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Friday, January 29, 2010

Fashion Week in Brazil: São Paulo or Auschwitz?

Spring Fashion Weeks are kicking off for the Fall 2010 collections all over the world. São Paulo Fashion Week was last week in Brazil and Paris Haute Couture was this week. Many of the top models headed down for the Brazilian runways and will inevitably follow to New York, London, Milan and Paris over the next six weeks. 

I ran across this image from São Paulo last week and it hit that nerve of mine. I know too many models, their progression (regression) in the industry and the grave sacrifices they make to not say something. As long as I have a voice, I'll speak out about it. With all the recent commotion over stick-figure models, designers are not moved. For that matter, I don't know what will realistically force a change. Uproar, bad press, deaths and tepid boycotts hasn't worked. The likelihood of the models and agencies uniting and taking a stand against those who employ them is far-fetched. What gives? Why? Why insist as a designer that you only want shapeless, coat-hanger models? Why have size 2 sample sizes the girls must fit in or hit the road in disgrace for being too "fat" and fired for breach of contract? After-all, as a designer you do have the capability of designing more than one emaciated size that's only one size above a children's size 14.

There are a minority of models, and for that matter the general population, that is naturally very thin. They, however, don't have to starve themselves and put their health at risk to be that size. That's the exception. The rest have to go to extraordinary lengths to be this thin. Another caveat: I don't blame the models. The problem is simply with the designers. The buying public doesn't find this attractive. I hardly think it helps sales- quite to the contrary I'm sure. Agencies, buyers, stylists, photographers and the fashion media are simply followers. The designers are to blame.

Instead of looking in horror at images of the survivors of Auschwitz, do designers think to themselves that it would have been a fruitful place to find models that would look best in their latest collection? That's pretty sick. Overstatement? Look at the bones and ribs protruding in this picture. Not far off.

Do we have a group of designers today that are so bad at designing clothes that they can only design for a broomstick? Perhaps. 

Are the designers really wanting little boys instead of grown woman walking the runways because that's the look they personally prefer? Could be. Could very well be.

There seems to be a general position that they want a clothes-hanger to model the clothes so as to not distract from their design. Yes, God-forbid we notice the person wearing the clothes. True fashion design accentuates good physical attributes and minimize our less favorable ones. Ideally clothing will blend with the individual as if they're one in the same and good cuts draw the eyes to the face. So what the designers may be telling us is that they aren't capable of making good designs that draws pleasant attention, flatters an anatomically correct human body and will lead admirers to actually notice and remember the wearer's face.

Think how egomaniacal it is that designers will only design so people only look at their work. Oh don't dare notice who's wearing it! That may send them into a dramatic high-pitched hyperventilating frenzy. They have either forgotten, don't know or don't care that high fashion is about working in concert with the individual with the goal of making them look good. If they want to be an artist with no distractions like people wearing their work, get a paint brush or go sculpt something- you're in the wrong business and taking up space from someone who may actually get it. 

Perhaps that's why I'm personally drawn to previous periods in fashion than that of recent years. We used to have real designers who knew what they were doing. They knew how to maximize or minimize certain attributes to make the individual look their best. They liked the fact they were designing for woman and they celebrated that there was shape to design for. They could create focal points. They used to design for people and not for their own self-important glorification. Today, they're telling us the optimal size for their collections is that of an under-developed child or concentration camp survivor. 

Is there little wonder the clothes-buying public would rather just go to the Gap?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Return to Classics ~Part II

At the conclusion of WWII in 1945, Paris was in complete disarray. With wartime disruptions, virtually everything was in shortage, including textiles, electricity and the wealthy couture-buying upper class. In 1939, there were 70 Haute Couture houses in Paris including the grand establishments of Chanel, Schiaparelli and Balenciaga. As the war went on, many closed and others teetered on the brink. With their wealthy clientele dispersed elsewhere, the future of Paris fashion was bleak.

To combat the dire circumstances, the remaining couturiers created Theatre de la Mode, a touring exhibition of about 200 fashioned dolls. The Theatre toured Britain, Scandinavia and the U.S. to promote Parisian fashion and let the world know they were still in business. It was a long way from pre-1940 Paris couture and many wondered if they would survive at all, much less regain their status as the fashion capital of the world.

