Cathy Horyn (a fashion critic for the New York Times and my personal idol) recently said in a review of the Menswear fashion week in Paris that a lot of the designs felt drained of creativity. She presented a problem that is only growing with the salary gap — that being a complimentary gap between what designers are sending out on the runway and what people are wearing on the street. “Either designers don’t know how to relate their designs to the street so that those ideals feel urgent,” said Horyn. “Or, more likely, they are tranquilized by the luxury brands they serve.”
I think both of these reasons are entirely plausible and should not be overlooked as irrelevant. Now, I won’t enter into an argument over whether the country is still in a recession — there is no question as to the shaky economic status of many Americans, especially those in our situation just embarking on careers from college. I think that designers at the moment are stuck between a rock and a hard place: the rock being the statistics that show people are not spending as much, especially on retail, as they have in the past, and the hard place their reputations as producers of quality clothing.
How does one maintain that luxury status while staying in business? How does one reach a larger commercial audience while creatively pushing the label to stay “urgent?” How many people want to dress in the “urgent” fashions off the runway? How many runway designers are concerned with what the majority of people want to wear?
As you can see, I’m sending myself in rhetorical circles. It’s a painful cycle and not a new one. Fashion reflects the times: yes, the economic circumstances but also the public’s attitude toward their financial situation. This is where it’s easy to shrink into the assumption that with every recession comes austere minimalism and “staple” collections that feature certain articles of clothing that “every woman needs” or are ready-to-wear, non-challenging and predictable. There is some merit to these pockets in fashion history where style is broken down to its basics, to examine just what are those essentials— the base products that promote sexuality, femininity, elegance or power dressing.
It’s not often I will talk about haute couture. Haute couture (or just couture) is a fun fantasy world to live out in slideshows and glamorous editorials. These finer collections are typically composed of one-of-a-kind pieces of formal wear, usually the area for designers to release their creative energy and put expense on the back burner (only six designers in the season thus far have shown couture collections, as opposed to the dozens upon dozens who create ready-to-wear.)
That being said, the recent Chanel couture collection is an interesting play on this rule. I was breezing through the runway photos one day this past week in Starbucks, anticipating the usual Chanel suit and slow progression to glitzy gowns of silk organza taffeta, what have you. I was pleasantly surprised. The clothes were incredibly grounded for a couture collection. The shoes were all black or white pointed flats. There were tweed skirt suits layered with sequined pants for an unusual down-to-earth feel, and there were silk sashes and bouncy floral skirts that flowed casually above the knee. Most importantly, there were jeans. Look 37 was the most striking to me: a pair of jeans with buttons lining the seam from ankle to calf, a loosely tied white sash and a silvery beaded top. This could have easily passed for a look in a ready-to-wear collection, but, with a closer look at the skilled craftsmanship on the tunic, its couture status is apparent. But why the jeans?
In Sarah Mower’s review of the collection on the Vogue website, she deemed the feel of Chanel’s collection “reality chic.” I like the ring of that — it seems to perfectly encapsulate the dilemma the fashion world is in at the moment. According to Lagerfeld, the solution is to live in the Chanel fairy tale where jeans are couture, even the simplest gypsy sash is the epitome of elegance and black flats can be worn for any occasion. Chic? Yes. Real? Yes.
Burrit is a member of the class of 2012.