Monday, September 18, 2017

In Fashion, the Beauty (and Challenge) of Looking Back

THE ARCHIVES OF BALENCIAGA, the 100-year-old fashion house, are held in a raw concrete warehouse space in Paris. There are 6,000 items in total — sculptural silk ball gowns and cocoon-shaped coats and a tobacco-brown chenille-embroidered lace coat once owned by Wallis, Duchess of Windsor — all shrouded in calico garment bags. Especially delicate pieces are wrapped in acid-free tissue paper to protect against dust and moths and are laid to rest in cardboard boxes referred to in the business as ‘‘coffins.’’ Balenciaga’s haute couture maison, formerly located on the Avenue George V, was a chapel dedicated to the worship of fashion as art; here, in its cavernous catalog of designs past, the atmosphere is of a crypt — or even a shrine.

When I visited the archive in the spring of 2017, the debut fall 2016 collection of Balenciaga’s latest artistic director, Demna Gvasalia, had just arrived. The conservation team, led by archive manager Gaspard de Massé, was unfolding the clothes while wearing white cotton gloves. (Acids from human skin erode the textiles.) These contemporary pieces, whose likenesses had barely departed store racks, are treated with as much reverence as a one-off couture gown by Cristóbal Balenciaga himself, who founded the house in 1917. In this space, these humble garments are transmogrified ­— from contemporary clothing to preserved specimens. The archive team discusses how to stabilize specific pieces: for instance, by running threads from waist to hem to support dresses with unusually curved skirts, which threaten to buckle and distort if they’re not held in place. Those that can be laid flat, are — in one coffin, billows of tissue cosset one of Gvasalia’s evening dresses, a silver strapless style in a sequin-embroidered fabric created by the Swiss textile company Jakob Schlaepfer. Matching boots are stored in another room devoted to modern accessories. The Sisyphean task of the conservation team is to ensure Balenciaga’s clothing — past, present and future — survives, even as time conspires against it.

PARIS IS A CITY where history has always been hallowed — perhaps more so than the present — and where the oldest (and many of the largest) fashion empires are based. Rituals like Balenciaga’s are undertaken by fashion brands across the world, but the archives of Parisian houses are especially sacrosanct. Some are stored in actual museums — Lanvin’s archives reside at the Palais Galliera, the fashion museum formally known as the Musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris. Others seem to be: Off the Avenue Montaigne, in the archive of Christian Dior, a handful of dresses dating back to 1947 (Dior’s debut) are displayed in temperature-controlled vitrines, exhibiting the label’s heritage.

In an industry whose catalyst is relentless novelty and perpetual newness, this zealous reverence for bygone fashions seems incongruous. While these archives — cold and dark, with their shrouds and cardboard ‘‘coffins’’ — may resemble repositories for the dead, the pieces cataloged inside are anything but. Despite the near-religious fervor devoted to their preservation, past styles aren’t viewed by brands as relics, but rather as the foundation for future creations.

These days, the archive is the petri dish for designs of the future. History in the hands of these houses has become a valuable, marketable commodity to build upon, cultural capital that can’t be bought. This past winter, the fall 2017 collections in Paris were distinguished by each house’s attention to their native silhouettes, tropes and trademarks. Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello veiled breasts with a panel of gauze in a velvet dress that originated in an identical style in Yves Saint Laurent’s fall 1992 haute couture collection; Julien Dossena of Paco Rabanne used that label’s still-futuristic-looking metal mesh alongside chain-linked constructions directly drawn from 1967 designs; and Maria Grazia Chiuri riffed on Christian Dior’s penchant for navy blue, offering another iteration of the label’s signature curvaceous suit jacket. (It was named Bar in 1947, and still is today.) Finally, Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga women’s wear show made the ultimate statement — he rejected the contemporary entirely and closed with nine gowns that recreated looks, in their entirety, from ’30s and ’40s Balenciaga collections. Ghosts, resurrected.

