September 9, 2011 9:53 pm

Facebook, fashion and fantasy

The social networking site’s meteoric success has not done an ambitious Generation X any favours

Not so long ago my colleague Luke Johnson, aka the author of the entrepreneur column for this newspaper and himself a pretty successful beginner of businesses, wrote about the mythology of Facebook, and what it has done to skew a generation’s idea of possibility. Essentially, he said, the idea that everyone should – and can – start a business from a laptop in their dorm room that will go on to make them gazillionaires is distorted and largely untrue: Facebook was a once-in-a-lifetime disruptive event, not a model, and its enormous success has not done the twentysomethings that grew up in its shadow any favours.

This column gave me an enormous sense of déjà vu. It described, almost perfectly, what I have long felt sitting in many fashion shows – indeed, what I have been feeling for the last two days during the beginning of New York fashion week. “But wait,” you say: “Shows have started? I didn’t realise.”

My point exactly. New York fashion week actually began last Thursday, with names like Libertine, Ruffian, and Tadashi Shoji. Some of these you may have heard of, but many you have not, and I have sat in various dark rooms with the feeling of watching – well, a sinking, or at least floundering, ship. Not because the clothes aren’t good – many are just fine, or have the potential to be – but because I can’t believe they have any business to speak of to buoy them up, or put wind in their sails, or whatever other hackneyed marine metaphor you want to use. But it doesn’t matter, because the creators are dazzled by the idea that any talented young designer can realise their vision from their kitchen. And for the moment, at least, they can generate the hoo-ha to prove it.

Indeed, the arrival of a new fashion name on the scene reminds me of nothing so much as the announcement of, say, Groupon’s much-heralded-then-controversial upcoming initial public offering, which has been postponed yet again. (Is it a coincidence that it was postponed until the month that fashion shows thrust their names on to the market? The cosmic conspiracy theorist in me thinks no.) There is the buzz that begins underground and then hits the mainstream; then the bated breath; the rush to be the first to see, to discover, and perhaps to buy; the jam-packed launch; and then the pause before the critical judgment: was it all sound and fury, signifying not so much, or the rare arrival of something with staying power?

You get the picture. Instead of Facebook, substitute Alexander McQueen; instead of the list of promising-but-still-not-necessarily-profitable internet start-ups like Foursquare, Bump and Spotify, substitute Cushnie et Ochs, Joseph Altuzarra, Peter Som, Wes Gordon (to name a few); or Bora Aksu, Felder Felder, and Danielle Scutt. Of them, how many are really going to become global names? And how many are going to go the way of Myspace and Bebo; Luella and Miguel Adrover? In the highly-quotable film The Social Network, Harvard president Larry Summers is depicted telling the Winklevoss twins that: “Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job.” Methinks students at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Central St Martins may agree.

. . .

I don’t, of course, think all young designers should be discouraged. But I would like, for a second, to suggest something else. Not because I am a parent who is horrified at the idea that their children may grow up in a world where they are taught if they aren’t taking crazy career risks, they are lame; or a critic who resents having to sit through yet another wild and wacky show from an emerging designer who wants to express their point of difference, but rather because I think it is time we stopped demonising the flip side of this assumption: the idea that going to work for a big company is bad, or denotes giving up, or lack of intellectual rigour, or creativity, or self-motivation. Spend any time on the campus of any institute of higher education and there’s no question that there is an increasing taint attached to “becoming a cog in a machine”; ie, entering a large corporation. To put it in Facebook terms, it’s not cool.

Here’s my response: so what?

Going to work for a big company as a young graduate is Not a Bad Thing – it’s a useful thing in many ways. Certainly, in fashion terms, especially if the goal is ultimately to start your own business. After all, school teaches you many things, but not so much about how to negotiate with factories in other countries, or work out bulk deliveries so entrance duties are lower, or how to deal with employee healthcare forms, or whether you need a press department, or where the best source of funding for you happens to be. It doesn’t really teach you about how to keep your name if you have stuck it on your label and then taken on an outside investor. But going to work for someone else – now, that will teach you most, if not all, of the above. As well as the mistakes to avoid in your own business. As most gamblers could tell you, it’s easier to beat the system when you understand it.

And really, what’s the downside? You launch your start-up at 40 instead of 23, and no one ever calls you a wunderkind. At that point, however, you should be grown-up enough to also realise that being called a success is so much better.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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