Pin It

Can today’s designers stand the test of time?

Fashion’s old guard are as strong as ever – but as our constant hunger for newness continues, can emerging designers hope to last the decades?

30 years ago this month, six designers travelled from Antwerp to West Kensington to show their clothes at a trade show at London’s Olympia Exhibition Centre. It’s remarkable to think that in the days that followed, the trajectory of fashion would be altered irrevocably for the next three decades. Those designers would, of course, come to be known as The Antwerp Six, with many of them carving out an enduring legacy – and particularly in the cases of Dries Van NotenWalter Van Beirendonck and Ann Demeulemeester, still hold relevance to fashion today.

It is, however, another Antwerp graduate who is currently demanding the industry’s attention. Demna Gvasalia has risen from ex-Margiela employee, moonlighting on Kanye’s inaugural fashion line, to face of power brand Vetements and the feted new creative director of Balenciaga. When juxtaposing these products of Antwerp’s Royal Academy, a question that comes to mind is whether the latter, for all his talent, will be able to forge a legacy in the same manner as the six that went before him, or indeed in the manner of the founder of the house where he first got his start. Such a paradigm has little to do with Gvasalia himself, who has proved to be one of the most exciting designers working today, but rather rests on the changing nature of fashion. As an industry continues to soul search, unsure whether to rail against or embrace its seemingly relentless pace, the question of longevity inevitably arises. Will today’s upcoming designers be able to stand the test of time, or get lost in the noise?

“As an industry continues to soul search, unsure whether to rail against or embrace its seemingly relentless pace, the question of longevity inevitably arises”

Things in 1986 were, after all, much, much slower. The six Antwerp designers travelled to Italy some months after London in the back of a camper van, through the Swiss Alps and onto Florence, surrounded by samples of their latest collections. Around the same time, David Mullane – who wrote Demeulemeester, Van Noten, Van Bierendonck, Van Seene and Bikkemberg’s first orders at Olympia for his Glasgow-based ‘Warehouse’ – was posting them his order, handwritten, with an actual pen and not a spreadsheet in sight. When they returned, the Six did not have a pre-collection or a holiday collection to occupy themselves with. That luxury of time is something no current-day designer will be afforded.

The nature of consumerism has shifted – never mind building brands, building collections is becoming an increasingly arduous task, with time very much of the essence and shop floors always needing to be filled. The rich narratives, interwoven throughout seasons – the ones that have made Raf Simons the demi-god like figure he is today – are giving way to simply getting the job done, something which Simons himself rallied against in his recent System magazine interview. At present, there is a very real danger within fashion that burnt-out designers will become the norm – we simply expect too much of them.

It’s not just the pace of production and sales that’s changed, but our attention spans – we now consider time in an entirely different way. Communication is instant, news travels around the world in seconds, you can see an item online and have it delivered to you in sixty minutes. We’re increasingly impatient, and that presents a challenge for fashion’s newest stars – the Rubchinskiys, the Gvasalias, the Ablohs will all have a harder task in emulating the zeitgeist-shifting heroes of past generations. And largely, we only have ourselves, and our constant desire for newness, to blame for this emerging paradigm of fleeting cultism. It raises the question – when we live life on fast-forward, what does longevity even look like? As Hedi Slimane has shown with Saint Laurent – four short years is enough to revitalise a fashion house’s aesthetic and profits beyond recognition. 

As a designer, the talent of someone like Gvasalia is not in question – he possesses a rare combination of genuine know-how and expertise, but also a critical understanding of the current zeitgeist and how to manipulate it. Save for a lack of experience in a public-facing job of that magnitude, few were better equipped to carry on what Alexander Wang had built at Balenciaga – but the expectancy levels for Gvasalia have now increased tenfold. He has managed to sell us £180 DHL t-shirts, and we have all gone wild for them, but the pressure on designers to recreate seasonal “it” items – the kind that have lent heavily to Vetements’ allure – might prove to be a thankless task. And if the hype that envelops an in-demand designer wanes, will the fashion merry-go-round crank up again, leaving fashion houses opting for even fresher faces? 

“If the hype that envelops an in-demand designer wanes, will the fashion merry-go-round crank up again, leaving fashion houses opting for even fresher faces?”

Maybe that’s the future – a football manager-esqe merry-go-round of new names and burn-outs. Each season we can have a fashion transfer deadline day, where recruits are drafted onto design teams striving to be the hottest that season, and failing creative directors are given the boot in favour of an experienced hand able to turn around a brand’s fortunes. It could be fun... But at the end, what are we left with? Fleeting memories, mind-numbing commerciality and no old-guard who, as they did at the most recent Paris Fashion Week, showed their collective voice is still a powerful one.

In the light of Rei Kawakubo and Adrian Joffe’s Dover Street Market recently reopening in an even grander London location, it perhaps feels odd to be discussing whether longevity still has a place in fashion. Clearly, it does – and Kawakubo’s unflinching approach should serve as guidance to fashion’s newest stars. In the face of the quickening pace of the industry, Kawakubo too has amped things up, executing collection after collection in between reinventing her DSM locations each season. But she has built a legacy on being the exception, not the rule – and the task of emulating such achievements is becoming greater than ever.

Perhaps the words of Geert Bruloot – the mastermind of that fateful trip from London to Antwerp some thirty years ago, which subsequently launch the careers of The Six – are most poignant in this context: “I think there’s a bit of an urge today to become a star very soon. I can feel this with the students (of the Antwerp Fashion Academy). But, The Antwerp Six didn’t have that. They had this dream and this healthy naivety to believe in it. They knew that one day they would make it, but that was it. They were sure that what they were doing was good.” At a time when designers can court famous fans on Instagram before they even have stockists, that ‘one day’ hope of success seems more imminent than ever. However, success that is built on little more than hype will seldom last for more than 15 minutes – there’s no fast track to the kind of reputation held by someone like Demeulemeester or Van Beirendonck.