Fashion’s year in review

December 23, 2013

The fashion industry began 2013 full of creative bravado, financial swagger and fizzy good times. It ended the year trying to navigate through a self-created morass of moral turpitude.

Back in January, when the year was fresh and promising, the fashion industry was coming off a holiday season during which retail sales were up by 3 percent. It wasn’t as significant a bump as the National Retail Federation had projected, but considering the country’s streak of economic bad times, it was news to savor. Adding to the good mood, designers could look forward to four more years of first lady Michelle Obama serving as the de facto champion of American style on the world stage. And during the inaugural festivities, she certainly did not disappoint the fashion community with her wardrobe choices. She spoke their language with her selection of a tailored coat and dress in silk jacquard by Thom Browne for the Jan. 21 swearing-in. Browne is not a mass-market guy but rather an iconoclastic designer who, for more than a decade, had been challenging the status quo, ever since he shrank the cut of men’s traditional suits to something sized for a 12-year-old boy.

That day, Obama threw on a glittering J. Crew belt for a touch of accessibility. And later that evening, she surprised fashion observers by going back to Jason Wu for her second inaugural ball gown, reaffirming that personal preference dominates her fashion choices rather than concerns about spreading the wealth and kowtowing to expectations. There was silly talk of her new haircut, with its thick fringe of bangs, and the tantalizing promise of state dinners to keep designers vying for her attention.

From the White House to Hollywood to Paris, fashion talk was happy talk. In February, there were compliments for the young American designer Alexander Wang when he presented his first collection for the great French fashion house Balenciaga. And at the Academy Awards, there was the sweetly awkward tumble that actress Jennifer Lawrence took in Christian Dior couture on her way to accept the Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook.” Lawrence handled the fall with wit and grace, and that moment of human goofiness made the overwrought meringue of a dress all the more memorable — even relatable.

But by springtime, the tenor of the fashion conversation began to turn dark. What began as a product malfunction at the yoga-gear company Lululemon turned into a full-throated insult of women’s bodies by the brand’s chief executive — a kind of unforced error that marked a demi-trend among male fashion honchos.

The cost of cheap fashion became painfully, brutally obvious with this year’s factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 workers. Once again, American retailers, manufacturers and consumers scrambled to assess their culpability and responsibility for substandard work sites, impossibly low prices and community obligation in an interconnected global marketplace. The industry also struggled mightily with diversity. At times, fashion appeared to fully understand and reflect the changing demographics of luxury consumers. Some black models, such as Joan Smalls, seemed to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory, and designers such as Rick Owens — with his ode to African American step teams — enthusiastically celebrated a broad definition of beauty on the runway. At other moments, when runway model line-ups were homogeneously white, the industry seemed not all that far removed from segregationist thinking.

In 2013, fashion delivered fistfuls of delightful baubles, nudged the culture forward in laudable ways and spoke to our imagination. It also faltered, failed and even debased. In 2014, may fashion be at its creative, wondrous, absurd best. But may it also strive — earnestly and unfailingly — for the moral high ground.

Outstanding gifts of 2013

●At long last, one of fashion’s leading designers officially recognized the senselessness of referring to a single shade of pale beige as “nude.” Shoe designer Christian Louboutin created a demi-line of classic pumps in shades ranging from chocolate brown to ivory and declared it his “nudes collection.” Mostly, it was savvy marketing — especially the app to help women find just the right shade. After all, there have always been shoes in brown, tan and beige. But luxury fashion is all about selling desire, fantasy, status, the dream of belonging. Louboutin noticed that women of color were already participants in the luxe fashion party; he just gave them a hearty, formal welcome.

●Thom Browne is the most stubborn, inventive and eccentric designer the American fashion industry has produced in generations — perhaps ever. He started in menswear but has shifted into women’s, and this year he began to put that collection on the runway. He refuses to adhere to the dictates of trend forecasters; he ignores the theories about lifestyle dressing; he has conviction. And his work is blissfully fascinating, literary, weird, incomprehensible, and yet tucked away in all that crazy cacophony are lovely, tailored clothes.

●This fall, after much lobbying, particularly from the members of the Model Alliance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation classifying models under the age of 18 as child performers. That means teenage models will benefit from many of the protections and rights afforded young actors and musicians, including wage oversight and regulation of work hours. Prior to the legislation, underage models were on their own, their labor agreements subject to the whims of designers — who were not shy in requiring midnight fittings. And their safety was in the hands of sometimes ill-informed or downright selfish parents and guardians.

