As I write this, we are on the eve of the fashion extravaganza known as New York Fashion Week. As soon as the designers wrap up the shows here, London, Milan and Paris will be hosting their own fashion weeks in quick succession to exhibit Autumn/Winter 2011 collections for their designers. Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with Fashion Week. I love seeing my fashion industry friends, meeting new people and the pure spectacle of it all. I enjoy the non-stop events and work that goes into it, but at a certain point I can’t help but ask: “Now why are we doing this again already?”
The true answer dates back to Paris earlier in the 20th century. Haute couture (“high fashion”) was a term being thrown around much too loosely for the French’s liking. To maintain quality control and their recognition as the fashion capital of the world, the French made haute couture a legally protected designation that had to be earned annually by each fashion house. Among other requirements to gain this status, each house must present their collections twice a year for the press to review. Over time, haute couture lost a great deal of fashion market share to prêt-à-porter designs, French for ‘ready-to-wear’. However, precedence was established and to this day, haute couture remains a protected name and the requirement for two shows a year for the press remains in effect.
Never a city to miss a potential business opportunity, New York started its own ‘Press Week’ in 1943. Following French precedent, New York ‘Press Week’ became a bi-annual event and eventually became known simply as ‘Fashion Week’. Over time, New York Fashion Week gave opportunities to designers that previously would have been overlooked in favour of the French and helped establish New York as a fashion capital. In time, taking the lead from the French and Americans, Milan and London followed suit to gain and preserve their foothold in the global fashion industry.
By not having a singularly dominating country as the fashion capital of the world, opportunities for many designers have been presented. On one hand this is extremely positive; however, on the other, many would argue that there have been some detrimental unintended consequences. Looking back in a romantic view, it would be wonderful to have well-crafted garments that upheld the luxury and sophistication from the age of haute couture (roughly through the 1950s). Ready-to-wear became the standard and, as a result, clothing became a commodity instead of a work of wearable art. Once entered into an age of commoditisation, quality became less important and the lowest cost provider became darlings for consumer buyers, as long as there was some minimal level of quality. Once again we see that commerce and art are not only strange bedfellows but seem to need a divorce if the art is to survive.
Over time, factories and mills in the United States with the machinery and technology to produce the highest-quality fabrics and finished garments slowly began to disappear as textiles and finishing were moved to other countries with cheaper labour forces. From a business sense, perhaps it was necessary to adequately compete, though inevitably the quality suffers. Even Italy, the last bastion of artisans who are doing everything possible to maintain the highest quality, are being forced into some hard decisions that run counter to their fundamental desire to create the finest fabrics and finished garments available. For many years now, the rest of the world has outsourced to Italy to produce finer and more complex goods with premium fabrics that only Italy is still equipped to manufacture. Unfortunately, the number of factories and mills has been dwindling. Where do quality-based designers around the world look to when they disappear?
Can luxurious and quality fashion survive and perhaps regain some of its lost footing? As the new season’s looks are unveiled from the four major Fashion Weeks and then available in stores, let’s ask ourselves- beyond pure aesthetics of a new garment, is it made of the highest quality? Is it a good investment that will do more than take up closet-space? Of the array of trends we may choose from, will our choices survive into following seasons and prove to be wardrobe staples? Personally, I shop by feel. I can walk down a rack of clothing simply by touching the fabrics; when a certain feel grabs my attention, only then will I examine further. If I prefer different cuts or colours, I then can search out different variations of the design that have the same feel. Inevitably, the fabrics are of the highest quality and as a secondary benefit, I am supporting the designers, mills and finishers who demand the highest quality in their work. Everyone is different in what is most important to making buying decisions; however, if we collectively demand quality craftsmanship we can ensure it will be there in future.
The French had the right idea in demanding haute couture meet certain standards. My wish is more would be required of designers for the various Fashion Weeks to ensure quality is paramount. Perhaps ready-to-wear makes the French haute couture model difficult to apply for the dominant ready-to-wear market. Our only personal influence is with our buying patterns. When the industry sees that we as consumers demand greater craftsmanship and quality, only then will they rise to our expectations.
Michael Cress ~ New York Sartorialist