Fashion is facing something of a philosophical conundrum. It is after all inherently designed to render itself redundant following each new iteration, to usurp itself seasonally and replace itself with another, and for the most part, better version of itself. To date, a cycle of eternal consumption has sufficed with many of luxury’s largest houses reinventing how they communicate and engage with their audiences. Having long grappled with the changing beliefs of their traditional customers, the emergence of a new and unique generation of consumers has changed the playing field entirely.
Fashion is now a cultural force and economic powerhouse. No longer the barbarian at the gate, fashion is now the subject of major exhibitions at the most powerful galleries and museums in the world. It is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. Or can it?
As it exists now, the fashion ‘system’ is a tightly calibrated series of seasonal showings across multiple continents. Presenting as many as six seasons—from haute couture to ready to wear, spring/summer, autumn/winter, in addition to cruise/resort and pre-fall offerings in far flung destinations such as Chanel in Havana or Louis Vuitton in Rio de Janeiro. Each presentation is designed to drive customer interest, stimulate engagement and create desire. But despite all of this activity—and perhaps because of the endless whirl of fashion opportunities—it appears the consumer has lost their fashion stamina.
The departure of Raf Simons from Christian Dior at the designer’s creative peak in 2015 constituted somewhat of a seismic shift big enough for fashion to pause, look at itself (albeit briefly) and pose the question that if one of the most celebrated talents of our time is calling fashion ‘fast and untenable’ then what could it mean? Amongst the conjecture and white noise many are calling for the fashion system to be fixed—implying by virtue—that it’s broken. Enter Tom Ford, fashion’s unlikely rebel. Launching his eponymous label in 2005, Ford produces both men’s and women’s collections in addition to his supporting eyewear, fragrance and cosmetic lines with a footprint of some 120 freestanding stores and shop-in-shops around the world—including of course his exclusive partnership with Harrolds Luxury Department Store here in Australia.
Prior to launching his own label, Ford was part of the Gucci Group (purchased and recalibrated by Kering in 2013) where he was appointed as creative director in 1994 following an incredible four year rise through the ranks. Kering, the group who also orchestrated the purchase of Yves Saint Laurent (1999), Boucheron (2000), Sergio Rossi (2000), Balenciaga (2001), Bottega Veneta (2001), Alexander McQueen (2000) and Stella McCartney (2001), would not only provide Ford with an influence over the creative stewardship of Gucci, but afford him the landscape in which to consistently and evidently reinforce his business acumen while helping clarify his own vision for the future.
It is perhaps because of this history that Ford has once again become fashion’s renaissance man. Alongside Burberry’s Christopher Bailey and Vetements’ Demna & Guram Gvasalia, Ford has announced a significant shift in his business model, and with it, a fundamental change to the fashion system. Akin to reinventing the wheel, and coinciding with the presentation of Ford’s Autumn/Winter 2016-17 menswear and womenswear collections this September, customers are now able to purchase collections immediately from the runway—a ‘See Now, Buy Now’ model that discards the historical construct of clothes appearing in stores as they appear in magazines, some four months after they are first presented.
“We have been living with a fashion calendar and system that is from another era. Our customers today want a collection that is immediately available. Fashion shows and the traditional fashion calendar, as we know them, no longer work in the way that they once did. We spend an enormous amount of money and energy to stage an event that creates excitement too far in advance of when the collection is available to the consumer,” Ford explains. The subtext here is that high fashion is ironically too slow for the system that now supports it; the increasingly dominant social media platforms that broadcast, disseminate and engage consumers at exponential rates and have consequently created a sink or swim moment for many brands. For Ford, it would appear that the element of surprise and fashion’s beautiful spectacle is being lost in the noise. With the front rows of shows now dominated by a skulk of bloggers, celebrities and Instagram influencers, actual clients are being relegated to the B seats. With access previously available to the privileged few, fashion is now communicated and purchased globally and within a system that doesn’t support its most central protagonist—the customer.
