Fashion History: The American Way (Sportswear to Total Living)

21 06 2009

The American model for the fashion business began with sportswear, moved through licensing giants, and now includes the behemoth category “total living.”

American majors in fashion

Sportswear Roots

by Claire McCardell 1946, CORBISClaire McCardell was probably the most influential American designer to be associated with New York design through her simple collections of sportswear, adhering to a basic and unchanging set of stylistic and practical criteria. Beginning her collections in 1940 to her death in 1958, her designs stood as the antithesis to the Parisian New Look.

Other prominent sportswear designers to emerge around or after WW2 included Charles James (who was commercially unsuccessful in ready-to-wear, and later returned to couture), Mainbocher (who relocated from Paris to NY with a clean aesthetic style), and later Bill Blass, Betsey Johnson and Scaasi (who drew great inspiration from the NY lifestyle and culture).

rothkoWhile the Parisian couture movement after the war was aimed at recreating a national high art, NY couturiers were much more open and exposed to influences in commerce and pop culture. Many creative forms were evolving through the work of Pollock, Rothko, Warhol, Oldenburg and others, and American fashion designers’ receptiveness to these creative changes sustained their relevance. Furthermore, the ethnic/cultural melting pot of NYC called for a basic aesthetic that would suite everyone, leading to the American style of simplicity through clean lines, colors and patterns.

Casual, easy-to-wear (and maintain) items originally developed by McCardell paved the way for subsequent designers to rework the new classics, based on the cultural movements of the day. Think: Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Perry Ellis, and later Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.

Brands & American Culture

Basics = Glamor

American brands grew famous not only through ease-of-use, but by applying glamor to the basics. Calvin Klein was really the first to bring this strategy onto the international stage with cK Jeans.

Sex Sports Sells

American brands maintained a wholesome edge by applying sport motifs to marketing campaigns. Ralph Lauren is really the champion here (ha, champion), naming lines in his arsenal after waspy sports (polo, rugby, etc.).

No Logo???

American companies were first to mark-up and sell basics by brand name. While this began in the US, it is now a global trend. I’m looking at you, GAP.

The Challenge of Democratic Fashion

American designers have a tradition of taking inspiration from the streets and pop culture. A brand image based on a lifestyle within pop culture makes US brands highly appealing in the mass market, and allows for an easy shift from product specialization (dresses) through licensing of additional products (underwear, sunglasses, perfume) to a total-living product range (clothes, accessories, furniture, house paint). However, it also presents some limitations outside of the US market, namely in Europe.

There exists a problem of perception of US brands, making it difficult for them to gain market share in Europe.Picture 2

If a consumer thinks a country’s production system is geared towards the mass market, she will have problems associating that country’s products with high-end, exclusive quality. This perception is furthered when a brand enters a foreign market at the lowest price point.

Most high-end designers enter the market at the top level, and then trickle-down into the mass market. (Even Armani, who just added a couture line in 2006, began in high-end ready-to-wear.)

cK and some other US brands have entered the EU market at the most accessible lower levels (underwear), and then have problems moving into the upper end. Once you position yourself at the bottom of the market, it is very difficult to move up against market perception. It would be similar to the GAP opening a couture line in the eyes of the European market.

Change is Gonna Come

2009 CFDA Swarovski award nominees Clockwise from left: Tim Hamilton, Alejandro Ingelmo, Patrik Ervell,Albertus Q. Swanepoel, Thakoon Panichgul, Justin Giunta, Alexander Wang, Robert Geller, Jason Wu

Against this perception is the current economic crisis, which is leveling the playing field in production quality as European brands are increasingly forced to outsource into developing countries, making the “Made in the USA” mark gain relative global superiority. Also, younger American designers are becoming increasingly coveted around the world (Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Thakoon, Philip Lim, Jason Wu, etc) by demonstrating modern global aesthetic relevance in combination with the US style that is down-to-earth and easy.

As the classic European brands look to shake the dust off by employing entertaining head-designers and pumping millions into blowout marketing campaigns, the American brands maintain relevancy by willingly passing the generational torch to young designers (bringing youthful vigor to the whole industry); paying attention to and anticipating market shifts; and by sticking to the tradition of ease and multi-cultural simplicity.

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Fashion as Art as Fashion

8 06 2009

Consuming Fashion...

Since I just did a business overview of Dolce & Gabbana, I was thinking about their controversial ad campaigns. There has been a lot written on the subject, from reports of bans to protests from anti-violence groups.

Most designers from Marc Jacobs to Armani have stated that fashion is not art. In fact, Marc Jacobs was quoted: “Fashion to me is not art because it is only valid if it is lived in and worn.” That’s all good and well in making the attempt to drive mass sales, although Marc’s own collaborations with artists such as Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince – or Armani’s recent museum-touring retrospective – might show that they actually do consider fashion to be art. When creativity meets commerce, does it matter if fashion is not hung on a wall for the occasional observation?

What is art, if not a subject for provocation and inspiration? And, while today’s fashion world may be led by the sales figures of merchandisers more than the creative impulses of artists and designers, there is still an underlying art form in fashion, which seeks to provoke and inspire. If the garments themselves cannot be considered “art” by our anti-commercial definitions, then surely fashion photography can (and should) fill in the gaps.

