There is a certain truth that people in the fashion industry are trying to ignore: Considering the fact that designers only appeared on the scene about 150 years ago, and only gained significant power in the last 70 years, chances are that fashion designers won't be here forever, and that their role as aesthetic leaders in this industry will diminish with time. Or will at least change dramatically.
It is commonly held that there were two major stages in the evolution of the designer. The first is associated with the birth of the modern couturier in the late 19th century, when the dictation of new trends moved from the nobility to a clothing artist who would later on sign his creations with a label and be identified with a specific style. From that point onwards, trends started flowing from the couturier (and later on the designer) to consumers – rather than the other way around.
In the middle of the 20th century, and with the ascendance of the American fashion industry, which was unconnected to the European tradition of conservative couture practices and was much in favor of industrial large-scale solutions, a new breed started to emerge: that of the ready-to-wear designer. If couture was based on salons, intimate spaces where the selling and production process were effected on demand, ready-to-wear clothes were based on manufacturers who would purchase ideas and sketches from designers and produce them in standard sizes. From this point on, off-the-rack clothing started to bear labels and to bear the designer’s aesthetics signatures.
Although ready-to-wear is the core of the industry today, and although it is still possible to draw a distinction between couturiers and stylistes (the French word for ready-to-wear designers), those two professionals bear one thing in common: If they want to be recognized as relevant designers worthy of that epithet, they must be creators. While not always accurate, the principal role of both of these artisans was usually to take a familiar form of clothing – a dress, trousers or a shirt – and nip and tuck them with cut and color so as to suit a certain mood or aesthetic purpose or attitude. At least in terms of ambition, the new form didn't really exist before it was created, and usually designers were credited or remembered in history for precisely that reason. Invention and originality, the keys to novelty, were the core motivation and force that kept creators creating and customers consuming.
Sometimes the difference wrought by this manipulation was dramatic, sometimes it was subtle, but the idea was that a significant change in the form of the garment must happen in order to fit the vision of its creator. Both Balenciaga and Chanel had black dresses, just as both Alexander McQueen and Dolce and Gabbana had (very) low-rise pants at the turn of the millennium, but specific alterations made a difference regarding how you should wear the garment, as well as what it said about the wearer. It may have been the same trend, but in order for a designer to still be called a designer, some specification was necessary.
But what happens when you stop nipping and tucking? What happens when you exchange the ambition to be unique with an ambition to quote? Are you still a designer?
This question is extremely relevant in the 21st century, which feels doomed to boredom and lack of originality, at least as far as the fashion critics are concerned. Not only have the first and the second decades been characterized by a retro feeling which has brought many 20th century looks back in fashion again and again, but as the last menswear season proved, nothing seems exciting anymore. What was initially diagnosed as “fashion week fatigue,” or has been understood simply as being “too much fashion,” might be more than a just a grey stain on the golden background of the industry. There is a chance that something fundamental is changing in the system. Radically.
There is a drive towards a substructure that is connected to reproduction and duplication, and its repetitive nature can be seen on several levels, from marketing to design, and to the artistic expression of fashion.
Some of this ennui can be associated with the growing involvement of the marketing and business departments of designer brands in the design process. The pressure on designers to introduce their own versions of market hits, even ones that have no connection to their own aesthetic or that lack any significant manipulation, is immense. It is not designing on the basis of a general trend, such as “athleisure,” but on the basis of a very recognizable source. In other words, copying (but not in an authorized way, as in the 1950's). This is what lead to the 'Stan Smith syndrome' – with the same style appearing everywhere, from high end to low end, under numerous designer labels. This is also happening now with fur keychains, replaceable bag handles, Palladium shoes or Teva luxury knock-off sandals.
Having said that, designers are also being accused more frequently of adopting unique ideas from one another. (This happened recently with "the rule breaker" Alessandro Michele and the Dapper Dan jacket and other non-mainstream sources; or Vetement's sock shoes that “appeared” under many other well-known designer labels).
While one might argue that this was always the case in fashion, and that it is only more visible now because of the ease of making claims on social media, the number of these cases, and the fact the rewarded designers are continuing to knowingly borrow from others as though they were a high street fashion chain, are making it clear that what was once a cause for shame is now becoming a cause for glory. As the popularity and media coverage of those designers doesn't seem to subside following such incidents – and some assume that’s just the nature of a Facebook-logic world, where sharing an idea and making it viral is caring – it seems to bother no one, except maybe the original creators who might feel robbed.
