When you were putting the book together, how did you decide who to include?
Brenda and I started talking about combining our old interviews to make a book, but we quickly realised that they were snapshots in time. A lot of them already felt out of date or irrelevant. They weren’t written for posterity; most were about a specific collection. So we started thinking, maybe we could do essays on these designers, which drew on our personal encounters with them. Then it was a question of who to include, who was great and what was greatness? That’s when it became fun and fascinating. So the book is a series of informed introductions to key designers of all time, from Charles Frederick Worth to the present day.
What qualifies someone as a ‘great designer’?
I like to think of the title in a tongue-in-cheek way — ‘great according to who?’ You could also write about the people writing about the designers and the influence they have in how we define greatness. Why is it that the extraordinary female couturier Jeanne Paquin, who had a gigantic atelier in Paris, doesn’t get the profile of someone like Paul Poiret did in the early twentieth century? Why was Callot Soeurs, which was a brand run by three sisters, not given prominence and recognition? We all know the answer. As with so much history, women were ignored. So we had an opportunity to come up with new names in that sense, looking beyond Chanel – one woman who is never underwritten about.
Our definitions were fluid. In the last twenty years, the definition of ‘greatness’ and indeed of ‘designer’ seem to change every year. In the modern situation, you have Virgil Abloh basically saying, ‘No, I’m not original. Everything is a reference, built on the shoulders of other people.’ There are lots of definitions, but as long as we explain the criteria for each designer, that’s sufficient.
“When you compare Paul Smith to the great innovators of Paris couture, it’s chalk and cheese.”
Who was on the fence and why?
One designer people weren’t sure about in the first edition of this book was Paul Smith. He’s marking 50 years in the business this year, so there is a renewed interest in him, but when one compares him to the great innovators of Paris couture, it’s chalk and cheese. It’s very difficult to make comparisons in an obvious way. Our criteria for him was based on bringing a modern, light, irreverent fun to menswear – bringing colour and pattern and print. So there were design elements that were important, but also his success as a modern British designer who achieved worldwide success. At one stage, he was outselling Chanel in Japan. He’s not making a lot of noise these days, but he transformed British menswear in the 1980s and had a knock-on effect which rippled through international menswear.
Paul Smith is very open about the fact that his wife, Pauline Denyer, is very influential in his design process. In that case, who do you attribute the greatness to?
This is something we at CSM are questioning a great deal. Professor Caroline Evans and Professor Alistair O’Neill are working on a project that questions the thesis of our book, actually. It says that instead of the great fashion designers, it should be about the great pattern-cutters or the petites mains in the ateliers. Great design is usually teamwork.
“For someone who is first getting into fashion history, individuals are a fascinating way to introduce yourself to the subject, but history should be less about kings and queens, and more about ordinary people.”
That argument comes to light in your favourite fashion documentary too – Dior and I – where there was a massive team behind Raf Simons at Dior, driving him towards potential greatness.
That is such a wonderful documentary. While I think Raf Simons comes across very well, the real stars are les petites mains – the men and women in the atelier. They’re completely and utterly fascinating, and you realise they are the glue that holds Dior together, even as the name at the helm changes. For someone who is first getting into fashion history, individuals are a fascinating and enjoyable way to introduce yourself to the subject, but history should be less about kings and queens, and more about ordinary people. At the same time, one cannot ignore the fact that these remarkably creative people in the fashion world lived fascinating lives and were at the heart of so much energy and creativity. Having researched and studied them in so much detail, I don’t think I would have liked a lot of the great fashion designers. But the book is not about picking my favourite designers, it’s about the designers who have really influenced fashion.
If it was just about your personal favourites, who would be top of the list?
Fundamentally, there are two ways to be a fashion journalist. One is that you become an insider who knows the designers and might even be a muse to them. You become friends with them, you wear their clothes or you aspire to. I was probably an insider for a couple of seasons in the mid-1990s, but I have mostly been a voyeur, which is the second way. There has been the odd designer I really liked but I’ve never got too emotionally involved. That’s why I didn’t do the runways for very long, because I wasn’t getting enough personal pleasure from it.
I used to love Jean Paul Gaultier, as a person and a designer. Whenever I was in Paris, I would go to the shop on Rue Vivienne and look obsessively at the clothes. I would think long and hard about buying the clothes, but every time I tried them on, I realised they just didn’t suit me. I bought a jacket and a couple of T-shirts, and one of the early fragrances. But I interviewed him many times and I think he is a wonderful person who embodies the best spirit of fashion design. He really loves the process and he is not driven by business obsessions. His pure passion for it is really special.
