By Givhan, Robin
Newsweek , Vol. 158, No. 25
Byline: Robin Givhan
Forget Kanye and Gaga. The biggest shake-ups of the year happened far from the runway--and at a computer near you.
The fashion industry marks shifts in style by seasons, not years. Yet despite the constant churning of trends, real change--the kind that upends business models, subverts traditions, and shakes up aesthetics--isn't so common.
There was plenty of fashion news in 2011, but making news isn't the same thing as instigating change. Lady Gaga captured the imagination of the frock industry and helped to propel Nicola Formichetti to fame as the new designer for a relaunched Mugler. But there's little evidence that Gaga's predilection for perilously high heels and spiked thongs has caused the fashion world--or the culture--to rethink its assumptions about anything.
Fashion aficionados were stunned when an alcohol- and drug-addicted John Galliano was dismissed from Christian Dior after spewing anti-Semitic insults at a couple in a Paris bistro. Galliano's troubles sparked an industrywide conversation about the pressures facing the modern corporate designer. But that debate soon faded, and Christian Dior carried on handily without Galliano--and without any lead designer for an extended period of time. The company's bottom line showed no signs of faltering. In the first nine months of 2011, Dior's revenue was up 15 percent over the same period last year.
There were, as always, provocative collections that made audiences think. One can hope that Kanye West's inauspicious ready-to-wear debut made other celebrities reconsider a part-time career in fashion. Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo critiqued the cultural traditions of weddings. And fashion's definition of beauty became more ethnically diverse thanks to the sweeping grace of world traveler Haider Ackermann.
London-based designers wooed independent retailers like Karen Daskas, co-owner of Tender in Birmingham, Mich. The unique sensibility and limited distribution of labels such as Erdem and Peter Pilotto help her stand out as a David amid a bunch of Goliath merchants. "I can't compete with department stores," Daskas says. "And I don't want to compete with them. I'm constantly looking for new things."
Fashion grappled with a lousy economy by simultaneously going more upmarket and more mass market. It rewarded new media's bloggers with front-row seats at fashion shows and, in some cases, free frocks and trips. The industry's favorite heiress, Daphne Guinness, dressed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute gala while posing in the windows of Barneys New York and had her own exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Fashion teased and titillated, but there were no bolts of lightning in 2011. Change came on quietly, and often it came in counterintuitive ways.
These three events made folks question the status quo. In some cases, insiders were filled with optimism. But often the change was neither all good nor all bad. Sometimes change just meant that it was time for something different.
China Leads In Luxury
China has become a fashion-industry obsession. First came the fretting over its cheap labor and low overheads. Now comes the fixation on its consumers. They represent the key market for producers of luxury goods, from Louis Vuitton to Prada. But American designers, particularly less established ones, seemed to be missing out on those status-hungry customers. The China Design Program may be a turning point.
Established this year, bankrolled by fashion industrialist Silas Chou and overseen by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue, this is a business and cultural-exchange program for young fashion designers. …