WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE first part of a long 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
Tim Walker, freelance photographer
Glenn O’Brien: Do you know who the ‘pharmakoi’ were? They were the scapegoats in Ancient Greece. They were sacrificed annually, driven out of Athens or thrown off a cliff, in a purification ritual. That’s what we do to people who fail today. Drug addicts, criminals, people on ’entitlements’ – we ostracise them. In America we can’t accept failure; we can’t say that we’ve failed. Instead it’s the system that’s failed, the president that’s failed, the congress that’s failed – we never fail. I’m not a failure, I’m on the chamber of commerce for god’s sake! In fashion it’s the same thing: people are in denial about failure. The game is about how to transform failure into a perceived success.
Robin Schulié: The press release that was put out after Alexander Wang was fired from Balenciaga was pure propaganda. It was your typical statement where everyone praises each other to the sky. There was no reason given for the ‘separation’. And then Alexander Wang started giving interviews about his new store opening in London and none of them mentioned what had happened at Balenciaga – it was all airbrushed out of the success story that is Alexander Wang. Hilarious!
Jean-Jacques Picart: In fashion we treat failure as if it was a disease.
Steven Kolb: There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in this industry. It’s hard to tell how well a fashion business is doing: whether people are getting paid, what a company’s cash flow is like.
Ralph Toledano: Failure in fashion is not selling.
Steven Kolb: Look at Band of Outsiders. It was a ten-year business, critically acclaimed, on the radar of major editors; they’d won prizes and had a point of view. They grew from zero to seventeen million in a decade, and they just folded. Why? They just didn’t have the resources to take their business to the next level. You know, it’s easier to take your business from zero to ten million in a relatively short time span, but once you hit ten million it becomes much harder to grow. You need an influx of capital to really start investing in expansion, in distribution and stores, in control of inventory and wholesale – all those things are expensive. Lots of fashion companies take outside investment at this point, and most of those investors aren’t fashion people. That leads to conflict because people have different expectations.
Jean-Jacques Picart: Success or failure in fashion isn’t a measure of how talented you are as a designer. You can be the most talented designer in the world and still fail. There are so many incredibly talented designers who had to close their brands because they weren’t commercially successful. That they were the darlings of the press doesn’t matter in the long run. If you don’t know how to translate your creative vision into commercially viable products, this industry will spit you out.
Steven Kolb: Often designers get stuck on whether they get a bad review or no review for a collection, on what Suzy Menkes thinks. To me, that’s not failure. Going out of business, that’s failure. Not being able to deliver what you promise, not being able to pay your employees, not being able to feed the infrastructure you’ve created – that’s failure.
Nicole Phelps: Success in fashion today is about how many $5000 handbags you sell. That’s what determines if a designer stays at the head of a brand. How many bags a brand sells matters infinitely more than what I, Vanessa Friedman or Suzy Menkes might think.
Adrian Joffe: I’d say there’s a blueprint for success today – a certain path you need to tread. And an important part of it is being charming to reporters. Do the blah blah blah. Some people who are successful today are brilliant at it. They can charm the pants off anyone.
Tim Blanks: Look at who makes it today. Look at Proenza Schouler for instance; I find them banal but they’re cute and charismatic. Then again, there are designers like Joseph Altuzarra, who’s a genius in my book, so I’m glad that he’s so telegenic and gets a leg-up because of it. On the other hand, there are designers like Anna Sui who have forged ahead for years doing absolutely amazing work. Her shows now have a much better calibre of audience than they used to, but she never quite manages to hit the big time because Anna Wintour doesn’t like her.
Nicole Phelps: If you look at someone like Frida Giannini who was fired from Gucci recently, it’s very hard to see what her next act might be. She was always a bit aloof with the press, and that didn’t make her many friends in the business. That might affect her chances to get another high profile job. Let’s just say that she doesn’t have the world’s most powerful editor in her court.
Adrian Joffe: Rei has always said that she doesn’t think she has succeeded at all. She believes that if she was successful, she wouldn’t have to think about next week’s cash flow, she wouldn’t have to worry. Sometimes I ask her, ‘Can’t you just be happy? Just for one instant?’ One time she didn’t want to come to Paris at all, she wanted to cancel the whole show. She said, ‘This is no good, no one is going to like it, it’s not good enough.’ In fact, she says that every time, and every time I remind her that she’s always wrong. It’s getting worse though, the suffering and torture she puts herself through. I’m constantly reassuring her. I try to protect her and make things easier but it just gets too hard sometimes. But that’s what drives her, this dissatisfaction. For her, one instant of self-satisfaction would mean the end.
Thom Browne: Without sounding self-congratulatory, I’d define myself as someone successful.
