What’s Wrong with the Fashion Industry?

THE FOURTH, AND FINAL, instalment of a narrative interview conducted by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg for Vestoj ‘On Failure.’ Read the full chapter in the print edition here.

Erwin Wurm’s ‘One Minute Sculptures,’ 1997, c-print, 45 x 30 cm, courtesy of Studio Erwin Wurm.


Tim Blanks, editor-at-large at Business of Fashion

Thom Browne, founder & head of design at Thom Browne

Jean-Jacques Picart, fashion and luxury goods consultant

Glenn O’Brien, editor-at-large at Maxim

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

Camille Bidault-Waddington, freelance stylist

Andy Spade, co-founder of Partners & Spade, co-founder of Kate Spade, founder of Jack Spade, founder of Sleepy Jones


Camille Bidault-Waddington: I’ve worked a lot with Another Magazine over the years. Every time they give me a very specific list of credits – all the brands that advertise with them and that need to be featured in the shoot. That’s so common now that nobody reacts anymore. But something has changed lately, and it’s taken me a while to get used to it. In a roundabout way, Another has started telling stylists how many centimetres we should feature of each advertiser in our shoots. If we have an Armani credit for instance, it’s no longer okay to just feature a beautiful silhouette on the page or a portrait where you only see the neck of the model. No, you have to make sure that enough of the garment is seen so that the magazine can satisfy the advertiser. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not fashion – it’s an invasion of the page. Advertisers just want coverage, and more coverage equals more power.

Nicole Phelps: We know that if we write a really bad review about an advertiser we’re going to get a phone call. It’s just a fact of life.

Glenn O’Brien: One of the differences between art and fashion is that, though it has relatively little effect, there still is such a thing as art criticism. Fashion criticism on the other hand is nonexistent because anyone who would dare to write something against a major advertiser would be immediately not just fired but thrown into the East River.

Robin Schulié: When people ask me what I do for a living I tell them, ‘I work in the worst industry in the world.’ I bet even the weapons industry has more watchdogs than we do in fashion. Sometimes I think of the fashion industry as close to the pharmaceutical industry in the sense that they pay doctors to promote their products to patients. Fashion companies essentially do the same with journalists today. It takes years to reveal a scandal.

Glenn O’Brien: As an industry, fashion today represents all the worst values: sheer egoism, lack of conscience, instant gratification, mental laziness. I was watching ’Funny Face’ the other night and there was a very nice side to fashion once. There still is. I mean, there’s a nice side to aviation too – but the stealth bomber isn’t it.

Tim Blanks: We are all cynics in fashion now. That’s how we justify writing press releases for fashion brands, and then turning around and giving the same brand a good review in a newspaper. Artistic integrity be damned – I’m making a living here.

Nicole Phelps: It’s absolutely seductive to go to Seoul or to the south of France for a show. But in the end those shows are not put on to woo us editors. The big fashion houses are doing it to create experiences for clients with more money than God. The women who fly to these exotic locations to see a show expect to be treated to something spectacular. For them buying a $5000 dress is like buying a $5 cup of coffee for the rest of us. Literally. That’s how much money they have. They can buy an expensive dress any day, but going to a four-day party with all the most glamorous models and actresses makes them feel special.

Robin Schulié: Nobody gives a shit about Dior right now. LVMH doesn’t care that the clothes Raf Simons shows on the catwalk are uninteresting because the company will just continue making money with watered-down versions of old Galliano outfits and cocoon coats. It’s the same with Chanel. When you really start looking at the clothes, not even your granny would want to wear it. Then you stick the Chanel label on and suddenly everyone loves it. The industry is so fucked up now. It’s made up of people making clothes they don’t like for people who won’t buy them. It’s all a vast illusion. No big company makes money from clothes anymore; they make money from their accessories, their perfumes, their make-up lines. To me, that makes the whole industry a big failure. I mean, any other industry where the actual money comes, not from the product you purport to sell, but from a peripheral one, would surely be deemed a failed industry. As far as I’m concerned what we’re in now isn’t the ‘fashion industry’ – it’s more like the ‘illusion industry.’

Erwin Wurm’s ‘One Minute Sculptures,’ 1997, c-print, 45 x 30 cm, courtesy of Studio Erwin Wurm.

Andy Spade: The good thing about fashion is that it’s a way of getting your ideas into the world. The art world is very rarefied. Only like one percent of the public really go to gallery shows, so if you’re an artist you’re really just talking to your peers – unless you’re in the Met or the MoMA, but they’re hard to get into apparently. With fashion you can have a subversive idea hanging in a Target store. I have this shirt that’ll be in a store like Target soon; it says ‘Champ’ in big collegiate letters on it. Just above ‘Champ’ it says ‘Du’ much smaller. You know, like ‘Duchamp.’ The buyers who bought it didn’t even notice what it actually said, and anyway they don’t know who Duchamp is. They were just thinking, ‘Oh we love Champ, my child would wear that.’ So now there will be children wearing Duchamp T-shirts in Kansas City, Missouri. That’s funny to me. Or I just did a T-shirt saying ‘Bacon and Eggleston’ and no one buying it will know who Eggleston is, and they won’t get the ‘Bacon’ reference. They’ll be like, ‘Oh it’s bacon and eggs,’ and that’s kind of funny too. Maybe they’ll Google ‘Eggleston’ and see something they haven’t seen before.

