Let’s face it, Americans are definitely not the most fashionable. We take pride in our day-to-night athleisure looks, practically pioneered the fanny pack tourist look, and unbutton our pants at the table to make room for more food. Despite this current jaded mindset, the heyday of American fashion marked a time when trailblazing minimalist designers made names for themselves amidst an ultra-exclusive global fashion sphere.
In the years since, American fashion has slowly taken a backseat and has become a quiet player in the industry. With a global pandemic, unprecedented consumer shifts, and an economic downturn, the past year has been a turning point for the American fashion industry and system as a whole. An increasingly virtual world has left American fashion powerhouses struggling to adapt to a changing environment and a consumer that values community, transparency, and that hard to find blend of innovation and commerciality.
Arguably, American fashion begins at the start of the ’70s, when Roy Halston Frowick, better known as Halston, became the first superstar designer in America. Creating minimal, yet luxurious, clothes that “danced with you,” Halston set the tone for the disco era to come. The designer was one of the first to use the celebrity as his platform, often seen arm in arm with Elizabeth Taylor and Bianca Jagger dancing the night away at Studio 54. Before Halston passed away at the age of 57 from AIDS complications, he lived to see much of his impact on American fashion play out in the aesthetics of other American designers. While the Halston brand has faded since his passing, his legacy has been kept alive by the fashion precedent he set for forthcoming designers.
Halston’s paired back sense of luxury began to evolve into a sensible comfort and expertly targeted marketing in the form of stars such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren. Shifting away from the decadent era of the ‘80s, designers such as Klein focused on sensible minimalism that could transfer seamlessly from the runway to the department store. Unlike a patchwork Galliano gown or a McQueen masterpiece, Klein’s designs were easily palatable. This phenomenon of sharply sensible ready-to-wear became a cornerstone of the American fashion industry.
The marketable brilliance of the ‘80s and ‘90s continued well into the early 2000s with the domination of Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and countless others. Jacobs, known for his pop-culture-infused designs, succeeded both commercially and with fashion-insiders allowing him to ultimately take the reins as Creative Director of Louis Vuitton in 1997. Jacobs was of course not the only American at the helm of an iconic European luxury brand at the time. With his sex-infused time at Gucci, Tom Ford brought a revitalized American sensibility to the house, creating a cool, minimal sense of sexy that wasn’t ever thought possible, especially by an American. Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an American designer at the helm of an international luxury with the exception of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton. So what happened?
Though it’s hard to pinpoint a certain event or phenomena, many failures of the American fashion industry stem from not understanding its changing consumer. The days of the quintessentially American department store have quickly faded, leaving many wondering how to adapt to a customer that consumes fashion digitally through social media platforms.
In addition to a changing customer, many brands struggled to bridge the divide between commerciality and innovation. For example, Raf Simons’ 205W39NYC venture at the head of Calvin Klein. Lauded by fashion editors and insiders for its chic sensibility, the label failed to resonate commercially. There was an obvious disconnect between the cutting-edge innovation of Simons and the overall DNA of the American brand known for its sexy underwear ads and long-lasting classics. Shortly after Simons’ exit, the brand shocked the fashion industry, announcing the closing of its traditional runway business and forecasting an eerie future for many established American powerhouses. Simons’ 205W39NYC experiment left fashion onlookers pondering– if a brand as established as Calvin Klein can’t resonate with fashion consumers, who can?
The once booming fashion capitals of New York City and Los Angeles have lagged behind cities such as London, Paris, and Copenhagen, who emphasize young talent while also nurturing established brands. Fashion incubators such as London’s Fashion East have produced some of the most exciting young designers in recent years: JW Anderson, Craig Green, Martine Rose, among others. As opposed to the United States, these cities take a more holistic approach to cultivate young talent providing exposure, resources, and long term support in a notoriously hard to break into industry. Despite efforts by the Council of Fashion Designers of America to shine a spotlight on young designers, many still struggle financially and commercially after being acknowledged, a fact only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Take Sies Marjan, the once emerging New York brand that won “Rising Designer” at the 2018 CFDA Awards. Creative Director Sander Lak brought a vibrant luxe to the brand with tailored womenswear that gained traction among fashion insiders (his young, attractive, and energetic personality didn’t hurt the brand, either.) Despite having significant financial backing from investors, the brand struggled to cultivate a following outside of the insider fashion sphere and luxury department stores (many of which have since filed for bankruptcy.) Ultimately after just two years, the brand shut its doors in June 2020 citing a lack of sales and financial problems. Without a dedicated consumer base, Lak struggled to remain competitive with brands who had expertly navigated the virtual consumer space. Lak’s time at Sies Marjan made clear that no matter how innovative and lauded one’s work is, American brands need to engage with a savvy online base to thrive.
While on the verge of the brand closing, Lak drew attention to the trend #rewiringfashion which circulated on social media at the beginning of the pandemic. The hashtag was posted by dozens of independent American brands and advocates for seismic changes in the fashion calendar and general show system. It remains to be seen whether these proposals will successfully move forward, however many young brands have begun adapting some of its proposals.
Instead of the traditional fashion show experience, New York-based brand Telfar opted for exciting new formats such as an immersive film and a concert-like fashion show at Irving Plaza in New York City. The young brand is not only known for their creative fashion presentations, but also for their notoriously hard to get shopping bag. Known as the “Bushwick Birkin” the bag is so coveted that the brand instated a “Bag Security Program,” to guarantee that customers could get the new It-bag. Telfar’s innovative business model promotes community and accessibility, something much needed in a hard to access fashion system.
The new wave of designers have expertly cultivated an organic social media following, helping elevate and promote themselves during uncertain times. In our newest issue, the creators of Telfar discuss the brand’s success and refreshing social media approach – one centered around customer’s experiences with their products, rather than influencer candids or runway photos. Creative Director Telfar Clemens notes how the most vital part of a brand—the customer—is traditionally ignored in terms of marketing and social media. Fashion’s obsession with the influencer and celebrity have a lot to do with this, and Telfar is at the forefront of the fight to democratize fashion. This organic community, mostly cultivated online and in the street, is set to become the new secret weapon of designers to organically construct long-lasting success.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the American fashion industry, revealing the days of sprawling retail floors, unimaginative fast fashion, and overconsumption are long gone. Nowadays, fashion lovers are opting to buy into a brand’s ethos, which has been evident in newer American labels such as Pyer Moss, Collina Strada, and Telfar. Whether it be an eco-friendly approach or commentary on the state of racial equality in America, each of these brands has a distinct focus that uniquely engages the consumer and rejects the traditional fashion system. It still remains to be seen if these brands can thrive outside of the Instagram universe, however, they might not have to. What the young design vanguard has that American powerhouses may have missed is how to engage with an increasingly online, young, and socially aware consumer.
A silver lining of the pandemic has been the power of social media in addressing long-held grievances within the industry: sustainability, corporate responsibility, and representation. It is up to both the consumer and the wider American industry to support these young designers challenging the status-quo. Although financial support is increasingly important in the current economic state, it is ultimately the designer-customer relationship that will establish brands as household names and allow them to prosper in the future. What emerged from these challenging moments are the pioneers of a new wave of fashion excitement– a young and diverse sect of creatives reimagining what it means to be an American designer.END
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