Christian Dior was born on the seaside coast of France in the Normandy region in 1905. Coming from a wealthy family that made its money in fertilizers and chemicals, the family hoped he would become a diplomat. All Christian wanted to do was be involved in the arts, against the better judgment of his family. Upon graduating from school, Dior received money from his father to open a small art gallery in Paris in 1928 with the caveat that the family name not be used in association with the gallery. In the small gallery, he sold artwork by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Max Jacob. Forced to close the gallery following a family financial disaster he turned his attention to fashion. To make money he sold fashion sketches to various couture houses and was rumored to have sold fashion sketches in the streets for 10 cents apiece. In 1937 he went to work for the Robert Piguet house until being called up for military duty in 1939.

After leaving the French military, Dior was asked to return to Piguet in 1941 but he took too long to accept and the job was offered to Antonio del Castillo. In 1942, he started working for Lucien Lelong, working alongside Pierre Balmain (founder of the Balmain house in 1945~ dress and petticoat design below) as the primary designers. For the duration of the war, he dressed wives of German officers and French collaborators.

Amid the uncertainty of the Parisian fashion industry in 1946, the Christian Dior House was founded on October 8 and Pierre Cardin was hired as head tailor. Christian Dior’s first collection, “Corolle”, debuted in early 1947. Dior believed woman wanted something new and traditionally feminine so as to restore the natural balance that had been disrupted as a result of woman carrying out men’s traditional roles during the war. The androgynous, utilitarian dress was also greatly influenced by rations on fabric and led to shorter, no frills, knee length skirts and dresses. Where shoulders had been boxy, Dior incorporated soft sloping shoulders. Straight lines were replaced with a cinched-in waist and full-flowing long skirts.  The designs were voluptuous and enhanced the bust (which previously fell from style in 1912). Christian Dior was a master of creating shapes and silhouettes and his first collection was the antithesis of the masculine wartime fashions and was just what woman needed after the austerity and hardship of the war years.

The hourglass shape of the enhanced bust, cinched-in waist, dresses that flared out at the waist and a longer skirt hem that was very flattering on the calves and ankles created a beautiful silhouette that London couturier John Cavanagh described as “a total glorification of the female form”. The accolades did not end there. Fashion journalist Bettina Ballard said of the collection, “I was conscious of an electric tension I had never before felt in couture… we were witnesses to a revolution in fashion”. Finally, Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar said, “Your dresses have such a new look”, and the “New Look” name was born to symbolize that of the golden age of couture, an age which began and ended with Christian Dior.

Prominent Hollywood figures and the European upper-class became instant clients. Dior was invited to give a private presentation to the British Royal family in London at the Savoy. Orders poured in from the likes of Rita Hayworth, ballerina Margot Fonteyn, Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich, Princess Margaret and the Dutchess of Windsor.

One of the most important designs in the first collection was the “Bar” suit and hat. The tight fitting jacket had padded hips which emphasized the small waist. (“Bar” suit and hat image above and detail of the “Bar” Suit jacket below).

The New Look revolutionized woman’s dress and reestablished Paris as the center of the fashion world following WWII and influenced other designers for years to come.  Christian Dior was credited for the recovery of the Parisian couture empire when it was threatened most and was hailed as a national hero. The House of Dior was responsible for up to 75% of fashion exports from Paris and up to 5% of all French exports. He revolutionized the fashion industry by creating an international fashion company and created methods of business that are still emulated today. In ten short years, Christian Dior did more for fashion than perhaps anyone before or anyone since. To be continued...

Current Dior designer John Galliano’s Fall 2008 design, channeling Christian Dior's designs from the Golden Age of Couture.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Return to Classics ~Part I

With a new year and decade, new hope springs eternal. Recently I was perusing my monthly required reading to ensure I wasn't missing anything the "mainstream" fashion elite were saying. One snipit I came across was from InStyle magazine. They had a poll asking, "Your goal is to create a wardrobe that's more...?". Very interesting results. 14% answered "Trendy", 15% "Sexy", 17% "Unique" and 53% answered "Classic". Ahah! I like that.