Andy Spade: For me success means getting respect from my peers for the work I do. If Glenn O’Brien writes about what I do, if he likes it and thinks it’s brilliant, that to me is a success. Because he gets it. Success for me isn’t financial. I mean, I know how to do things that sell. That’s not a challenge. Success to me is doing something highly conceptual that sells. Then I feel like I’m fooling the public. I like the idea of pulling the wool over the consumer’s eyes.
Glenn O’Brien: A lot of times I’ve been distracted from what I should have been doing by doing stuff just to make money. I’m a family man: I have kids and I want to live well. By many people’s standards I guess I’m a brilliant failure. But navigating this corporate colossus world is hard. You exist only through benign neglect. Like, please don’t crush me, I just want to have a hot dog stand – I promise!
Adrian Joffe: The system is what it is and fashion can’t change that. Are you going to change the world with fashion? I don’t think so. Fashion is just a reflection of society at large. We live in a culture where poor people can dress up in nice things for cheap, and where rich people want to know that they’re the only ones to have what they have. That’s not new. Some people have yachts in the Caribbean; others have a shack to sleep in if they’re lucky. My point is that we need everything – ultimately it’s about balance. In fashion, we need Uniqlo, Louis Vuitton and Comme des Garçons. Nature is about balance, and culture is too. And the fact that that balance is never achieved is what keeps things moving. If we were to somehow achieve absolute balance, the world would end. And still that’s what we keep striving for. That’s the Tree of Life.
Tim Blanks: Everything moves forward according to a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We go through smooth and rough patches – that’s just progress. We don’t know what our world will look like in twenty years’ time. Maybe we’ll all be living in another Fascist regime. Or in Utopia. Though I doubt it – human beings are incapable of Utopia.
Thom Browne: If you want to fight the system – good luck! A lot of people complain about the fashion industry today, but the way I see it, there’s no use complaining. I prefer to live my life according to the way things are.
Andy Spade: Look, if you choose to ignore the system, if you’re just like, I want to do my own thing, fuck the world, I hate everybody – then you shouldn’t live in a capitalist society. You should leave. Where would you go? I don’t care – but get out of America! I hate it when people whine about the system. Figure it out! I didn’t have any backing when I started; no one paid for my samples. I didn’t have any patrons; I took two jobs to pay for it all. I think the system is working fine.
Glenn O’Brien: Fashion and the big time art world have been corrupted. The only space noncommercial culture has today, is a little temporary space that nobody notices. Like the space for cheap buildings in big cities, you can fill them until they get knocked down in order to put something expensive in its place. It’s nothing new; it’s been this way since Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class. But today we’ve reached this whole new level of stupidity orchestrated mainly by the mass media. Everywhere you look you see Caitlyn, Kim and Kanye. If people spend all their time thinking about ’The Real Housewives’ or ’Dancing with the Stars,’ they’re not thinking about poverty, police brutality or the exploitation of workers in Abu Dhabi.
Tim Blanks: The whole process of fashion has become fascinating to ordinary people. It’s a whole fallow area of escapism that hadn’t yet been exploited. Bread and circuses. The world has gone further and further down the toilet and fashion is glorious window-dressing. Nobody buys the clothes, but they sure like looking at them or reading about the people who make them or wear them.
Glenn O’Brien: Fashion is one of the main things that distract people from thinking about what’s important today: ecology and politics. It’s a manipulation machine. The celebrity system we have now doesn’t make people think bigger or question anything. It’s the opposite actually – it makes people think more and more shallowly.
Hirofumi Kurino: Money and politics have conquered fashion. In the press for instance, nobody dares saying anything critical anymore. To me, that shows a lack of love. If you really care about fashion, you should be able to say critical things when it’s warranted. Recently I had dinner with the editor-in-chief of GQ Japan, Masafumi Suzuki. It was just after LVMH’s Berluti presentation, and afterwards all the PR people were asking him, ‘Mr Suzuki, how did you like the show?’ I’m sure they expected the usual niceties, but instead he said, ‘It was the worst show I ever saw!’ He told them they were cheating the customer and ruining the heritage of the brand by making expensive, uninteresting clothes. The PRs were shocked, but what he said came from a place of love. He cares about the brand. And because he’s important, people listen and invite him back to see the next collection.
Nicole Phelps: The corporations are getting stronger all the time in fashion. I see new brands coming up all the time; they stay underground for a season and then they too move towards the corporations. Partly it’s because it’s too expensive and too difficult to develop a fashion line without support. But it’s also because the glamour that the corporations represent is irresistible.
Robin Schulié: When Bernard Arnault bought Christian Lacroix in 1987, it marked the beginning of a new era. Arnault was interested in building a fashion house in the traditional way – starting with haute couture, moving on to ready-to-wear and then diversifying into accessories and perfume. But Lacroix was extremely reactionary in terms of design, for the time I mean. Alaïa, Mugler, Montana and Gaultier were already huge by that point. But they were all kind of scary – too advanced for most consumers. Lacroix with his charisma, and his organza and puff skirts, could appeal to grannies. Instead of growing the business organically, Arnault invested a lot of money in Lacroix. Still, it never worked. No one wanted what he was selling.