It’s significant to note that the above designers are creating clothing under someone else’s name, for labels collectively dubbed ‘‘heritage brands.’’ Purchasing their goods as a consumer — or as a luxury-goods conglomerate — is to buy into their history. These houses don’t plea for recognition; they have already earned it. Familiarity, in fashion, breeds not contempt, but contentment. If customers are familiar with a name, they’re more likely to invest in it than in an obscure up-and-coming brand. Immediate recognition is the reason conglomerates overwhelmingly choose pre-existing fashion labels as vehicles for young talent instead of backing new ventures.

Karl Lagerfeld was arguably the first to revive an age-old, old-age designer label when he was appointed artistic director of Chanel in 1982. Lagerfeld produced styles that immediately read as Chanel, trading on classic components of Gabrielle Chanel’s repertoire: bouclé tweed suiting, pearls, chains, camellias. ‘‘There would be no Chanel without the history of Chanel. I don’t have to do it consciously, I do it unconsciously,’’ says Lagerfeld, via email. It’s an interesting turn of phrase; perhaps he means to say that he doesn’t have to try to be Chanel because Chanel’s style is so expansive — she invented an entire wardrobe, from the little black dress to the chain-strapped purse to the two-tone shoe. ‘‘There are lots of things people think are native to the house which are born since I’m here,” Lagerfeld says. ‘‘My job is to make believe. There is no other way for a fashion house to survive.’’

LAGERFELD’S WILDLY successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past. You may not recognize Maria Grazia Chiuri’s name immediately, for instance, but you recognize the name and look of Dior in her designs for the house — the wasp-waisted Bar jacket, the wide-spread skirts. The same goes for Paco Rabanne: Julien Dossena is a designer name that resonates mostly among industry insiders, but everyone remembers the house’s chain-mail dresses from ‘‘Barbarella’’ — ‘‘or Jane Birkin, or Françoise Hardy,’’ adds Dossena. All of them, and in turn Paco Rabanne itself, have become synonymous with ’60s Space Age style. In a crowded and confused modern marketplace, immediate recognition — Coco! Bar! Barbarella! — is as good as gold.

From a business perspective, this approach makes sense. But it raises larger creative and cultural questions: namely, who owns history? Does a designer operating under a label founded by another have license to resurrect its forebear’s history for inspiration? It often results in little that is truly, genuinely new. But maybe, right now, we’re not craving something new, but something honest. Some labels will reissue designs with minimal changes, if any — Chanel, for instance, offers multiple versions of the 2.55, the quilted, chain-strapped bag originally designed by Gabrielle Chanel in 1955. Perhaps this is a reflection of a global appetite for vintage, for an authenticity that we believe can only be found in the past.

But maybe backward-glancing isn’t a product of the ideological or philosophical ramifications of our time — a quest for the genuine article — but rather a more practical matter of supply and demand, a need for speed. Fashion designers typically produce four collections a season (bolstered by multiple interim commercial collections), some designing for two or more different labels. (Gvasalia has Vetements, Lagerfeld his namesake line and the co-creative director role at Fendi.) Cribbing from an existing style sheet is an easy fix for an industry demanding ever more from its designers, a practice that’s been employed with increasing frequency since the early 1990s, when journalists began to freely throw around the term ‘‘revival’’ to describe various designers’ close recreations of vintage styles. In the same period, the market for vintage clothing exploded — another example of that thirst for authenticity and, perhaps, a rebellion against fashion’s built-in obsolescence.

But what are the ethics of referencing existing clothing so closely, even if the same label is stitched on the inside? The revival styles we are seeing now are often line-for-line recreations, not mere interpretations. It's largely accepted that a fashion house can freely reference its own past; the name gives designers license, and the physical archives give them access to templates from which to work. ‘‘If you want to know a brand, you have to know the history,’’ Dior’s Chiuri says. ‘‘I really decided immediately, when I arrived here a year ago, that it is like I am a curator for [Dior’s] heritage. And on the other side, I try to give my point of view.’’

