NEW YORK — The American fashion industry is in crisis. Or perhaps it’s just dazed and befuddled by consumers who now have the ability to shout their preferences from the Twitter mountaintop and bully the industry into submission.
Fashion is no longer defining itself. Increasingly consumers are telling the industry what constitutes fashion. This is a problem. Not because the industry shouldn’t listen to its customers; it should. But then it should merge those demands with its own expertise, vision and standards to create something that is better and more relevant than the consumer ever imagined.
Instead, on Monday night at the Brooklyn Museum, the fashion industry gave its prize for menswear designer of the year to James Jebbia, the founder of Supreme, the streetwear brand best known for the scarcity of its products.
Supreme is not fashion in the sense that what it aims to offer is especially inventive or daring. But Supreme has been extraordinarily influential in its business model. Its streetwear isn’t so much exclusive (it’s not all that expensive) as it is frustratingly hard to find. The merchandise — T-shirts, backpacks, baseball caps, hoodies, soccer jerseys — isn’t particularly inventive, but it has a reputation as authentic and uncompromising because of its association with impeccably cool people. Supreme is desirable because the people associated with it have declared it so, and their opinions are credible.
That sort of peer-based sales pitch has always been part of fashion’s power — but there was also the magic of the clothes themselves and their ability to transform the body, beyond just keeping it from being naked. The clothes showcased the creativity and the technical skill of the designer, not just their astute business sense and marketing strategy. Fashion celebrated broad influence, but it also recognized the importance of a singular voice with a clear and unique point of view.
Is there room in the fashion universe for brands such as Supreme and all that they represent? Yes. Supreme represents change. But is it fashion at its transformative best? Or is the industry celebrating the larvae instead of the butterflies?
And on Monday night, the Council of Fashion Designers of America handed out its annual awards and spent a significant amount of time celebrating people who never saw what they were doing as fashion. Jebbia, in accepting his prize, noted that he never thought of his work as part of Seventh Avenue. Kim Kardashian-West, upon receiving the Influencer Award said, “I’m kind of shocked I’m getting a fashion award when I’m naked most of the time.”
The reality show star and business mogul was honored for her massive social media following, her foray into makeup and her impact on beauty norms.
Kardashian-West has turned her prominent derriere, once perceived as a figure flaw by mainstream American standards into an asset — at least on some women. The culture has obsessed over Kardashian-West’s body, and it has done so at her invitation. But the conversation about her body has also raised questions about race and ethnicity and why women of color with similar physiques were not (and in many cases still are not) looked at through a similarly admiring gaze.
Kardashian-West forced the culture to ask uncomfortable questions about body image, but did she influence the answers as they applied to anyone other than her?
The CFDA awards have deep significance within the fashion industry, but they have only modest resonance beyond it. Honoring brands such as Supreme and celebrities such as Kardashian-West may help attract broader attention. But it’s likely that Edward Enninful, the recipient of the media award, will make decisions that will touch the lives of more people — and more profoundly — than a streetwear brand or a Kardashian.
As the first black man to lead British Vogue, he quickly made diversity a vivid part of the magazine’s aesthetic. He has reflected today’s multiethnic culture not simply in the pages of the magazine but also on its cover. His May cover featured nine models representing diversity in race, ethnicity, religion and size.
It was no small thing that Oprah Winfrey presented his award. Enninful has had the top job at British Vogue for just over a year. The cultural icon’s presence acknowledged what he has accomplished in so short a time, but it mostly emphasized his potential. He has allies in his mission. And his vision has scale. “Fashion has the opportunity to contribute now more than ever to a more inclusive, diverse society,” Enninful said. “I want my work to advocate for these changes.”
He has an ally in model Naomi Campbell, who was also honored as a fashion icon. She spoke of her volunteer work, her sobriety, the support of her family and her intent to advocate for greater diversity within the fashion industry. Her longevity in the industry — more than 30 years — has given her a sense of its arc and how much farther it has to go before it’s fully inclusive.
Narciso Rodriguez was celebrated with a lifetime achievement award for his body of work, the strength of which has not diminished after some 20 years designing under his own name. He presented his spring 2019 collection earlier in the day, and it was an exquisite expression of restraint, tailoring and sensuality.
Rodriguez creates fashion. His clothes look like no one else’s. They speak intimately and uniquely to women. Not every woman, but that’s okay. Fashion doesn’t have to be universal. It doesn’t have to be big business. It can be small and personal. It will still matter. Perhaps even more deeply.
Other honorees included Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Carolina Herrera, Donatella Versace, Sander Lak of Sies Marjan and Calvin Klein’s Raf Simons.