Nicole Phelps: Social media has changed fashion in so many ways. We Instagrammers are essentially giving billion-dollar companies advertising for free. Everybody wants to be where the action is, and wants their friends to know where the action is. There is power in that; the more images of this type that you post, the more followers you get. And the more followers you get, the more money you can potentially make from these corporations. Some might say that you can’t escape the corporation today and that we are all cogs in the machine that propels the system forward.

Camille Bidault-Waddington: Nobody gives a shit about Balmain today, but Olivier Rousteing has become an Instagram It-boy and that gives the house a reason to go on existing. Nobody talks about Balmain clothes anymore – all people talk about is the image of the brand. The Kardashians. The parties. Olivier Rousteing.

Glenn O’Brien: What I want to know is where the poets are, the artists, the philosophers? I mean, do we really need to know the philosophy of Ralph Lauren or Karl Lagerfeld?

Nathalie Ours: It’s very rare now to find poetry in fashion. Everybody is so tired. I mean, how can you see one thousand outfits in one season and not be tired? C’est pas possible. The ready-to-wear season is always difficult; you can feel the weariness in the air. People are exhausted: they’re stressed and they’re sending you bad energy. There’s so little pleasure nowadays. But then, eventually, a show comes along that makes the audience gasp. And for a moment we collectively relax. And then we go back to the grind.

Jean-Jacques Picart: One thing that really frustrates me today is when fashion professionals go to shows and just look blasé. Where is the enthusiasm? I see all these young journalists and buyers, much younger than me, lost on their phones while models parade past them – what have they got to be blasé about?

Nathalie Ours: I got my education at Yohji Yamamoto, where poetry was extremely important so I find shows with models looking bored or as if they don’t know what they’re doing really frustrating. Watching a bored model coming down the catwalk in a piece of shit can make me sad – really, really sad. And then, afterwards, to read a review that celebrates the designer as if they’re excellent can make me wonder what’s going on. So I look out for those moments of poetry because you can still find them. And when I do, it reminds me why I’m still in this business.

Thom Browne: Putting on shows is absolutely exhausting, you know – sometimes I think I’ve created a monster. Why do I bother? Maybe this sounds selfish, but I keep doing shows because I love to see how they come together myself. I love my more classic pieces, I really do, but by now that part of my business basically runs itself. I don’t even need to be involved – we could just keep making these more classic pieces in different fabrics season after season. I need the shows to stay creatively stimulated. Sometimes I think I’d prefer designing museum pieces than clothes for sale in stores.

Ralph Toledano: For a small designer, a Haider Ackermann say, the fashion show is a billion times more important than it is for a company like Louis Vuitton. For a small designer, how a fashion show is received can make or break you. For a business like Vuitton the show is the cherry on the cake. The cake is what’s important. That’s not to say that the cherry doesn’t matter, but it’s only one component of the whole. It’s an ingredient.

Jean-Jacques Picart: There are times when the elitism in fashion drives me crazy. For example, why do big brands go to such great expense to put on a show for only 250 people when they could easily afford to show it to 600 instead? Why does every designer think that only the Anna Wintours, Suzy Menkeses or Stefano Tonchis of this world matter? What about the young Japanese journalist or the Korean buyer who has come to Paris for the first time, full of enthusiasm and expectation? Why would you want to exclude her? After all, she’s the one who will be on fire after the show, telling all her friends about it. If we only invite the front row set of this world, the way we view fashion will never change. Those people are set in their opinions, and they’re blasé. They spend their time at the shows looking at their phones. I remember Céline renting a show space that could easily have fit 1000 people, and then putting artificial walls in to reduce the space to fit 250. It really bothers me. I mean, if you have gone to great expense to create something emotionally powerful, why would you not want to share that with as many as you can? That to me is just snobbery.

Nicole Phelps: At Céline they could easily add another couple of rows to their shows. But they’re letting us know that they can afford to say ‘no.’ There’s a huge amount of power in limiting the access to a fashion show – in being able to say no. It’s a strategy; they are creating demand.

Nathalie Ours: There was a time when people would show up to fashion shows without invites and go crazy outside the venue, trying to get in. That doesn’t happen anymore. There are too many shows today – people who don’t get invited to one don’t care, they just go somewhere else. The people who show up to our shows are there because they have been invited, and we try to receive them as if we had invited them to our home. We welcome them. We smile and show them to their seats. I like the moment just before a show is about to start, when we get to greet our guests. Before that moment though, it can be tense. The designer is stressed, there might be models missing – there are always twenty things happening at once. But when people start filing in, you forget about all the stress and problems and just focus on the task at hand.

Hirofumi Kurino: We recently closed many of our stores in railway stations and airports across Japan. When we opened them we thought it would give the impression that United Arrows is global, but what we found is that our customers don’t like things that are too ubiquitous. They don’t want us to be like Starbucks. Ten years ago people loved Starbucks, but today we see it everywhere so it’s not special anymore. Over-exposure is not a good thing in fashion.

Glenn O’Brien: Don’t believe the hype.


This article was published in Vestoj On Failure.

Erwin Wurm is an Austrian artist. These images are from his ‘One Minute Sculpture’ series.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj‘s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.