The Poetics of Fashion
Jean Baudrillard once wrote, “fashion has the fabulous character of the more beautiful than beautiful; fascinating. The seduction it exerts is independent of all value judgment. It surpasses the esthetic from in the ecstatic form of unconditional metamorphosis.” [Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e), (1983) 1990:8].
Coming through the lens of postmodernism, fashion is the ultimate art form because it comes already deconstructed. Its meaning is already fading and changeable; its form is variable. But, what fashion lacks in definitive form it makes up for in purpose and aesthetic impact. Fashion, in many ways, is the sheer embodiment of beauty – it is all emotion, imaginative impulse, and expression. It is concomitantly objective and generalizable as it is personal and specific.
But, what is it that makes fashion speak? It is up to the creative direction of an individual designer or is there something more substantial, universal, and transnational to the character of fashion?
The answer lies both within and without the history of fashion. Coco Chanel notoriously made up a fabric of stories about her own life and anecdotes she never said in order to achieve a level of fame. But, she left her clothing to represent itself in its characteristic elegance, nonchalance, and perhaps ridiculously indefinable chic.
The power of brands lies in the degree to which they embrace their own value status. This is somewhere in the space between a company’s history and heritage and their ability to master the balance between their unique point of view and trends to stay ahead of the game with consumers. It is one of the key struggles of marketing strategy that it is a precarious balance to engage with consumers in an authentic manner, encourage them gently to purchase, and not distill your brand in the process.
The poetics of fashion comes in its quasi-linguistic ability to communicate with everyone at a certain level, even those who claim to have little or no interest in it. Fashion is an art; but, it is also a complicated business, as Imran Amed has shown us on many levels. In the same way that my two year old can discern he prefers one pair of shoes over another, the average person participates in and interacts with fashion on a daily basis without even knowing it, both through the sheer act of getting dressed as well as emotionally engaging with how those around them choose to attire themselves.
In this way, fashion is a tricky game. Whether you’re a brand, a publication, a blogger, or other related (or unrelated) industry professional, getting ahead in fashion is a matter of perseverance as well as brand value – knowing what sets you apart and finding ingenious ways to leverage upon it. This, of course, is never an easy equation, particularly in this saturated digital age where people have an access to everything and, in turn, more opinions on everything.
And here is where the emerging designers come in. Free of the pressures of investors and other financial woes, young designers are the lifeblood and the future of the fashion industry. They fully execute the poetics of fashion in the sheer individualism of their work and the artistic vision of what they create. The very movement and energy of fashion today – through all of the hype Fashion Weeks generate internationally – lies in the arena of these up-and-coming creative talents, known and unknown.
For all the breathlessness a Vera Wang gown or Christian Louboutin heels inspire, there is hundred-fold that for the works of these younger designers, some straight out of school, who will be designing what you will be wearing for the rest of your life, even neither of you realize it yet.
So, pay heed to those headlining young designers with the CFDA or NEWGEN in London or that local talent in your city because one day they may be essential to the future of how we dress and come to understand ourselves as creative, emotionally expressive beings.
Photo: Burberry SS2014, London Fashion Week
From the Archives: Luxury and the Flagship Store
The 2011 opening of the Louis Vuitton flagship store on Bond Street in London is symptomatic of a trend among fashion houses to establish a more permanent presence in influential cities around the world. Now a model that seems half brand marketing and half conceptual art, the idea of a “flagship” or large scale atelier has evolved significantly since the foundation of the first luxury fashion houses over 150 years ago.
Yet, in the second decade of the 21st century, what does the concept of a flagship store represent, particularly in the multi-country model that many companies adopt as well as in the face of an increasingly digital-oriented retail market for fashion?
It’s funny to think that the luxury goods giant Vuitton had its origins in humble suitcase design. Louis Vuitton was a licensed layetier, or travelling case manufacturer, who was hired by Napoleon III to design luggage for his wife, Empress Eugénie. From this base, Vuitton began marketing his label from his studio on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris in the mid-1850s and eventually opened his first store on Oxford Street in London in 1885. The Vuitton building on the Champs-Elysées, which was spectacularly renovated in 2005, did not open until 1913, by when the company had become the largest travel goods manufacturer in the world.
