PART TWO OF A narrative interview conducted by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg for Vestoj ‘On Failure.’ Read the full chapter in the print edition here.
Tim Blanks, editor-at-large at Business of Fashion
Thom Browne, founder & head of design at Thom Browne
Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, president of the fashion division at Puig, CEO at Nina Ricci
Jean-Jacques Picart, fashion and luxury goods consultant
Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons International
Glenn O’Brien, editor-at-large at Maxim
Hirofumi Kurino, co-founder & senior adviser for creative direction at United Arrows
Steven Kolb, president & CEO at Council of Fashion Designers of America
Nicole Phelps, director at Vogue Runway
Nathalie Ours, partner at PR Consulting Paris
Robin Schulié, brand manager & buying director at Maria Luisa
Andy Spade, co-founder of Partners & Spade, co-founder of Kate Spade, founder of Jack Spade, founder of Sleepy Jones
Camille Bidault-Waddington, freelance stylist
Camille Bidault-Waddington: About ten years ago people in fashion started to really understand the importance of money. It was like a wave that rolled over the whole industry. There were rumours that fashion editors were asking to be paid in shares in the companies they consulted for. I just thought the fixation with money was a kind of monstrosity, so I never played that game. But once I realised what was really happening, I felt like such a naïve kid. Then people started getting into power. Everyone got a thrill out of being more powerful than each other.
Tim Blanks: The fame machine has rolled over everybody. Your persona becomes your identity. If you’re insecure, success builds you an impermeable edifice of confidence and material wellbeing. People get used to that, to the point where they can’t imagine being taken away from it.
Steven Kolb: In my opinion, you can’t have success in fashion, unless it’s commercial. Fashion is a business, and as a designer, you’re getting into the business of fashion. That isn’t to say it can’t also be artistic and creative, but at the end of the day the success of a fashion creation comes down to, ‘Does it sell? Does somebody want to buy it?’
Tim Blanks: How masochistic would you have to be to go on and on and on doing something and never making a living from it. How many years can you live on the smell of an oil rag and a handful of sawdust swept up from your studio floor? Being Boudicca isn’t for everybody. You can’t eat your clothes. You’d just end up like Charles James.
Hirofumi Kurino: Fashion is a result of creation, and creation doesn’t belong to a vocabulary of success or failure. I know that commercial success has become incredibly important in fashion today, but fashion is about so much more than just selling. The standard of fashion is slipping with the focus that we have on money now. People think that being successful is about having your photo taken by Scott Schuman or Tommy Ton, or that a good collection is one that is iconic or instantly recognisable. We’ve stopped looking at the actual design of the garments, and we need tastemakers and opinion-leaders to remind us about the importance of innovation and quality.
Andy Spade: People always talk about fashion being too commercial, or they say that there isn’t enough artistry in the business. But there are artists in fashion – the problem is that the consumer doesn’t want what they produce. I’ve collaborated with my friends at threeASFOUR many times. I love their work, but I’d never wear it and my wife would never wear it. But it’s still relevant because it inspires me to be more creative. Some designers exist to inspire other designers. The avant-garde is important to the system – even designers at the Gap are trying to sneak something creative into their work.
Jean-Jacques Picart: Fashion is like a banana. No, don’t laugh. I’ll tell you what I mean. Sometimes designers complain to me that a competitor has copied one of their ideas and is making a killing with it. I tell them, tant pis! If you presented that idea two seasons ago and nobody noticed, it’s because the world wasn’t ready. That was your mistake. An idea in fashion is like a banana; if you eat it too soon, it’s green and tastes bad. And if you eat it too late, it’s brown and the taste is still bad. It has to be just perfect. That’s your job as a designer – to put your ideas out there when they’re ripe.
Tim Blanks: That’s a real theme for Hussein Chalayan. He says other designers rip him off. I think he feels he just hasn’t done well, but the reason he hasn’t is not because of that. I was looking to do a perfume with him once and I think he’s just a very difficult person. Hard to work with. I love him but he can say the most inappropriate thing at the worst possible time.
Robin Schulié: People think of Hussein Chalayan as a ‘conceptual designer’ but to me that’s bullshit. Nobody ever wore his clothes. To me Chalayan is just a typical London designer who managed to make a bit of a name for himself when he was showing on his home turf. Then he met Alexandre de Betak. De Betak started using Chalayan’s shows as a way of showcasing his own talent. That’s not to say that the inspiration didn’t come from Chalayan, but what made his shows so noteworthy when he started showing in Paris was his set design. The catwalk collection and the showroom collection were completely different. That kind of separation between what you show press and what you show buyers is what’s led to the industry losing the plot in my opinion.
Thom Browne: I create two collections every season: one for the catwalk and one for our showroom. I look at them totally separately. One is for show, and one is for wear.
Jean-Jacques Picart: The fashion business changed an awful lot with Tom Ford’s arrival at Gucci in 1994. That’s when we developed two separate parts to fashion –business and spectacle, catalogues and editorial. We got two different fashion languages, or two separate ways of looking at fashion. The red carpet became very important; fashion became entertainment for the masses in a way that it hadn’t been before.