IN TRUTH, it’s a delicate balance. Ironically, the strength of a house’s archive (and its worth) can only be measured by the merits of its contemporary designer. Chiuri uses the term ‘‘curator,’’ a word many designers invoke to describe the somewhat uneasy relationship between present and past in their work. Part of their role, at these kinds of brands, is to provide a new point of view on a well-established aesthetic — to reinvent (or at least modernize) the wheel. Designers are tasked with getting the press and consumers excited about something they might have seen many times before.

But does looking back satisfy a designer’s artistic urge to create something new? ‘‘If you think too much about Mr. Saint Laurent, I think the weight is very heavy and you cannot do anything,’’ Anthony Vaccarello says. ‘‘It’s too ‘homage,’ too old.’’ Vaccarello’s approach has been to collage elements from different Saint Laurent looks — his redux of that 1992 dress, for instance, collided the bodice with a miniskirt in the style Saint Laurent showed in the 1960s, rather than copying the full-length original. He remixes, instead of creating faithful reproductions. ‘‘It’s normal for me to live with a huge history because I was born in Rome,’’ Chiuri says. ‘‘I love the archives, I love history, I love memory, but I’m not nostalgic. I want to use that now.’’ Her collections do in fact reference particular Dior styles — her fall 2017 couture collection alluded to specific Dior dresses from every year between the founding of the house in 1947 and 1957, the year Christian Dior died. At its best, archival reference like Chiuri’s intrinsically connects the new with the old, weaving a seamless story that can constantly evolve.

This isn’t necessarily the case for all French heritage houses; the Balmain label, established in 1945, has been revived with only spurious connection to the historical style of founder Pierre Balmain, a lesser-known contemporary of Christian Dior. His look was conservative and decorative — the latter, perhaps, the only link to its contemporary incarnation helmed by Olivier Rousteing, whose trademark is his love of elaborate embellishment. Louis Vuitton had no background in clothing prior to the appointment of Marc Jacobs as its artistic director in 1997; as inspiration for his garments, Nicolas Ghesquière references Vuitton’s past as a luggage-maker — an idea the house will celebrate with an exhibition next month in N.Y.C. dedicated to its heritage — as well as the label’s excellence in leather goods and its abstract notions of functionality.

Respect for history is important, but when respect becomes reverence, it can prove paralyzing. To chart fashion’s major shifts over the past century is to observe creators at odds with the past. The rejection of pre-existing styles is almost a prerequisite for creating something new and noteworthy. Even Dior’s 1947 debut, a collection firmly based in nostalgic notions of femininity rife with Victorian silhouettes and techniques, represented a break with the fashion that had immediately preceded it: the wartime style of short skirts and squared shoulders. Forever after, it came to be known as the New Look. The same is true of Gabrielle Chanel’s little black dress in the 1920s and the anarchic, aggressive styles of punk. They were all new, back then.

But those were moments that reset aesthetics, notions of luxury and beauty ideals. These happenings are few and far between, and it’s unreasonable to imagine that fashion will throw up many more. Nevertheless, history should not (and cannot) be abandoned. It can act as a Trojan horse, a disguise for radical upheavals, for fresh revolutions. Old tags can hide new tricks — or new looks, to borrow the parlance of Maison Dior. Take Demna Gvasalia: He described his fall Balenciaga collection as an ‘‘homage,’’ but he also likened it to a rite of passage. ‘‘I need to prove that I can come into a house and not just start blatantly building my story without knowing them,’’ he says, ‘‘them,’’ meaning the archives. ‘‘I know that Cristóbal would probably roll his eyes at many of the things I do, but I feel the freedom now to do my own story.’’

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Fashion Month, Demystified

Fashion Month — the four-week period twice a year when top designers debut their latest collections in New York, London, Milan and Paris — brings out a horde of photographers intent on capturing interesting clothes, both on the runways in the shows and on the sidewalks outside of them.

But when this season’s shows officially begin on Thursday, the last thing New York Times editors will be thinking about is their own attire. “I think a lot of editors learned a long time ago that comfortable footwear is really key during Fashion Month,” said Isabel Wilkinson, the digital director of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. “Most seasoned editors I see stick very diligently to that mantra.”

