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"The Fashion System"

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In 2013, Caroline Evans published The Mechanical Smile, a book which detailed the rise of modernism in fashion design, and gave insight into the early modes of presentation in fashion, though limited to the first thirty years of the twentieth century. One of the chief ideas is rather simple; what is the fashion system? There is a common language in fashion journalism, retail, and so on, which assumes a certain normalcy in the way that the world of fashion operates, specifically regarding show, spectacle, and designer-client relations. It is that precise system which has become engraved in popular media, and thus in our collective imagination. Indeed, this is the reason why contemporary fashion journalism finds itself in an odd place. There is constant talk of collapse of this system, how it is now inundated with "too many shows", "not enough originality", and that with the decline of a system of presentation declines an industry entirely.

We can trace the rise of our present ideas of fashion as far back as the 1880s, however, it was not until Lucille of London that we get a clear picture of this. Her events were often invite only, shown in an atelier or rented manor, with invites being given to celebrities, socialites, and of course most importantly; the press. The first shows were private, and only media spectacles in the sense that they would later be written about for a select few in the pages of a newspaper. However, most who could afford such clothes would already be invited, or hear otherwise about the collections of early designers. Thus, there was little popular clamour for designers in the very first days of presentation. It would not be until the 1910s that this system truly became fleshed out, with the rise of "the living mannequin", and ever-more-ingenious methods of presenting clothes. One of the watershed moments of this Belle Époque was the presentation of Margarine Lacroix's gowns out of the manor, at the Hippodrome do Longchamp, described thusly by Susie Ralph:

The date – Sunday 10th of May 1908, the event – The Prix du Prince de Galles at Longchamp racecourse. A fashionably dressed crowd has gathered for this important date in the Parisian social calendar. The races are the place to see and be seen, where royalty and grandes dames rub shoulders with actresses and the demi-monde, all showing off the latest couture creations. Suddenly a furore breaks out as three beautiful models enter the enclosure – for beneath their exquisite and exceptionally clinging gowns they appear to be wearing – nothing! 

Newspaper article detailing the showing of Lacroix's dresses

The importance of the removal of the corset cannot be understated. Once women's dress was free from the established silhouette of the corset, anything was possible. It is true in some senses to say that Lacroix paved the way for everything from Cristobal Balenciaga's famed wedding dress, to the modern structural work of Gareth Pugh or Craig Green. It was the start of a revolution in motion and silhouette, which, coupled with a new daring in presentation, took fashion from the manor to the streets. Benjamin and Baudelaire's flâneur was to reappear - if only as a bourgeois imitation, in the runway model. The model became the individual-at-freedom in the city, and everyone strove to imitate it. A now-comic article appeared in 1912 in the Chicago Daily Tribune which instructed readers how they too could walk like the models of Paris; the ‘ingenue crouch,’ a type of “wiggly, wobbly ambling stride” that was all the rage, and supplanted the athletic American woman’s walk with the smaller steps of the Parisienne. The walk of the corset, a stage managed and rigid look, had been thrown out; it was now the form of the person which would, at least temporarily, become the avant-garde (A revolution echoed in the treatment of human form by Japanese designers in the 1980s). 

All of a sudden, the fashion show changed, from a private display to a public spectacle. Some shows attracted thousands of paying ticketholders; the petite-bourgeoisie who could not afford the round-the-world trips or to bet on the races could instead take in a fashion show, and gaze on the works of Poiret or Paquin. This echoes in the show of Kanye West in Madison Square Garden, a return to form which fashion had become too engrossed in standardization to bother with. The world of fashion too would blur with the world of art. It was true then that fashion was a product, but unlike today, fashion exhibited an artistic power, which was worthy of the artistic avant-garde of 1920s and 30s France. Perhaps the greatest example of this, and the man who kept alive the art of fashion after the passing of the Belle Époque, is Jacques Doucet. 

