This article originally appeared in 1 Granary Issue 6
On the announcement of Karl Lagerfeld’s passing, a wave of almost competitively heartfelt tributes from A-list acquaintances and fashion fans washed across our screens. Peppering these lines of praise, however, were loud interjections condemning the creative director’s track record of open bigotry, demanding that the end of his era should also bring an end to the industry-wide social irresponsibility it was associated with. To a sizeable proportion of his fans– no strangers to his courting of controversy–Lagerfeld’s frequent steps over the line of what’s commonly thought acceptable were simple quirks of character, hallmarks of a precious wit that knew no bounds. Such behaviours were worth overlooking, on the basis of a fact of near-sacred importance: for them, Karl Lagerfeld was a genius.
The romanticised mythology of ‘the genius fashion designer’ has toxic effects across the industry
The core question is not whether the late Mr Lagerfeld deserved such a title. After all, he is by no means the first fashion creative to have had blind eyes turned to their problematic conduct on account of the standard of their work. However, the figure of ‘the genius’–complete with the innate superiority, the prioritising of the individual over the collective, and the exclusivity implied–is foundational to the pyramidal structures that hold the fashion industry together. More importantly, the romanticised mythology of ‘the genius fashion designer’ has toxic effects across the industry: whether it’s on those at the top of its pyramid, those at its bottom, or fashion’s relationship with the world at large.
In a widely criticised piece published in the July 2019 issue of Vogue Italia, author Bret Easton Ellis bemoaned a decrease in the importance of the “superior individuality of the designer,” as well as the alleged emergence of a new fashion culture “obsessed with inclusivity and the idea of groupthink over the individual, and valuing ideology over aesthetics.” Sure, there may currently be a general buzz about the broadened range of skin tones and body mass indexes we see in editorials, but has that been matched by the ready availability of clothes for women much above sample size? Or truly representative socio-economic and ethnic diversity on the mastheads of the industry’s major publications? En vogue as it is to claim that sea changes have been made, truly open access to the industry is less of a reality than we might like to admit.
Ellis does, however, hit on an interesting point in his wording. For designers, it is not necessarily wealth, connections, or social standing that make them “superior”: rather, it is a supposedly innate creativity, and a renegade streak of individuality—often wrapped up in an eccentric personal brand—that qualifies them to be recognised as geniuses. But what, fundamentally, even makes for a genius in the first place? To German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, it’s an abstention from one’s own wills and wants in the interest of knowledge in its most pure, objective form. “Genius is simply the completest objectivity,” he writes in The World as Will and Representation, “It is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject.” Put simply, a genius is someone able to capture and communicate ideas that lie beyond our typical limits of perception and thought with enlightened clarity.
It would be a mistake, however, to equate the purity of knowledge that Schopenhauer discusses with innocence—sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. It’s difficult, for example, not to detect a slightly sinister tone in the glorification of self-sacrifice implied in his remark on the genius’ “power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight.” Applied to the context of creative labour, it effectively encourages situations in which we applaud artists for their apparently innate ability to think outside the box; but that’s also where we force them to exist, with little regard for the effects this may have. Pushed to inhabit the extreme nooks of the mind that inspire their work, the personal consequences are often dire.
Translating Schopenhauer’s understanding of genius more directly to fashion, Lee Alexander McQueen serves as an infamous illustration, acclaimed as he was for an ability to communicate an often troubled beauty without restraint or compromise. But, important as it is to celebrate and commemorate his talent and its legacy, it’s necessary to do so with his tale’s tragic end in mind. McQueen struggled with bouts of poor mental health and substance addiction; the frequency and seriousness of both increased in step with the rising of his star, culminating in the designer’s suicide in 2010. However, the dark instability of his inner world was known to the public long before his story’s denouement, most visibly spilling over into his shows—acts of potent, wordless theatre that touched on themes of death, after-life, and insanity.
While there is an anecdotal correlation between genius and mental illness, McQueen’s case shouldn’t necessarily be seen as evidence in favour of it. Instead, it underscores how an industry fetish for the individual creates a culture in which impoverished mental health is implicitly seen as an unfortunate, but necessary price to pay for the production of the highest art. It’s a mentality that harks back to the Romantics of the early nineteenth-century—the age in which Schopenhauer wrote. In the eyes of many associated with the movement, madness was a privileged condition, opening access to truths that exist beyond the conditioned horizons of the sane mind. Aside from the obvious point—that fashion today does not exist in some nineteenth-century time loop— there’s something disconcerting about the continued prevalence of such a mindset, particularly when we consider fashion as a global commercial enterprise. In this respect, fashion does not create art solely for art’s sake—the industry is brazenly open about its function as an engine of profit. While this certainly doesn’t amount to a crime, the tacit willingness to sacrifice an individual’s health for the sake of capital gain comes pretty close to one.
