Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Designers and the Press: Lessons from the Past

This morning I've been reading the answers to questionnaires I sent out to the top designers as part of a piece I am doing for 10 Magazine. The idea's very simple. Ten designers get ten identical questions and send me their answers. No interview; no extra queries to elucidate their answers. Just them, their thoughts and an e-mail back to me. The results are fascinating: they each reveal their thinking by their choice of question to elaborate on.

I am always amazed at how accessible designers make themselves and how they are – in all but a few cases – prepared to be honest and speak the truth. I am conscious, of course, that cynics will say that the questionnaire is immediately handed over to a PA or PR to answer, with the designers only signing it off at the end. That could be true, but designers tend to have egos far too large to let anybody else to speak for them, no matter how close that person might be. They are also aware of how important any reference to them or their attitudes is these days, in whatever form of media. And I include blogging and Twitter, for which most designers have a healthy respect (tinged, I suspect, with a little fear of a medium whose power is still not entirely understood by many).

I can't help wondering what Chanel, Vionnet, Dior or Balenciaga would have felt about the 'open access' game that designers now have to play, no matter how private their private thoughts still remain. I think we know what Balenciaga, who hated the press and for a few seasons actually banned them all from his shows, would think. He rarely if ever talked to journalists, believing that making clothes for his customers was a sacred bond to be discussed with nobody but the woman concerned. Of course, that could happen naturally in the days of couture when fashion was an individual pleasure with customers and designer working together in shared knowledge and taste.

Now, of course, designing clothes is no more personal than designing cars or screwdrivers. The designer has no interchange with the woman who buys what he designs. Balenciaga would have thought that that made the whole process so impersonal as to be pointless, but I can't help feeling that the other three, all of whom were highly commercial, would love questionnaires … especially the in-your-face women – Chanel and Vionnet, both so tough their lineage could probably be traced to Attila the Hun or Ghengis Khan.

Dior (a more subtle and gentle self-publicist, but with a very healthy ego) would have been more diffident but certainly would have said his piece. After all, he is one of the few designers from the fifties who wrote a (ghosted) biography and put his name to a dictionary of fashion, as well as lecturing and giving interviews at a time when the old guard thought such things shockingly vulgar and commercial. Dior really understood the value of publicity and, like Vionnet and Chanel, realised that the individual relationships of traditional fashion could not survive the expansion of markets and customer types.

All three were correct, of course. Now the individual relationship is not between customers and designers but between customers and those who bring clothes to their attention (the press) and those who exemplify their dreams and wishes (stars and celebs in the front row).

But I still think that Balenciaga had something of worth in his attitude – something we should try to recapture. Maybe the current lot at that once-austere house think so too, and feel that banning the editor of French Vogue from shows is sending a positive message. It is, although for me not the one their crazed press office imagines. But as the history of many fashion houses shows, designers come and they go, taking their foolish minions with them – whilst good editors tend to have very long working lives...


  1. Trends and styles come and go, which is possibly why designers go in and out of fashion (with notable exceptions, of course). The press are kept busy reporting throughout – and seem fiercely protective of their turf. From the outside, fashion journalism appears to be pretty much a closed shop: all very nepotistical and incestuous. The future of fashion may well be on the net, with bloggers and twitterati leading the way. However, one does wonder about the usefulness of building trillions of links in cyberspace, regardless of intelligent content.

    Eventually, televised live digital streaming will enable customers to get closer to the creative source of the fashion industry, as they’ll be able to see the latest creations and hear designers’ views immediately and at first hand, rather than a few months later in magazines, or a couple of seasons later in the shops. Once we get around to virtual changing rooms (kitted out with special ‘apps’ so you can touch and feel the fabrics), there’ll be no need for shops anyway. Technical skills will rate as highly as creative talent in the new age of digital multi-media, with futuristic designers, like <a href="”>Fred Butler,</a> leading the way.

    Those excluded from the online world, or who choose to opt out, may find all manner of quirky new shops popping up – where there’s even the likelihood that designers will come into direct contact with their customers. Time for the new age of couture, perhaps? Better keep those questionnaires handy, Colin.

  2. wot no obit for Joseph yet?

  3. This is a bit off track from the current post.Just wanted to know how different is the Terry Richardson debacle from Anand Jon excepting the fact that more models were forthcoming in Anand Jon's case and of course he was a brown skinned Indian? It just shows how fiercely competitive the fashion industry is and how deep racial segregations are in US!

  4. It does depend on the working methods of the designer in question- I can't see Rei Kawakubo or Miuccia Prada taking to Twitter etc anytime soon, given that the former isn't exactly a prolific giver of interviews and the latter quite openly questioned the need to use social media.
    It must be borne in mind, though, that there is a difference (if only a slight one) between remaining private and being just plain stodgy- as I think Balenciaga currently is.

  5. I've always wonder what it would be like if Balenciaga would be designing today. Hopefully he would have some amazing PR people who knows how to spin his extreme privacy into ultra brand exclusivity.

    I think it'll be more interesting to know how he's going to cope with all those diffusion line, licensee products, cross-overs that modern day designers deal with given that he never really did a RTW line except for the uniform for Air France. Plus I'm rereading Marie-Andree Jouve's book on Balenciaga. I can't believe he only had to work 4 months a year just to prepare for his 2 collections!