The Triumph of The Non-Designer: Justin, Alexa and More

Alexa Chung and Justin O’Shea, fashion’s most exciting new designers, are not designers at all, depending on whom you ask.


Justin O’Shea, former buying director of MyTheresa and the coolest, most hard-boiled guy in the fashion business, debuted his first collection for luxury menswear label Brioni this month to enormous success: the ultra-cool collection for men and women was sexy, immaculate, and exuded an almost Tom Ford-level of slickness. O’Shea has taken an uncompromisingly “lad” approach to the brand – Brioni logoed beer cans were omnipresent at the event and Metallica fronts the new ad campaign – but in a way that’s sophisticated, self-aware, and almost retro without seeming kitchy. He’s proven himself to be a fantastic creative director, even if he is not a typical choice to helm a luxury label, because he gets brand so completely.

O’Shea’s brilliant debut was the perfect backdrop for Alexa Chung to announce that she is launching her own clothing line in the spring of 2017, to the desperate, raucous joy of young women everywhere. The brand will encompass everything from denim to eveningwear, and follows on the heels of Chung’s multiple collaborations with a wide range of brands – she’s collaborated on design for Marks & Spencer, AG Denim, Madewell, Maje, and cosmetics brand Eyeko; and has served as a brand ambassador for Mulberry, Longchamp, and most recently Gucci, when she temporarily took over the label’s Snapchat. But instead of drawing a parallel between Chung and O’Shea, rock-and-roll, much beloved fashion outsiders, The New York Times wondered if Chung might, with her long-hoped for eponymous line, become Britain’s Tory Burch – a theory predicated upon the fact that neither woman were trained as designers.

Chung and Burch could literally not be more opposite. This comparison is incredibly sexist (O’Shea got no press so insulting), out of touch, and the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard for several reasons, most egregiously so because Tory Burch is anti-fashion in the way that Michael Kors is: it’s what upper middle class women wear when they want to be invisible and embarrassingly nondescript; it’s a giant empire of nothing. Alexa Chung is all about individuality and instincts when it comes to her personal style and the kinds of things she has designed and endorsed in the past. Why on earth would she want to be anything, anything like Tory Burch? In terms of contemporaries, the Times should have likened her, obviously to Justin O’Shea; or to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, who studied to be architects; or Humberto Leon and Carol Kim of Opening Ceremony and now Kenzo, who started as retailers before they were co-creative directors. These “untrained” designers, unlike Tory Burch, create fashion, and not logoed lifestyle brands for people with french manicures. Secondly, Chung has had a string of collaborative design experiences, more than any other public figure, and is incredibly well-situated to take on her own line – she is much better positioned to design than Burch was when she launched Tory Burch on a dark day in 2004.

Grouping Chung and Burch together for being “untrained” is not only bizarre, but simultaneously incredibly out of touch with the direction in which fashion creation is moving: it’s not just the realm of trained designers anymore. It hasn’t been for a while. It will become even less so after the smashing success of the likes of Leon and Kim at Kenzo and O’Shea at Brioni, Kate Moss for Topshop, and even Victoria Beckham’s eponymous line. Truly exceptional fashion is about instinct, which thoughtful and innovative stylists, retailers, bloggers and brand managers have in abundance — perhaps more than some trained designers do.  Personal style and understanding of brand has become the new and most important qualifications for design, and for this Chung and O’Shea are insanely qualified. Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada were not technically trained, and many designers today, including Raf Simons, do not sketch. Bloggers like Vanessa Hong and Elin King, whom I love, and Rumi Neely, whom I used to like as a teen but about whom I am now ambivalent, have all started fashion labels. Olivia Palermo, Erika Bearman, Lauren Santo Domingo, Miroslava Duma, and Maja Wyh should all be next. Some of these women, I’m sure, are afraid of the celebrity-label brushoff, and/or the Rachel Zoe hyped-line-that-isn’t-really-very-good effect; I think Chung’s foray into the arena will help dispel these fears and help further validate a “celebrity” line, when the celebrity in question is qualified.

If anyone, Alexa Chung should have been likened to Elsa Schiaparelli, who was a little offbeat, had many famous friends, and an innate knack for knowing what looked good. Untrained in the traditional sense, Schiaparelli went on to become one of the most iconic designers of the 20th century. This kind of path is one that makes sense for Chung, and should be aspirational to both trained and untrained creators of fashion alike – not a bulky, empty empire. If that’s not clear to the New York Times, I question their relevancy, and  their conception of success in the fashion world.


