which their work resides.
Filled with mentions of Renzo Rosso’s personal relationships with political and religious figures (the Dalai Lama and Shimon Peres are ‘proud to call Renzo as a friend’), sartorial anecdotes (Rosso’s home-made pair of bell-bottom jeans) and charity philanthropy (‘He helps people help themselves.’) Colin McDowell’s gushing recent profile of the OTB industrialist leaves the probing reader with the distinct feeling that the Business of Fashion article has a hidden agenda. But what is it?
Historically, fashion has an uncomfortable relationship with critique: mainstream media coverage by newspapers and magazines often shy away from rigour and analysis on fashion’s output of events and collections. This is a dynamic that is constantly repeated in its discourse. References to other cultural disciplines, namely art and literature, are used to legitimise the domain of fashion, and suggest that it’s an industry that fails to measure up to a similar level of intellectual rigour.
As far as I know, I was the first person to study the image of women in advertising. I started collecting ads in the late 1960s, tearing them out of magazines and putting them on my refrigerator with magnets. Gradually I began to see a pattern in the ads and to see certain themes emerging – such as the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty, the dismemberment and objectification of the female body, the obsession with thinness, and the normalisation of sexual assault and battering.
Why does Alexander Liberman still matter sixteen years after his death? For anyone under thirty and not in the magazine business the name will likely mean little, certainly not loom large as the grand master who instilled both awe and fear and sometimes both.
Referring both to bodies and to dress, ‘plus-size’ lends a hefty weight to the hackneyed notion that ‘you are what you wear.’ It has only been within the past few years, however, that plus-size has become the lexical ground zero in the United States for debates within and outside the industry over everything from beauty ideals to consumer equity.
It’s an open secret in the industry that advertising brands dictate editorial content, sometimes explicitly, often tacitly. Stories of reporters being banned from shows after unfavourable reviews belong to fashion folklore, but accounts of PR people demanding final approval of articles, interviews being cut short after an uncomfortable question and designers bringing their own recording devices to interviews are surprisingly common.
The clothing industry has recently seen the introduction of new garments which fall outside of existing definitions. These innovations bring with them requirements for new terminology to distinguish new from old, reminding us of the power of linguistics in the design process.
In the fiercely transient world of fashion media, emerges a pack of fashion’s most distinguishable characters. The personal style of editors, journalists and directors is in constant public attention, highlighting the weight of appearance is this context.
Separating the art and fashion worlds from each has become increasingly difficult in contemporary culture: fashion, which has long been a borrower of imagery from art, is also used as material for artists to critique the commercial and social values it represents. With fashion being the thriving image marketplace that it is, there is always an abundance in appropriated or re-contextualised images.
Against an over-saturation of images and information, our aesthetic judgments are complicated by the coexistence of ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ within contemporary fashion. At this intersection emerges ‘good-bad’ taste, identified here as an eclectic montage of formal qualities that evoke past and traditional imagery otherwise rejected as faux pas – fashion ‘don’ts’ – revived in the present and celebrated as beautiful.
Is there a space between the construction of fashion and its otherness? Fashion photographer Mario Testino implicitly investigates these questions in his book Mario de Janeiro Testino (2009) by exploring the myth of the exotic, undressed bodies performed by contemporary Brazilian fashion icons.