February 7, 2014 6:21 pm

Is fashion too safe?

‘Fashion is predicated on giving people what they did not know they wanted’

Is fashion too safe? Not fashion that you see in stores (though that is part of it), but Fashion the industry. Fashion writ large.

Sitting at the side of the catwalks as the New York shows get under way, kicking off the autumn/winter womenswear collections that will run until March 5, it’s the whisper I hear in the background; just audible under the stomp of the models’ perennial motorcycle boots. It’s what you might call a thought-trend.

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Vanessa Friedman

Word is that retailers will no longer take gambles on new designers, or on old designers with new looks, or on any look that doesn’t look like the last look that sold well, because they make their buy according to the buy that worked the season before – because it is (say it with me) safer.

Black pea coats flew off the shelves this autumn? Whatever you do, do not order floral-patterned car coats – even if it’s spring. More minimal pea coats (albeit maybe not in wool); that’s what everyone should buy! X designer’s narrow trousers were popular, but not so his flouro knits? Stick to the trousers, even if the new skinny knits look kind of tempting.

Designers don’t push their ideas, because a complicated idea is actually too complicated to explain: the listener stops paying attention somewhere in the middle of “then I went from thinking of Napoleon to The Beatles and Sergeant Pepper, which made me think of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and then I started thinking about ice hockey players ... that’s how I got to lamé silk boxers”.

Er, OK. Easier just to seize on the most accessible form of inspiration: a film or a song, and express that in various permutations on the catwalk and in those endless “what inspired me” pieces in magazines: “I was thinking of The Great Gatsby.”

Open any glossy magazine and there, staring from advertisements and editorial alike are Christy Turlington, Kate Moss, Stephanie Seymour – old models and proven sales vehicles. The same goes for all those celebrities whose contracts get bigger and bigger even as the viewing public declares itself to be over the stars-sells-stuff idea. No matter: go with the known.

There is no room for risk or new ideas or new faces, because new is risky and we’re in a no-risk period. As with the banking system, so, too the fashion system.

There are of course outliers, designers for whom writing their own rules is the rule – Rei Kawakubo, Jun Takahashi, Hedi Slimane (it is possible the risk, both financial and critical, that Kering took when they installed the latter at Saint Laurent and gave him carte blanche to up-end all aesthetics and communication is the riskiest thing to have happened in fashion in years). But generally: safety first. Ask why, and everyone passes the blame.

. . .

It’s the darn retailers’ fault, goes one version, because they demand new stuff all the time. Which means designers have to do 10 collections a year, which means they don’t have time to work out new ideas, which means they might get stuck with bad ideas, so best avoid the danger entirely, and redo the old good idea. Or it’s the money guys’ fault because they need to show revenue growth, and that means they dare not try something unknown. What if it doesn’t work? Better to fill shelves with what already sells, because, well, it already sells!

Or it’s the mass marketers’ fault, because they are schooled to put all their faith in market research, and market research loves what it has already seen, and there is no market research on that new girl in the corner. After all, how do you assess the potential of a weird, left-of-field viral video, which would only work because no one has done it before, if no one has done it before?

But here’s the thing: all this safeness, and risk-avoidance, all the stuff we think we want when it comes to the City and Wall Street, is antithetical to the way fashion should work. Fashion – at least the fashion of the show system; the fashion that drives changes in clothing, or at least expresses them – is predicated on giving people what they did not know they wanted. In fashion, there is no such thing as too big to fail. You have to be willing to fail in order to really succeed.

It is what makes you want to buy something: the shock of seeing a dress or suit or sweater that exactly describes how you’ve been feeling, in a way you didn’t even articulate to yourself until you saw it. That’s why Dior’s New Look, and Armani’s suits, and Chanel’s little tweed jackets, and Thom Browne’s truncated men’s silhouette caused such a ruckus, and ended up in museums everywhere: they defined a moment in social and political identity.

And that requires risk, because until they gave it form, no one really knew what form that amorphous feeling they were feeling should take. To give up on that possibility – to avoid it in favour of the familiar – is to circumvent fashion’s reason for being (it is to turn it into clothes). And that leads, soon enough, to obsolescence. Yet here we are.

The fact is, for fashion, that playing it safe may be the greatest risk of all. Here’s hoping this season will be different. I dare you.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com
@VVFriedman
More columns at ft.com/friedman

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