Book review: Threadbare account of fashion world

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Fashion Brands
By Mark Tungate
Kogan Page £18.99, $39.95

Tommy Hilfiger, the US designer, is at it again. Mr Hilfiger, who has an established reputation as an enthusiastic self-publicist, is currently playing host to The Cut, a reality TV show on CBS, in which would-be young, and some not-so-young, designers compete for the chance to design a collection under his label.

The show has not been a hit, presumably disappointing David Dyer, formerly head of Lands’ End, the direct marketer famed for its quilted down vests and squall jackets. Mr Dyer nowwho runs Tommy Hilfiger Corporation, and had been hoping The Cut would boost the group's sluggish US sales of the designer’s preppy clothing.

But Mr Dyer has other options. Last December, Hilfiger acquired the luxury branded clothing lines of Karl Lagerfeld, the sunglass wearing German – although Kaiser Karl will of course still be designing his top end fashion for Fendi and Chanel.

Confused? Since Teri Agins of The Wall Street Journal published her excellent and readable account of the state of the fashion industry, The End of Fashion, in 1999, things have not been getting any simpler in the global rag trade.

Earlier this year, JC Penney – traditional bastion of American frumpy – held its own catwalk show in New York, showing off a new line of Nicole Miller women's clothing. Barneys, the hot New York fashion retailer, has been taken over by Jones Apparel, a multi-brand clothing company. And Wal-Mart has opened a “trend office” in New York's garment district.

Meanwhile, the luxury market continues to flourish – apparently indifferent to a succession of global crises. Oh, and black is coming back this autumn.

Agins wrote of the crisis of Parisian haute couture at the end of the 1990s, as well as the rise of mass fashion, and of the commoditisation of luxury by Bernard Arnault’s LVMH Moet-Hennessey-Louis-Vuittonand Francois Pinault’s Gucci.

Six years later, many of the themes she identified still shape the industry – Isaac Mizrahi, the New York star whose brief career in high fashion introduces her book, is now reborn designing clothes, furnishings and dog accessories for Target, the US discount chain.

Tom Ford, the American designer who saved Gucci, has moved on, following the arrival of Robert Polet, formerly of Unilever, as chief executive.

In Fashion Brands, Mark Tungate, a journalist based in Paris, sets out to take up the baton, promising to examine the process of turning a mere “garment” into “an object with seemingly mystical transformative powers”. Adopting a chatty narrative style, he visits consultants and experts in Paris and London, talks to Renzo Rosso about his Diesel brand, travels to Zara’s headquarters in La Coruña in Spain, and to Hennes & Mauritz in Stockholm.

There are chapters on models, on fashion photographers and the fashion press, and passing glances at controversy over sweat shops, the rise of China and the battle against counterfeiting.

Fashion Brands is a book that tells you a little about a lot of things, some of which are interesting. Readers puzzled by the ability of the fashion industry to decide that black is coming back will want to hear about Nelly Rodi, the Paris-based “style bureau” whose “trend books” of photographs, fabrics and sketches help buyers to have a better idea of what is coming up next. And there are useful summaries of various key developments: how supermodels gave way to celebrities, the Tom Ford/John Galliano stories, the perils of licensing.

But facts without analysis and very few bits of interesting gossip – an industry ­staple – can be tiring, and Fashion Brands ultimately starts to resemble an overlong day out at the shops. Which is a shame, because it is time for an update on the end of fashion.

At the top of the market, there is trouble again at Gucci, where Mr Polet brought in management consultants and argued that Gucci needed to learn some retailing tricks from down-market, consumer-focused Zara.

Global sourcing, meanwhile, continues to lower the cost of producing garments, while faster, more efficient supply chains have made it easier for low-cost retailers, such as Wal-Mart’s George brand, Zara and H&M, to mimic fashion trends more rapidly, further compressing the space between the top and the bottom.

But the success of affordable designer “bridge” lines and a boom in “aspirational” luxury also seems to have fed the boom in elite luxury – with the truly wealthy prepared to pay even more to distinguish themselves from the pack.

And while the rules of the haute couture fashion game may have changed, it has not quite ended. The designers who show at Paris continue to work their influence on our dreams. This spring, Vanessa Friedman, the Financial Times’s fashion editor, reported on the emergence of a “new austerity” in the autumn collections, perhaps even “monastic chic”.

And now the mannequins at Ann Taylor on Sixth Avenue in New York are all wearing black.

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