An Open Letter to the Fashion Industry

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Alber Elbaz spring summer 2016 exiting Lanvin ss16 finale
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Fashion Industry: you are breaking the creatives that have created you.

Dear Fashion Industry,

I know you don’t know me, but I’ve been reporting on your inner workings for the better part of a decade. It hardly seems fair that I know you so well and you hardly know me at all, so, in the words of Mick Jagger, please allow me to introduce myself.

When I was a little girl, I knew less than nothing about fashion. I wore my sister’s hand-me-downs and dirtied them in the forests and creeks of North Carolina. I lived wild as the wind, and by most measures, was a very, very late bloomer. My interest in fashion occurred when a lightning bolt flung by Alexander McQueen electrified my entire body the first time I laid eyes on his controversial Fall/Winter 1999  collection which I stumbled across by accident when researching Scotland’s history for a school paper. Until that moment, I never understood that fashion had a purpose beyond just cool clothes that made you fit in with cool people. I wasn’t cool growing up. I was a real, earnest, nerdgirl before nerds were cool and accepted by the mainstream. I slept on Star Wars pillowcases and had my nose stuck in books so often that  I regularly careened into walls because I insisted on walking and reading at the same time. I was smart in a way that I didn’t know was a threat to others until I was tortured for it regularly at school, but I quickly learned how to hide my passions and interests out of a desperate need to protect myself from the cruelty of ignorance.

I was also mocked and belittled for how I looked. I hit puberty like you hit your funny bone — so awkwardly and uncomfortably that it seemed like the painful tingle of it would never end. I’ll never forget the time I was with the 7th grade softball team in Anne Smith’s room (she was the coolest girl in school), and Becky White (she was the meanest girl in school) suddenly proposed that everyone “who could fill a bra” should go into Anne’s walk-in closet to try on clothes. She pointedly looked at me when she said it, so I sat red-faced in humiliated silence by myself on the bed while they all filed in and giggled behind a closed closet door. Before McQueen rescued me from my bitterness, I always thought fashion was to be found behind a door marked “Grace: Do Not Enter.”

McQueen showed me that fashion was an art form, the most precious one possible because its purpose was to adorn and decorate the human body, to elevate it to a new level where the wearer could become anything, could dream of a better self and become it. It was acceptance of who you are at the deepest level, but it also provided a way to improve yourself in any way that you saw fit. It turns out, fashion and I would become innately intertwined to the point where it became my life’s work explaining it and celebrating it.

Fashion’s innate humanism is what drew me to it, but like every good and beautiful thing I’ve grown to love, I soon found it had a dark side. Because fashion is a consumer product, it is driven by the typical supply-and-demand, capitalist model. The problem is, this economic model is insatiable and greedy.

Because fashion is a consumer product, it is driven by the typical supply-and-demand, capitalist model. The problem is, this economic model is insatiable and greedy.

I can’t fathom why any single person would need a million or a billion dollars, but that’s the value that capitalism proposes: wealth and prosperity over everything. Sure, it would be nice to be rich, but I’ve never been motivated by money, so the idea of bottomless wealth genuinely baffles and upsets me. Before the 1970s, fashion houses were owned and commodified by single entities, but in the modern era they are predominantly owned and operated by luxury conglomerates like LVMH, PPR, and Kering. For the creative, beautiful, purposeful side of fashion, this is a very, very bad thing. For the investor, it is a very, very good thing.

Roughly around the same time that multi-national conglomerates became majority stakeholders in fashion brands we witnessed the birth of the celebrity designer, and a few years later, the birth of the super model. With both came a tidal wave of image-based marketing that led to the triumph of desire-based merchandising, which is where trends were born. This, in turn, led to the accelerated pace of fashion seasons. Society was sucked into the glamorous spectacle proposed by you, Fashion Industry, and we’ve been getting sick on these poisoned ideals ever since. Why is it that we now consume clothing at the same rate that we buy groceries? If you talk to anyone from an older generation, they’ll tell you of the days when a shoe purchase was made in deliberate, considered fashion because those were the shoes they would be wearing for years to come. It’s not just fast fashion that is to blame, because if you look at the facts and figures of a major luxury brands quarterly earnings and notice any sort of dip, what swiftly seems to follow is the dismissal of the brand head. The message is clear: produce profitable merchandise or get out.

Which brings me to why I’m writing this letter: I just learned of the heartbreaking fact that my beloved Alber Elbaz is leaving Lanvin after 14 years of service, and this is on the heels of the earth-shattering news that Raf Simons has departed from Dior. These are two men who have made fashion that matters. I’ve lived through these moments many times before, like when Nicolas Ghesquière left Balenciaga (I cried), when Marc Jacobs left Louis Vuitton, when McQueen committed suicide (I still cry), and the list goes on ad infinitum.

Fashion Industry: you are breaking the creatives that have created you.

The free market capitalist economic model is deeply flawed, and trickle down economic theory is a myth. Even though we’ve been falsely led to believe it’s the only system that works, it has revealed itself in the modern era to be collapsing in on itself like a black hole. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class is disappearing, and the environment is slowly going the way of the buffalo. And every country that reaches the top, topples swiftly back down again. Just look at the market crash in the US in 2008, and what happened in China just over the summer. Deregulation, privatization, cronyism, bought-and-sold elections, it’s all as bad as the dystopian novelists warned us it would be.

When fashion is possessed by a corporation, it is beholden to corporate interest, which has nothing but the bottom line in mind. With that comes insane pressures to perform; to yield increasing profits every single quarter. Creative designers are suffering tremendously because of this, and while some are unceremoniously ousted due to poor shareholder returns, others, like Simons, are leaving with their dignity intact, they’re choosing to say “enough is enough.”

(Except Karl Lagerfeld, but he’s a total and complete anomaly in his field — in the entire known universe for that matter.)

There is a better way to approach fashion business than by appointing figureheads and then wringing every atomic drop of creativity out of them and their teams until they are used up and useless.

Call me a hopeless romantic or a naive idealist, but I refuse to believe fashion ISN’T that pure, essential thing I first fell in love with, the thing that currently gives my life color, purpose, and joy whenever I am able to experience it in its true, unmolested form. Although there is no way to excoriate fashion from the crooked claws of business, there is a better way forward than this. There is a better way to approach fashion business than by appointing figureheads and then wringing every atomic drop of creativity out of them and their teams until they are used up and useless. People are not commodities. I am heartbroken to bear witness to the devaluation of creativity in the most creative field in human history. These departures should tell you that the system is broken. I am so angry to see the creative field I love be destroyed by greed. For that reason, I stand with every designer who says “enough is enough.” I don’t know the way forward, but I know there is one, and I won’t rest until I figure it out and then shout the answer to the whole wide world.

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