Layoffs, store closings, disastrous quarterly earnings. That’s fashion news today - on the financial side at least. By any measure it is clear that we have come to the end of the Designer Era in menswear; and it probably started happening a few years ago.
Not that designer labels aren’t important. Far from it. Try selling something based on its intrinsic merit. People want to know “Who made it?” Not, God forbid, what’s so good about it. The upside of Designer Fascination was the psychological value of “brand,” creating a cachet via marketing, a motion picture fantasy world in which the clothes were the stars. So a shirt with a recognizable logo was worth more than the identical shirt with no brand. I’m wearing this-or-that lifestyle; and it identifies me as a this-or-that kind of a guy. That’s what people bought, and that commercial trend is here to stay.
Nowadays, though, an actual designer, creating an actual product and selling it to a great store where you can actually buy a real designer creation? Not happening. Or not happening with enough volume or frequency to keep you in Ferraris or buy you a Lake Como villa.
It wasn’t a cataclysmic event like a meteorite hitting earth that smothered and snuffed out menswear’s T. Rexes. It was the disease of growth. Also known as Greed. Unable to control the retailers to whom they started out slavishly devoted, and wanting ever-greater sales growth, the designer houses opened their own retail stores. Removing the respected retailer from the equation, they lost the credibility that having been chosen by a fine retailer gave them in the first place. And then, when you own the store and the season’s over and the goods remain? What now? Outlets! So it becomes: “Where did you get that tie? Madison Avenue or Woodbury Commons? $150 or $15?” All of this undermines the prestige of the brand.
The casualization of the world didn’t help. A designer brand’s prestige is enhanced by the elegance and refinement it represents. The designer’s particular genius was to have the brand’s elegant status rub off on all of the products in the collection, from tuxedos to shoes. But putting a European name on a tee shirt doesn’t help the tee shirt stand out particularly, and having Calvin Klein’s name on your underwear is not going to influence your suit-buying decision. The label just doesn’t mean much when it’s attached to bunch of undifferentiated, pedestrian, everyday togs.
Or maybe licensing killed the designers. Passing a trade show booth, you’ll see a half dozen famous names on the placard outside and, glancing in, a wall of ties or scarves or socks or whatever, all the same but for the labels. Put Christian Dior on the back of a $10 necktie and it becomes “worth” $50. So even the retailer has no respect for the brand, since it represents nothing but a tie-maker’s deal to get some brand recognition. Then there’s the dilution of the actual designer cachet by the schlock that the licensees turn out. See, they have a big minimum royalty payment to make each year and they can only do that by adding plastic gym bags to the list of “fine luggage” that the actual license was meant for.
And then there’s the proliferation of labels in general. Zegna, Façonnable and lines like these, while they may be confused in the public mind with “designer” labels, are in fact simply companies that make stuff. The is no Bob Barbour behind all those waxed jackets, and the lack of a personal touch, the aesthetic sense the designer actually brings to the product, the identification with a personal point of view is lost. If everything at every price has a designer name, eventually it’s a big “So what?”
So one is left with a question. Was the age of the menswear designer a historical quirk, come and gone? Or are we awaiting the arising of a bunch of new talent? I will say that if there are emerging artists out there, coming from the likes of Otis in Los Angeles or Pratt, or Syracuse, or already slaving away in East Village ateliers, they are unknown to me. But the times they are a-changin’, and the next big thing is slouching toward Paris, or Milano, or Shanghai to be born, for sure. And another thing I’m sure of, it won’t be just the same old thing in a new package.