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The Age of Exposure: Is Fashion’s Mystique Gone?

While once top-name designers cultivated an aura of elusiveness, the fashion industry is seeing designers from Valentino to Marc Jacobs embrace the limelight.

Galliano's RTW Fall 2009 runway.

Has the mystique been driven out of fashion?

This story first appeared in the October 12, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

It’s a question on the minds of many after the six-week slog of runway shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, which started just after Labor Day and ended only last Thursday.

For as long as almost anyone in the business can recall, top-name designers cultivated an aura of elusiveness. From Cristóbal Balenciaga to Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo to Martin Margiela, practically every legendary designer made a sales pitch — you might even call it a gimmick — by being somehow out of reach. Luxury goods companies such as Hermès seemed to market their $7,000 bags through waiting lists, the idea being that, if you couldn’t have one immediately, it made it even more desirable. The appeal of haute couture was partly that it was fit to your body, but also that it was prohibitively expensive and required an appointment. It was as if fashion, like Studio 54, took place behind a velvet rope and keeping people out was a central part of what kept them clamoring to get in.

A designer like Valentino once would have been the exemplar of this type of exclusivity. “He never gave up anything,” said Vanity Fair contributing editor and filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer. “The idea was that you keep some part of yourself private and that’s the selling point, that’s the mystery and allure.”

Yet there Valentino was last spring, giving interviews to anyone and everyone after providing Tyrnauer with an all-access pass to film the documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor.”

What caused the designer to change his tune?

Partly, he was retiring, and wanted some sort of record. But Valentino also seemed to acknowledge in recent years that the world was changing. As he said to WWD: “Glamour is what has sold clothes — it does not sell them anymore.”

And he isn’t the only one who’s embracing the age of sharing. Anna Wintour has just appeared in “The September Issue,” a movie that shows her critiquing the celebrities in her issue, exerting her influence over designers, and laying bare the tension between the editor in chief and her creative director, Grace Coddington. It’s also a film that has already done $3 million, which is pretty good for a documentary.

On Bravo’s “The Rachel Zoe Project,” the well-known celebrity stylist turns up her nose at clothes sent to her by designers like Giorgio Armani who hope her famous clients will wear them.

Marc Jacobs, meanwhile, has invited reporters to work out with him and appeared in his own documentary for Louis Vuitton, which showcased the grueling (and often painfully boring) process of putting together a designer collection. “It is what it is,” he said, when asked whether the avalanche of media surrounding fashion was driving the mystique from it. “Life changes, and the Internet and the media have been a big part of the change that exists now.”

In other words — yes, there is less mystery. Get used to it.

There’s even some evidence the actual aesthetic of the fashion world is changing to fit this warts-and-all era. Two of the business’ most in-demand photographers, Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller, not only have exposed their own bodies (countless times), but also championed an aesthetic that vacillates between Seventies porn and reality TV. The frank exploration of sexual themes is not novel — sex goes in and out of fashion as hemlines go up and down. Rather, what’s noteworthy is that the photographs are often unflattering, highlighting wrinkles and other flaws. Capturing their subjects this way is a sly way of sending up the fashion world — the pictures lay the process bare by suggesting that much of what we’re being sold is fake, time consuming and vulgar. We spend all this money on looking good, and still it’s not enough.

And when magazines aren’t running photos like this, they’re shooting reality shows. Five years after “Project Runway” helped create the impression that anyone could be a designer, publications such as Elle, Teen Vogue and Marie Claire have all participated in unscripted cable shows (or shows that appear to be unscripted). On each of the shows these magazines have participated in, the action goes beyond the pages of the magazine and into the office, showcasing the editorial process.

“Fashion used to be a much smaller and more insulated business,” said Kate Betts of Time magazine. “Then it became more of a global business and now it’s in many respects a part of the entertainment business.” The result, she said, “is that the curtain is being peeled back.”

Of course, few people polled by WWD wanted to complain about the effect this might have on an industry where exclusivity and mystery are part of the sales pitch, or at least were, until fairly recently.

Perhaps this is because two women whose on-screen lives are central to the question are among the most powerful women in the business. Designers need to remain in the good graces of Vogue because it’s generally considered the preeminent American fashion magazine. And designers need Zoe because she’s perhaps the most powerful stylist in Hollywood, thanks to clients such as Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson, Debra Messing and Anne Hathaway. Zoe may be whiny and slightly ridiculous, she may not have the slew of erudite cultural references top-drawer magazine stylists do, but almost everyone admits she helps move merch.