“The late Professor Louise Wilson understood that you could work the media machine and use it for your advantage. For every sophisticated designer who does that, there are others who have no idea what’s going on around them.”
In your capacity as Head of MA Fashion Communication at CSM, you run a collaborative project where fashion communicators shadow the MA fashion students in the run-up to their graduation show. The idea that student designers suffer when they are over-hyped is one we talk about a lot. In that sense, the title of ‘great designer’ is a heavy one to bear. What would you say to fashion journalists writing about emerging designers in this way?
I really loved the last issue of 1 Granary, with its strong focus on the pressures of the industry for young designers and creatives. It raised so many important issues and I enjoyed the points where it was provocative. Being a bit cynical, I might reply that it’s always been like that, to an extent. Look at John Galliano getting his first collection bought by Browns. He was a very shy, sensitive boy back then and had issues adjusting to the massive media focus. Perhaps we’re in a more knowing age now, where a lot of young designers are very prepared and understand the media game. Some designers are very upfront with their plans – to struggle through a couple of solo shows at LFW to make themselves famous before landing a nice role at another studio that pays a huge sum of money.
The late Professor Louise Wilson understood that you could work the media machine and use it for your advantage. For every sophisticated designer who does that, there are others who have no idea what’s going on around them. It can be used to support and it can be a negative problem. Journalists, at the end of the day, are faced with big questions whenever they choose to write anything nice about anyone. Why are we doing it? Why has that nice, big piece about the famous Italian brand appeared in the newspaper without addressing any of the critical issues surrounding them? Is it because the journalist loves the designer or is it because they’re a big advertiser? Journalists always have to question why they’re really writing about something.
“A designer can be extremely hands-off, if they are surrounded by the right craftspeople. Or they can be obsessively hands-on like McQueen, able to make a suit right in front of your eyes. “
That’s the beauty of writing a book – you don’t have advertisers to appease.
Yes, and we could write critical essays. Neither of us are working directly in the fashion industry anymore. It’s wonderfully liberating, but we’re not trying to say any of the essays in the book are unpleasant summaries of designers’ careers. There is only the occasional person we deeply and obviously disliked – Brenda Polan’s chapter on Pierre Cardin might be of interest to people looking for designers we didn’t get on with. Generally, we tried to look at their careers and challenges with a sympathetic eye. The issue of raising someone too high too quickly doesn’t just apply to fashion. Look at teenage footballers in the Premier League who travel from the other side of the world while they are still children, in some cases.
Raf Simons famously doesn’t sketch. A lot of Creative Directors today do not have technical sewing skills. Looking at the patterns between the designers you’ve included, what unites them?
There are plenty of designers who don’t technically have the skills we would imagine a designer to have. Jean Patou once said: “I wouldn’t even know how to design. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for I can’t draw and a pair of scissors in my hands becomes a dangerous weapon.” Someone like Tom Ford has been accused of lacking technical skills and being more of a stylist than a designer. He explained that he may not be a pattern-cutter, but he knows what fashion is about. Now, Virgil Abloh is more upfront in saying that his role as a designer is more about curation. A designer can be extremely hands-off, if they are surrounded by the right craftspeople. Or they can be obsessively hands-on like McQueen, able to make a suit right in front of your eyes.
“Virgil Abloh is the ultimate post-modern designer; the designer who says he isn’t a designer. And of course, he represents the importance of diversity in the industry more generally.”
The first edition came out in 2009, and since then, you’ve added Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo, Alessandro Michele and Demna Gvasalia. Why do these designers define the last decade for you?
I could speak for a long time about all five, so I’ll guide you to the book to read more. We were aware that these additions needed justification, and the explanations are in the essays. Particularly with someone like Hedi Slimane who, at the exact time we were working on the chapter, was facing a storm of criticism for his first season at CELINE. For the purposes of the book, we had to separate ourselves from the noise. Then his second collection was loved by many people, and the whole media conversation swung back the other way. Throughout the whole process of adding new names, there were two in the back of my mind that I thought should be included. They were Stella McCartney and Virgil Abloh.
Why didn’t they make the cut in the end?
