It used to be that wearing tartan really meant something. Intrinsic to the Scottish National Identity, it was undoubtedly one of the most important symbols to come out of Scotland and it signified a certain sense of belonging for the clans that once wore them. It was also a representation of rebellion against governmental control at the time. When Vivienne Westwood revisited this particular woven style for her own collections throughout the nineties, it was this sense of rebellion that was carried forward. The silhouettes were reworked for a modern mindset, but that thread of rebellion is what the designer was really riffing on — a notion that fitted in nicely with all of that era’s anarchistic themes. Unfortunately though, it feels like today we have fallen into the trap of simply rehashing old ideas in fashion, without bringing any new meaning to the table. When designers toyed with tartan again last season it seemed gratuitous rather than meaningful. It has become a symbol of ‘cool’, but we seem to have lost sight of why. And a lot of that has to do with the breakneck speed at which the industry is now charging forwards.
Raf Simons seems to understand what this is all about. Following on from his shock Dior departure, the designer explained to Cathy Horyn “When you do six shows a year, there’s not enough time for the whole process. Technically, yes — the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important.” It is this that we seem to be missing now — the time necessary for meaning to really develop in fashion. In many ways, it feels the same way in our contemporary culture too. What we have now is trends for trends’ sake; a loss of geographically defined subcultures; and celebrities who are wildly important, although no one really seems to understand why. Now don’t get me wrong. There are some collections that still feel meaningful in a way. Like Riccardo Tisci’s most recent collection for Givenchy, for example, or even Jacquemus’ work. The latter label seems actually founded in subculture, because it has literally been borne out of Simon Porte Jacquemus’ own personal friendships and what these young women want to wear. Givenchy’s significance comes down to a respect for history, as well as Tisci’s tendency to focus on themes that feel both timeless and, at the same time, so current. It’s just that these examples now seem to be in the minority, rather than the other way around.
Image: Simon Porte Jacquemus is one designer whose work really does feel rooted in a particular subcultural moment.
I have spoken before about the fact that new designers are getting snapped up ever faster by the major groups like LVMH and Kering. Véronique Hyland uses the term ‘bought and brought’ to describe this process; whereby young talents are plucked from their bases and “spirited off to Paris to work for luxury fashion houses”. She refers to the likes of J.W. Anderson at Loewe here and Alexander Wang at Balenciaga. And it is a problem because a lot of these really fresh designers haven’t necessarily had the chance to cut their teeth yet. And, importantly, they also don’t seem to be as interested in the history of fashion as some of their more experienced peers. And, in the absence of this historical understanding, something is lost. In part, designers like Nicolas Ghesquière and Raf Simons are so important because of their wealth of cultural knowledge and their respect for what has come before. They are not content with simply reworking past trends like eighties maximalism without good reason for doing so now and also without a new way of making these concepts seem relevant for a contemporary consciousness.
But despite this, Simons seems to have still felt somewhat unfulfilled as a designer of late. According to Cathy Horyn he has, for some time now, been frustrated by the lack of time to create. “For his debut show, in July 2012, he had eight weeks to prepare, but that was soon cut in half, given other demands on his schedule,” she writes for the Cut. And even after splitting his design team in half — meaning that they weren’t all working on the same thing at once and thus had more time to create each collection — Simons still found that the time for reflection simply wasn’t there. “When you try an idea, you look at it and think, Hmm, let’s put it away for a week and think about it later,” he told Horyn. “But that’s never possible when you have only one team working on all the collections.” It is not just the newer designers who are struggling to grasp the meaning in fashion today, then, but in fact all designers. And what that comes down to is the speed at which they are now being forced to create. Raf Simons is undoubtedly one of the most prolific designers of our time, yet even he has been struggling to grasp the meaning behind the fashion. This isn’t because he doesn’t get it — he unequivocally does — but because when forced to churn out six major collections every single year, as well as organising the major spectacles at which to unveil them, even the best are struggling to keep up.
Image: The Dior and I documentary exposed some of Simons’ initial struggles at the house of Dior.
Of course, this situation is only exacerbated by the fact that so much fresh blood is now coursing throughout the major houses. As with so much else in our society today, it seems a constant race to snatch up the hottest new thing; to lay claim on the most buzzed about new graduate from Central Saint Martins and to, subsequently, thrust them into a high-powered role with loads of expectation and responsibility. “When these collaborations work, it’s alchemy of the most beautiful sort,” Hyland writes of this particular vortex. “But just as often, there’s a parting of the ways, grimly announced via a carefully phrased statement that faults neither party. And these breakups are getting more frequent even as the relationships get Tinder-match short.” We saw this recently with Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, who was of course, immediately replaced by Demna Gvasalia, the new most buzzed about designer. The problem with this, in Hyland’s opinion, is that it is killing the creativity in fashion. Raf Simons is an industry stalwart, but his recent departure seems to herald nothing if not the fact that even experience cannot bend time. “These designers have studios, dollars, and huge publicity machines at their disposal,” Hyland explains. “But they don’t have the luxury of time: time to develop an idea, time to set it aside, time to fail in the way that you inevitably need to when you’re starting any kind of creative enterprise.” If even the seasoned design talents like Raf Simons — with all their wealth of historical and cultural knowledge — cannot contend with fashion’s breakneck speed when it comes to creating meaningful collections, then, where does that really leave us?
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