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Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For?

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Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For? Empty Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For?

Post by xyz on Mon Apr 07, 2014 12:23 am


Sign of the Times | Slave No More

FEBRUARY 6, 2014, 11:00 AM

Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For? 16womens-look-sign1-tmagArticle

As the runway revolves, one front-row fashion fixture ponders how practical dressing has come to feel like the most modern of ideas, and why designers haven’t quite caught on.

It is before dawn on a frozen Sunday in upstate New York, where I have come to pack up two bedrooms. A handyman is arriving to build a small closet in one, and then both rooms will receive a fresh coat of paint. I’m sticking with the same colors — light green, a ballroom blue — that I chose 15 years ago, when the house was built. This decision to leave well enough alone, instead of hustling over to the paint store and driving myself nuts with choices, not to mention wasting my energy, seems more than sensible: It sums up everything I feel about style and comfort. Or should I say the revenge of comfort over style.

Folded over the back of a chair in my room, under a mohair throw, is an old suede kilt I had meant to begin wearing again. For me, the kilt nourishes a sense of freedom from fashion. It’s a classic, it’s sentimental and it’s one of the few garments I own that has truly improved with age. I hope I am wearing it at 90, tramping along in boots and a dog-haired sweater, the picture of civilized indifference.

Although I like going to fashion shows, and appreciate the dedication of seamstresses and designers alike, I am not the right audience for most of what I see. But, then, how many women are? Who has the will — never mind the time and the money — to wear high fashion, at least as it has been conceived over the past decade, as something extreme, or “special,” in retail jargon? By now, I suspect, most people know that the purpose of runway shows is entertainment, and to create a feeling of desire. They understand that the main interest of high-fashion companies is economic rather than aesthetic. It’s to sell products and capture new markets, much as Coca-Cola and Apple do.

Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For? 16womens-look-sign2-tmagArticle

Notions like taste and practical chic are way too complex to sell today, when much of the world’s population is consumed with either acquisition or basic survival. For that reason it’s tough to talk about comfort and a moral economy of style without sounding grim or like one is trying to promote a car with three wheels (hey, but it drives!). On the other hand, this idea is not so far from something Coco Chanel offered when she arrived in New York, in March 1931. Asked by a reporter to define the fashionable woman, Chanel said, “She dresses well but not remarkably. . . . She disobeys fashion.” Then, perhaps thinking of her rival Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel added, “But she is not eccentric. I hate eccentricity.” So she was extolling understatement and ease, yes, but also suggesting these choices reflected virtues like self-control and seriousness.

Lately I’ve noticed many more women, all of them in the zone of careers and complicated family routines, all of them with an eye for fashion, gravitating toward an almost boyish uniform of slim-cut trousers, pullovers and flat shoes. Or a leather jacket with bland layers underneath. They’re hardly wearing makeup, so their complexions look fresh. (We all know that too much makeup ages everyone.) At the last round of shows in Paris, I noted that even my French sisters had begun to ditch their adored stilettos for low heels. That was quite a concession for them, I thought. Something must be up, because those women don’t do anything on a whim.

Of course, in the 1990s, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander led a revolution with plain tailoring, neutral colors and natural hair and makeup. Lang’s style, in particular, proved popular with editors and buyers, many of whom had witnessed the sex gags of Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler in the ’80s, and were sickened or just bored by them. More than a decade earlier, Halston, Stephen Burrows and Calvin Klein had created a template of modern informality, with clean sportswear and lightly constructed dresses for a generation that wanted to go braless. Indeed, these styles reflected not only broad social change, but also the loosening of designers’ grip on women’s bodies. Yet, by the early ’90s, with the exception of Marc Jacobs’s grunge collection for Perry Ellis, along with Zoran and Joan Vass, New York was largely obsessed with the retro trappings of nouvelle society glamour, down to fur-trimmed pencil skirts and gloves. No wonder women sought the anonymity of Lang and Sander.

What’s changed since then? From my perspective, having written enthusiastically about the conceptual, art-inspired fashion of the past 20 years — whether by Martin Margiela, Miuccia Prada or Raf Simons — I can say we’ve become increasingly weary of this approach. As the roles of women kept evolving during the ’80s and ’90s, it was easy, maybe necessary, to attach meaning to clothes. They were powerful, daring, etc. But, let’s face it, much of the language around clothes today sounds forced. I was touched when, at the January men’s shows in Milan, Prada talked about her rather straightforward tailoring, which included a few women’s looks as well, saying, “I wanted to make it real. And I like that now.”

So do most women, though this wish doesn’t strike them as a novelty. All the same, the desire to be comfortable is profound, shaping attitudes and markets. Witness the explosion of so-called lifestyle brands like Vince, which last year became a publicly traded company, an indication that the audience is hardly baby boomers looking for less complicated stuff. For the most part, with the exception of Stella McCartney, who makes a point of including stylishly executed casual looks like this spring’s tapered track pants and tops, high fashion ignores this consumer.