Fashion teams from T and The New York Times Styles desk will attend more than 300 runway shows, presentations, parties and store openings in the four fashion capitals. Preparations began months ago for coverage of everything from highly anticipated collections from the likes of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren to celebrity-packed parties like Rihanna’s Diamond Ball, which takes place the last night of New York Fashion Week.

New York Fashion Week began in 1943 as a way for designers to share their new collections with the fashion media and retailers. It has since become part of a monthlong global circuit each September and February that attracts influencers, celebrities, brands, professional party people and lots of social media. The goal of Times editors is to speak authoritatively to the fashion community while recording a larger view of culture across print, web, video, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“We cover fashion this intensely because it’s about the evolution of social statuses and gender roles; it’s so bound up with celebrity and race,” said Choire Sicha, the editor of Styles. “We are obsessed with fashion and we cover it rigorously. Not just because it’s an enormous, important business and because clothes are cool, but because it shows where we’re going as a society.”

Vanessa Friedman, the fashion director of The New York Times, will personally attend approximately 150 shows in New York and Europe. She has been covering Fashion Week for nearly 20 years, and tends to wear the same several dresses, stay at the same hotels and consume the same diet of coffee, candy, bread, the occasional green juice — and Champagne.

But routine allows for focus. “When I’m actually sitting in a show, I am thinking, first, ‘What is this designer actually saying about female identity now?’ ” Ms. Friedman said. “Is it a good idea? If it is not a good idea, why is it not a good idea? And how does that relate to the context of the brand? Does it make sense in the continuation of their heritage and their history? Where they have gone before? And what else is going on in the general fashion scene? Is it part of a trend? If it is part of a trend, what is the trend, and why is it important?”

Reporters typically log 12-hour days, explained Matthew Schneier, a Styles reporter — not counting the parties.

“There’s an unwritten law of Fashion Week that any two shows scheduled back-to-back must be at the farthest possible distance from each other and be scheduled at a time to maximize traffic getting between them,” Mr. Schneier said. “So, a good portion of time is spent in the back of a car, a cab or on the subway, trying to make sense of what you’ve just seen and get down enough sponsor-provided bottled water, protein bars and bodega trail mix to constitute a meal.”

Beyond the runway, the story continues inside the extravagant, invite-only afterparties, explained Denny Lee, a Styles editor. “A lot of them feel like they are P.R.-driven, but there are some that are absolutely lots of fun,” Mr. Lee said. “People just sort of want to let their hair down and have a good time, and you have this professional partying class that comes into New York City and just keeps things going.”

Styles and T work closely to coordinate coverage, and put out a joint newsletter, Open Thread. For Fashion Month, T’s coverage will center on showcasing beautiful images from the events, continually updated on its site, providing readers a way to shop for runway looks, and offering a peek into the world of the creators, Ms. Wilkinson explained.

“We like to do features around the little-known things about creative people — the little moments that aren’t captured, like someone’s strange obsession or weird collection or an unseen room, and giving a fresh perspective on creative people,” she said.

For Ms. Friedman, Fashion Month is like a global tour of modern art galleries.

“Often times you see things that are boring, or derivative, or overly conceptual,” she said. “But when you see something that is really great, that makes you think about your subject in a different way; you forget about everything else and get really excited. That happens each season, and you don’t know when it is going to happen — and that’s what makes it worthwhile.”

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

From Hangover Armour To ‘Seduction Uniforms’: The Only Five Outfits You’ll Ever Need

Torch your wardrobe: a study by Oxfam has found that women only wear five outfits. Yes, mercifully, it seems that everyone has adopted a carousel method to dressing: at least a third of our wardrobes are defunct, while the same pair of jeans, four T-shirts and three jumpers are rolled out without ceremony, ad infinitum. Seven in 10 of us invariably wear the same dress for every special occasion.

