Be good-looking, media-savvy, aware of global issues and clever enough to bottle all this into a brand identity that speaks to the consumer.
Oh, and don’t forget to bring along design talent.
That’s the advice those in the know offer to anyone who aspires to the vaunted title of fashion designer. Whereas designers once spent their days—and often nights—sketching, sewing and draping, the role has shifted as fashion has evolved into a billion-dollar global business over the past two decades.
As a result, designers have to represent their labels 24/7. Ideally, they should become their brand. And, while they’re at it, they shouldn’t neglect world events, a point that some of the most lauded fall shows drove home. Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada both presented a darker, more sober view of fashion. Both led a pack of designers who offered a more covered, layered look with little color or embellishment and hardly any skin in sight. “It’s time to go back to the streets of the world, showing anger and being a little bit savage, to be ready for life,” says Miuccia Prada, whose membership in the Communist party in her student days is frequently cited as an explanation, justifiably or not, for heady fashion moves that often seem to transcend the blouse on her customer’s back.
The sober season made fashion people discuss at length whether their métier needs to reflect the times we live in or should offer an escape from all the tragic events in the news.
Donatella Versace, who embodies the glamour and dazzle of her collection with her jet-set lifestyle and circle of celebrity friends, says she doesn’t like to intellectualize her work. “At the end of the day, I just want to put out some great, contemporary, elegant collections that work,” she explains.
But even she is not immune to the world at large. “Versace takes in all the shifts in today’s culture,” she continues. “Music, art, movies and travel are what influence my collections. Versace is a brand intended to make people look glamorous and sensual while having fun with fashion.”
As for the renewed sobriety, Versace has one explanation: “I think that we have come through a period of flashy, ostentatious dressing, and designers are now reacting against that and rediscovering a sense of sophisticated restraint,” she offers. “Fashion works like that—out with the old, in with the new.”
Designers must also predict what their customer will want—months before she knows herself, essentially tapping into their customer’s subconscious. “Fashion is meant to be escapist, fun and fantasy,” says John Galliano. “A girl does not want to walk into a store and think what political statement she is wearing. She wants to think about what guy will catch her eye if she’s looking foxy. Fashion is to show off your curves, to show off your personality; of course, it can reflect the mood and the attitude of the time. One of the things that influenced the couture in July was the unrest in Paris, but it was only one part, and it was more catching a mood that pervaded the studio as we were designing. Fashion conveys moods without words, a bit like a silent-movie star.”
Galliano agrees fashion can be over-intellectualized. “Lipsticks don’t cure sickness, but they make you feel better,” he continues. “A sexy, well-cut suit can make you feel like a million dollars and give you the strength to mean business. But I think clients have their own opinions and own agendas, and this is where the overlap stops. I think everything has its role, and fashion’s role—my role—is to seduce.”
That seduction, however, doesn’t begin and end on a department store clothing rack. With media exposure of fashion shows at an all-time high and streaming video just a click away, customers want constantly new stimulation. “Fashion has to be in step with the times,” says Stefano Gabbana. “Today more than ever, conceptual just doesn’t pay back and is destined to fail. If there’s one thing we learned over all these years, it is that designers have to give the consumer what the consumer wants. You have to be a bit of a sociologist and have the sensibility to understand people’s desires just by observing the world we live in: the streets, clubs, movies, music.”
In fact, the laundry list of what designers have to do today appears endless. They design main seasons and now also pre-collections such as resort and pre-fall. The fashion customer is more savvy than ever, so the days of designers blithely cashing in on licensing revenue are largely gone, replaced by personal involvement in every category. “The pace is pitched up more than it ever was,” says Michael Kors. “If you want to have a viable business in a few categories of ready-to-wear, accessories, home and eyewear, you have to be involved.
“I always thought a designer had a nervous breakdown and went to Marrakech the day after the show, but it just doesn’t work that way anymore,” he continues. “You have to learn to compartmentalize. You have to be able to say, ‘Right now, I will work on belts, and my head is only in belts.’ Then you have to be able to walk away from it.”
With so much merchandise on the floor for shoppers to choose from, many designers seek a competitive edge with a full schedule of personal store appearances. And as much of the manufacturing—not to mention burgeoning sales—moves to the Far East, they’re racking up more frequent-flier air than ever. “We’re in a different theater at this point,” says Anna Sui. “Globalization has much to do with it. Through the Internet and cable television, everything is immediate. It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle this.” That person had better be able to multitask. “I have 13 licenses and couldn’t possibly do it all by myself, but I still have to direct everyone, and that’s another responsibility in and of itself.”
Francisco Costa, Calvin Klein Collection’s women’s creative director, concurs. “There is this pressure from the press office, from retailers and from manufacturers,” he says. “It’s a constant cycle. I think you have to be more organized. You have to have a design team that can answer and solve problems. You have to look at it more as a merchant at times.”
Then there is the growing competition from celebrity-designers who enter the fashion fray with well-established names and a solid following of fans around the world. More and more, professional designers must increase their media savvy and generate as much attention for themselves as possible. Kors, for one, has become a household name as a judge on the television reality show Project Runway; Tommy Hilfiger dabbled in television with the ill-fated The Cut, and Isaac Mizrahi has his own talk show on the Style Network and has been getting tons of publicity for his role as a boundary-less commentator on the red-carpet circuit for the E! network.
Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York, says the demands on designers are greater than ever. “They have to not only be creative and design a collection, but they have to be great managers,” she says. “They have to be a face of their collection or brand; they have to deal with more exposure than before, and they have to deal with a lot more demand for more product in the market.”
Gilhart likens the pressure on designers, particularly young ones, to the demands placed on a racehorse. “We put them right out there on the racetrack and say, ‘Go, win, win, win,'” she explains. “We don’t allow them the development time or allow them to make mistakes. Designers have become such celebrities. You can be 20, and your name is known around the world. I think you have to be incredibly smart and well-versed, and have restraint—a sense of what you can and can’t do.”
To stay on top of trends, Kors keeps abreast of pop culture through newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet. “A designer has to be cognizant of what happens in the world,” he says. “But let’s be honest, we have been in a war for five years. What explains the ladylike, the romantic, the return of sex then? What did that have to do with war? I just can’t believe everyone woke up and got political. If some designers had somber collections, it’s just the way the pendulum of fashion swung.”
And, of course, a designer has to be keenly observant. “It’s just about living and going out there and keeping eyes open,” says Benhaz Sarafpour, while adding that some things should not end up on the runway. “News really depresses me,” she adds. “Someone gave me a subscription to the Financial Times as a gift. It’s on my doorstep every morning, and opening the door of my apartment and seeing the front page really bums me out. Generally, there is a picture of a hostage or a story about AIDS in Africa, which are things to be aware of—but I don’t want to use fashion as a platform to talk about those things. I would much rather make fashion that is positive and pretty, and that makes money to then give to charities to solve those problems.”
Kors says it’s important to keep up with the stimuli of modern life, but admits that it can be time-consuming. “Today, the biggest thing that’s changed about fashion is how you work,” he says. “Everything moves so quickly. It’s as if you had an old-fashioned record player and turned the speed up. Is there a new art exhibit? What is going on on American Idol? Did you see Crash, but also, did you see Narnia? It’s impossible to be relevant as a designer unless you’re plugged into popular culture. You have to know the cultural world, both high- and lowbrow. It’s exhausting sometimes … sometimes I am tired and just want to turn it off. I don’t want to read these magazines, newspapers, rush out and read the newest book. But the fact remains that curiosity is the most important thing a designer can have.”
Curiosity, yes, but of a kind that allows designers to tap into the prevailing zeitgeist. The current season is a perfect example. Its covered-up looks, often so layered that not a piece of skin—or even a face—is visible, led Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, to wonder aloud about the “Muslimization” of fashion.
“Now you have so many designers that each one becomes a barometer of a different aspect of our consciousness of the world,” says Harold Koda, curator-in-charge at the Costume Institute. “They have to not only understand their clients, but they also have to be able to assert their difference from other designers. It’s become increasingly clear that the designers who have this sense lead.”
Alexander McQueen says he’s long believed that fashion is a sensitive indicator of the times, from Dior’s New Look as a reaction to wartime scarcity to the flapper dresses of the Twenties as an emblem of women’s emancipation. Asked to account for fall-winter’s dark, sober tone, McQueen says, “It’s mostly about protection at the moment.” More important to him, though, is paying attention to what people are wearing and buying. “They’re expecting more quality and less throwaway fashions,” he says. “They’re looking for heirlooms. People don’t what to spend 1,500 pounds for a jacket that falls apart after a few wearings.”
Tim Gunn, chairman of Parsons The New School for Design, suggests that this kind of sixth sense is all about customer appeal. “There is a much higher level of competition for the customer,” he says. “It’s a matter of Vera here, Badgley there, Narciso over there. A designer must ask, ‘What can I do to put myself out in front of that customer and eclipse those other designers?’ Being culturally aware is crucial for a good designer. We tell our students at Parsons all the time that what you design is in a context: It’s cultural; it’s societal; it’s historic, and economic and political.”
Of course, in trying for relevance, you don’t want to fall into the trap of fashion-world pretense. Marc Jacobs was among the first designers to mine a darker, more melancholy vein one year ago. But he says the original impulse sprang largely as a reaction to two phenomena: city women dressing uniformly as though they were at the beach, in flip-flops and ethnic tops; and the inundation of red-carpet dressing.
Jacobs acknowledges that a wider adoption of sober, darker fashions coincided with the broader sociopolitical climate, but says it would be wrong to assume all designers are directly addressing issues such as politics, war or terrorism. For his part, he says, “You think first and foremost it’s winter, and it’s cold, and I like the idea of covering up, of bundling up … I was putting on a fashion show and showing clothes that I felt were right,” he says of his fall collection. “I wasn’t trying to do a news report with fashion.”
Few walk the line between relevance and pretense better than Karl Lagerfeld, who counsels being oneself—as long as that self is supremely sophisticated. “I hate the idea of fashion being intellectualized. That is as bad for fashion as the obsession with Aaaart,” he says, derisively dragging out the word. “They are [both] designer complexes. Our job is to do fashion our way. It’s art and craft. I love the two words together. We are not there to tell people what our work is [about]. If they don’t get it, the intellectual approach will make it wrong and often grotesque.”
As for the newfound sobriety and covering up of the body, Lagerfeld says: “That’s fashion—the mood of the moment. What else can you do after the kingdom of the bimbo? It’s a normal reaction.”
—With contributions from Miles Socha, Paris, and Alessandra Ilari, Milan
This article appeared in WWD The Magazine, a special publication of WWD available to subscribers.