Let me begin with an understatement: the fashion industry has undergone a substantial commercial metamorphosis in recent years.
Companies of conspicuous consumption like Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) are now the proprietors of fashion houses like Givenchy, Celine, Fendi and Marc Jacobs. Karl Lagerfeld, of white-ponytail-and-black-lace-ladies’-fan fame, former head of the House of Chanel, lately designed a clothing line for Swedish discount giant H & M. It is the fashion-world equivalent of cancer researchers leaving the lab to build baking-soda volcanoes and potato light bulbs, all for the sake of a better paycheque. Sure they have the right to do it, but it still seems like a ridiculous waste of ingenuity.
The rise of “McFashion,” that made-in-China trend of the week, available at that popular chain store for the low, low price of $19.99 (with a 10 percent discount on the matching belt) has some industry types in a tizzy. Fashion mavens and commentators alike are sounding the alarm, forecasting apocalyptic sartorial uniformity and the extinction of the haute-couture, could-never-wear-it-off-the-runway ensembles that grace the glossy pages of fashion magazines.
In her book The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever, Wall Street Journal writer Teri Agins claims that designers are no longer willing to take risks because society is “letting go of fashion.” She views the seventies as a dividing line between the pageantry of yesteryear and the practicality of the modern world. In her estimation, the institutionalization of casual Fridays is emblematic of an overarching shift in our collective fashion-values. For Glamour editor Michelle Lee, that means a proliferation of chain stores that sell large quantities of the same style at affordable prices. Calling the commercialization of fashion “a fast track to dullsville,” Lee and Agins are part of a larger chorus of fashion pundits who believe multinational corporations are threatening the livelihoods of avant-garde fashion designers, sartorial creators whose evolutionary conceptions in cloth are responsible for pushing the fashion envelope into uncharted territory.
Who, Agins, Lee and others are crying, will save fashion?
With the demise of fashion squarely in my mind, I am prepping for an interview with Montreal designer Renata Morales. The Mexican-born fashionista has become a Canadian fashion darling in less than five years. With three Montreal boutiques and a flagship store on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, she has shown her collections in Europe and, most recently, in Pusan, South Korea. Morales is emblematic of the new generation of independent designers whose creations are hindered neither by shareholders nor by a desire to cater to the aesthetic values of the current crop of pop-culture hipsters. It is her critical acclaim that is reassuring up-and-comers that fashion design is more than just about financial success.
Morales may also be emblematic of fashion’s saviour—the independent mid-size designer still looking to push the creative limits of haute couture. What’s more, designers like Morales are proving you can grow your business by upholding these ideals.
On the eve of this serious fashion colloquy, I lapse into a pathetic state of style paranoia. What to wear for an interview with a fashion designer about the end of fashion? My room is filled with loot from the very chain stores that I am expecting her to lambaste. Wearing chain-store would be like wearing a fur coat to meet a PETA activist. I tear through drawers like a teenage girl prepping for her first date with that history-class crush, convinced that so much rides on this ensemble. In the end, I opt for a shantung shift dress with a mod, single-flap collar, which bobs beneath my chin like the hated Sunday-best, sailor-collared dresses of my childhood.
The next morning, I find Morales seated in a chair, wearing the most understated of outfits—black T-shirt and leggings, a well-worn, mint polymer satchel by her feet. Although dewy-faced like the gamine models that strut her runway collections, I quickly discover that Morales is not a stereotypical fashion-world type. She is foremost a creator whose medium is fabric, not a celebrity-chasing personality incidentally involved in the creation of clothing. She looks younger than her thirty-one years, and much less angular than she appears in her black-and-white publicity mug shots. Her sandy blonde hair is pulled back severely into a no-nonsense ponytail.
Morales speaks in breakneck, single-breath paragraphs that are as frenetic in content as they are in delivery. The designer has a lot to say and not a lot of time. This is a woman who competes in a playing field where innovation and acclaim are only ever half the battle. Her success is due, in no small part, to an almost obsessive need to create. She recounts that at one point, she was without an apartment and spent her days and nights in the studio sketching and sewing.
From her own experiences as a struggling designer, Morales has developed an acute sensibility for the need to support others in her community. In the works is a production co-operative with other independent Montreal designers because, as she explains, “at the end of the day we all need zippers, we all need buttons. The membrane of construction is all pretty much the same.” “If you say, I’m going to go solo or whatever, at our level it’s very, very difficult to compete, so co-operation and collaboration are to me essential.”
When Morales tosses out terms like the “membrane of construction,” she reveals her attachment and attitude to the clothes she makes. She is interested in the philosophy of design, in following the Japanese deconstructionist approach to couture like Rei Kawabuko’s, in developing what she terms a “language” of creation. Morales aims to produce garments which are so distinct in production and aesthetic that they could in no way be confused with the work of another designer.
The fashion Morales discusses and creates is a world apart from the insular mall-sphere of the lay trend-obsessed shopper. For all my love of clothing, the jeans and T-shirts in my laundry pile are a far cry from the garments of splendour conjured in Morales’s imagination. The immaturity of my style ethos dawns on me as I stand before her, my feet resplendent in trendy, Pepto-Bismol, ethnically bejewelled sandals—I feel like the girl who showed up at the garden party in her prom dress—the girl who doesn’t have a clue. Morales beams back at me, unaware of my dawning sartorial epiphany; she is lost in a verbal meditation on the artistry of form.
Morales’s work can be described as baroque modernism, visual opulence with a keen attention to detail. These are thought-provoking, labour-intensive masterpieces in cloth: fettuccine-width strips of ivory sheen, matte bone and patterned fabric woven together into a tight lattice forming the exoskeletal structure of a bold-collared blouse; a three-quarter-sleeved military blazer and full skirt with gold floral brocade on an azure background, hemmed to conform with the contours of the appliqué.
Seeing Morales’s clothes, one can’t help but think those cries of fashion apocalypse are perhaps premature. Although the rise of discount fashion has led some big name designers to abandon imagination for the sake of profit, independent designers like Morales are flourishing in the vacuum left by the old vanguard. Since 2000, Morales’ domestic sales have grown 300 percent and her international retailing is up 60 percent. Consumers with big bucks to spend are yearning for exclusivity, harkening back to true artisan production. Being festooned in the same outfit as every third person on the street is not what these customers are after. The explosion of clone fashion “has actually helped our business, it has helped us to have more of a niche of a clientele,” says Morales.
And therein lies the distinction between haute couture and ordinary fashion—the elite versus the plebs, the patrons of the sartorial arts versus the consumers of mass-produced clothing. As much as I adore my new designer discovery, a Renata Morales-label item bares a price tag that is too hefty for my fiscal reality. Like my cohorts who swarm the mall racks every weekend in search of a bargain, I must content myself with the comfort of chain store knock-offs. McFashion belongs to the people and I am but one of the mass. The wealthy of discerning taste, faced with dressing like a more expensive version of me or walking down the street as an individual of independent flair, are opting for the latter. And so thanks to shoppers like me, there is an even greater demand for the talents of designers like Morales.