Aside from the "Classic" wardrobe response, a truly classic wardrobe could also well be considered "sexy", "unique" and even "trendy" compared to what we've seen in recent years. Are we returning to our roots? Perhaps its the bad economy and the disdain many have, or pretend to have against conspicuous consumption. The Madmen effect? Maybe people are coming to their senses both sartorially and economically. Afterall, it's a better investment to purchase high quality classical styles that last longer than 6 months. But then again, they could have just misunderstood the question or the poll was terribly flawed. On the other hand, another poll says Jackie Kennedy was  the most fashionable First Lady of all-time. Maybe there's something here in this classical thing.

Nevertheless, I'll take the result and run with it. While basking in thought of a return to elegance, just what is considered classic? A good place to start would be what is considered the Golden Age of Couture.  This so-called Golden Age would be roughly between the mid-1940's and 50's. At that time, names that have withstood the test of time were in full-form. The fashion houses and designers Chanel, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Lanvin and Nina Ricci were in full form and the period provided experience and influence for countless other designers.

To gain a grasp of this period, its important to understand the context surrounding it. Leading to and during this period of time, Paris was the center of the fashion universe. The rest of the world came to Paris to get their inspiration and see the latest styles. Relatively speaking, high fashion in Paris was well organized. Starting in 1868, Haute Couture houses were qualified as such and organized initially to work together to stop designs from being copied. From my daily walk from Tribeca to Soho, I can see on Canal Street they're still working on that issue. Although the organization has undergone several shifts in management and title, to this day it still falls under the French Ministry for Industry.

"Haute Couture" is actually a legally protected name in France that fashion houses must qualify for by meeting certain standards. The English translation of "Haute Couture" is somewhere between "high dressmaking" and "high sewing" and in practical terms means custom-tailored, hand-made, high quality garments. The connotation over time has come to symbolize the highest of high fashion.

Among the requirements for a fashion house to legally say they are Haute Couture, they must design made-to-order garments for private clients with at least one fitting and have a workshop in Paris that employs a minimum number of employees. Another requirement to become Haute Couture is notable for how it has influenced and led the way for the fashion industry we know today. Each Haute Couture house must present its collection for the season to the Paris press with at least 35 runs presenting both evening and daytime wear. As a result, the numerous required shows of Press Week has since become what we now know as Paris Fashion Week. Since then, the major Fashion Weeks of New York, London and Milan as well as countless other regional shows have emulated and developed to join Paris in becoming the bedrocks of the fashion industry we know today.

An interesting side-note is that the earliest form of New York Fashion Week started in 1943. What's notable about 1943? Paris had a German occupation problem and haute couture was not a war-time priority. Germany wanted to move the fashion capital to Berlin and fortunately never had the chance. American designers until that point had taken a backseat to Paris and while the designs were generally accepted as good, they designed for private labels of department stores and other retailers. Designers were largely ignored by the American fashion media such as Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, the attitude being that fashionable inspiration and design was Parisian-centric.
With Paris occupied and a void in high fashion, New York organized a series of shows around the City with each designer hosting their own event. When the venues proved to be sub-par and even dangerous with large groups, they finally agreed to hold the "Press Week" event at Bryant Park. As a result, American designers were finally able to show their designs without the long shadow of French influence to the American fashion press, show they were able to create excellent designs without inspiration from the French, were mentioned by name with their designs and designers such as Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta came into their own.

Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany from May 1940 through December 1944. Coming out of WWII in 1945, Paris as well as the rest of the world was exhausted and in shambles. Out of necessity during the war, woman became much more active in supporting the war effort and filling the voids left by the men serving on the battlefield. As a result, fashion mirrored the more androgynous role woman had taken. Boxy shoulders, straight lines, muted colors, heavier shoes, the femininity of woman's fashion had been diluted. The world needed to be put back on its proper course. Fortunately, in 1947 the right designer with the right idea was ready help point Paris and the rest of the world in the right direction. We were ready for a "New Look". We were ready for Christian Dior.

To be continued...