Jacks-of-all-trades, Renaissance people, fame-aholics — however one describes designers’ increasingly far-flung pursuits, their legions of followers are paying close attention.
As more fashion types show off their expertise beyond Seventh Avenue, they’re arguably risking the style-minded image that made them famous in the first place. Beyond the danger of brand dilution, have they collectively wiped out the Gilded Age of fashion, or is this all-are-welcome mind-set merely a sign of these oversharing, social-media-friendly times?
There is no disputing consumers’ zeal for runway shows, reality TV’s fondness for fashion and the onslaught of gung-ho designers willing to try new things. Any air of mystique appears to have dissipated — Rebecca Minkoff pink grapefruit tart anyone? What about a night’s stay in a Betsey Johnson-designed pink Plaza Hotel suite inspired by the children’s book character Eloise? If, where and when this accessibility will end is anyone’s guess. For resort last month Oscar de la Renta lined the rafters of his Park Avenue show with 100 students, and Lela Rose threw out the welcome mat and whipped up six types of homemade ice tea in her TriBeCa apartment for 90 editors.
Savvy enough to know consumer perception is as important, if not more so, these days than actual talent, the fashion pack is tweeting, Facebooking, blogging and making TV cameos at a record pace. They need only consider the massive reach of relative fashion newbies like Kim Kardashian, Madonna and her daughter Lourdes, Lindsay Lohan, Victoria Beckham and Katy Perry to drive home the power of fame with shoppers. Business executive/reality TV star/jewelry designer Ivanka Trump tweets to nearly 800,000-plus admirers throughout her jam-packed days.
“It is an unplugged philosophy,” said Narciso Rodriguez last month while Port Authority commuters stared through glass walls at Made in Midtown, a Garment Center-friendly pop-up space. “This is a great moment of change in fashion. It’s become so much more democratic. There is so much great fashion from the very low end to designer boutiques.”
Celebrating pop culture and different parts of society is a natural progression, Laura Mulleavy said. “What’s interesting is that at the heart of all this is what makes people feel unique and special,” she said. Asked if Rodarte had been approached for any offbeat collaborations such as salad dressing, Mulleavy, said, “Hmm…nothing lately, but salad dressing — that could be interesting.”
It also adds up businesswise. She said, “With all these different challenges that keep popping up with production, exchange rates and everything else, the more opportunities there are to speak about fashion, the better.”
Having first stepped out-of-bounds, so to speak, with a “Swell” book in 2000, Cynthia Rowley recently landed a windfall of publicity for her Pampers diapers designs. But that collaboration, like any others she agrees to, was not a lark. “‘What’s the first article of clothing a person puts on?’ ‘Is this something overlooked in the world of design?’ ‘Is it something that would benefit from my input?’ ‘Is there a bottom line business?’” were some of the questions she asked herself beforehand. And Pampers are sold at Target, which carries some of her other nondesigner creations.
Let’s face it, the hype about crowd-sourcing, DIY design, haul blogging, Hotornot.com-type Web sites and people-on-the-street photography is only getting louder. The first user-generated fashion magazine, I Like My Style, weighed in with a 264-page debut spring issue with ads from Diesel, Adidas and Mercedes-Benz. The appeal is far-reaching considering Barnes & Noble will start carrying the quarterly next week, and Colette in Paris and Urban Outfitters already sell it. Expansion in South America and Asia is under waydue to demand, and shoppers will soon have a companion site to upload style-focused short films.
“The thing is, now fashion is everywhere,” said Bettina Graziani, Hubert de Givenchy’s former muse whose lissome silhouette helped define the once-rarefied world of fashion. “You can buy what you want, when you want, where you want. It used to be that fashion was more refined. Now everybody can afford something fashionable. It’s not bad — it’s quite good. But at the same time, fashion loses its cachet.”