So, the idea of reproduction is becoming the norm at every level. The general effect – that “we have already seen this so many times” – is becoming more dramatic considering how large pre-collections, which are usually an opportunity to introduce more commercial and non-original designs between seasons, have become in the past five years. A head buyer of a well-known boutique, who has a good online presence, recently remarked in this regard that he is reducing his budget for pre-collections and resort, since many brands maintain the same products season after season, and he does not see any point in repurchasing the same designs time and time again.
The motivation for not starting something new but continuing to rely on existing ideas is also motivated by to the way that fashion brands operate nowadays – historic houses with a firm legacy which employ new head designers every now and then. Since high fashion is ruled by this model it is common for designers to “quote and research the archive,” and – as the most recent Dior Haute Couture and Chanel shows proved – it is more about what was, than about what could be.
This general spirit might also explain why collaborations became such a comfortable solution over the past decade. What started as a grand democratic idea, or at least as a fashion idea that was strongly connected to the 'sharing' nature of social media as well, became a lazy solution to move designs from one place to another and use them twice, with most of the effort being put on marketing rather than on design itself.
Meet the Assembler
The mindset of "copying is ok" is not only making designers more comfortable with a lack of originality. If you combine these ambitions – market hits, reproduction, archives – you will see that fashion is moving from dealing with the future to dealing with the past, or at least with the present. In this regard, we should note that fashionable society, which arose in the 14th century, has always been defined by its need to reject the immediate past (as distinct from ancient or classical societies whose desire was to preserve their past traditions).
It is not surprising that the diminishing expectation of novelty is gradually becoming a wider practice that is changing the motivation for design, the sources of inspiration in general and finally, the role of the designer her- or himself.
The signs of this development can be seen in the work of the most important millennial designers, especially those who have risen to the fore since the second part of the first decade of the 21st century.
Hedi Slimane and Demna Gvasalia, as fitting examples, started by following the old principles of nipping and tucking that were expected of a ready-to-wear designer, trying to achieve newer silhouettes that should, at least, cause some kind of sensation. As time went by, with Slimane’s move to Saint Laurent or Gvasalia’s recent collections for Vetements and Balenciaga, the approach started to shift as they parted ways with the longstanding rules.
In general, some of their creations became more and more banal, merely imitating garments that were already available or known in day-to-day life. It might be a velvet blazer or motorcycle jacket, dark tight jeans and 'Vans' sneakers for Slimane, or Gvasalia's most recent collections for Balenciaga and Vetements – major portions of which were based on very generic jeans, generic shirts and a generic, find-it-anywhere, unfashionable blazer. Some of the time, they seem to be working like ready-made artists, with their aesthetic ambition being realized by using what appear to be “pre-existing” clothes, which could have come from anywhere else.
This way of working, which is both a byproduct and an accelerator of the current fashion mood, is part of the reason why critics have grumbled that besides their quality, many of the Saint Laurent garments looked as though they had come from any other adolescent brand or any commercialized youth-oriented subculture, or why the last Balenciaga menswear collection was described in Vogue Runway as "relics of the kind can be found in charity shops everywhere".
If there was any nipping and tucking done, it appeared to have been done in order to make the clothes look even more ubiquitous and as though they had been taken from the world, rather than from the design studio. Perhaps it is worth noting that these designers also cast non-models to show their designs, so we don't even need 'special people' to carry them. It is not surprising that this is also the case with Gosha rubchinskiy, a much younger designer. The ambition of “generic-ness” is very fitting to his work. As a fashion lecturer with Soviet roots has noted – he is imitating the most average clothes from the USSR (the only major difference being his logo that he splashes everywhere).
Because it is possible to argue that a stylist or a buyer might be able to create a similar effect without producing even one single garment, merely by making selections from the ever-growning fashion environment, the point about the new role of the designer is not about style, nor is it about high and low, but it is about the method of working. Since the clothes themselves hold no real uniqueness, and considering the entire substructure of repetition that is characteristic of current fashion, the importance and novelty are shifting to what designers select to reproduce rather than what they create.
A third phase in the evolution of the role of the designer is now taking place. First a couturier, and then a ready to wear creator, the designer of the 21st century is an “Assembler” – like those ready-made artists, they are less interested in nipping and tucking a single garment and is more interested in creating looks that are based on quotes of existing and familiar forms of clothing and putting them together, and the uniqueness, if it is there at all, is bestowed by blending them into a look or a particular vision. The motivation, ironically, is to not change the clothes themselves.
The question of why this role is changing radically is deeply connected to the fact that fashion is, now more than ever, overcrowded with products, which can be seen by anyone, anywhere. In a way, just as so much is available on Google and other digital search engines, the real deal is not to create new items, but to know how to search the available corpus for something valuable and to appropriate it for a renewed purpose. Assemblers don’t need to design from scratch, they just need to know how to find; and the more qualified Assembler will be the one who knows how to hunt better than others.