Runway shows have traditionally been fashion’s theatrical moments and Ford has opined on many occasions that the red carpet is his real runway—a declaration that bears weight when one factors in the sheer number of celebrities he dresses. As further grist to the mill, one might remember Ford’s salon show during the 2015 Oscars week in Los Angeles where he eschewed tradition and instead showed his Spring/Summer 2016 collection all together in a short film collaboration with Nick Knight that featured Lady Gaga and a crowd of models in motion. As the prop and subject of the ultimate film clip, this method of presentation reflected Ford’s desire to test the fashion waters. A commentary also perhaps on the role that digital platforms play in championing the desires of consumers and designers alike.
Parlaying these experiments one step further, Ford is now employing a modus operandi which bypasses the once essential social media machine by employing his trademark secrecy to tantalising effect. At the time of writing a high level of confidentiality still surrounds the key details of the September show. With clandestine like secrecy surrounding key looks, Ford’s trademark level of control adds to a mystique and allure missing from fashion in recent years.
While Ford’s idea to return to the historical haute couture salon model (a strategy adopted by Hedi Slimane for his last show at Saint Laurent incidentally) could be viewed skeptically as an example of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose—were it not for its redefining buy-now suffix—one must recognise the designers desire to balance old world elegance with new world instant gratification and access. Perhaps Ford is looking to Azzedine Alaïa as an exemplar here, the designer’s designer who presented collections outside of the dictated schedules, rejecting the observed trends in the fashion calendar to present when he deemed collections to be ready. But while Alaïa was in many ways unmotivated by the demands of the consumer, Ford appears to be striking a balance and reconciling commercial demands against consumer desire.
Many are understandably raising questions about the efficacy of fashions current supply and production machine which becomes increasingly convoluted season-in, season-out. Sarah Mower, Vogue’s chief critic, deliberated on the possibilities of a new system when she wrote that, “it remains to be seen what this will mean for all kinds of people who are involved in the back end of producing clothes, not to mention the tiered hierarchy of buyers, editors, and journalists whose ways are predicated on the ins and outs of the old system”. From the outside however Ford’s leadership makes perfect sense. Having never been easy to explain fashion’s labyrinthine processes to an outsider, the decision to recalibrate the system is bound to strike consumers as a completely logical and obvious thing to do. With resulting benefits that include wiping out the opportunity for copyist’s to release collections ahead of the original, one can’t help but feel a top to bottom shift in fashion finally occurring.
In taking on the forces of fast fashion and by ironically delivering at a faster rate, Ford will no doubt emerge an even bigger luxury force to be reckoned with—with each new collection made more exclusive by virtue of its limited edition. Executed with Ford’s trademark finesse and vision, the recalibration will indeed put the designer at the lead of fashion’s new renaissance. In doing so it will no doubt leave many brands such as Chanel, Dior and ironically Gucci, questioning their decisions to stick (to some degree) with the traditional mode of delivery. With many brands testing the water—one third of the items in Courrèges Autumn/Winter 2016 were made available to buy immediately after the runway show while Prada released two handbags from its Autumn/Winter 2016 collection immediately following their February presentation at Milan Fashion Week—most are yet to adopt a fundamental change.
Ford’s strategy by comparison is one of reinvention, something he has a penchant for having revitalised Gucci et al. On paper it would seem that it will be difficult to eschew the social media machine and the resulting noise surrounding the paradigm shift—but if the passage of time has told us one thing about Ford, it’s that he is always ahead of his time.
In 2013 as guest of honour at the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Annual Fashion Fund, Ford reminded us somewhat prophetically to, “Remember that our customers do not need our clothes. They don’t need another pair of shoes or a new jacket. We have to create that need by creating desire. I have at times in my life had a real problem with this, with the materialism and consumerism that is fashion. Part of me wants to rebel against this and move to the desert and live in a simple adobe hut and become a monk. The other part of me wants to enjoy the beauty of the way that a piece of silk velvet catches the light and takes colour. Finally, I realised we live in a material world. We’re material creatures. We are sensorial, we feel and we touch.”
Perhaps it’s because of this tension that the allure towards Ford and his collections remains so strong. Perhaps our desire for that which cannot yet be seen or imagined is equally to blame. Either way, and within the context of a generation spoilt by instant gratification, delaying the pleasure of consumption and reflecting upon what makes fashion so special, may indeed be the very essence of luxury.
For more visit www.tomford.com