We copped out of making the decision ourselves and had a class at CSM with MA Fashion Communication students. We didn’t tell them our personal preferences, we just let them choose. I would have had Stella and Virgil, but they weren’t chosen.
Who would you have swapped Stella and Virgil for?
I don’t know. We had that class in November 2018; had it been in November 2019, I believe we would have chosen Stella McCartney. She has been called the conscience of the luxury fashion industry several times. The concern over sustainability is not new in one sense – Martin Margiela’s approach to fashion and recycling ideas fits in very well with current concerns – but we couldn’t predict how much it would come to dominate not just design schools, but the industry at large. If I were finishing the book now, I would include Stella and maybe Hedi or Demna might have had the chop. It’s a fun parlour game: how can you define who is great when there are so many different definitions of greatness? Virgil Abloh is the ultimate post-modern designer; the designer who says he isn’t a designer. And of course, he represents the importance of diversity in the industry more generally. There are all sorts of reasons why he is an important name.
All fashion books, like all fashion collections, start ageing as soon as they are released. I finished the chapter on Karl Lagerfeld and then he passed away a week later. Just after the book went to the publishers, Demna announced that he was stepping away from Vetements. It’s more up-to-date than anything else out there and we worked really hard to make sure it felt contemporary.
“We weren’t reaching back into the past to seek differences, we were finding fascinating similarities.”
This book includes recent designers, but it also stretches back to include nineteenth century couturier Charles Frederick Worth. How has fashion design as a career and a practice changed since then?
Perversely, I would take the opposite approach. What surprises me is how many of the techniques we consider to be very modern were used by early designers. Poiret was very good at playing the media. Charles Frederick Worth played up to the role of dressmaker-as-artist. He was unbearably full of himself and created this idea of the single, creative genius at the head of a fashion house that we’re now challenging. Elsa Schiaparelli was so twenty-first century. Then you look at someone like Madeleine Vionnet, who was obsessed with being copied, and she mirrored all the insecurities we see in the modern system. Fast fashion didn’t exist in the early twentieth century, but watered-down versions of couture dresses were being made in America. We weren’t reaching back into the past to seek differences, we were finding fascinating similarities.
Given the recent rise of copy-cat call-out accounts like Diet Prada, fashion’s understanding of reference versus imitation seems blurry. Does great design have to be totally pure and original?
We included an American designer called Norman Norell, who created a best-selling culotte suit. Everyone was copying it, but he apparently sent out the pattern for free. He didn’t mind being copied, he just wanted to be copied properly. Chanel was also quite relaxed about being copied. I remember interviewing Paul Smith and him saying you should be more worried if you’re not being copied, because imitation means you’re relevant. Most designers understand that that’s how the game works. So I’m not a big fan of call-out culture at its most obsessive but, every now and then, we see such an overt copy in the shops that we all shriek with anger.
“Hopefully, the good thing in call-out culture is that it encourages designers to buy the copyright if they want to include a look in their collection, rather than copy it outright with no reference.”
What you just described is great designers being copied, but what about when it happens in the other direction? Sometimes great designers copy other designers. Does that negate their greatness?
There was an early case I covered as a young journalist on The Independent newspaper where the house of Armani had copied a T-shirt print from some young designers. In this particular case, the young designers contacted the media and did a photoshoot with their design next to the Armani one. They got lots of publicity and shamed Armani into settling out of court. That was in 1993. With social media, we can all do that and we don’t need a new photoshoot. Hopefully, the good thing in call-out culture is that it encourages designers to buy the copyright if they want to include a look in their collection, rather than copy it outright with no reference. Any designer who copies intentionally would be crazy.
Based on your research into how older designers operated, can you offer any solutions for how the fashion industry could work in a more sustainable way?
Everyone seems very excited right now about a return to craft and there is a revival of interest in couture – Balenciaga will return to haute couture after more than 50 years. That could set a template that will filter down into the broader market. I always look at the classic example of the men’s heritage labels of Jermyn Street, where the traditional customer goes in and spends a few hundred pounds on a pair of shoes they will wear for ten years and get resoled as needed. In that context, the history of luxury fashion might offer new solutions for the fashion system. We are very aware that we are writing about luxury designers who are designing for a certain elite. We’re not claiming that these designers will reinvent the system. The fashion system has to face up to what fashion is about. There are more fundamental questions than whether a designer is great. How can fashion more broadly be reinvented? How can fashion move away from continuous, rampant consumerism?