The Clothes Have No Emperor 

It’s no secret that I think fashion people often take fashion (and themselves) far too seriously. The twice-annual fashion week melee, the dark sunglasses, the cult of personality plaguing an industry that should have been taking the subway like everyone else — it’s been difficult lately not to engage in a bit of schadenfreude as the jet set’s pockets have become a bit lighter. 

I didn’t exactly cringe at the news that this year’s Costume Institute gala on May 4 is turning out to be a decidedly less posh affair. Certain labels (Versace and Gucci among them) have balked at the $75,000 to $250,000 tables they usually purchased for Anna Wintour’s glittering affair and are instead opting for individual seats. Reps for Ralph Lauren have released cagey statements like: “We of course will be supporting the event — we’re still not sure at what level yet.” It’s true that the red carpet display at the spring affair is traditionally one of the city’s more dazzling events, but in all seriousness: What retail brand in the world is feeling that flush right now? Doesn’t it all seem a little ostentatious, considering the circumstances? Haven’t we all soured a bit on high fashion, and shouldn’t they all be thinking a little bit more proletariat-friendly?

Yet amid all that news, I found Wintour’s editor’s letter in Vogue’s April issue — in which she shares her displeasure at Olivier Theyskens’ departure from Nina Ricci — strangely affecting. It’s widely known that the label pushed Theyskens — regarded among insiders to be enormously talented risk-taker — out of the company. But the industry was flabbergasted that such a talent was let go.

Wintour sums up all our feelings quite eloquently: “Olivier Theyskens’s recent departure from Nina Ricci suggests to me that the vital role of artistic talent has been obscured in the current economic climate… I am very concerned that the business of fashion is undervaluing the most important asset our industry requires: creative visionaries.”

Dark sunglasses and personality cults aside, in an industry like fashion, it usually takes an idealist to pull the enterprise into a new direction. The rise of retail over fashion and discount retail over investment pieces (as addicted as I am to Topshop, I appreciate the sea change that monster brands like Topshop, Uniqlo and H&M signify) has limited the space for a wild, far-reaching “visionary” at the helm of a brand. Peter Som was rumored to have been forced out of Bill Blass before its recent collapse, Roberto Cavalli continues to hint he’ll sell his company, and rumors suggest that Valentino himself was pushed out of his own empire. (The new movie about him is even called The Last Emperor, for what that’s worth...)

There will always be a Jason Wu, an Alexander Wang — a personality that grips the interest of the public and for a moment seems to capture all the energy in the room — but more and more labels are turning to design teams or company-friendly talent. Perhaps it won’t be all bad — J.Crew’s 2009 collections, for example, are stunning — but it will be an odd feeling to start referring to collections by their brand names instead of the forward-thinking talent behind them.


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