Since the start of the new millennium, the fashion industry has been in flux.
Growing digitalization and the explosive rise of social media have not only led to new forms of communication, making for a different perception, experience and consumption of fashion, but have also put the existing business models under pressure. The rhythm of presentation, production and communication steps up a notch season after season, putting the squeeze on creativity.
The artistic direction of fashion houses switches at breakneck speed, as brands fight for relevance and resonance. The Internet creates a constant stream of images and information, but despite this, there seems to be little room for deeper insights, analysis and historical contextualisation.
The traditional rhythm of two runway seasons per year (Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter) is already a thing of the past, with some designers now making more than eight collections a year. So how to position creativity, innovation, originality and authorship in such a context?
Against this backdrop, it’s significant that we’re experiencing a renewed interest in the singular fashion visionaries of the second half of the 20th century, both in the fashion press and in museums around the world.
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At MoMu, Antwerp’s fashion museum, we currently have an exhibition covering the Belgian designer Martin Margiela’s period as creative director of women’s ready-to-wear at the French fashion house Hermès, from 1997-2003. Next year, Palais Galliera, one of the two Parisian fashion museums, will devote a retrospective to Margiela’s own label, Maison Martin Margiela.
One the first Monday in May, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibition about Rei Kawakubo from Japanese label Comme des Garçons — the museum’s first exhibition dedicated to a living designer since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 — to great critical acclaim.
And in 2016 and 2017, there have been several exhibitions dedicated to the work of one of the greatest pioneers of the mid-20th century, Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga. This March, Palais Galliera opened “Balenciaga, L’oeuvre au noir,” and on May 27, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London will launch “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion.”
He was also at the center of MoMu’s 2016 “Game Changers” exhibition, a tribute to those designers who radically transformed the female silhouette in the 20th century and created alternatives to the hourglass silhouette that had dominated women’s fashion for centuries. His radical innovations in the mid-20th century — voluminous balloon hems, floating babydolls, sculptural shifts — connected early pioneers, such as Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret, to the later form-innovators of the second half of the century, including Margiela and Kawakubo.
But why this renewed interest from museums for pioneers from the second half of last century? What is the current relevance of these designers in a fashion scene constant change for profit’s sake? Could it be that their insights and radical ideas still offer an alternative to a fashion system that is coming under increasing pressure?
Since the ’70s, Kawakubo has presented her work as absolute innovation, banishing any form of historical contextualization. Although cultural and historical references can also be detected in her work, she markedly rejects the past. With every collection she tries to start with a blank slate, challenging existing notions of form, gender, style and beauty.
The exhibition at the Met illustrates this strikingly. The clothing is arranged in what looks like a futuristic and abstract landscape that appears — at first sight — to be devoid of references. In this way, the pieces are presented as concepts or proposals rather than as functional clothing. This is a radical attempt to break through the cyclical nature of fashion, in which ideas and forms keep recurring. After all, if fashion works cyclically, where is the room for evolution?
So too did Margiela, who left his eponymous brand in 2009, constantly challenge fashion’s urge to keep changing, both at his own label and Hermès.
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After his first five seasons, he introduced a retrospective collection that did not contain a single new design. It was an anthology of the strongest pieces from his previous collections, but entirely executed in gray. The original season of each piece was stamped on the label.
With Hermès, Margiela worked on wardrobes intended to evolve gradually, with a customer adding a few pieces to her existing wardrobe each season. Pieces deemed successful were repeated in future seasons, sometimes in new materials or variations. Seasons and years consequently became interchangeable, with all of the pieces continually complementary within a single consistent vision.
Maison Martin Margiela has been introducing garments with the name Replica since 2003. These are reproductions of second-hand garments from different style periods. A second label is attached to provide additional information concerning the garment’s style, provenance and date.
These are pieces the Maison believed cannot be improved. By reproducing them as exactly as possible, Margiela was not presenting himself as a creator or author, but was paying homage to the anonymous craftsmanship that underlay these vintage pieces.
At a time when fashion houses — including Maison Margiela and Balenciaga — are quick to bring in artistic directors to translate their heritage in a way that conforms to contemporary tastes, assigning authorship is a burning issue.
However, the question still remains as to the role of the designer as artistic director: Is it to rehash the signatures of previous decades, or to let a legacy evolve in a way that is relevant in the modern context, from the perspective that fashion always moves in line with the great challenges of contemporary society?
In this respect, renewed interest for the avant-garde of previous decades is not an exercise in nostalgia, but rather an incentive to initiate a dialogue on innovation, originality, and authorship through the radical insights of our recent past.