Ralph Toledano: It shocks me when designers make clothes for the catwalk that they don’t sell in stores. I think it makes the customer feel cheated; they will end up not trusting the brand. If there is a wide gap between the catwalk collection and the store collection, to me it’s a big sign of weakness on the part of the brand. It shows that the complicity that should exist between the management and designer isn’t there. The attitude to fashion changed fifteen years ago, when certain brands decided that the container was more important than the content. That’s when catwalk shows became about generating buzz in order to sell other products. At some point fashion shows turned into extravagant competitions between the big fashion conglomerates. But the tide is turning again.
Robin Schulié: Up until the 1990s, when the fashion industry was smaller and designers themselves owned their businesses, it all made more sense to me. That was before people decided to do one thing for their image and something else to make money. When this line got blurred the whole industry became much more impure – that’s when everything started getting clouded by smoke and mirrors.
Nathalie Ours: Today the marketing often matters more than the designer. That’s when the product becomes boring. The products made by all the big conglomerates are often produced in the same factories and that means that the hand of the maker is in danger of being overpowered by the industrial process. And what is a designer after all, if not his hand?
Camille Bidault-Waddington: Everybody in fashion wants to be a brand now. We’re not just selling our creativity: we’re selling our faces.
Nathalie Ours: Fashion is about selling a dream.
Andy Spade: At store openings for Jack Spade, I’d put a fake movie camera without film in it in front of the store and add a director’s chair. The chair would say ‘Spielberg’ or ‘Renck’ or something like that on it. It never failed. People would gather thinking, ‘Spielberg must be around the corner.’ And I’d have a crowd for my event. I’d get a kick out of that.
Adrian Joffe: Marketing. I don’t even know what that word means. Merchandising? Same thing. I really hate those terms. It’s the age of marketing I’ve been told. You package something by hiding the truth of what it is. That is precisely what is wrong with the fashion business today. Marketing. It’s the biggest failure of our age. It just doesn’t ring true anymore.
Hirofumi Kurino: Most managers and CEOs come from business schools today. They are smart, they have strategy, they can make money but they have no love for fashion. They aren’t in touch with what goes on on the street. That’s why they need young designers like Humberto Leon and Carol Lim from Opening Ceremony to take over an LVMH-owned brand like Kenzo. They represent the younger generation. But all they do is create a buzz; the collections themselves very quickly become boring and meaningless. You can’t generate emotion from strategy.
Robin Schulié: The moment the people investing in fashion started coming from outside of the garment industry, things took a turn for the worse. Now we have businessmen essentially trying to sell you yoghurt. There is nothing glamorous about it anymore, it’s just men in suits selling yoghurt. I mean, when the executives of a fashion company come from Procter & Gamble, you know creativity is in trouble.
Ralph Toledano: I remember when I hired Alber Elbaz for Guy Laroche in 1996, I originally said, ‘I want an American.’ At that time French designers still thought that fashion was art. I had to be very clear in my stance: I don’t care about fashion as art – fashion has to be functional, it has to be worn, it has to be cleaned. I was struggling to explain to designers that a fashion company has to turn a profit. Today the situation is completely different. Twenty-five-year-old French designers have gone to business school; they have no problem talking to you about marketing.
Tim Blanks: Most designers today are just figureheads. Think of Riccardo Tisci for instance. He’s considered a benchmark figure at the moment, but he’s basically just doing jeans and T-shirts because that’s what sells. He’s not doing couture anymore. If you spoke to him I imagine you’d find that he was deeply frustrated. But he loves going out and having fun. He’s bankrolled to a ludicrous degree and he’s just a simple boy from Italy who grew up with absolutely nothing.
Ralph Toledano: Between 1985 and 1995 I worked with Mr Lagerfeld at Lagerfeld. It was the only time the company was making money. But even though Lagerfeld never interfered in my work, it was always clear that he was the boss. When I later became the CEO of Guy Laroche, it was the most difficult job in town. I fired the designer, and had to hire a new one. Suddenly I became the boss of the designer. That was a tremendous change in the power dynamics of fashion. Ever since, I have been the boss of every designer I’ve worked with – from Alber at Guy Laroche to Stella and Phoebe at Chloé and then Peter and now Guillaume at Nina Ricci.
Steven Kolb: The fashion system is constantly changing. It happens gradually and in every aspect of the industry, from how you classify clothes – what is couture, what is ready-to-wear – to how you do business. I think of it as herding cattle. When the fence breaks down and the cows decide to move, you can’t just move them from here to there in an instant. You have to herd them gently. Change can be instigated, but it’s never a coordinated collective shift. For example, New York was once the last of the fashion weeks; today the calendar starts with us. If we had tried to move all designers simultaneously to the start of the season, it would never have worked. What happened instead was that in the Nineties Helmut Lang decided to move his show up. He broke the fence. Then Calvin Klein decided that if Lang could do it, so could he. And then all the other cows followed.
