Hubert Burda Media

Is fashion witnessing an identity crisis?

When new is not new…or is it? We study the end of the fashion establishment as we know it. 

These days, not a year goes by without a dizzying round of designer musical chairs. The shuffle started in February 2016 when news broke that European menswear labels Brioni, Berluti and Ermenegildo Zegna lost their creative heads — Brendan Mullane, Alessandro Sartori and Stefano Pilati,  respectively — one after the other in a space of two days. This was later compounded by Hedi Slimane’s second exit from Saint Laurent (not without some legal drama).

At the time of writing, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow had also just announced their departures from DKNY, a decision informed by the label’s sale from LVMH to G-III and the subsequent change in strategies. It has been less than two years since they began renewing buzz in the New York label.

It was also goodbye to Peter Copping, who left Oscar de la Renta after less than two years; and Peter Dundas, who parted ways with Roberto Cavalli after three seasons. But their short-lived tenures pale in comparison to Justin O’Shea’s speedy exit from Brioni after just six months.

The string of departures runs parallel with the parade of extraordinary debuts for Spring/Summer 2017. Anthony Vaccarello (previously from Versus Versace) unveiled his first offering for Saint Laurent, a 1980s-style collection in predominantly black with #freethenipple numbers. It resumed Slimane’s 1980s parting shot while infusing Vaccarello’s distinctive super sexy aesthetic.

Bouchra Jarrar and her lavish spin on the motorcycle vest for Lanvin

Next came new female leads at the helm of big French luxury houses. For Lanvin, Bouchra Jarrar did not send out the 49-look collection without her favourite motorcycle jackets (extravagant plumes softened the tough effect for some) paired with sheer floor-sweeping skirts, echoing the sense of joy that underpins the label.

Making history as Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri also put forth peekaboo skirts — she had a feminine Valentino-esque take in tulle and lace with embroidery and embellishment — teamed with fencing kits, slogan tees and sneakers. Her debut was cheered on by fellow designers Alber Elbaz, Giambattista Valli, Pierre Cardin (Monsieur Christian Dior’s first assistant designer from 60 years ago!) and former Valentino partner Pierpaolo Piccioli, whose own solo outing was one of the highlights of Milan Fashion Week.

He, too, did not disappoint. Exquisite fairy-tale-like frocks were made wonderful with a brilliant Zandra Rhodes collaboration, which had the pink-haired British designer reinterpret Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights with aplomb. Cross-body bags, some as small as cigarette cases, as well as luxe sandals and slippers completed the look. Grazia Chiuri returned his support, sitting front row alongside Elbaz, Olivier Rousteing and founder Valentino Garavani.

Suffice to say, these high-profile premieres siphoned quite a bit of attention from defining trends. But does anyone care anymore, especially in this age of instant gratification?

Burberry lets you shop the show

Brands such as Burberry, Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and Thakoon have revised traditional retail strategies to adopt the see-now-sell-now business model. Burberry and Gucci are putting out co-ed shows, while Dsquared2 and Bottega Veneta will merge womenswear and menswear into one show to deliver a singular message this year.

Without a doubt, we’re looking at a period of transformation as fashion houses try to stay relevant in the fast-changing landscape. In the pursuit of the new, designers are recycling old ideas, as pointed out by trend forecaster Li Edelkoort in her “Anti-Fashion” manifesto. “These categories of designers are working on clothes and are no longer concerned or interested in change for change’s sake — unanimously declaring newness a thing of the past,” she opined. “With this lack of conceptual innovation, the world is losing the idea of fashion.”

Amid confusing shake-ups to the fashion system, the outsider became the fashion insider, extending normcore to new heights.

Take Vetements, for instance, which burst into the scene in 2014 and before one could ask “Who’s that?”, it was everywhere — scoring coverage in Vogue and on street-style stars such as Miroslava Duma, who rocked the highly coveted reconstructed vintage Levi’s 501 jeans; and Chiara Ferragni, who donned an oversized hoodie with a label that literally says “hoodie”. These two items encapsulate Vetements’ (French for “clothes”) avant-garde-meets-literal approach to fashion that has enthralled the industry. Many see the hype as a reaction to how boring fashion gets as the faster-and-faster cycle churns out predictable trends.

Except it’s not a cheap thrill when a hoodie costs about $710 and jeans nearly $1,700.

Armed with an impressive list of stockists, it was shortlisted for LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers at just three seasons old. Face and leader of the anonymous collective behind the brand, Demna Gvasalia, has since taken over the helm at Balenciaga from Alexander Wang in October 2015, as he continues to make waves with Vetements.

In July 2016, Vetements hit the headlines with its first menswear launch (Spring/Summer 2017) by tapping on the strengths of 18 megabrands — from high-fashion Comme des Garçons to accessible Champion — and staging the presentation in the famed Galeries Lafayette during Haute Couture week. To fight outré couture confections for press attention is a massive show of its media clout.

Another radical still changing perspectives on fashion is Alessandro Michele, who emerged from the backroom after 13 years to lead Gucci into a new golden age in 2014. Much has been raved of how his thrift store-chic covetibles turned the fashion conglomerate’s fortunes around and the accolade-laden designer won several awards that validate his vintage aesthetic: International Fashion Designer of the Year award at the 2015 British Fashion Awards, International award 2016 CFDA Awards and Designer of the Year at British GQ’s Men of the Year Awards 2016.

Gucci has been combining menswear and womenswear since Alessandro Michele took the creative lead

Consumer-to-industry recognition for both men seems to challenge Edelkoort’s question of what’s new about new. If change is the constant, then Gvasalia and Michele’s ordinary-looking offerings — together with a merry band of collaborators — have managed to capture the zeitgeist.

“We started to lose a sense of fun in fashion. We feel it is inevitable and crucial to create contemporary clothing. We are having a dialogue with today,” explains Gvasalia in an interview with The Business of Fashion.

“It feels like a return to the 1980s, when things were centred [on] you as the individual, instead of the more 1990s feeling of the collective,” Michele also mused in an interview with System magazine. “I think that idea of self is something we need now, because after 15 years of globalisation, people want to express themselves as individuals.”

This perhaps explains the rise of fashion democracy and the explosive success of newcomer labels. Before Chicago native Virgil Abloh established elevated streetwear label Off-White in Milan in 2012, he was not just a music producer, DJ and Kanye West’s creative collaborator for 13 years, but also a trained architect and engineer. In less than five years, the only American finalist for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers in 2015 has opened stand-alone stores dotting the globe over: London, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. He only set up shop in the US for the first time in December 2016, when he partnered Los Angeles concept boutique Maxfield for a pop-up, offering a limited-edition 36-piece capsule collection (that treats styles from previous seasons to look vintage) and a new furniture line he launched at Art Basel in Miami. (The temporary location is open until January 29.)

Virgil Abloh is raising the bar for streetwear.

If Off-White unhinged jaws with the phenomenal prices attached to edgy urban basics, Self-Portrait, launched in 2013, paints a contrasting picture. Malaysia-born, London-based Creative Director Han Chong has garnered a celebrity following the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Kirsten Stewart and Michelle Obama with his granny-esque guipure lace dresses. You can find them in over 350 international stockists at affordable prices. In an interview with Prestige, he reasons: “Celebrities are just like any other women. They want attention-grabbing design details but they also want to feel good and have fun.”

Looks like some things just don’t change.