Alexander Fury on the designers leading a revolution in the way we dress, think and live.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Alexander Fury on the designers leading a revolution in the way we dress, think and live.

"Gucci fall/winter 2018"

IT’S A CLICHÉ to say that fashion is shifting—fashion always shifts. It is, by its very nature, malleable and mutable, each season transforming itself, and hopefully you, into something new. It is an industry predicated on a perpetual dynamic of change, of constant renewal, of fresh blood.

These changes can be invigorating. They can reset the eye. Really great fashion can shift not just the what but the why, altering not only the physical form of the clothes on your back but the psychological ramifications of wearing them. Fashion can shift perceptions of the self.

But at the moment fashion seems to be preoccupied with its shifting perceptions of itself. The current landscape—as with so many landscapes— is in peril. Long-held “rules” are being questioned, rewritten, or scrapped entirely. The biannual fashion calendar has been tossed out, with designers showing their clothes between seasons, on men and women simultaneously, and in weeks traditionally reserved for one or the other. Designers are selling their wares straight off  the runway— “see now, buy now,” in the industry parlance—or hoarding imagery altogether until their clothes hit the rack. Houses are staging shows in more intimate settings, like private garages (Ralph Lauren) or their own ateliers (Maison Margiela), while others thirstily live-stream every stitch. Alexander Wang staged his spring/ summer 2018 show on the streets of New York, to the delight of passing tourists. The rules are, there are no rules, as Aristotle Onassis once said. It’s a free-for-all in free fall.

The signs have been there for years—the dominance of social platforms, the ever-growing number of collections, the ascendance of the consumer as arbiter of contemporary taste, and the general need for speed. But the repercussions of these gradual changes in the fashion climate are being felt only now, and with seismic force.

This has been, understandably, discombobulating for anyone caught up in the maelstrom. Which explains the prevailing attitude of today— looking back rather than forward. Revivals are rife, and have been for the past decade at least; the latest favourite is fashion houses hurrahing anniversaries, or installing new designers at moribund labels to give them fresh life (again, that’s been going on for a while, albeit with increasing alacrity). Why? Because history speaks of stability, of perpetuity. If a brand has survived, successfully, for 50 years, 70 years, even a century, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t survive that long again. Anniversaries are proof of staying power, which is all-important in a fickle landscape. History is comforting because the past is assured.

Early last year, I met with Pierre Bergé, cofounder of the House of Yves Saint Laurent. It was only a few months before he passed away, rightly acclaimed as one of the architects of modern fashion: “Le Force.” When I asked Bergé about history—this man who created so much of it—he pursed his lips and spat out a phrase that resonated with me: “I hate the past. I hate nostalgia.” It’s a sentiment echoed in the words of Karl Lagerfeld. “I don’t reinterpret the past. I’m pretentious enough to say that we invent something for today,” he told me after his fall 2017 couture show. Lagerfeld isn’t looking back; he’s looking around, drawing the spirit of the moment into his creations. Fashion’s great movers and shakers, its true forwardthinkers, are embracing the new uncertainty and challenging the old boundaries. They think with Bergé’s mind-set. It’s not a case of destroying traditions, far from it. But it is an acknowledgment that evolution, perhaps, isn’t enough—revolution is the only way to jolt us out of complacency.

The designer Azzedine Alaïa, for instance, was often talked about as a “rule breaker,” but usually in a superficial way. No one has ever been able to comprehend why he chose not to present his collections at the same time as everyone else, even as the show schedules become clogged with designers who, in all honesty, neither need nor deserve to be there. Just as Alaïa’s home was far away from the headquarters of other Paris Houses— in the Marais, where real people actually live—he removed himself from the fashion melee.

“I am free,” he once told me. “If I don’t feel it, I don’t do it. I always feel free. This is my strength.” He also told me that, if he had just one new idea a year, he would be happy. Two new ideas? “Genius!” Alaïa was filled with ideas, but he didn’t always consider them new. He eschewed the pursuit of relentless novelty in favour of perfecting his own style and aesthetic, confident that others would be won over by his vision. He was right. Alaïa is joined by relatively few others—Rick Owens, Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Miuccia Prada, to name a few—whose choices will inform the careers of generations of designers. They refuse to obey rules because they make their own. And, at the moment, they are ripping apart fashion’s etiquette book and demanding serious change.