The foyer of Jacque Doucet's Hôtel Particulier

Jacques Doucet made his fortune as a designer, born into a family with a rich history in Paris' fashion industry, however, it is he who is remembered best as a patron, and in championing the serious consideration of couture amongst art critics. A friend of Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and many others, Doucet bridged the world of couture with the avant-garde of his friends in Dada, Surrealism, and elsewhere. Indeed, his house, designed largely by Gustave Miklos and Joseph Csaky, is perhaps the best representative of his era. This consideration of fashion as more than a product, or a mere object, would continue into the 1950s, with the imitation of Paris outside of France, the observations of the Situationists, and the commercialization of fashion. 

In 1951, the first Italian fashion show went ahead in Florence. In 1957, Yves Saint Laurent took over as the head of the house of Dior. In 1959, Pierre Cardin produced the first ready-to-wear collection for a department store. In 1967, Guy Debord published La société du spectacle. In the 1970s, fashion simultaneously exploded and settled. The 1970s was the era in which garment production largely moved outside of Europe to Asia; In the twenty years from 1970 to 1990, the number of TCF workers increased by 597 percent in Malaysia; 416 percent in Bangladesh; 385 percent in Sri Lanka; 334 percent in Indonesia; 271 percent in the Philippines; and 137 percent in Korea. However, it was also the 1970s in which two key events took place, which still shape the narrative of the industry. The beginning of licensing, and the solidification of the runway show. While it's true that the runway show had been one of the primary methods of presentation for decades, it was in 1973 that the Fédération Française de la Couture, following Milan in 1953 and predating London's 1983 inauguration. However, it was with this that the "fashion calendar" solidified itself, and the idea of the modern fashion system came to be. Debord's theses on the rise of the mediatic phenomenon proved prescient to the fashion journalists of today, who grew up largely in the 1980s and 1990s, when fashion television had established an order of business. Charlie Porter, a journalist who has worked with BoF and GQ spoke this way on it: 

TV coincided with the rise of the designer brands which now dominate: Armani, Versace, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood. When TV started showing fashion in the early 80s, the notion of ready-to-wear was still incredibly new. And yet TV gave it substance, as if fashion had always been this way. TV coincided with, and helped to coalesce, the idea of “the fashion system”. The circuit of shows that provided content, as well as reason for employment, for fashion journalists. Because we have an idea ingrained from childhood of what the shows should be like from TV, that is how we think they should forever be. And yet it’s clear that the purpose, timing, scheduling and access to fashion shows has always been fluid. What’s happening right now isn’t a breakdown of some centuries old tradition. It’s the latest shift in and industry that profits from change.



An excerpt from CCN's Style with Elsa Klensch, which reached an estimated 200 million viewers and defined an era of fashion journalism

And so then, where are we left? Does this system of only four decades define an industry which sociologists have traced over centuries? Where does the fashion show go? There has been a clear shift away from the legacy of the 80s and 90s in modern fashion. Fashion licensing is all but dead. Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole cleaned up Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent's licenses, as did Sidney Toledano at Dior, who reduced that house's licenses from "300 to a handful," Suzy Menkes reported in 2000. And that trend has continued. Burberry bought back its China franchises in 2010 for £70 million. The echo of the days of licensing come instead in the "collaboration", which instead of reducing price and diluting the name, gives a chic look to slightly-less-expensive products done often times by design teams and aimed at ever-richer masses. Fashion has never been more ubiquitous, and it is that fact which puts this system in trouble. When every brand has a runway, and cities such as Iowa City are capable of putting on fashion weekends, there is clear evidence that houses need to differentiate themselves in order to stay relevant. It is an interesting question as to what will take over from the runway. See-now, buy-now? Presentations akin to that of Kanye West? No presentation at all? Or perhaps the industry which touts luxury and exclusivity as it's greatest asset will continue down a path of democratization. It is as said by Molière; « L'hypocrisie est un vice à la mode et tous les vices à la mode passent pour vertus. » (Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice and all vices in fashion are considered virtues).

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