When it comes to defining the identity of a fashion designer, it is important to look back in time; an attempt to establish a baseline if you will. To find out about the omega, you first must define the alpha.
As cliche as it is to say, the fashion landscape is constantly changing; that is the one constant we can depend on. And often how we cope with this constant change is to lean on nostalgia for comfort. So the baseline is often our first contact with fashion— think of the first piece from a designer that you fell in love with.
But before the term ‘fashion designer’ came into existence, during the primordial stages of our fashion industry, before the concept of ready-to-wear, there was the tailor. The tailor would design the garments, draft and cut the patterns, work with various vendors to get his supplies like buttons and fabrics, and then sew them all together.
The first man who was anointed as a fashion designer was Charles Frederick Worth. He was a tailor who designed and made his clothes, put his name on the garments, streamlined the whole supply chain of clothes making, oversaw a team of tailors, owned a store and spearheaded the idea of putting the garments on models and selling it to his customers.
And for the longest time, that was our definition of a fashion designer. A figurehead who defined a certain style and led a team of craftsmen and artisans to create clothes in their vision. Think of names like Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel and Cristóbal Balenciaga who all left an indelible mark on the fashion industry.
But more than just being the figurehead of their own label, the idea of putting a brand to a product fundamentally changed the way we thought about clothes. It was no longer just a garment, but a piece of crafted work from our favourite artisan.
the fashion industry doesn’t operate in an echo chamber, it reacts to the world that it inhabits
When you purchase an item from a fashion house, you own more than a product; you are supporting a creative you love and buying into their vision. Not only is there an emotion behind the product (which makes it great for selling), their name also stood for a certain standard of quality and silhouette.
But the fashion industry doesn’t operate in an echo chamber, it reacts to the world that it inhabits. As the world became more global and connected, and our appetite for new and exciting things grew, the great designer of our times evolved with them. Fashion designers became more than just a beacon of their creative vision for the garments, they were now required to translate that ethos into all other aspects of the fashion business.
Getting their story out was just as important as producing an amazing product. Bigger emphasis was placed on the production of their runway shows, curating the campaign imagery as well as crafting their own image in the media. In plain speak, designers now are defined not only by their work, but also by their ability to generate headlines and talking points.
But it doesn’t mean that it’s all showboating—take the case of Martin Margiela, the Belgium designer who famously never takes bows after his fashion shows, shuns the media and refuses to have his photograph taken. Margiela welds his reclusive and enigmatic nature into his own narrative. Coupled with his amazing penchant for clever design, he is one of the most influential fashion designers of the early 21st century.
But even the combination of design and communication is not enough to satiate our appetite for newness. That void gave birth to a new breed of fashion designers like Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams and Samuel Ross. What they lack in actual training in fashion design, they make up for in their understanding of pop culture and the ability to amalgamate different facets of creativity and channel them into garments.
Not only do they have a firm hand on the pulse of culture, but through their work and their celebrity peers, help to weave the very fabric of it. It seems like the latest iteration of fashion designers are the ones whose influence expands beyond the realm of fashion, operating as celebrities in their own right.
While it is hard to predict the future identity of a fashion designer, luxury conglomerate LVMH is hedging its bets on the current trend of celebrity designers continuing. It is pushing the idea to its logical conclusion by giving musician and style icon Rihanna her own fashion label under its portfolio.
While Rihanna won’t be the first musician who tried their hand at fashion design—think Kanye West and his Yeezy line with Adidas—her brand, Fenty, stands out for operating within the luxury sphere. And while Rihanna has a successful range of cosmetics as well as a lingerie line, this marks her first foray into designing clothes.
But will it actually work? Cosmetics and underwear fall under fast-moving consumer goods—products of relatively low cost that can be sold quickly. Her fans might not baulk at spending the cash on make-up products, but when a jacket from Fenty costs as much as one from the likes of Prada, Celine or Gucci, would they continue to stay with her brand?
Perhaps that is the ultimate litmus test of the fashion designer of the future. If this project pans out, what it represents is a total shift towards a world where moving the product is more important than design.
If that is the case, can the future identity of the fashion designer be solely defined by their raw ability to move product?