But the toxic effects of fashion’s ‘genius culture’ don’t just touch those at the top. Though a minority of collective-oriented brands have come to light in recent years, the default organisational structure of luxury houses remains feudal. While the same could be said for any large company in any major industry, you can expect that even if you find yourself on a lower rung of the ladder, you’ll still be reasonably compensated for the labour you commit. In fashion, the opportunity to serve as an accessory to the supreme talent of this-or-that head designer is marketed as compensation in and of itself. But too often do we hear of prominent industry figures disregarding the people working beneath them. By some warped logic, fuelled by an inflated sense of self-importance, such figures
mistake the brazen mistreatment of their subordinates for acceptable conduct, on the grounds that they should simply be happy to be there working under them in the first place.
If this is the behavioural model set forth by the industry’s most senior, it can come as little surprise that asocial behaviours are attested to among those just entering it. Too often, students are encouraged to consume tales of how the most successful participants in the industry, heroes in their eyes, were endowed with a gift that was recognised when they were their age; that their talent was merely incubated at school, not taught. Of course, there’s a degree to which this may be true. However, the loud advertisement of these legends of schoolyard success creates environments in which students are, understandably, implicitly led to think that affecting the airs of eccentricity and arrogance witnessed among industry leaders is a surefire way to ensure that their streak of ‘genius’ is recognised. Too often, this creates petri dishes for exclusionary cliquerie, unnecessary cattery, and environments where students feel compelled to lock their work away for fear of it being sabotaged within minutes of their absence. And in some of Europe’s most celebrated schools, even faculty staff aren’t immune, regularly displaying candid favouritism to some students, and publicly doling out disproportionately harsh critique to others.
We’ve so far focused on the effects of fashion’s genius culture on those that are afforded the title, but what then happens to those that aren’t? Do we just offer them a consolatory pat on the back, thank them for trying their best, but tell them that their best just wasn’t good enough? From the way we assess success and who we deem worthy of recognition, it would seem that’s the case. But with our eyes so geared towards the saintly figures that sit at the heads of major houses, we completely overlook that it is, in fact, down to the best efforts of the forgotten thousands beneath them that their ideas come to life at all. Of course, the outsized creative and commercial impact of head designers’ decisions shouldn’t be downplayed— and the applause they receive, of course, correlates to the weight of their responsibilities—but praise and recognition are not scarce resources. Acknowledging the efforts of the person at the head of an operation does not diminish our ability to pay due respect to those that make up their networks of support.
Imagine a magazine in which only the editor-in-chief was credited: it would be considered a willfully disrespectful dismissal of all of the editors, writers, photographers, stylists, and creative directors that dedicated their energy and labour to its production. There would be justified outrage from all angles. So why is it any different when it comes to a collection? From interns to atelier heads, each contributor to the making of the garments we see lends their creativity and craftsmanship: what, at the end of the day, goes to say that the junior designers in the studio carry out their tasks with any less love or skill than the head designer who first sketched it? Why, then, is their vital contribution to the making of that garment so happily overlooked? Silly as it may seem to suggest tagging comprehensive credit sheets to the garments we buy and see in editorials, it’s the direction we need to move in if the development of a more socially responsible industry is to be anything more than lip service.
It is self-evident that the concept of the ‘genius fashion designer’ is central to the industry’s current understanding of itself. But it’s exactly because of its central importance in how we relate to creative labourers and their work that it must be re-evaluated. For an industry so concerned with maintaining a progressive reputation, this focus on the supreme talent of the individual demonstrates a worrying social lag. While Ellis may have bemoaned what he deemed to be a privileging of groupthink over the individual, perhaps this is just what we need. In all corners of contemporary life, collaborative action and recognition of the individuals that comprise our communities are more necessary than ever. Though it may often feel like one, fashion is not an island; in fact, its social relevance has never been greater. As actors in its ecosystem, we all have a responsibility to consider how fashion caters to those that work within it, as well as what aspects of today’s world we want it to reflect. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a reshuffling of priorities is needed.