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Robin Givhan - On Fashion: Industry's Lessons From the Past

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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, September 20, 2009

NEW YORK

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The silver lining in this bad economy is that the fashion industry has been forced to assess its priorities. Designers have had to refine their point of view, and retailers have had to find new strategies for luring in customers and persuading them to shop.

Along the way, the industry has even revived a few bygone techniques. Increasingly, designers are encouraging the models to actually sell the clothes on the runway rather than merely sulking along in them. This doesn't mean directing the models to hawk their ensembles like barkers on QVC, it means pausing on the runway, twirling perhaps, maybe even affecting a pleasant demeanor in a good-faith effort to make the clothes look more appealing. Or, as was the case back in the day of Linda, Naomi and Christy, the current crop of models have been asked to "Work it!" At least a little.

Fashion is a business that has always been uncomfortably dependent on its past. Designers look to long-gone decades for inspiration. Businessmen are constantly digging for the next dusty, defunct label to resuscitate in hopes of a big Gucci-size financial payoff. And chain retailers regularly ask their bean counters what sold last season in order to figure out what to buy for the coming one. The past constantly informs the fashion industry's present -- and often not for the good. But at a time when the future looks especially bleak, there might be something instructive to be found in looking back to try and determine when and where things began to go awry: Which decisions turned out to be wrong-headed? How did the industry's fundamental sense of purpose go missing along the way? And what can the fashion industry learn both from past mistakes and successes?

Just recently, Washington lost a singular piece of its retail history. Ernest Marx, longtime owner of Saks Jandel, was 88 when he died unexpectedly, his son Peter said. The elder Marx had retired not so long ago, leaving the Chevy Chase store in the hands of his son. That there was even a legacy to pass on -- when so many other independent boutiques had long since gone under -- is a testament to the fact that Ernest Marx was a groundbreaking merchant and not just a businessman who sold expensive clothes.

Over the years, department stores got bigger and increasingly consolidated. They grew distant from their shoppers. Decisions about merchandise and sales staff for a store in Virginia or Maryland, for instance, were being made by executives in New York or elsewhere. But Marx was in his family's store for 50 years, which over the decades sold lines ranging from Yohji Yamamoto to Chanel, from Akris to Gucci. He knew that Washington customers wanted sizzle -- at least a little -- and in his heyday he was the first to bring it to them. Marx was always accessible, and customers could directly praise his merchandise or give him an earful about it. And they were loyal to him. (Or as loyal as anyone could be when retailers started fighting for customers with midseason sales, coupons and other special events.)

Marx was a familiar figure in design houses from Valentino to Emanuel Ungaro as he searched for precisely what Washington women wanted. Saks Jandel has the last remaining Yves Saint Laurent franchise because Marx personally negotiated it back when the designer was still at the helm of his legendary namesake company. And Marx nurtured that relationship through the rocky times and through the brand's recent revival.

That's not the way retailing works much anymore. Only a couple of handfuls of Saks Jandel-style boutiques exist today. But there's much to be gained from stores finding a way to reconnect with customers, to cater to the unique tastes of a particular community without getting bogged down with the cliches. Washingtonians may rely on labels like St. John and Akris, but that doesn't mean they don't want to dabble in the more outre offerings from Lanvin, Marni or Alexander Wang. But a retailer has to really live in a community to get beyond the superficial. And in today's corporate world, that doesn't often happen.

The designer Ralph Rucci also provided a fine lesson for the industry when he showed his spring collection a week ago, just as fashion shows were getting underway here. Usually, Rucci closes the season and by that time many of the editors and retailers in his audience have little patience left for the slow pace of his presentation. Rucci likes for his models to move at a saunter; he wants them to pause and turn. In short, he wants them to give his audience a chance to really see the craftsmanship in the clothes. He wants his guests to get a good view of the luxurious fabrics he chooses.

This season, Rucci showed when the fashion crowd was still fresh. The collection did not point the way for a new direction in fashion. He did not reinvent the dress. And if a woman is still in her 20s -- or even her 30s, for that matter -- she might have found his clothes too mature. But that's okay. In all likelihood, she would not be at a point in her life when she could afford them anyway. Rucci's clothes are aspirational in every sense of the word. They ooze luxury from 100 paces, yet they are not ostentatious. They look expensive because every seam is perfect, every button exactly placed, every skirt has just the right lift. No dress of his would dare wrinkle.

He doesn't design for women who are just beginning to discover who they are and have only barely begun to find their place in the world. Rucci creates clothes for women who are sure of themselves and who have already left their mark. Who doesn't aspire to arrive at such a point in life?

Every design house can't be a Chado Ralph Rucci, nor should it be. Clothes don't need to be as expensive as those produced by Rucci. And sometimes a woman doesn't necessarily want to look elegant and sophisticated; sometimes she wants to look cool or tough or like she still has the capacity to stay out all night and roll in with the sunrise. The industry needs designers who can fulfill those other needs, too.

But Rucci's collection offers a reminder of something essential that is becoming rare in the American fashion industry. A designer garment shouldn't be defined by a name on a label or the number of digits in the price. The essence of the designer industry is the simple marriage of quality and creativity.

Somewhere along the way, that relationship turned turbulent, and, in many cases, it broke down. Fashion can't move forward unless it repairs the damage from the past, respects that essential partnership, and nurtures its future.


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