The Threshold Issue

BazaarCoverWhen Raf Simons announced his departure from Dior last week, there was the usual immediate name-tossing and speculative conjectures on who might replace him. But unlike past instances (Frida Giannini leaving Gucci, or Alexander Wang parting from Balenciaga, for example), that noise only lasted for about day. Then a new conversation opened up, one that's been ongoing ever since, about the fashion industry, its breakneck schedule, the increasingly demands being placed on fashion designers to be more than just that—to be creative directing wonder-wizards with expertise in everything from social media to architecture and store design—and how much of that contributed to Simons' stepping down. The thing is, we don't really know why Simons excused himself from Dior, except what he's said in his public statement:

"It is after careful and long consideration that I have decided to leave my position as Creative Director of Christian Dior Couture Women's collection. It is a decision, based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside of my work. Christian Dior is an extraordinary company, and it has been an immense privilege to be allowed to write a few pages of this magnificent book."

But that hasn't stopped his peers and colleagues from sounding off:

Andrew Bolton, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute told the New York Times: “It just confirms the pressure designers are under today, with multiple collections a year. It is clearly getting more and more difficult for designers who have their own brands, as well as another brand, to have the time to create. I think the conclusion is really the system needs to change.”

And at the recent FGI Night of the Stars event, Lanvin's Alber Elbaz, an honoree, told The Cut: “It’s not about pressure, it’s about the system,” Elbaz said. “And the system has pressure, and the pressure has a system."

This past February I spoke with several high-profile, accomplished designers for a magazine feature about their work, the business of fashion today, and how it's evolved since they started their careers. One expressed a kind of sadness about how commercial and one-note fashion has become. It's more about catering to the masses and making money, than individuality and style. Another, off the record, told me flat out that the industry today depresses her. In order to meet production schedules and fulfill collections one season after mid-season after the next, she often falls back on pieces she's made before. Sure, they sell well, which is why she keeps them in the mix. But she's not doing anything new or creative, she told me. We agreed that there's got to be a breaking point. Something has to change.

But what? And how? As Elbaz said in his speech during last week's Night of the Stars, the focus should be on evolution, not revolution—and certainly so in the case of fashion when there's billions of dollars in revenue involved. Interestingly enough, all this coincides with the new launch of Bill Blass*** under the helm of designer Chris Benz and CEO Stuart Goldblatt, one of America's oldest sportswear labels (indeed, before Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, or Donna Karan, Mr. Blass was the first American designer to lend his own name to the brand). What's most forward-thinking about the latest version of this legendary brand is that Benz and Goldblatt are creating their own fashion schedule. Rather than falling in line with collections timed for Fashion Week, and subsequent in-store deliveries, Bill Blass will be online-only (and BillBlass.com only), with merchandise becoming available on a semi-rolling basis. In one savvy move, Benz and Goldblatt are thumbing their noses up at the industry's established calendar and pace, while adopting one that actually speaks more fluently to a global customer base—not to mention, maintaining complete control of the brand's sales. As Benz told me this summer, "It's always warm somewhere. The temperature in New York is different from that in LA, which might be different from that in Asia or London," thus making his case for what he referred to a seasonless dressing.

As someone who's been through the paces of Fashion Week shows, especially during the rise of social media and its emphasis on immediacy, Benz, who had his own label until about three years ago, certainly has reason to be wary of rejoining a paradigm where collections feel more like bursts or sprints than creative gestures. This time around, he doesn't have to. Of course Bill Blass is one brand—and it took a full reboot for such an evolution to even occur—but it's a start.

Whatever the reason behind Simon's split from Dior, the fact that so many peers and colleagues have suggested that the industry might be headed into burnout territory speaks volumes. This is a conversation worth having—it should have happened before Simons left. Now it needs to happen before more designers leave the room.

UPDATE: Alber Elbaz just left the room.

***Full disclosure: I recently collaborated with Bill Blass on an aspect of the brand's launch next week.

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