If High-Fashion is Streetwear, What is Luxury?
It’s been nearly 60 years since Yves Saint Laurent looked around the streets of Paris and felt a society-shifting change in the air, one that would bring youth and ease into fashion like never before. His vision proved prescient over the subsequent decades as he released everything from the mini skirt to sneakers as acceptable office attire. More than just shorthand for the kinds of clothes people wear on a daily basis, what is now considered streetwear has its roots in both the California skate culture of the late 20th century and the groundbreaking style propagated by a host of talented black artists coming out of cities like New York. The line has blurred beyond recognition with brands like Supreme, whose drops are more anticipated than just about any runway show and who has managed to collaborate with fashion conglomerates. Even brands recognized worldwide for a particular kind of sexed-up glamour like Versace have undergone rapid makeovers to embrace everything from leggings to sweatshirts to track pants.
But more than evolving with the times, these changes represent the industry’s larger uncertainties. With the tide of store closures increasing over the past few years and the positions of some of the industry’s most powerful editorial figures in question, fashion is largely chasing its tail to attract whatever customers it can despite what appear to be changes in spending habits for younger generations. As a result, design regurgitators like Virgil Abloh and Hedi Slimane are now appointed to some of the most vaunted positions in some of fashion’s most revered houses. These brands have pursued hype in the hope that relevancy will rub off on them and, for a time, it most likely will, but the intense glare can make even the most talented crack. With these people in charge recycling styles already long in circulation, fashion cannot take us briskly into the future.
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The legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once said, “You’re not supposed to give people what they want, you’re supposed to give them what they don’t know they want yet.” It’s a great adage and one from which a healthy portion of the creative class working today could learn. Much like television shows resurrected on the notion that their familiarity will make them a sure financial bet, fashion is looking to streetwear for the security its inherent popularity provides. Why invent anything new when we know slim sweatpants already sell in droves? But to be so myopic in view misses the point. The skaters, athletes and hip-hop artists who turned a stable of pragmatic garments into sartorial staples were responding to specific social forces and carving out niches that created an identifiable community. The look of those onetime-outsiders has been adopted as the look of the ultimate industry insiders, stripped of its meaning, not to mention origins, along the way.
Being current requires more of fashion labels than simply copying what is already sold on the high street. There is no single formula for innovating and there is no shortcut to development. If this process is impeded, designers fail to create truly high fashion of any meaningful quality. The Olsen sisters of The Row have made waves with their sublimely simple collections that respond to busy, contemporary women who need clothes that work for them, not the other way around. How many other brands in fashion with the radical posturing now commonplace in the field can claim as much? It’s a philosophy that has garnered them devoted clients married with avalanches of critical approval. Likewise, John Galliano has finally found his stride at Maison Margiela fusing Martin’s love of the avant-garde with his own inimitable technical skills as a couturier. The clothes Galliano showed recently still nod to sport, but ultimately take that foundation to new heights with a masterful infusion of technology that brilliantly comments on our culture’s obsession with speed.
Reworking iconic Nikes can only take you so far. It’s an exercise that no doubt creates interest, even substantial buzz, but any desire they stoke is comparatively brief to the rapture genius creation stirs. Integrity of the creative process aside, it’s an unsustainable business practice. As the recent Highsnobiety article on Vetements' crumbling sales highlights, even brands founded by established professionals with unprecedented amounts of celebrity endorsement, editorial coverage and the ability to produce cult items can be on the verge of collapse in under four years once the public grows tired of gimmick after gimmick. There are quieter yet more enduring paths to success, but, in a climate that rewards publicity above all else, they can be trickier to travel. Unlike some other artistic vocations, fashion has to straddle specific practical functions necessitated by society while simultaneously inciting wearers to dream. To return to the incomparable Diana Vreeland, she once stated, “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.” With that in mind, who would want another hoodie.