Nathalie Ours: I’m aware of how quickly fashion is moving now, and I have my role in the system. In a way I’m just one of the sheep. I don’t know how I could do anything to change the way things are. I know the catwalk schedule is too crowded today, but what can I do? It’s not like you can forbid people to exist.
Jean-Jacques Picart: Fashion shows are intended for fashion people. When non-industry people – ordinary consumers – see a fashion show, they are frightened. It’s too much. It’s like giving a very hot dish to someone who isn’t used to spices. Fashion shows speak the language of the fashion industry – they cater to people who see too much, who are blasé. These blasé professionals know how to decode the messages that the designer puts on the catwalk, our job is to transmit what we’ve seen to ordinary women and men. If you make fashion shows available to the public, most people will wonder where they are supposed to wear what they see on the catwalk. Where is the restaurant or party where I can wear this dress? They would panic. They wouldn’t understand.
Glenn O’Brien: Fashion week is ridiculous but I like going because I like seeing all the people that hate each other in the same room, pretending that they don’t hate each other. But until people are not only applauding but booing too, then what fun is it?
Thom Browne: Once I had an editor walk out of my show. To me, that’s so disrespectful and unfair. I took a risk with that show – it was twenty minutes long. But still! Everybody knows how much work goes into a collection so to not be able to sit still for twenty minutes is unbelievable. I didn’t invite him back the season after.
Camille Bidault-Waddington: Going to shows now gives me an anxiety attack. Have you seen the amount of photographers outside? It freaks me out. There are scores of people at the shows basically doing nothing but parade around in bunny ears to be photographed. When street style photographers first started coming to the shows, I quite liked having my picture taken. It was flattering. Now I find the experience totally frightening. When I go to shows, I make sure I’m dressed in the most boring way imaginable so that no one pays attention to me. I walk on the opposite side of the street so the photographers won’t see me. Or I stay away all together. It’s a shame really because I love fashion shows. Going to shows is so important if you want to understand a designer’s point of view. The music, the lights, the casting – everything. But I just find the whole experience too frightening now. Even going backstage after the show to say ‘bravo’ to someone I like: there are so many people jostling for attention. I can’t stand it. Most of the people there are just faking it to be seen air kissing someone important.
Hirofumi Kurino: The last few seasons Kenzo T-shirts have been really popular at the shows. All the street style photographers have been shooting people in Kenzo T-shirts. I would never wear that, and my team wouldn’t either. We don’t want all the street style photographers to take our picture anymore. You know, when street style photographers started coming to fashion week it was exciting, but today there are so many photographers and they take pictures of everybody so it’s not interesting anymore. The centre of Florence during Pitti Uomo has turned into a place to show off. Now I stay away from the routes where I know that street style photographers will be waiting: I take alternative ones. I used to dress more conspicuously and enjoy being photographed, but now I dress much more subtly. Having said that, if Scott Schuman or Tommy Ton want to take my picture, I’d say yes.
Glenn O’Brien: I remember walking around Washington D.C. in 1969 or 70 and seeing an Yves Saint Laurent coat in the window of a store and it had a big YSL logo on it. I remember thinking, ’How is that possible?’ ’Who would want that?’ That was my glimpse of the new world. Today people look like race car drivers.
Adrian Joffe: People look at pretty images in magazines today and get duped. So many designers lack an artistic vision, but they somehow manage to fool people into thinking that they have an original point of view. You can get away with a lot in fashion – it’s an easy business to be taken along with. But I don’t think it matters. It’s fine to be duped. Or if you think you’re being duped, turn away. Just go somewhere else. Not everyone is duping you.
Nicole Phelps: Rei Kawakubo is untouchable. No one is ever going to come out and say that what she shows is batshit crazy. Which it sort of is. But no one ever says that.
Robin Schulié: I’d say that what Comme des Garçons has been doing on the catwalk these last few years is an extreme reaction against a bland fashion landscape. It’s a comment on the status quo rather than a commercial proposition, and because of their position in the industry they can allow themselves to do it.
Camille Bidault-Waddington: Once, ten years ago I accidentally put a Comme des Garçons dress upside down in a shoot for Dazed & Confused. They never lent me another garment.
Nathalie Ours: I remember about twenty years ago when I was still working with Yohji Yamamoto. An English stylist mixed a Yohji jacket with some pieces from other designers, and it made Yohji really take note. It inspired him. Today things are different; designers insist on stylists shooting total looks. It’s as if they don’t trust the stylist anymore. They want to be in control, to impose their vision.
Andy Spade: They tell you you need a Birkin bag, and if you’re naïve enough to believe it – you’re wrong. I think it would be embarrassing to have one, don’t you? You have to pay the equivalent of a mortgage, and be on a waiting list. It’s ridiculous.
Glenn O’Brien: When I was young nobody wore designer clothes. People had their own personal style. Today fashion has taken over what style once was. Style is what makes you different to others. Fashion is what makes you the same. I think it’s very important not to be fashionable.
This article was originally published in Vestoj On Failure.
Erwin Wurm is an Austrian artist. These images are from the artist’s series ‘One Minute Sculptures’, ongoing since the 1980s.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj‘s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.