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Avant Garde Fashion:The True Believers

With the rise of commercial deals and chaos in the financial markets, die-hard avant-gardists have emerged as an evolving species.

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WWD Scoop issue 11/24/2008

This story first appeared in the November 24, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Has avant-garde fashion gone the way of the hobble skirt?

It would seem so at a time when the biggest names are playing it safe, few young designers are touting unorthodox clothing styles and consummate renegades such as Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela are having dalliances with corporate giants.


“Being avant-garde is a little old-fashioned,” sniffs veteran fashion consultant Jean-Jacques Picart, noting that next-generation designers like Stella McCartney, Isabel Marant and Vanessa Bruno have made commercial success— not shocking runway tactics—their first order of business. “They’re not so crazy.”

“[The avant-garde] has become more marginalized than in the past,” agrees Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Most people want very familiar, nonthreatening-looking clothes.”

Steele ties the recent decline of avant-garde styles to the economic downturn. Indeed, the international collections for spring—give or take a few hairy moments at Maison Martin Margiela, where wigs doubled as shoulder pads—were short on theatrics, long on wearability. “The general mood in fashion is somewhat conservative due to the economy. It’s not a risk-taking moment for most people,” Steele relates. “Consumers have retreated and stores are worried.”

Designers sense the mood shift, too, saying that the increasing speed and globalization of the fashion business undermines flights of fantasy and provocation.

“The requirements regarding production, distribution, marketing and p.r. of such an enterprise are contradictory to the very concept of ‘avant-garde,’” Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren write in an e-mail. The designers, who showed atomic bomb silhouette couture early in their career, have dialed down their theatrics in recent years, opting for an online fashion show in October starring Shalom Harlow in frilly blouses and beaded dresses.

“Avant-garde fashion probably exists out there, but it is somewhere on the streets,” they say. “In our information society, mystery is very hard to maintain, and what is avant-garde today is mainstream tomorrow. It can be copied and marginalized very easily.”

Asked how independent-minded designers might cope in a world of giant corporate players, Snoeren and Horsting respond: “By interfacing with them.” To wit: Earlier this year, Viktor & Rolf sold a majority stake in their Amsterdam-based fashion house to Diesel honcho Renzo Rosso’s Only the Brave holding.

 

To be sure, the gulf between cutting-edge designers and the corporate world has shriveled in recent years. Consider these examples:

• Comme des Garçons’ Kawakubo, maker of deconstructed garments and fragrances named Tar and Garage, recently teamed up with H&M for a one-time holiday collection and with Louis Vuitton for monogram leather goods.

• Hussein Chalayan, one of the most conceptual and challenging designers of his generation, sold a majority stake in his London-based fashion house to Puma AG, part of retail and luxury conglomerate PPR. He also became the activewear giant’s creative director.

• Martin Margiela, the Greta Garbo of designers, signed a beauty license with L’Oréal with plans to launch his first signature fragrance next fall. He also said “I do” to Damiani for a line of fine jewelry, and is launching a pre-collection this November coyly called Avant Premier, even as speculation mounts that his involvement in the business is waning.

Snoeren and Horsting applaud such  tie-ins, saying they bring great design to a wider audience. “They will make the world more beautiful and that is what counts,” they say. Still, observers agree that avant-garde fashions are under pressure from multiple fronts and reflect deep-seated changes in the industry and society.

“The young generations are not looking for avant-garde. They’re looking for security and so they’re looking for products that reassure them,” says Concetta Lanciaux, a luxury industry consultant based in Paris. “Avant-garde is the desire to break with the establishment, and today the desire is the opposite.”

Lanciaux notes, for example, that the standard uniform for well-to-do schoolgirls in Paris’ 16th arrondissement is hardly counterculture: a Marc Jacobs jacket, jeans and a status handbag—not unlike the uniforms of their mothers.

In her estimation, avant-garde movements have sociological, not trade, roots, and consumers today are more in a mood to integrate than stand out. The luxury boom also ushered in a period in which appreciation for craftsmanship and quality has taken precedence over outlandish fashion statements, she adds.

Dries Van Noten recalls that people wore avant-garde designer clothes in the Seventies and Eighties “to feel modern,” whereas today, buying separate pieces from various collections and pairing them up in an individual way is the main route to looking contemporary. “Now, personality is far more present in fashion,” he says.

Avant-garde dominated the fashion vernacular in the Eighties, when Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto decamped to Paris and showed deconstructed, mostly black garments that were startling, and compellingly new. Belgium was at the vanguard, too, when a group of designers famously known as the “Antwerp Six,” including Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs, put the country on the international fashion map.

Asked today about the status of avant-garde, Yamamoto says there are “very few” practitioners and “no explosive power.” Instead, the term now implies a category or type of fashion, like “punk” or “grunge,” he notes.

What’s more, avant-garde designers who pride themselves on artistic integrity—resisting avenues derided as “commercial,” such as jeans or underwear lines—are far and few between, according to Yamamoto, citing Azzedine Alaïa and Demeulemeester as examples. “I wonder how many designers at Paris, Milan level can face integrity,” he muses. “They have to sell fragrances and accessories. Designers who fight only for clothes are a very, very small group.”

Van Beirendonck, who continues to design and is also head of the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, says the avant-garde survives “mainly in the safe environment of schools and through a few independent designers,” mentioning London-based Gareth Pugh as “one of the only.”

“The press is still interested to see this kind of statement, but unfortunately, the buyer, industry and final consumer is not interested at all,” says Van Beirendonck, who used the slogan “Sick of Easy Fashion” in a recent men’s wear collection.