Ford on Film: The Real Meaning of the Tom Ford S/S ’16 Video


Allow me to begin by by saying just how deeply I love Tom Ford. I often dream about him. I would take a bullet for him. I am frequently washed over with a nausea-like feeling of deep jealousy of Richard Buckley.

Which is why gives me great displeasure to say that I did not remotely like or understand why Mr. Ford decided to show his Spring/Summer 2016 Womenswear collection in a three-minute video format.

In the Nick Knight-directed video, models disco down a runway and are cheered on by other dancing models in the frow, as it were. Quick cuts and high-energy movement give it a music video feel. Lady Gaga shows up and the dancing continues. I walked away feeling dizzy, wondering what exactly I had just watched – it certainly did not have the usual sexy, mysterious, over-the-top Tom Ford Feel.

Videos are nothing new for fashion shows. Most designers livestream their runway shows, allowing people around the world to watch in real time. This is a fantastic and democratizing tool for fans, bloggers, and buyers, who can experience the show firsthand, and not rely solely on still photos or critics’ commentary. However, the short video format Mr. Ford implemented for S/S ’16 simply is not an effective media for viewing a fashion show. The focus is entirely on mood which, granted, is important, but the viewer walks away with no recollection of what the clothes looked like – a factor that will certainly prove problematic when it comes down to pre-ordering and retail. And then, there’s the missed opportunity. Mr. Ford is one of the great showmen of our time. He is the king of spectacle, masterful at setting a scene and manipulating an audience (see: deep carpet of rose petals falling from the ceiling at F/W 2015), and deeply obsessive about his work. Why would he pass up this opportunity to display his showmanship, and instead send out something that felt last-minute?

The choice to make a video likely mirrors where Mr. Ford is creatively. He is about to start filming his second film, Nocturnal Animals, and is likely deeply ensconced in the medium of film. The video is more likely in reaction to the film project—perhaps he simply didn’t have the time to produce a sumptuous live show because of his other creative endeavors.

Then there is the alarming issue of Lady Gaga’s presence. Why she was cast as the face of this video initially seems unfathomable, as she has been musically and culturally irrelevant for some time now, and doesn’t espouse the Fordian ideals in the way that, say, Carine Roitfeld and Rihanna do. If Mr. Ford was looking for a new face for the S/S Campaign, he should have gone with Lucky Blue Smith, who also makes a cameo in the film. Having a male model front the womenswear campaign would have been edgy and in line with the current androgynous movement, and Lucky Blue has that special charismatic Ford Factor that Gaga lacks. However, as Lucky Blue is relatively unknown outside the fashion world, and the collection is already forgettable because of its format, it makes sense that the label would go with a universally known celebrity to front the campaign. Choosing Gaga was more of a necessary strategic, and not an artistic, decision due to the video format.

Although Ford’s video format was well received by the media, it is doubtful that it will become a trend in fashion shows. The short film makes the pieces forgettable, lacks a sense of drama and narrative, and distorts brand identity. The best place for videos in fashion are for marketing purposes—setting a scene, depicting a short narrative, and ultimately reinforcing the brand’s meaning. Prada does an especially good job with this, and Dior is beginning to break into the medium as well (Miss Dior and Dior Addict fragrances have been making fantastic videos for the last five years or so). Burberry smartly has an “Acoustic” music video channel, featuring independent British acts performing exclusive sets for the brand, which reinforces the cool, youthful, Britishness that Burberry promotes. Even Ford has used this format to promote his cosmetics, both for the Lips & Boys collection and the men’s skincare line, to great effect — which is why his fashion show video was such a disappointment.

What Ford’s video really makes me wonder is if he’s getting ready to leave fashion again. I’m still suffering from abandonment issues from when he took a break to make A Single Man in the late aughts. I’m afraid he’s going to go out one Sunday morning to buy a wide-lapel jacket and never come back. Ford’s true skills lie in creating a world, a brand, and his obsessive attention to detail and instincts in setting a mood serve him well here whether he is making a collection or a film. I think it’s fantastic that he’s pushing himself creatively to explore new media and put his extraordinary eye to good use, but I’m not ready to see him go from the fashion world. I’m afraid this S/S ’16 womenswear video is indicative of Ford hedging his bets, deciding between continuing as a designer, or pursuing filmmaking or other artistic endeavors, perhaps even full-time.