Certainly, there is an element of laziness to this approach; obviously, few can afford to replace their whole wardrobe at the flutter of an invitation. But it is also canny, for there are only really five outfits that you need to proceed through life untroubled. Together they form a capsule wardrobe of sorts, although instead of being choreographed according to shape and hue, as outlined in gilded lifestyle magazines, yours is, of course, themed by routine emotional triggers. Here are the only five outfits you really need:

The ‘seeing an ex’ Outfit

Do not affect that you are above this, no matter how “amicable” the split. You’ll want to look unshowy yet untouchable; best to aim for something in the area of “Scandinavian architect”. Ideally, your outfit should be comfortable, but more importantly it must not require regular repositioning to obscure a greying bra strap.

NB: it will not matter what you wear if you spend the evening scanning the room to locate said ex.

The Wedding/Funeral Multitasker

Granted, the crossover here is difficult to execute, unless you have spent many years cultivating the arch eccentricity of Fi in Four Weddings and a Funeral: faultlessly, unfailingly shrouded in black. Typically, weddings call for froth and fancy, whereas funerals are rightfully sterner.

However, there is a sliver where the Venn overlaps, and deft dressers execute it effortlessly. Keep necklines high and hemlines long – you do not want to be trying to tug your dress down while throwing the confetti. Dark florals suggest both wedding bouquets and funeral wreaths. You are multitasking.

The Office Hangover Outfit

Your whole body is draped in a sheen of perspiration. In your dreams, you are in a cocoon or lying entirely naked on a cool bathroom floor. But, on hungover days, your outfit is your armour: to put the office off your scent, you must wear something “directional”, something that employs “clean lines”. Also, crucially, deodorant. Above all, it must also permit stomach space for the stodgy succour of a lunchtime McDonald’s. Red lipstick, the brighter the better, can distract from your red face.

The Seduction Uniform

Contrary to the pervasive imagery of popular culture, this isn’t a red or black dress. Outfits intended to seduce rarely do. But, in this health-conscious, clean-eating age, your best seduction outfit is, obviously, your gym kit. It is also perfect for channelling Beyoncé at a moment’s notice. You might be tempted to don Liz Hurley’s Versace safety-pin dress to impress, but leggings and a sports bra can have much the same effect, just with more structural support. Can also be worn to the gym.

The ‘smart casual’ Outfit

Aha! You have been invited to a “business lunch” or “engagement barbecue”. That’ll be your smart casual look then. Don’t worry – in centuries to come, archaeologists will still struggle to interpret this most loathed of modern dresscodes. For now, best to just stick on a jumpsuit and hope for the best.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Jeremy Scott Is The Man Fashion Loves To Hate

Fashion Week is a circus, and no one relishes the big top more than Jeremy Scott.

The designer’s February runway show had fashionistas sweltering in an 80-degree room as they waited for attendee Kylie Jenner to appear, 45 minutes late and with TV crew in tow. Gate-crashers stole seats, relegating top editors from Elle and Teen Vogue to watching a live stream of the presentation in a screening room. Model Gigi Hadid stormed the runway in velvet bell-bottoms emblazoned with the face of Jesus; Anna Cleveland sashayed in a gaudy, Vegas-era Elvis cape.

The industry Web site called the event a “s – – tshow,” while other critics scoffed at the C-listers, such as Sofia Richie, mugging in the front row. But for Scott, that embrace of chaos, celebrity and kitsch is the whole point.

“I’ve always been inspired by pop culture,” the 42-year-old designer told The Post. “I’ve always been very democratic about my view of fashion and iconography.” As for his haters?
“I would say that they’re stuffy and they could go to another show.”

They do so at their own peril. This Fashion Week marks the 20th anniversary of Scott’s namesake brand — his show on Friday will be a retrospective of his career — and, love him or hate him, his postmodern, cartoon aesthetic is everywhere.

It’s on TV, with Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus strutting in his eye-popping designs at the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s on newsstands, where reality stars are on the cover of Vogue. It’s even on the Paris runway, with revered labels such as Vetements and Gucci splattering images from “Titanic” or Disney cartoons onto their clothes.

