I really like Alexander Wang as a designer, but his presentation for Balenciaga this season just felt a little lacking, again. It is difficult to put a finger on exactly why, but it felt worlds apart, for example, from what Raf Simons gave us over at Dior. Now in terms of age and experience, there is more than a decade between them. But this is not necessarily just a matter of age. Instead, it seems to come down to an understanding and appreciation of history and culture. What both of these designers share in common is the fact that they each established their own labels at a very early age. But in Simons’ case, he also logged time at Walter Van Beirendonck and Jil Sander before taking up his position at Dior. And even prior to Dior, his collections always felt as if they were somehow rooted in cultural history. For example, his very first Raf Simons runway show in Paris for fall-winter 1997 was a look at “American college students and English schoolboys with a background of New Wave and Punk”. Alexander Wang’s brand, on the other hand, has always felt more immediate than this. Undoubtedly an important label in today’s fashion landscape, it is also one that has been largely built on the success of New York’s ‘downtown aesthetic’ — a look that he has always tapped into so perfectly. The Wang approach to design, then, seems to be more rooted in the now and this is a theme that feels quite common amongst the new designers of today.
Image: Raf Simons referenced Victoriana meets Picnic at Hanging Rock for Dior spring-summer 16. Image source.
But what does this all really mean? It is not necessarily that Raf Simons is a better designer than Alexander Wang, but perhaps that he simply has a more broad cultural knowledge than some of his contemporaries and, importantly, that he puts this knowledge to work throughout his collections. Unlike Simons, Wang’s approach is more about the brand new and the rule breaking. He isn’t alone in this, either. Newcomers like Simon Porte Jacquemus are also about breaking the rules and pushing boundaries in order to deliver something that feels very right now — but the question remains: shouldn’t one really understand the rules before one can break them?
Following the current circuit at New York Fashion Week, fashion critic Cathy Horyn seemed altogether unimpressed with the lack of intention offered up by many of the newer designers on show. According to her New York Magazine review, she found that Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne focused too much on pinstriped suiting for their DKNY debut — “apparently ignoring the fact that the style is a bit threadbare”. She was even less forgiving of Kanye West’s collection for Yeezy, observing that “This second round of drab, broken-down basics proved he can’t be taken seriously as a designer”. Perhaps it is not just the fact that he is new to fashion that holds him back, but also the fact that he lacks consideration for its history, ignoring what has come before in favour of the present — if that is what one could even call beige bodysuits in 2015. “It fell to Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler to right the day, and bring on some actual fashion,” Horyn continues, clearly feeling relieved that “McCollough and Hernandez did the style with considerably more finesse, or intention, than other designers.”
Image: Balenciaga spring-summer 16. Image source.
This sense of intention seems to be integral. Cathy Horyn certainly seems to believe that some of the newer designers don’t have enough knowledge of art and cultural history to really take charge of a major fashion house. And I tend to agree with her. In a 15,000-word interview with System Magazine, she argued that “Today I think that the economics of fashion has affected everything in the industry. It’s not about aesthetics, it’s not about pleasure, it’s certainly not about charming people…” Above all, she seems to believe that branding is “pollution”. In her opinion, the sheer size of everything now means that “it’s harder for people to focus on things. Momentum is created by these niches but it seems strange to have all these brands yet with very little innovation going on”. On the other side of things, though, there are designers getting too caught up in complex references and finding themselves tripping up on all of this history, perhaps without properly understanding it. Reviewing the Creatures of the Wind, Tome and Creatures of Comfort collections, for example, Horyn said that “all three of these collections revealed designers struggling to innovate, and in the case of Lai [Creatures of Comfort], trying to inflate her extremely modest efforts with highfalutin references, like Corbusier’s architecture. She showed some nice summer clothes in faded prints, earthy colors, and oversize shapes. But everything about Lai’s presentation… seemed artificial.”
Image: Jade Lai’s Le Corbusier reference for Creatures of Comfort spring-summer 16 felt, at times, a little over-wrought. Image source.
What this really shows is that many fresh designers just don’t understand the history enough to respond to it in a meaningful way. It is not enough for a designer to say that they were inspired by a particular artist’s work, for example; they need to be able to understand why those particular works are relevant right now. Nor is it enough to say that a collection has drawn upon eighties silhouettes, because the designer really needs to have a good grasp on what makes that aesthetic appealing in 2015. Not only that, but also how it can be pushed forward in order to reflect a modern consciousness. It can’t simply be a rehashing of an old idea or a particular cultural movement, or else we would all be ceaselessly drawn into fashion’s cyclical vacuum. What we really need now, then, are the Rei Kawakubos, the Martin Margielas and the Helmut Langs of today. These were the designers that really understood the zeitgeist and made a statement about their time, and I think I am with Cathy Horyn in thinking that this could be something we’ll be missing in the two thousand and teens. So does this mean that we are stuck in the now and unable to propel forward? Because, if that’s the case, then things are starting to look somewhat dire.
Image: Balenciaga spring-summer 16. Image source.
Now don’t get me wrong. Alexander Wang’s spring-summer 2016 collection for Balenciaga was, overall, quite beautiful — and it certainly did feel a little more effortless than his other collections on behalf of the house. But more than anything, it felt much more Wang than it did Balenciaga. Indeed, before he set about creating this particular collection, the designer already knew he would be stepping down from his role as creative director in order to refocus his attentions on his signature label. Nicole Phelps suggests that it was perhaps this awareness that loosened him up creatively. Or “maybe he really hunkered down, determined to go out on a high note. Whichever, it’s no small irony that his last and best collection for the brand was the one that was truest to his own bred-in-California sensibilities.” For all the collection’s welcomed levity, though, one couldn’t help but ignore the fact that Balenciaga itself is not a bred-in-California brand. Far from it actually, having been founded in Spain during the early 1900s.
What is really interesting to me, too, is that no one really seems to talking about who will replace Alexander Wang at the house, now that he has made his final bow. Following the departure of Nicolas Ghesquiére in 2012, that seemed all anyone wanted to know — well, that and what his own next move was going to be. Phelps took the very apt image of Wang almost tripping over one of the presentation’s reflecting pools during his finale and turned this into an analogy to talk about the future of the house. “It was a pointed image,” she said. “His own show was bigger than ever and one of the highlights of the New York calendar. The question isn’t how Wang will fare now, but how Balenciaga will pick up the momentum again.” So is it that new designers are onto something really important here, or is history still an aspect as vital as ever to creating meaningful collections? I would argue that it is definitely the latter, but I suppose only time will really tell.
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