But things are changing. I perked up when I saw that Alber Elbaz based Lanvin’s prefall collection around chic sweatpants, mixing them with wool cocoon coats and low-heeled pumps. I had the sense that he was keen to tackle the matter of comfort without sacrificing luxury, and he succeeded. Probably no one defines the modern sense of comfort with more authority than Phoebe Philo of Céline. Not long ago, she stunned loyalists with a loosey-goosey collection of long, frayed dresses, soft pajama-like pants and sandals lined with fur. Well, guess what? Other designers are still knocking off that collection. Although Philo has steered Céline somewhat away from that specific style, as you would expect of a designer eager to stay ahead of her competitors, she remains committed to its essence. For me, that collection captured something rare in today’s world of anxious, self-created stars — and that is a woman of indeterminate age who knows what she likes and has shrugged off what she no longer has any use for, and maybe never did. If that sounds rather limited, that’s the point. I’ll stick with the same paint colors and my lovely old kilt, because, it turns out, there’s a surprising amount of harmony in unremarkable choices.

We make SENSE, not clothing

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Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For? Empty Re: Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For?

Post by xyz on Mon Apr 07, 2014 12:26 am


Op-Ed | What is Fashion For?

8 FEBRUARY, 2014

Fashion is about aesthetics, theatre and meaning, not merely comfort, argues Eugene Rabkin, in response to Cathy Horyn’s recent piece for The New York Times, “Slave No More.”

Sign of the Times | Slave No More VS. What is Fashion For? BrowneBoF-copy-656x437
A Thom Browne show | Photo: Eugene Rabkin

NEW YORK, United States — This weekend, I read a curious piece of writing by the highly esteemed, recently departed New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. Horyn, who has devoted twenty years of her life to writing about fashion, argued that today, above all, she and many women like her, want clothes that offer comfort. “The desire to be comfortable is profound, shaping attitudes and markets,” she wrote. Comfort, not in the sense of wearing sweatpants all day, but unfussy clothes.

This seems fair enough. But as the article unfolded, Ms. Horyn pointed her pen at the fashion avant-garde: “From my perspective, having written enthusiastically about the conceptual, art-inspired fashion of the past 20 years — whether by Martin Margiela, Miuccia Prada or Raf Simons — I can say we’ve become increasingly weary of this approach.” The alternative, according to Horyn, seems to be higher-end, mass-market brands like Vince.

But this begs the question: What is the purpose of fashion? What makes fashion distinct from mere clothing? Much ink has already been spilled in search of answers. And it seems that fashion critics and scholars are still unsure. That’s because it is extremely difficult to put into words the ineffable qualities of fashion and the surrounding economic and cultural “system” that surrounds it.

But let’s try. Consider that fashion — as opposed to clothing — comes with a set of intangible values. Fashion is valuable when:

1. It makes a strong aesthetic statement
2. It has a theatrical element
3. It has meaning

The first is easy enough to understand. One could argue that the central role of the fashion designer is to make a strong and unique aesthetic proposition. And though this has become increasingly hard to do, as contemporary fashion builds a history of its own, it is not impossible. Just in the last decade, designers as disparate as Rick Owens and Alber Elbazat Lanvin have done it. Neither is original in the strict sense of the word, but suffice it to say that if you are familiar with their clothes you can tell them apart.

In her article, Ms. Horyn lauds the 90s minimalists Helmut Lang and Jil Sander for their sensible clothes, which stood in stark opposition to the pomp of Gaultier and Mugler. But the critical point is not their sensibility per se, but the fact that these designers made sensibility a new aesthetic proposition. They reflected a newfound sobriety after an age of excess.

The second element is trickier, because unfortunately, theatre can often veer into burlesque. But fashion as theatre is important, as designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and, lately, Thom Brownehave shown us. Their shows are purposeful exaggerations that make fashion exciting and provide food for thought.

To be sure, some of what is shown on fashion runways verges on the ridiculous. And even a cursory glance around New York Fashion Week will turn up the kind of “fashion victims” that can make anyone with a modicum of common sense long for sweatpants. On the flip side, much of what we see verges on boring. Indeed, the insistence on comfort as the primary purpose of clothing is, no doubt, partly the reason why so many fashion professionals, though few will say it out loud, think New York Fashion Week is a snooze-fest of nice, sellable sportswear and cocktail dresses.

Fashion as meaning is perhaps the trickiest element of all, but also the richest. Consider that a fashion designer has automatic license to destroy all meaning and create it anew merely by putting his own name on the product. Thus, jeans become Saint Laurent jeans, a bag becomes a Chanel bag and so on. But with this comes the responsibility, even the duty, for designers to infuse these products with something deeper through their design skills. The designer who manages to do this well receives critical acclaim.

Yes, much of so-called meaning is merely marketing, but Horyn is wrong to suggest that all meaning is superimposed, or in her words “attached” to fashion. When I interviewed Ann Demeulemeester for the first time, I asked her about some of the intangible elements in her work. She took a jacket off her back, spread it out on the table and proceeded to explain how this seam and this angle of the cut reflected the fragility and imperfection of man that she wanted to manifest. She literally cut meaning into her clothes.

Yohji Yamamoto, no slouch when it came to revolutionising fashion, once said: “You can say that to design is quite easy. The difficulty lies in finding a new way to explore beauty.” That’s what fashion is for.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of

We make SENSE, not clothing

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Location : NYC

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