When Olivier Rousteing: Creative Director of the venerated fashion house, Balmain sent a white cut-out pantsuit down the runway during his SS’15 show this past September, it was only a short time until murmurs started circulating within the fashion crowd, and then the internet, and then the world. The suit was a near replica of one the late “Lee” Alexander McQueen crafted for Givenchy’s SS’97 collection. Could it be that Rousteing, a designer heralded for his innovative and youthful perspective on modern fashion, was falling victim to the ever-surrounding pressure to solidify Balmain’s commercial superpower and, in turn, copying a look from seasons past that he knew would work?
The line designers must walk between crafting designs that are profitable and those that stretch the imagination is one that weighs heavy, more so now than ever before. With the rise of fast fashion chains, mass- production, and a heightened awareness of financial restraint, a cultural expectation has developed that paying hefty prices for clothing is foolish. In fact, the price of every other good has grown exponentially over the past twenty years – except fashion. Why would someone pay the money to invest in something when they could get a nearly identical version of it for less?
This puts pressure on designers to craft designs that speak to the “mainstream” in hopes of seducing consumers into status splurges, such as the new Valentino Rockstud that is lusted after by girls everywhere.
Also, as a consequence of decreasing quantities of orders, designers have had to raise the prices of their goods-namely accessories. According to the New York Times the price of a Louis Vuitton Speedy has more than doubled over the past ten years, while the cost of low-end “fast fashion” has decreased by nearly 10%. It is more than safe to say that mass-produced fashion is the only group of goods that hasn’t succumbed to inflation, instead, has actually decreased. The reason? Designer goods have maintained the same level of high quality while mass-produced apparel is now produced more cheaply and with poorly paid, outsourced labor.
Thus, the aforementioned conundrum: how does one balance creativity and profitability when they are in an environment with very little margin for risk? The result is that more and more collections are looking similar to the point where it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. The ubiquitous nature of cheaply made, unoriginal apparel has lowered our standards of acceptable quality, and dulled our desire for creative design. As writer Cathryn Horn says in her article “Sign of the Times,” our current desire lies within “straightforward commercial fashion that a woman can instantly relate to.” Our values have been reduced to, “the need for simple messages. The triumph of branding. The shortening of horizons due to economic factors,” and our willingness to recycle trends is attributed to our “lack of prejudice toward old ideas, especially among young consumers.”
The pressure for profit especially resonates with up-and-coming designers who are new to the luxury sector. For many department stores buying something that is much more straightforward and commercial is a safer bet than investing in a new visionary. It isn’t due to a lack of creativity, but rather a lack of a culture that nurtures an innovative environment and the absence of a safety net shielding one from failure. Instead of crafting compelling designs that push intellectual boundaries, many designers hope to master commercial desire and then eventually segue into creativity. Where do we go from here? After all, fashion is a symbolic representation of our cultural desires at any given time. As Anna Wintour once put it, fashion is a “cultural barometer.” Just as social movements rise and redefine the way we shape the world, this too shall pass. We need to begin looking towards the future and creativity will reign.
by Christine Buzan