Demand for couture notwithstanding, the refined world of fashion is slipping away. “You can’t stop it. Fashion is all over — in TV, film and music,” she said. “Also, the media shows collections as soon as there is a fashion show. People are seeing it right away. They don’t necessarily have to buy it.”
Loulou de la Falaise, agreed. “The world is changing, and one has to change with it,” she said.
De la Falaise, whose signature jewelry is sold on TV via HSN, said, “I’m all for doing things that you don’t already do. Of course, if you have no nose or taste buds, you should not be doing anything culinary. But if you are interested in cooking, why not redefine yourself? Why should it all be in little boxes? When you are creative, doing something out of your medium builds your imagination, your mind and your talents. All artists are creative, and the more ways they use their creativity the stronger they will be. But it takes a lot of energy — you can’t just put your name out there.”
That idea presents another conundrum: Have designers relinquished their artist status to become agents of commerce more than ever?
SCAD’s dean of fashion Michael Fink said, “I don’t see design progressing. I just think people are lazy — lazy and confused.”
Not that they’re losing any altitude in the fame game. For many consumers, seeing a designer in person remains something of a rush. Just ask designers how adept admirers are at taking cell-phone photos of them. “They will even approach you on a plane,” Carolina Herrera has said. Or at a Midtown restaurant, as Catherine Malandrino experienced during a recent interview. After grabbing a coffee to go, a woman of a certain age spotted the designer and marched back indoors to have a word. “I have to ask, Does this blouse from H&M look cheap?” she said, retrieving a floral polyester top from her bag and flattening her scraggly, overprocessed curls with the palm of her hand. “I also usually have my hair blown out, which is what I’m going to do now. And I’m going to Miami.”
Friendly as can be, Malandrino paused. “It’s summery and fun,” she offered of the blouse, before adding, “You won’t keep it forever.”
Delighted, the sixtysomething stranger, dressed in acid-washed skinny jeans, an oversize graphic T-shirt and black Nike running shoes, said, “I had to ask,” and then thanked the designer and carried on with her day. Ironically, before being interrupted Malandrino was discussing how her first public fashion show with Mary J. Blige, which was held last month, was meant to be open to more nonindustry types excited about fashion.
Fashion shows for the masses are clearly in the air. New York City’s largest public fashion show — a 200-model-strong affair for 1,500 ticket buyers — will be held Sept. 7 at Lincoln Center as a prelude to Fashion’s Night Out and a kickoff to New York Fashion Week. Earlier this summer 800 people trekked over to The Frying Pan, a rusty, salvaged ship on the Hudson River, for a Forever 21-backed fashion show.
But these days, becoming a crowd-pleaser isn’t only about the clothes they design. Tory Burch’s blog features her favorite ice cream stores, a summer reading list and snapshots of her trekking in Peru — so much for solitude. Nicole Miller’s revamped Web site features more of her personal style, such as Damian Loeb art and a John Lautner interior. And for this month’s Sky Room opening in Manhattan, Minkoff, Nanette Lepore, Yeohlee, Rebecca Taylor and others did some branding by way of desserts. At Le Dali restaurant at Le Meurice in Paris, Viktor & Rolf had a hand in My Sweet Flowerbomb, a delicate pink cubed cake that looks like the packaging of their Flowerbomb fragrance. And the urgency to present yourself, your brand or your company in a way that consumers will want to get to know is only going to intensify, said Dan Schawbel, author of “Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success.” “Even artists like Lady Gaga and Keisha have to go to extremes to get noticed. People’s attention spans are definitely shrinking every day. You have to work a lot harder to make consumers loyal,” he said.
Designer Sophie Theallet considers Twitter, Facebook and bloggers to be business essentials. “If you choose to be in fashion, this is not a job you can do with an air of mystery or by doing what Martin Margiela did in the past. No one knew his face — I knew his face because I worked with him at Jean Paul Gaultier, but not many others did,” she said. “With fashion, you need to show what you’re doing. You cannot stay in your house or stay in your studio working.”
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