Ed Filipowski, president of fashion public relations firm KCD, wanted to avoid disparaging Zoe, but he admitted, “There is something about the exposure of the celebrity process that’s become crass.”

Certainly, fashion is embracing an entertainment apparatus that is more unapologetically commercial than ever — even Lindsay Lohan, who can barely keep her clothes on, is “designing” for Ungaro. And while founder Emanuel Ungaro, the legendary couturier who was trained by Balenciaga himself, is probably getting ready to jump off a ledge over the results on the runway, there’s no doubt Lohan’s involvement has generated more buzz — for better or worse — about the house than it’s seen in years.

So if Ungaro chief executive officer Mounir Moufarrige set out to get attention, he certainly succeeded, proving that if everything is going to be exposed — via tabloid shows, leaks to Gawker, etcetera — why not take charge of the story line and make some money off it? And while the critics were busy calling the Lohan hire cynical and desperate, a whole crop of anonymous commentators were taking to the Web, which now provides them with a forum to defend a favorite starlet.

Commenter Rubkarib wrote on WWD.com: “I think it’s funny how some clothes are considered fashion and others aren’t. I didn’t think this collection was as bad as people say. Most things on the runway don’t get used by the everyday public anyway. I think she did good for her first time. Some of these pieces are wearable. It’s just the critics looking for something else to slam Lindsay on.”

“Some of the mystery is gone,” said Joe Zee, creative director of Elle. “We live in an age of technology and immediate information. Like it or not, things have become more democratized. Is any magazine going to have less impact after having appeared on a reality show? No. No one would be doing those shows if they didn’t help grow their brands.” (Of course, what might be good for the magazine might not be so good for the editors when it comes to reality TV — just ask Elle’s fashion news director Anne Slowey, whose turn on Lifetime’s “Stylista” was widely considered a disaster and did nothing for her image in the industry.)

“A generational divide is taking hold,” said John Demsey, group president of The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. “Young people today grew up on instant messaging and reality TV shows. Stars are created by popular votes on ‘American Idol.’ The way people interface is not mysterious. So if you’re in fashion, you join the crowd or you get left behind.”

Zac Posen agreed — up to a point: “I think there’s a great divide in fashion right now between the desire of the old school, which valued being hidden and shy, and what is going to bring our industry forward, which is connection, personality and craft. Because none of those things can really take you there without talent.”

That’s actually the argument of people in the entertainment business, when asked whether the shows they’re producing wind up diminishing the industries they’re supposed to puff up.

In a conversation with WWD about fashion reality shows, “Project Runway” producer Harvey Weinstein said, “If it’s done right, what you see is the sweat, the blood and the tears. I don’t think people ever knew how difficult being a designer is, and what the good ones have to endure to be successful. Designing clothes by the nature of it always looks easy, and by lifting the veil you see just how tough it is.”

Valentino thought that argument extended to the message of his documentary, as well as “The September Issue.” “We are not only people having fun or partying, traveling in private jets and kissing celebrities,” he said. “We are hard workers, responsible for thousands of people’s jobs.”

Concurred Donatella Versace: “These documentaries show how fashion is a serious and fiercely competitive business. They aren’t killing the mystique — they are actually keeping it alive.”

Frida Giannini also didn’t believe the 24-7 coverage of designers and magazine editors is having a deleterious effect, though she offered up a slightly different reason. “Fashion’s true appeal is not wrapped up in the antics or eccentric behavior occurring behind the scenes. That’s entertainment. The real dream for consumers is the product.”

Steve Stoute is a marketing expert who’s spent the last decade helping forge relationships between celebrities and consumer brands. He said the increased interest in the behind-the-scenes of the fashion industry might make people feel more like insiders, but that it does little to diminish the stature of the business’ most high-profile players.

“Every time you unveil an industry, and use media to do it, people say, ‘The magic is gone. You’ve shown too much,’” Stoute said. “But no one can crack the code for why Karl Lagerfeld has done what he’s done. You can show people where to buy the fabrics, you can show them how to sew, but magic only happens when there’s talent. Tom Ford is magic. Valentino is magic. Karl Lagerfeld is magic.”

And, he added, in an apparent dig at shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “So You Want to Be a Supermodel”: “Those shows don’t create the next Cindy Crawford. They don’t create the next Naomi Campbell.”