Vuitton, then, have come full circle, launching their “most luxurious store to date” on Bond Street in London, only a few streets away from their first retail space. But, what does this new store signify for the brand and for the luxury market in general? The 2005 refurbishment of the Champs-Elysées store established an updated presence, confirming the brand’s permanent position on the elite roster of luxury brand stores on what is arguably the most famous shopping street in the world.
An article from the BBC suggested that the depreciation of the Euro has decreased costs and increased sales for luxury goods manufacturers whose primary business is overseas in the United States and Asia. As the BBC points out, this trend suggests that part of the impetus behind the choice of London for Vuitton’s new flagship store is to target the tourist and ex-pat market, which continues to grow.
Yet, almost in contrast to any sensible market-driven purpose, the new Vuitton store has started a quiet media frenzy on its own simply because it’s new, gorgeous, and Vuitton. The name, not surprisingly, sells as much as its product, presentation, and store location. Why? It is luxury or haute couture, we say, which represents the culmination of money, power, beauty, and fame. In short, luxury is a tantalizing, unreachable, yet desirable aesthetic.
Jean Bergeron, former president of the Comité Colbert in France, defines luxury as “part dream, but its reality is excellence…. Yes, the superfluous is essential and luxury is the stuff of dreams. Dreams are what create all human adventures. It is not money, but dreams.” (Translated from a brochure from L’Agence Regionale d’Information Strategique et Techologique de Paris)
Of course, the popular conception of haute couture as representing all luxury fashion is a misnomer. In fact, the French actually own the rights to the term haute couture. Technically, it refers to custom-order fashion, as opposed to ready to wear (prêt-a-porter). In France, to qualify as haute couture, a fashion house has to meet a set of qualifications and then be approved by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris in order to call themselves true artisans of haute couture.
Technicalities aside, then, the new Vuitton store is a further embellishment, in a way, in the fleurissance or flowering of its international brand. The concept of a flagship store is a living cultural artifact: a way for luxury brands to make their mark, setting up a type of cultural permanence. This seems comforting in the face of so much impermanence in the virtual world established by online media. Even the multiplicity of flagships, i.e. a company having “flagship” stores in select cities across the world, is arguably a quiet form of cultural diplomacy, even if from a profit-driven standpoint.
So, the next time you’re in airport duty-free or at a shopping mall or on the high street and spy the characteristic Vuitton “LV” logo, think of luxury and admire its sheer necessity.
From the Archives: The Story of Fashion Week
Since the inception of New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in 1943, semi-annual fashion weeks have come to be the seminal events of the fashion calendar. Indeed, fashion weeks are the place where brands and fashion houses officially unveil their latest collections to the world, both to the magazine and press crowds but also to fellow designers and cultivated consumers.
However, the concept of a “fashion week” and its catwalk shows and presentations pre-dates the founding of NYFW and, to some extent, the origins of what we think of as mainstream fashion itself. As any fashion historian can relate, the idea of catwalk presentations originates in private salon shows for the very rich in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Couturiers would arrange for private presentations of the latest fashions to individual aristocratic clients hungry for new frocks to show off their wealth and social standing. These presentations, which took place either in private residences or in a designated room in a designer’s salon, involved models wearing the designer’s creations for aristocratic clients to view.
Not surprisingly, the salons of France dominated the fashion design market as early as the 18th century, though they faced some competition from the impeccable tailoring of British designers in the aftermath of the French Revolution. From Marie Antoinette to the Empress Eugénie, the glamour of the French queens and empresses had a significant impact on international fashion, which was supplied by highly-skilled couturiers. This reputation of French fashion as the pinnacle of design continued into the early 20thcentury. Indeed, while haute couture initially referred to the bespoke work of Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (of Woolworth’s fame), the term was embraced by French designers in the late 19th century and later syndicated with formal criteria by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris in 1945.
