Celine, a Feminist, and a Celebrity Designer walk into a fashion show…
It’s 2018, everyone is on their toes, walking on eggshells around each other as to not offend. Meanwhile, in the White House, the Commander in Chief takes to Twitter to call his opponents “horse-faced” and the First Lady jets around Africa in a colonial-style hat. Chaos reigns as the world tried to find some middle ground on the spectrum. And just when you thought politics couldn’t seep any deeper into your life; hello Fashion Month Spring/Summer 2019.
In the tumultuous political climate around the world, fashion has become more influential than ever. The general public do not usually take fashion seriously as a type of medium that can influence the lives of everyday individuals. However, fashion has always been in the political conversation, from the appropriate skirt length, to a first lady’s fashion choice, even self expression and gender identity. But this past month it has swelled into something different, from op-eds to fashion shows, politics have descended upon fashion in a whole new way - whether it was the designer’s intent or not.
Fashion month is usually dedicated to the shows: Proenza Schouler’s new line, Jeremy Scott’s latest prints, DVF’s current wrap dress. Not this month. High tensions ran amok as key presentations aligned with nail-biting political events and high powered acquisitions pushed “The Top 10 must-know trends from Milan fashion week” to the bottom of our feeds. The tension seemed to snap at the Celine show in Paris as the murmurs of editors and influencers quickly turned into shouts and scathing reviews of its new Creative Director, Hedi Slimane.
The previous designer at Celine, Phoebe Philo, had a close-to-cult following that praised her wearable, accessible designs. She was heralded as a designer by woman, for woman who understood her consumers’ need for clothing that fit into their everyday lives. Underlined by her gender, her designs were in stark contrast to those of her male contemporaries in the male-dominated realm of high powered creatives in the fashion industry. Celine became a haven from plunging necklines, short skirts, and sheer fabrics.
Meanwhile at Yves Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane was perhaps the complete opposite of what drew ‘Philophiles’ (fans of Phoebe Philo) to Celine. Slimane’s short tenure at the house is largely regarded as a master stroke. Sticking to what we now understand to be Slimane’s personal vision, “Yves” at Yves Saint Laurent was out and a hard, punk, sexy, and monochromatic sensibility was in. Slimane may be solely responsible for the return of the Chelsea boot. The 70’s aesthetic dripped of sex-appeal and everything from the styling to the models told a story that was almost aggressive, but undoubtedly sexy, sultry, and sophisticated. See also: Lots of sparkles and leopard prints.
When LVMH announced the exit of Philo, she was, naturally, mourned by her following. The real emotion, however, seemed to emerge after the arrival of Slimane. Announcements of Slimane’s appointment was met with mixed reviews, Slimane’s army of followers buzzing about what he would bring to the brand while Celine fans and Phiophiles alike bemoaned another brand placed in the hands of the male designer.
All the while, tensions in politics around the world were mounting. Especially in America, the discourse slowly begins to erode from the top down as more and more powerful figures succumb to putting others down with insults and lies. The language against women came to a particularly low point as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against now Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, drawing an insurmountable amount of criticism and scrutiny from the White House, pundits, and beyond.
The same day as Dr. Ford testified, Rick Owens’ models stomped the runways of Paris for Spring 2019. Vogue contributor Nicole Phelps made a direct correlation between the structured lines and angles at Rick Owens alluding to witches at the stake and Dr. Ford’s testimony. Noting that Rick Owens has a knack for communicating current social issues through his clothing, Phelps goes on to parallel Ford’s ‘inconvenient truth’ and Owens’ apparent allusion to the Me Too movement. Rick Owens himself did not directly mention the women’s movement in his press meetings or show title. This narrative clearly demonstrating how fashion lends an identity to the viewer, even if it is beyond the designer’s intent. Fashion is in the eye of the beholder.
A day later, all hell broke loose at the Celine show. After much anticipation and another logo change (this time, a mere accent mark), Slimane debut his collection to onlooking editors and high profile designers and celebrities. The reaction was instantaneous and not entirely positive. A scathing review from both The Washington Post and The New York Times set the overall tone for the designer’s return to the runway: we’ve seen this before, there is no diversity, and this isn’t a woman’s perspective.
The tension seemed to have broke directly over Slimane’s head, or perhaps over his 80’s baby doll dresses. Comparison’s to President Trump were made to murmurs of agreement while Slimane defended himself by raising more questions, wondering aloud why women didn’t have the ability to dress as they willed without the judgement of others. Some claim he was missing the point while other came to his defense, pointing out that other men walk similar sensibilities down the runway and asking what people expected from the designer. A woman’s perspective perhaps is not taken for granted as much as it is within the walls of LVMH.
So what can we make of all of this? There are some key lessons to take away from the events that have transpired over this Spring’s fashion month.
The first is cultural responsibility and the fashion industry. Fashion is, at its core, insular. It has been elitist since its beginnings in English aristocracy in the mid 19th century and it is still elitist today. However, in a rush to stay “cool” and marketable, fashion has injected itself into the lives of everyday people in more impactful ways than ever before thanks to social media. Fashion used to be something that everyday people wear, now everyday people have adopted it as a way to define who they are - it's not just for the inner circle anymore. This shift in influence, while it rakes in the money, has consequences and brands and their parent companies have to leverage that power responsibly or suffer. Putting a celebrity designer into a house that holds particular cultural significance without seriously considering how the values of the designer and the house align can be irresponsible and, quite frankly, bad business.
And speaking of celebrity designers, big names like Abloh, Lagerfeld, Jones, Versace, Tisci, and Slimane are important for the fashion industry, but they are not infallible and are not a fix-all solution to a brand. Slimane’s aesthetic was a complete turn-around to what Celine’s consumer base was used to, it should hardly be a shock to parent company LVMH that the initial plan backfired. Slimane’s turn around worked once before, and they assumed it would work a second time. They had a big name and when the music stopped, Slimane sat down at Celine. It is clear the appointment was based on a track record of driving sales rather than ability to continue where Philo left off or create a totally new vision. Bad move.
Lastly, in the future, these parent companies must recognize that fashion is not something people wear, it is something that people use to identify themselves. When brands present a garment or a look or a brand identity (or all of the above) people subscribe to it to their core. When that identity is compromised, people react almost as if they were personally robbed. Because in a sense, they are. They can no longer use that brand to self identify, you took something they felt was theirs to claim.
The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman made the point that LVMH should have just given Slimane a namesake label instead of Celine, since the designer essentially used the platform to crank out his personal aesthetic. This is a valid point. Through the muck of scathing reviews, Trump parallels, and timid rebuttals, you can begin to hear a demand for choice. What people want is options when crafting their own identity. By taking Celine as it was known away, some women felt as if they were stripped of a choice. In the vast, multi-trillion dollar industry that is fashion, there is somehow still a cry for diversity.
Clothing is a lens through which we view both the world and ourselves. For Slimane and Celine, only time will tell if the transfer of power will succeed and who will be elevated to the space left by Celine. As President Trump might say: “we’ll see.”