“It is rather strange to see that the young generations are not producing avant-garde, mainly the ‘old’ generations are doing the most experimentation and research,” he continues, mentioning the likes of Margiela, John Galliano and Kawakubo. The latter, in particular, has “kept a fresh vision and has a good balance between creativity and commercial,” he says.

Pugh, whose Paris debut in late September included Stormtrooper getups inspired by air vents and radical Elizabethan ruffles, attributes the apparent lack of avant-garde in fashion to “the practice of referencing history, or moreover, historical costume, that so many contemporary designers favor.”

He hastens to add, however, that “many designers succeed in translating these long-established ideas into something very new and contemporary. This is something that I try very hard not to do, though it is very difficult to produce a collection without reference.”

Echoing Van Beirendonck’s point, Pugh says retailers are the “polar opposite” of stylists, who seek out extreme looks that look good on a magazine page. “[Retailers] come to buy my collection—and no doubt every other collection they buy from—and go straight for the simplest pieces.”

Picart says avant-garde design might be the first stop for a designer on the road to a successful career, but rarely a permanent path. “It’s logical that the first step must be very focused on design identity. But the second step should be product-oriented,” he says. “In this business of fashion, what is important for longevity is success in the stores because it’s a trade.”

It also can be a marketing tactic for certain labels, he allows, mentioning that Kawakubo “has a lot of easy products she never shows on the runway” and that Chalayan, who shows morphing mechanical dresses in his shows, also markets casualwear collections.

Van Noten acknowledges that it’s “tough to survive in the jungle” without the help of a big company, but he stresses that independent companies still can pursue unorthodox routes beyond what they put on the runway. For example, he decided to open his first Paris boutique on the Quai Malaquais, a lonely stretch on the Seine River dotted with a few antique shops.

Van Noten also has taken a risky stance in refusing to succumb to the pre-collection craze, producing and selling only two collections a year for women, and two for men.

“It’s already more than enough,” he stresses. “Long-term, it’s going to be very hard for fashion to do all these different lines. It’s just getting too much and it’s losing its soul a little bit….Now it’s getting more like consumption. It’s kind of a pity.”

Van Noten suggests that what’s avant-garde today is out-of-the-norm business tactics. “You can be more adventurous the way you do fashion,” he says, citing the pairings of renegade designers and mass chains as an example.

Kaat Debo, artistic director of the MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp, whose Margiela retrospective continues through February, notes that designers have been widely copied by fast-fashion chains in recent years and characterizes “infiltrating” mass labels as a “rather modern idea.” She calls it a “Trojan horse” approach that does not undermine a designer’s integrity.

“Fashion doesn’t deny that it’s a commercial business. If you don’t sell, you won’t be a fashion designer anymore,” Debo says. “Commercial thinking is inherent to fashion….Art is also a commercial thing and has been denying it for decades.

“Does it really matter who funds the line?” she continues. “It all depends on the input the designer gives.”

In an e-mail, Maison Martin Margiela agrees: “The challenge is to balance between the emotional reasons why we need to create and the fact that we run businesses that need to survive. Any new creation is avant-garde, isn’t it? As long as it brings a new approach, a different point of view, a perspective with a new angle, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do for two decades….The garments are meant to be worn; otherwise, you are taking away their original purpose.”

FIT’s Steele says the meeting of cutting-edge designers and mass chains is inevitable, as “there is a disappearing middle. It doesn’t seem like a sellout to me, necessarily. It may be a blurring between different categories in fashion.”

Younger generations also seem to be more interested in clothing that is authentic or eco-conscious rather than “the older idea about whether you’re selling out or not,” she adds.

Van Beirendonck suggests that collaborations between renegade fashion talents and corporate giants—the latest example being a Target-Alexander McQueen for March—could go further. “It would be better that creativity and commercial would really join forces and instead of making ‘easy fashion,’ do stronger fashion statements for better prices, which would convince the young consumer to wear avant-garde fashion again,” he says.

In Debo’s estimation, Belgian Bernhard Willhelm is perhaps the most avant-garde of designers working today, given his experimental, extreme and critical approach and his deliberate decision to do so on a small scale.

Asked if industry professionals are more or less interested in unconventional fashions, Willhelm replies: “In 2008, not everybody wants the obvious.” As for his design approach, he describes it as a “balance between seriousness, which becomes unbearable for many, and madness. I feel best when madness is set in motion: It lets me forget myself.”

Steele spies a new generation of Japanese designers who are “pushing the envelope,” headlined by Jun Takahashi of the Undercover label. “The Belgians have receded somewhat,” she notes.

Debo held out hope that the avant-garde could rise again. “Under the influence of the Internet, everything is becoming gray. There is a big need for something personal, something with a sense of identity,” she says. “That will become important in the luxury business, to have this personal approach.”

Yamamoto says he advises young designers “to use the big corporations as a stepping stone to get into the fashion world. Otherwise it’s very hard because big companies are controlling the market.”

When Pugh, who has a background in theater costumes, started showing his collection during London Fashion Week in 2006, he had no intention of selling the garments because he had no manufacturer or backer to produce them. “The shows were ‘just because,’” he says. “There is, and will always be, a need to push forward, especially within fashion. However, it became quickly apparent that, to have any sort of longevity to what I do, it was necessary to break into the retail market and offer something for people to buy,” the designer relates. “It sometimes serves a very valuable purpose to include a little something here and there to ground the collection in something that is more recognizable to an audience.”


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