“The Future of Clothes” was supposed to be the topic for the closing session, a roundtable conversation between Marc Jacobs, Norma Kamali and Joseph Altuzarra, led by WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley. Instead it turned into a sprawling and lively discussion on the current realities of being a luxury designer with some very strong opinions on a range of issues and concepts — new and classic — that have become industry obsessions, among them technology, e-commerce, see-now-buy-now and “modern.”
The question about the meaning of “modern” in relation to clothes kicked things off. “I think timeless style is modern, and feeling good and relevant is modern,” Kamali said. “I think modern can also mean what the future can look like for clothing.”
“Part of it is being mindful of your audience and how people are living, what the cultural moment is and how you’re speaking, too,” Altuzarra said.
And from Jacobs, who happily played the role of antagonist for much of conversation: “I hate the word modern so much. I have no idea what it means. I look around and most people I see wear dresses made out of fabric with two sleeves or no sleeves or whatever. I understand the idea of a modern lifestyle, but modern clothes — something tells me that fashion people think it’s abstract.”
Reminded of a comment made years ago that “unless clothes wash the dishes, they’re not modern,” and that we’re starting to see clothes that have more than one function, Jacobs responded, “Where? Show me.”
Kamali was a little more game for the concept, talking about the possibility of garments for babies that give feedback about their vitals or clothes that potentially deliver vitamins from the fabric to one’s skin, or even clothes that could protect in a toxic environment.
Altuzarra said it was hard for him to see the opportunity for dual-purpose garments within his work but that it seemed totally plausible within the sports arena. “I can imagine Nike creating a line of clothing that would help you run faster or give you your vitals,” he said. “But I struggle to find a place for that within the traditional sense of designing clothing.”
Asked if he thinks incorporating technology into fashion is a gimmick, Jacobs said he simply doesn’t think about it at all. “It’s just not my interest. I’m not saying it’s not valid. I like to take vitamins. I like to go to the gym. I don’t need my sweatpants to tell me I’m not running fast enough. My trainer does that….With all due respect, I’ll have my leather jacket just shut up and do nothing.”
Altuzarra, who, as it was pointed out, was the panel’s token Millennial, also shot down the notion of incorporating technology into the design process with the exception of production and manufacturing, noting that developments in machinery — for example, a machine that creates seams through ultrasound technology — makes new fabric techniques possible.
The panel then moved on to “the fashion of fashion,” and the designers were asked if they felt design has become downplayed or secondary to all the noise about buy-now, schedules and production cycles. Kamali said yes. “I think we’re in a time where fashion is out of fashion,” she said, recounting a moment two years ago when she felt like her identity as a designer was being challenged. “I love draping, I love making patterns,” she said. “You’re just washed with a warm feeling of, ‘wow, I love this. I love this moment. I love everybody in my sample room. I never want them to leave me.'” But they do leave and increasingly being replaced with Millennials who have less hand-craft skills because that’s becoming a lost art. “I started to think about these Millennials I’m having to hire and are they going to want to sit behind a sewing machine?” Kamali said. “No. Is the Millennial in China going to want to sit behind a sewing machine? You know what? No.”
Thinking about who and how the clothes would be made inspired her to experiment. She created a line that was made entirely without sewing machines. “Can I be creative? Can I still have that wash of good feeling by doing it in a different way? ” she said. “Well, it’s different. It’s not exactly the same, but it is what the future is about.”
There was no avoiding the subject of see-now-buy-now. Altuzarra brought it up in relation to the appreciation of craft, which is what he said his business comes down to. “I go to trunk shows and meet customers,” he said. “They go in a fitting room and whether it’s see-now-buy-now or it’s they have to wait six months, if they put on a $3,000 dress and they don’t look good or they don’t feel good or they don’t feel like it’s worth the price, they’re not going to buy it.”
Jacobs doesn’t buy the hype of instant fashion. “I’ll wait six months for something that I want and I’ll pay a fortune for it, but I wouldn’t give a dollar for something that’s available today that I don’t want,” he said. “I’d rather wait for something. That’s what fashion is to me and I don’t want to sound so belligerent and negative, but I don’t think one can be everything to all people.”
As for what the biggest challenges of designing today are, there wasn’t a consensus or necessarily any linear thought processes. Kamali brought up confusion in the industry in terms of schedules, and also the old-school traditional see-and-wait shopping message versus the immediacy of the Internet. “E-commerce is huge and it’s growing faster and faster,” she said. “People are spending more and more money online for garments and they will pay a lot of money for what they see you’re selling online and trust it because they know your brand.”
She said she never buys shoes in a store anymore, but prefers to order 10 pairs from all different places and try them on in the comfort of her home, sending back the ones she doesn’t want.
“I’ve never bought anything online,” Jacobs said. “I bought a pair of [Christian] Louboutin pumps for Halloween in a 41 from Barneys because I wasn’t going to go to Barneys to try them on….I didn’t actually do it, [my assistant] did it. I like going to a store. That Chanel bag I’m carrying I bought last Saturday in the boutique. I like when they bring you coffee and you see people spraying perfume. I’m an old-fashioned person who learned to go shopping with his grandmother at Bergdorf Goodman. I don’t want to sit in front of a computer screen and I certainly don’t want to look at my phone any longer than I have to.”
But he admitted he isn’t a techie by any means. “I only started tweeting two years ago and ended up sending photos of my ass all over the Internet,” the designer said to laughter. “Tech is not my friend.”
Altuzarra is less of an extremist. He shops online and in stores. “You have to address the changing way people are consuming, but I don’t think it’s a hindrance. It doesn’t make me not create,” he said. “I think the short attention span and the desire for new all the time is more of a hindrance for me.”
The discussion ended on the topic of what keeps the designers passionate about their jobs — they all agreed that they love making clothes, before there was a lone question from the audience: “What do you think of women wearing yoga pants everywhere,” said a woman from Greenwich, Conn., who appeared to disapprove of the practice and apparently missed the outrage last week after a man in Barrington, R.I., wrote an open letter to his local newspaper condemning women over the age of 20 for wearing yoga pants outside of yoga studios.
“Seriously?” Jacobs said. “Live and let live.”
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