“It is completely generational,” said Beth Dincuff Charleston, an industry vet who teaches fashion history at Parsons, adding that older fashion fans tend to find Scott’s garish designs off-putting. “He puts a lot of ideas together in a way that the 21-and-under set can really identify with.” She said that when she asks her undergraduate students who their favorite designer is, the name she hears most is Scott’s. “He’s becoming more and more impactful.”

Scott isn’t surprised. “Many times my taste in something that wasn’t accepted at first has ended up becoming more mainstream,” he said. “That’s another note I would say to those people who don’t get [me].”

SCOTT was born outside of Kansas City, Mo., far from the fashion world. But when the self-proclaimed “Midwest farm boy” discovered Details magazine in high school, he became obsessed with ’80s bad-boy designers Jean Paul Gaultier, Martin Margiela and Franco Moschino. After studying design at the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, he high-tailed it to Paris, with dreams of interning for Gaultier himself.

“Everyone was like, ‘You don’t know anyone, you don’t have any money, you don’t speak the language,’ ” he said. “There were all [people saying] no, no, no, no, no, but I . . . said yes.”

It was tough: Scott couldn’t get an internship. He was so broke that, in between bouts of couch-surfing, he slept on the Metro. But he fell in with the nightclub crowd and, in 1997, put on his own fashion show using scraps from a medical-supply store.

That collection — featuring hospital gowns with geometric pleats and bandages with heels attached for shoes — attracted a French TV crew. Suddenly, at 22, Scott was the toast of Paris fashion.

Mario Testino photographed his clothes. Isabella Blow, the stylist and magazine editor responsible for discovering Alexander McQueen, became a mentor. Karl Lagerfeld told Le Monde that Scott was the only designer who could succeed him at Chanel. In a few years, Scott was creating clothes for performers such as Madonna and Bjork.

“It was like a fairy tale,” Scott said. “It was . . . superflattering, and, at the same time, a little overwhelming.”

But he had his first fall from grace when, barely a year later, he debuted his fourth collection — an all-gold homage to the most opulent fashions of the 1980s. Vogue called it “destined to sink.”

“That was one of the hardest things to endure,” said Scott. “These were the same people that had said such beautiful things about me five minutes before, and now they’re saying heinous things. I took it very personally.”

Yet by the time he left Paris, in 2001, he was back en vogue — at least among the downtown demimonde, which adored his irreverence. Scott had inched toward an unabashedly pop style, inspired by the garish glitz of game-show hostess Vanna White. Scott settled in Los Angeles, so he could be closer to his growing celeb clientele.

“People thought I was crazy,” Scott said. This was more than a decade before Tom Ford moved to the West Coast and made it a fashion capital. “But Hollywood dictates so much of what we think of as fashion — the way people emulate things worn by celebrities on the red carpet or just getting coffee.”

Scott made his New York Fashion Week debut in 2002 with a show that combined ’80s shoulder-pad hauteur with the space-age kitsch of “The Jetsons.” New York was newly cool in fashion — Alexander McQueen had shown there in 2000 — but Scott helped take it over the top.

He invited reality stars like Paris Hilton to sit front row, creating a media riot. One 2003 presentation at Jeffrey Deitch’s Soho gallery — which featured scantily clad models in elaborate tableaux, such as a dominatrix in a barnyard surrounded by live animals — rankled the fashion press. The Condé Nast Web site refused to cover his shows for seven years after that.

“It was art,” Deitch told The Post of the scandalous show, explaining that Scott was taking pop-art tropes and expanding on them. “This was something different. He was maybe a little ahead of his time.”

After a sojourn to Paris Fashion Week, and a stopover in London, Scott returned to NYC in 2010, refreshed and with a sharper point of view, conjuring up the gonzo, Cartoon Network-on-acid sensibility that imbues his clothes today. Among his inspirations: Bart Simpson, SpongeBob and the McDonald’s arches, all of which have been emblazoned on his namesake designs or those created for Moschino, for which he became creative director in 2011.

“I think when he started to immerse himself in playing with those recognizable logos, it was a good way for him to [make] his message clearer,” said Parsons’ Charleston.