Ralph Toledano: People who look down their noses at LVMH or Kering are just jealous. They envy their power and money. Look, the CEOs of these companies might wear grey suits and white shirts, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t get it. They do. François-Henri Pinault had the guts to hire Hedi Slimane even though everybody was sceptical and look at where Saint Laurent is now, so don’t tell me he doesn’t get it. As the president of the Fédération, I know that we need people like Pinault or Arnault to achieve our goals. They have the money.
Glenn O’Brien: The people who cooperate the most are the ones who are rewarded so there are always willing participants.
Robin Schulié: Is there any other way to play the game? If you want to compete with the big guys, do you have to do it on their terms? That’s the million-dollar question. Young designers today are often competitive. They want to prove themselves and play the game. But the market today is too fragmented, and the big brands have already honed their skills for several decades. How can a young brand compete with that? And anyway, is there really just one way to be successful? Young designers need to ask themselves if they would be satisfied with another model. Why does every designer seem to follow the same blueprint for success? Why do you need to please everybody? I can understand that Dior needs to, but Christopher Kane? What will happen to his vision once he starts making long dresses for the Middle East, short cutesy ones for Asia and conservative tailoring for Middle America?
Nathalie Ours: A designer with an independent brand needs money to develop his company. The big problem for young designers is that buyers might love what they do and order it, but to produce it they have to be able to pay their manufacturer. Bear in mind that buyers pay designers six months after they have delivered the goods, so there’s a gap in the timeline. If the designer doesn’t have a good banker or partner, how do they manage that gap? That’s the big issue. Every designer I know has the same problem. Sometimes with very new designers, a buyer accepts paying, say, thirty percent in advance. But after three or four years, the buyer says, ’Okay, we’ve supported you – enough already.’ So now what do you do? Can you afford to lose this buyer? Most designers can’t. That’s one of the reasons why many young designers are so happy to have a conglomerate behind them. It’s a way to survive.
Tim Walker: As a creative you have to work out how to direct the money into projects where you can capitalise on it. You have to know how to take your vision to a level that wouldn’t have been possible without the financial support available. That’s my tuppence worth.
Ralph Toledano: Big corporate monsters need to have a creative vision and a genius designer at the top. The public wants someone they can identify by name, someone with a recognisable face. They want a hero. That’s why fashion companies stage fashion shows – the public needs to dream. But this aspect of fashion is only partially important to the success of a business today. What really matters is the rest of the machine: the marketing, the supply chain, the location of the shop, the communication campaign. That’s where you make your billions. In this sense fashion is a commodity business. As the CEO of a company you go to the show, but in the end the quality of the show is much less important than currency fluctuations or the economic situation in China.
Nicole Phelps: The fashion industry has a knack for turning designers into stars. Look at someone like Alessandro Michele at Gucci; your typical backroom guy thrust into the limelight because of his position. We editors are storytellers by necessity – we need to create stars. We have pages to fill.
Adrian Joffe: Do multinational corporations abuse power? I’m not sure they do. They just do what they do, that’s all. They have power because they’re rich and because that lets them spend a million dollars a month in advertising budget on some magazine. And if they then expect the magazine to write nicely about them because of it, is that abuse of power? I’m not sure it is. They just do what they feel they have to do.
Glenn O’Brien: We live in a time where corporations are seen as individuals. But if you work for a corporation, are you allowed to have an individual opinion? Not really. You have to follow the company voice and the company line. It’s destructive to human beings. Me, I believe in a freelance world. Working for a company only for money is what Marx called ’alienated labour.’ Today we live in a world of alienated labour where people sell out – they sell themselves, their minds, their integrity. They become liars for money.
Andy Spade: Glenn respects commercialism just like Andy Warhol did. If I just did my work in some small corner of the world, I don’t think Glenn would respect it as much. What he respects is the fact that I built a business while still being subversive, working on two levels. I’m not claiming to be a designer or an artist or anything – I just like having good ideas that sell.
Adrian Joffe: Long live the one percent; they are the ones that change things.
Tim Walker: There’s been an incredible explosion of money and power in the industry. Today there are countless forces polluting the innocence of play and experimentation, and the impact on true creativity has been damning. From my point of view that’s a failure and a betrayal of sorts.
Ralph Toledano: Life is about power. It’s always been like that – it’s nothing new.
This article was published in Vestoj On Failure.
Erwin Wurm is an Austrian artist. These images are from his ‘Indoor Sculpture’ series, 2002.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj‘s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.