While the glamour of Hollywood brought fame to some American designers, the first serious threat against French fashion came in 1943 with the organization of New York Fashion Week by publicist Eleanor Lambert (founder of the CFDA) in a deliberate attempt to attract attention away from la mode de Paris. Lambert created an organized “Fashion Press Week” to introduce the collections of American designers to the world when the fashion world was unable to travel to Paris because of the war. Due to the success of this event, Lambert later helped created a coordinated system of similar press events in fashion capitals around the world.
Over 60 years later, Fashion Weeks now operate on a coordinated schedule of events for Autumn/Winter collections in the early part of the year and Spring/Summer collections in the latter part of the year beginning in London, then New York, Paris, and finally Milan. Haute couture shows in Paris take place on a different schedule. The notion of a “fashion week” is clearly a marketable concept, especially as many cities and towns across the world have latched upon this idea to present the work of local designers.
Until the past five years or so, the big four Fashion Weeks were invitation-only events for the press, magazine writers, fashion designers, and celebrities. The unveiling of a fashion collection arguably retained somewhat of the exclusivity of a 19th-century salon, though on a much grander scale. The fashion-loving consumer generally had to wait for the next issue of Vogue or their favorite fashion mag to catch next season’s creations. Yet, this approach to the big four Fashion Weeks has rapidly changed over the past few years, as fashion has acknowledged the presence and influence of bloggers and the online media-sphere.
In this way, in 2012, what is the continuing relevance of “fashion weeks” to the fashion consumer and to the fashion industry itself? Will the onset of more widespread access to bloggers and consumers via live web broadcasts dilute the reputation and hence legacy of these previously invitation-only semi-annual events? Do fashion designers lose any of their artistic edge with the removal of this protective layer of exclusivity? Or do the efficacy and desirability of a fashion collection actually increase through this type of publicity?
In a few weeks, I will be attending London Fashion Week in London with my colleagues, the Young British Designers. In the meantime, stay tuned for more fashion and culture-related articles in the lead up to the inevitable marvels of London Fashion Week!
The Luxury Brand Narrative
Shoe by Kerrie Luft (Source: Vogue.co.uk)
What is a luxury brand narrative? Is a luxury company under more pressure than, say, a fashion retailer to project a certain image, tone, or feeling in the mind of consumers?
It is my job to help clients find creative and engaging ways to get consumers interested in their brand and its products. No matter what the project, the bottom-line is always: what is the brand or product’s story and what is the best way to sell it?
- selecting a point of view and establishing the right tone;
- creating a plot with a defined beginning, middle, and end;
- identifying and fleshing out characters, whether products or people; and
- implementing your story in a logical, interesting, and visually linguistic manner.
While this seems straightforward, it really isn’t. Brands often spend so much time thinking of a theme or finding cool people for a campaign that they forget that they need a point to what they’re doing. All it takes is one look at the fancy video marketing campaigns out there to wonder about the larger purpose of what all these brands are doing.
Luxury is a natural partner to narrative marketing because of its emphasis on heritage and a sense of exclusivity. But, luxury brands advancing into the digital space rightfully should exercise caution when considering how to proceed because of the proliferation of channels from which to choose.
This is where story comes in. Taking a solid look at your product and how you may want to promote it can greatly influence important factors, such as which platforms you utilize, the balance between visual and content, and the timing and longevity of the content.
For me, the core of narrative marketing comes down to three A’s: authenticity, appropriateness, and association. In short, is your marketing project authentic to who you are as a brand, appropriate for what you’re trying to do, and memorable enough for consumers to associate the campaign immediately with your brand?
Fed Up with “Digital” Already?
In the fashion and luxury marketing worlds, the terms “digital” and even “social media” are fast becoming overused as they become integrated into how we do business and go about our daily lives.
Marketing, communications, and PR function off the same diligent strategizing, networking, and writing that has kept these professions going for decades. So, while digital devices and social media dominate the way we operate within business, these new technologies should be part of an overarching brand vision and plan so that they are used intelligently and with purpose.