Katy Perry became a muse. A$AP Rocky sported his kicks, which Scott did for Adidas in an early high-fashion/sneaker collab. Miley Cyrus debuted a plastic jewelry line at his show. He was, now, a celebrity himself.

But some in the industry chafed at his vulgarity. What’s more, he was hit with lawsuits. In 2013, skateboard artist Jimbo Phillips sued Scott for copyright infringement. This was followed shortly with a suit by graffiti artist Rime, who said that the designer had taken elements from one of his Detroit murals for a dress Katy Perry wore to the Met Gala in 2015. (Scott settled in both cases.)

“That mindset of taking the McDonald’s logo and infusing it with the M for Moschino, or using corporate imagery in your designs, that’s fine. But it’s different when you’re using imagery from another artist,” said Charleston. (Scott had permission to use the SpongeBob and Bart Simpson characters, but a representative for the designer said his use of McDonald’s imagery was an “homage” that used a similar, “not direct” logo and therefore did not require approval.)

“For a moment there . . . I did question what Jeremy Scott’s role in the fashion industry is,” said Julie Zerbo, a legal consultant and founder of the Web site the Fashion Law. “But novelty is not what is driving demand for fashion. Demna [Gvasalia of the label Vetements] and Gucci are heavily referential for others’ work. [Copying] is less harmful to one’s reputation. And I assume the young people who are buying [Scott’s] iPhone cases and Barbie-inspired collections don’t necessarily care.”

They don’t. Scott’s pop vision of fashion has now become the norm. Balenciaga has a $2,100 bag that pays homage to IKEA’s blue tote; Gucci sells coats embroidered with Donald Duck.

“He’s a rule-breaker, which is good for fashion,” said influential publicist Kelly Cutrone. “Fashion can be super boring and elitist — there’s only so much you can do with a spaghetti strap, bias-cut satin gown.”

And while several designers, such as Altuzarra and Thom Browne, are fleeing New York Fashion Week for Paris — or skipping the runway entirely, as Narciso Rodriguez is — Scott has remained its stalwart: eager to deliver the sparkle, headlines and drama that the week once regularly promised.

“He still gets all the big models,” said fashion photographer Shawn Brackbill, who added that even though some glossy magazines don’t consider Scott’s shows “elevated” enough to warrant coverage, the presentations still draw a raucous, passionate crowd. “I think it’s a testament to him. Whether it’s just that the shows are fun or just different from everything else, people want to be a part of it.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

Technology Is Eating Fashion

BANGKOK, Thailand — If you think you run a fashion business, you’re wrong. A technology business with a fashion focus? Sure. Anything else and you may as well wave the white flag, because the rules of the rag trade are changing. You’re either leading that change, or you’re a sitting duck ready to be picked off by a sharp-shooting tech juggernaut.

Since Amazon first started peddling books online, Jeff Bezos never once saw his company as a retailer. “Amazon is a technology company. We just happen to do retail,” said Amazon CTO Wagner Vogels in 2011. With this mentality it’s no surprise Amazon has been able to conquer retail category after retail category, solving long-old supply-chain inefficiencies using technology as the not-so-secret weapon.

From product development to distribution, nothing about the fashion supply-chain is agile. It’s impossible for traditional fashion businesses to respond to real-time demand; it takes too long to get ideas to market. Even Zara, the masters of supply-chain efficiency, can only bring a product to market in 10-15 days. In our hyper-connected digital world, a lot can change in 15 minutes let alone 15 days.

The supply-chain also fails with personalisation. Products must be designed to appeal to markets broad enough to justify producing at scale, sacrificing individualisation for unit economics. Then there’s the fit issue. Standard sizes statistically fit less than 20 percent of the total addressable population. Too many consumers fall between the cracks of standard sizing bell-curves.

These shortcomings are being aggressively addressed by tech companies. Amazon for one has been mining its retail data and spinning up private labels to exploit product gaps discovered in the apparel market. In April 2017 the company was granted a patent for an on-demand apparel manufacturing system that creates custom clothing to the fit and specifications of individual customers. This means Amazon can not only eliminate inventory, but can respond almost instantly to market trends, and sell their products to the entire population.