“People say that I’m a punk,” Miuccia Prada said with a laugh after showing her spring 2018 collection of studs and torn-looking prints. Again, superficiality, but she meant punk in attitude, which is understandable. Prada actively rejects not tradition but convention, trying to find a different path.

“I like to create things that appear attractive, easy, but that afterward— depending on the culture of the person—will make the wearer feel something else,” she says. “The sophisticated person looks at everything.

Someone superfi cial gets only the façade.” This ability to do both—to deliver beauty, but also a deeper message for those who care to discover it—is what unites fashion’s rule breakers.

“I read a lot about what is right, and what is wrong, as if you have to follow some code,” Alessandro Michele tells me. “This is something that can kill fashion and creativity.”

“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do,” adds Rick Owens, echoing the words of Alaïa. “It’s not like I’m obligated to make any compromises, which is a wonderful thing. I probably sound a little gloating when I say that—a little boastful—but it’s significant. I could just burn the whole place down if I wanted to.”

So perhaps it’s freedom from traditional rules that will create the future of fashion—a refusal to conform to the demands of the industry, however you perceive them. In their way, all these designers are challenging convention, and winning, creating the fresh rules that others wind up following.

When you talk to these designers—the names who are defining what we wear this very minute—common themes emerge. A loathing of the superficial, a disdain for conformity, a prizing of independence. And as you look at their collections, you realise that it isn’t just about the clothes; it’s about the entire universe each of them has been able to create—about Michele’s Gucci stores transformed into tactile playgrounds; about Alaïa’s converted warehouse in the Marais, a Valhalla containing his work and living spaces, a boutique, and a pair of Julian Schnabel smashed-plate portraits. It’s about Rick Owens’ furniture, his two-ton alabaster beds, and petrified-wood-and-antler chairs, and about Miuccia Prada’s Via Fogazzaro teatro reinvented, endlessly, for each new iteration of her ideas.

Yet those worlds all lead back to the clothes. They aren’t set dressing or a distraction; they are frames to emphasise and contextualise proscenium arches under which fashion is acted out. The focus is on the performers— not the models, but the garments. Designers creating worlds isn’t anything especially new—in the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli had her shocking-pink Surrealist salon on the Place Vendôme; in the ’40s, Christian Dior his dove-gray Louis Seize revival townhouse on Avenue Montaigne. They were, aesthetically and creatively, worlds apart. What is new are the clothes designers are creating to populate them. The future of fashion lies there— in the actual nuts and bolts of designing garments. There are already tectonic movements afoot: The way a designer like Michele creates his collections—pulling from a wide-ranging and esoteric landscape of references—has not only been altered but also reengineered by the advent he future of fashion rests with designers who lead rather than follow. In bold moves and upheavals.” of the Internet, which allows designers access to every image ever produced. The next generation of designers—those brought up in the digital age, with the Web as a lifelong companion—will reflect how that access has reprogrammed the human brain.

The Web scientist Michael K. Bergman has compared plugging search terms into Google to dragging a net across the ocean. You may catch something, but there are fathoms you can’t fathom. That’s where we are right now with the impact of digital on design. It’s not changing the way we look, inasmuch as it’s transforming the way we experience, the way we think. Given all this, it’s fair to say that the way the next generation of designers will create clothes will have little to do with how clothes are made now. They certainly won’t think about them the same way. They already don’t.

Which brings us back to Monsieur Bergé—to the essentiality of a designer living in his or her time, and creating clothes that reflect it. There was a similarly seismic moment in the late 1960s, when youth quaked and rebelled, and a dynamic young couturier named Yves Saint Laurent came up with a novel idea—ready-to-wear—that democratised fashion, broke down old class hierarchies, and made designer clothing accessible to all. “Because he lived in our time,” Bergé explained. The future of fashion rests with designers who lead rather than follow. In bold moves and upheavals. In designers who are truly free.

"The future of fashion rests with designers who lead rather than follow. In bold moves and upheavals."