Fashion has a long relationship with photography. To quote from Cathy Horyn:

“If fashion shows are a way for a designer to think out loud, collaborations with a photographer can help spin those disparate ideas into a story. Both Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein owe a debt to the visionary eye of Bruce Weber, who is really a storyteller. Gianni Versace frequently paid homage to Richard Avedon, whose pictures lent imaginative energy to Versace’s designs. And it seems doubtful that generations of women would have felt quite the same about Yves Saint Laurent’s pantsuits if Helmut Newton had not made them an object of sex and mystery.” ~from her article When Is a Fashion Ad Not a Fashion Ad?

juergen teller for marc jacobsMarc makes me think…

While Marc Jacobs’ ad campaign collaborations with Juergen Teller have inspired cult fans to look beyond the typical product-placements and see the Marc Jacobs world from the indie perspective he lives within, the Dolce & Gabbana ad campaigns create the very concept of provocation that the designers take inspiration from. Where it would be quite difficult to meet the sales figures necessary for a large luxury brand if each item alienated the mainstream through such provoking themes as date rape or warfare, the ad campaign can do just that.

dolce & gabbana ad campaigns

…But so does DG

Of course, I understand the opposing argument that these ads are no more than superficial charades imposed by the brands to maintain some street cred in the art world (and surely, to an extent they are), I also believe that it’s a very creative way for the designers to explore and explain their more provocative themes without hurting sales figures. The designer’s most die-hard fans typically “get it,” and those who don’t at least take on the aspirational values of someone who wants to get it. Even if the clothing isn’t particularly provocative or thought provoking, the ads can be, and that’s enough to ensure that a creative vision can be carried out while simultaneously creating the coveted word-of-mouth buzz around a brand.

Furthermore, isn’t this the perfect segue into using content to develop the online experience of a brand? I think so!

Required Reading: On Fashion, Photography & Art

Inside the Mania for Fashion as Art: How a Sedate Museum Ventured to Create a Home for a Sumptuous Costume Collection

TIME Magazine: Dialogue on art & fashion (“Art and fashion get along like the couples whom nobody expects to stay together.” Ha!)

It may be fashion, but is it art?

Striking Poses: Is fashion photography art?

‘Fashion is not art’ (Rei Kawakubo may say it, but she proves the opposite)

Dress Sense: Why fashion deserves its place in art museums (this is a good one!)

Is fashion a true art form? Acclaimed designer Zandra Rhodes and the director of the Design Museum, Alice Rawsthorn, go head to head

Is the future of art in their hands? (Designers take over our galleries and museums)

Fashion and Art Collide in Hong Kong

Fashion: A Presentation on Contemporary Concepts of Art and Expression (analysis of the 1967 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin article: “Is Fashion an Art?”)





Fashion History: From the Belle Epoque through WW1

11 01 2009

Orientalism

An intense fascination for the Orient was the largest influence on stylistic change at the turn of the century. The Ballets Russes was first performed in Paris in 1909, and quickly became a blockbuster sensation across Europe. Dancers performed oriental tales, dressed in brightly colored costumes of unprecedented combination. The designs, like that to the left, were originally created by Leon Bakst. It was the first time that a theater event had any major impact on the way we dress.

Consider how great the impact of celebrities -actors, sports stars, musicians, etc.- is on fashion now!

While Charles Worth was catering to upper-class women, Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) was designing stage sets and dressing actresses. Young designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) worked for Doucet in this regard, until he gave away a design model to a young actress, who had the pattern realized by another designer. (This is one of the first of MANY cases questioning the copyright of a fashion design.) He then went on to work at the House of Worth.

Worth’s legacy had been 19th century dress. After his death in 1895, his two sons were unsure of how to move his style forward (this is the first case of a fashion house having to carry on without their namesake). Poiret presented them with a new style, which was rejected as low-class by Worth’s heirs (if you think this sounds like Marc Jacobs’ 1992 grunge collection for Perry Ellis, which got him fired while rocketing him to superstar status, you are catching on… history does repeat itself). Poiret then went out on his own. He was a marketing genius and focused on window displays, adding shock value by giving them a theatrical stage quality to get attention.

The Poiret dress had no crinoline, no corset and was more tubular than S-shaped, with a higher waistline. However, the corset did not completely disappear; Poiret’s dresses still needed undergarment support, though not as tight. The fabrics were in brighter, happier colors than Worth’s sober patterns.

Aside from helping to free women from the corset and crinoline, Poiret’s greatest contribution to the fashion world was his attention to the means of communication and diffusion for his creations. As fashion magazines were often too sober for his colors, Poiret started a cooperation with young artists, Paul Iribe (right) and Geirges Lepape, to draw his dresses. Again, we are seeing here another first example: this time of an in-house marketing team.

Poiret went further to create a symbol (trademark) of his maison: the rose. This would not only serve as his logo, but the pattern would be incorporated into many of his designs, such as the famous Joséphine dress (1907), named for the Empress Joséphine.

He generally paid more attention to the overall effect than to the fine details of dress construction, and threw a huge party to sell something more than a dress, but rather, a dream. The Féte de la Mille et Deuxiéme Nuit was the name of Poiret’s 1910 traveling party, in which he toured his models throughout Europe. The traveling party was Persian-themed with authentic props, decoration, musicians and so on. Guests came in Persian costume, creating a buzz and word of mouth marketing for the house, which led to mass attention from the press and the world. This was followed by a US tour in 1913.

Poiret was also the first to extend his brand beyond fashion, into perfumes, cosmetics and furnishings (brand extension). As many ground-breaking brand strategies as Poiret introduced into the fashion industry, he could very well be considered the godfather of modern fashion branding.

For a great article on Poiret, check out this article at style.com: Fashioning the Century.