Magazine article Artforum International

Mergers and Acquisitions: David Lieske on the Fall Collections

Magazine article Artforum International

Mergers and Acquisitions: David Lieske on the Fall Collections

Article excerpt

THE 2017 FALL/WINTER presentations surprised with several historic fashion firsts. Whether in Paris, Milan, London, or New York, we saw brands collapsing into one another and various attempts to lead us into an age of dressing in which traditional modalities of social distinction through status and taste will be ostentatiously disrupted. Creative directors, corporate conglomerates, and traditional fashion designers are exposing the finer nuances and invisible scaffolding of their own multibillion-dollar industry in ways we have never before seen. Is this the beginning of the end of distinction altogether? Or are we just entering a new phase of its ever more intrusive and all-encompassing social mirage?

Young designers must feel challenged by recent developments in international politics and economics and by changing positions in market-making fashion houses (which, finally, have opened up leading positions to more female designers than ever before). The short-lived era of European houses trying to streamline collections and appeal to the broader, global mainstream of Topshop clientele (Alexander Wang for Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane for Yves Saint Laurent) is slowly coming to an end. Traditional luxury brands are now introducing a sharper, more contemporary edge to their creative direction--a reaction, no doubt, to the massive commercial and critical recognition of independent and "emerging" designers like Hood by Air, Off-White, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Eckhaus Latta, and Vetements. Three outstanding collections in particular have shown successful mergers of pre- and postdistinction branding strategies in their recent shows: Balenciaga, Vetements, and Louis Vuitton x Supreme. All have brought the dissolution of older symbols of luxury dressing to a mass audience (and presumably market-successful scale), while Eckhaus Latta is proposing a wardrobe for the system-fatigued consumer in the age of late capitalism.

Balanciaga's fall 2017 womenswear collection showcased the successful fusion of the contemporary allure of its creative director since 2015, Demna Gvasalia, with the fashion house's long tradition, lifting heritage couture gown designs directly from the archive and showing these alongside skirts made out of car mats. In his menswear collection, Gvasalia undoubtedly made corporate investors gasp when he sent a hooded sweater adorned not with the expected Balenciaga aB logo but with kering, the name of its mother enterprise, down the runway. Owned by mega art collector Frangois-Henri Pinault, Kering is one of the two ever-competing French multiluxury conglomerates (the other being LVMH) that have shaped the fashion industry, and French economy at large, into what it is today.

Gvasalia's exposure of hidden corporate structures triggered memories of the investigative practices and "aesthetics of administration," to bring Benjamin H. D. Buchloh's phrase uncharacteristically into the fashion world, of such institutional-critique artists as Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke. The designer's statement couldn't be clearer. I think it's safe to say--indeed, it's become a truism at this point--that fashion labels are an illusion fabricated to satisfy the desires of carefully distinct consumer groups. On a global level, they all lead back to the same three or four major corporations that have bought up smaller houses over the years. At the end of a long shopping day, it's always the conglomerates you are buying, no matter if the bag you're holding says Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, or Saint Laurent.

And yet suddenly, with the homogenizing and consolidation of brands, it is designers themselves who wield the cultural power of distinction. Gvasalia and Raf Simons are arguably as famous and marketable now as the brands they design for (Simons is chief creative officer at Calvin Klein). The constant, chiastic shuffle of designers at top houses only underscores this fact. Remarkable, too, is the fact that Gvasalia is able to introduce this new level of brand transparency even as his own team remains hidden in the shadow of his persona. …

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