●To encourage more local manufacturing, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) partnered with Theory’s Andrew Rosen and the New York City Economic Development Corporation to create the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative. The project aims to provide financial grants to companies looking to grow, innovate and sustain clothing production facilities in New York.

●All those delightful, feathered frocks from Dries Van Noten.

Lumps of coal

●Every recent step forward in creating a more diverse fashion community felt negated thanks to multiple accusations of racial profiling of customers at Macy’s and Barneys New York. New York City police officers stopped customers outside the stores, after they’d paid for their goods, and accused them of theft. None of the customers were charged with wrongdoing. The bulk of the outrage landed at the doorstep of Barneys thanks to its focus on luxury goods and all the insecurity, egotism, status and sense of privilege that stirs up. But Macy’s has stores across the country, and the very ubiquity of the retailer meant that its actions had the potential to affect a much broader swath of consumers. The New York attorney general launched an investigation. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton climbed into the bully pulpit. And the Twitter-verse erupted with demands that Jay Z cancel his collaboration with Barneys — a product line to benefit his charity. Ultimately, Macy’s and Barneys denied their culpability. And Jay Z asked for a seat at the table as retailers debated how to move forward. So far, Macy’s and Barneys — as well as New York retailers in general — have created a consumer bill of rights. At least that’s a start, yes? Not really. They haven’t even stepped out of the dugout.

●Consumers would have been forgiven this year if they’d begun to think that fashion chief executives were all starting to go a little bonkers. That was what seemed to be happening when the founder of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, stumbled through an interview about problems with his company’s yoga pants by suggesting that issues of pilling and transparency were exacerbated by certain female bodies that were incompatible with Lululemon garments. While not an altogether outrageous idea — not every garment was meant for every body — he was fool enough to say it aloud. And without a hint of diplomacy. And over at Abercrombie & Fitch, chief executive Mike Jeffries was pilloried for a resuscitated interview in which he admitted the brand sought to attract cool, thin, attractive customers. Foolish truth-teller! The problem isn’t the messenger; it’s the unvarnished articulation of fashion’s long-established bad behavior.

●This was the year that the fashion industry thrust designer sweatshirts upon the masses. The origins go back more than a year to houses such as Givenchy and Kenzo. They hit full force this year. It’s one thing to up the ante with a $200 cashmere J. Crew sweatshirt. Spiraling into the $800 Saint Laurent realm, however, is an abomination.

●All those designers who knowingly and willingly dressed Miley Cyrus.

A 2014 wish list

●In 2013, Washington moneymen Mark Ein and Mitchell Rales helped designer Reed Krakoff buy his upstart, signature business from Coach, the mega-brand he’d helped grow into a billion-dollar business. The nation’s capital surprised everyone by flexing a little fashion muscle that had nothing to do with first ladies or museums. More, please.

●The CFDA has been doggedly trying to get Congress to pass the Innovative Design Protection Act, which would afford Seventh Avenue greater copyright protections of its work. Perhaps 2014 will be the year the $350 billion fashion industry gets more respect from Capitol Hill.

●No more ambush makeovers. It’s not that we wouldn’t like a little aesthetic freshening up. But must it be akin to big-game hunting?

●Please, Kanye West, no more public rants about how the fashion industry has done you wrong. It did not. Top editors went to your debut show in Paris. They came to your sophomore effort. The clothes were derivative, nonsensical and often poorly fitting. Instead of salving your wounds and going back to work, you threw a fit. Sir, that is not big-boy behavior.

●In 2013, activist Bethann Hardison had to declare the fashion industry’s lack of diversity on the runway “racist” in order to get people’s attention. Designer Miuccia Prada used a black woman in one of her advertising campaigns for the first time in nearly two decades. And Jil Sander, before exiting her namesake brand for the third time, used a single black woman in her runway shows, which are typically all white. Hopefully 2014 will be the year when no one has to keep count of black models, tally up landmarks or climb on a soapbox. May 2014 be the year that casting finally goes colorblind.

●Could next year bring détente between veteran designer Oscar de la Renta and first lady Michelle Obama? An opening of diplomatic relations, perhaps? On one side: De la Renta has been outspoken in criticizing some of the first lady’s fashion choices, such as wearing a cardigan to meet Queen Elizabeth II and choosing a British designer to create a White House state dinner evening gown. On the other side: Obama, who has been working her way through the collections of the entire CFDA membership, has not worn anything by de la Renta in public, even though he has been a favorite of first ladies for more than 30 years. Make fashion tongues wag, Mrs. Obama; show de la Renta a little love.

Givhan is a freelance writer.

Robin Givhan is a fashion critic and writer, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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