Los Angeles-based Fame and Partners is another pioneer in the on-demand apparel supply chain. Like Amazon, the online womenswear label has developed a proprietary factory floor system with their manufacturing partner near Shanghai. CEO Nyree Corby says Fame and Partners use a modular design approach, allowing them to create new styles tied to their pattern and factory floor systems, which in turn maximises design flexibility, fit, and manufacturability. Corby says the rise of direct to consumer labels “translates to a larger proportion of brands now taking inventory risk than their business models previously allowed for.” She adds that reduced barriers for new fashion labels going to market “is driving fragmentation of trends and contributing to the general retail malaise.”

As consumers and their expectations digitally evolve, so too must the companies that clothe them. It’s not viable for fashion companies to design products for market segments when tech companies can design products for specific individuals. It’s not viable for fashion companies to spend weeks or months bringing products to market if tech-companies can do the same in seconds.

Technologies like data mining, machine learning, pattern bootstrapping, and product virtualisation are the tools of the new game. Tools that are already bolstering the arsenal of tech retailers like San Francisco-based Stitch Fix. They use artificial intelligence to analyse and predict purchasing behaviour, and formulate new product designs based on what components of style are popular at the time. Their AI-design technology sorts through trillions of design and fabric variants to generate products that have a statistically-high chance of retail success.

Human designers cannot compete with AI-designers when it comes to synthesising complex data from multiple sources. They also can’t compete with AI-designers to action their findings and assemble, render, and launch entirely new products in seconds. A consumer may soon be browsing an eCommerce site as an AI-designer watches and learns from their actions. The machine could design, render, and display new products to the consumer in real-time based on what it believes they want. The product could then be manufactured only after the consumer has purchased the product, eliminating inventory risk.

This supply chain revolution doesn’t only apply to mass-market fashion brands. Luxury brands cannot claim superiority when tech-driven mass-market players can guarantee a more personalised and better-fitting product.

Technology also shifts the creative process towards a more symmetric interaction between consumers and brands. With AI, brands have the scalability to use individual customers as the basis of inspiration for designs. H&M’s Ivyrevel have collaborated with Google to translate “a week of your life into a one-of-a-kind design.” Lifestyle data is collected through an Ivyrevel app, including tracking venues they visit and activities they do. The app learns “who you are, what you like to do, and where you like to go,” and then proposes a unique dress design for a specific occasion.

This might sound like novelty, however it’s just the beginning of a movement where technology begins to inform the creative process. To remain at the cutting-edge, luxury brands must learn to harness AI to pioneer new and meaningful experiences with consumers.

Fashion businesses need to start their transition into technology companies now. The sooner they start, the sooner they’ll cultivate the domain expertise required to remain competitive in the future. Firstly, digitise historical designs and build a rich database of products split into their individual variants. When properly organised, a human or AI designer can easily reference this library to assemble unique product without having to create anything from scratch.

Secondly, ditch standard-size grading and adopt parametric pattern grading. With parametric grading any product design can be made to fit any body type. It is getting easier and easier to capture customer body data, from taking 3D body scans on smartphones to predicting 50+ measurements from a few questions about fit. It’s only a matter of time before the mass market falls for bespoke fit, and you don’t want to be dependent on standard sizes when that time comes.

With parametric grading and bespoke fit comes the third recommendation: supplement your mass-produced inventory with on-demand production. You can quash sizing-related problems, eliminate unsold inventory headaches, and be responsive to consumer demand on a sale-by-sale basis. A low-barrier-of-entry approach would be to leverage pre-sales as a way to collect a critical mass of orders before producing custom products at scale.

Finally, start collecting and analysing all the data that you have, such as point-of-sale data, e-commerce analytics and metrics about your customers. Whatever you have, collect it. Your biggest competitive advantage is locked away in the data that flows through your business, day in day out. Build infrastructure around your data to analyse and take action on the findings. Your business’ survival depends on it.