It is now equally rote to point out the urgency towards quality content within Web 2.0 as customers seek a more personalized consumer experience. While this is perhaps inevitable, it also is a positive thing. Tools like social media offer ways through which businesses can connect to consumers on a more direct level. But, these consumer engagements must be tailored, engaging, and authentic for people to develop a real and sustaining interest in a brand or organization.
Digital must be one arm of a strongly-wielded strategy to be ultimately effective and memorable. Indeed, social media by itself is no way to win customers. People are too capricious and the ROI too hard to measure. Since it now seems as if everyone has an iPhone, iPad, or the equivalent and is involved in Twitter or Facebook, these spaces are near to or at saturation point. This means that businesses need to change up the way they use these technologies but also how they think about them in relation to their business as a whole.
Effective communication, targeted marketing, keen organization, and open and honest business practices remain at the heart of sustainable business development. Digital devices and social media are tools that assist and facilitate this growth, when used in the right way.
So, maybe we can stop thinking “digital” and go back to thinking “marketing” again?
The Brains of Beauty
Growing up, many of us subscribe to the notion that you have to choose between being pretty and being smart. While we are constantly reminded that it is what’s on the inside that counts, this unfortunately is not always true. Yet, there is a fundamental intelligence and value to fashion, which can reveal deeper truths about ourselves and what we believe.
Fashion makes a business out of aesthetics—the human desire for beauty and how it makes us feel. This is what leads to the negative reputation of fashion as a shallow.
Yet, fashion is fundamentally the art of dress, which has an important value and function in every culture throughout history. It is an inherently superficial art form that reflects our social and cultural values. In this context, “superficial” refers only to the “surface” of clothing not to the value or quality of lacking depth.
Indeed, while everyone makes judgments about each other from what they wear, this is not necessarily a negative thing. What you wear obviously does not define who you are. However, donning clothing reveals insights about you, how you feel about yourself, and where you come from.
Even intelligent people who claim to have no interest in style must get dressed every day, which means they participate in the culture of fashion, however unconsciously.
Fashion creates art out of function and, in turn, makes dressing oneself more psychologically stimulating, more artistically challenging, and perhaps more beautiful.
The Things That Inspire Us
In the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, there is a guitar that once belonged to Jane Williams. The guitar was a present from Percy Bysshe Shelley, a close friend of Jane’s husband Edward, who drowned along with the poet shortly thereafter in July of 1822.
Shelley, who had many erotic and perhaps unconsummated affairs with women who were not his wife, gave Jane the guitar along with a note containing a playful, but personal love poem, “To Jane—With Guitar.” In this poem, Shelley writes:
Ariel to Miranda:—Take
This slave of Music, for the sake
Of him who is the slave of thee,
And teach it all the harmony
In which thou canst, and only thou,
Make the delighted spirit glow….
This poem and the guitar that accompanied it reveal not only the intimacy between Shelley and Jane but also the extent to which he was drawn to her through the medium of music.
This guitar, which remains on display at the Bodleian, shows how objects can represent our deepest feelings about ourselves and those around us. Objects can capture our attention and sway our emotions. This can be a source of great inspiration.
The poet Shelley, like many of his time, was actually quite conscious of the relationship between poetry and music and how this poetic-musical sensibility affected his readers. Indeed, the entire field of philosophy during the 18th to the 19th century was obsessed with aesthetics, which concerns the nature of beauty and art and how they affect us, because of what the subject reveals about the perceived origins and purpose of thought and imagination.
Yet, the art of appreciating beauty has somewhat disappeared or at least is accompanied by an endless stream of negative associations. Indeed, the entire concept of materialism generally has connotations of superficiality and greediness.
Yet, objects hold an important, if not central role in our lives, particularly ones that we choose, that are given to us, or that even perform a useful function in our day-to-day routine.
Also, the art of fashion constantly reminds us that objects themselves have the power to evoke meaning and to be inspirational. This seems important to remember, especially on the eve of New York Fashion Week and the international Fashion Weeks to come.
We should revel in our objects and embrace their capacity as an extension or representation of ourselves. Whether we are watching a designer’s creations on the catwalk or putting on a favourite watch or necklace when we get dressed, we should appreciate objects and how they make us think and feel.