Brand

Bullseye: Victoria Beckham’s On-Point Collaborations

unnamed-2.jpgBeckham has chosen two perfect collaborators for her expanding empire.

Last month, Victoria Beckham announced a partnership with Target on a limited-edition capsule collection. Composed of apparel and accessories for women and children, the collection will debut in April 2017, and is a brilliant move on behalf of Ms. Beckham, who also has a newly-minted cosmetics deal with Estée Lauder. These selective, on-brand collaborations will set Beckham up for long-term success, and simultaneously lend the ventures more credibility than if she were to launch additional sub-labels under her own brand – if she’s able to keep them both accessible to an entry-level buyer.

 

The Beckham-Target union is fantastic for both entities. It’s such a good fit for both brands, and it’s certainly the most exciting PR either party has received lately. Beckham has been struggling with her eponymous business in the last couple of years, due to a lack of standout pieces and a general consumer unwillingness to pay ultra-high prices, and needs a new product and price point without diluting her label. Enter Target.

 

Target, the upscale yet ultra-accessible American retailer, is the perfect place for Beckham to launch her latest venture. They have a history of successful high-fashion design collaborations – Proenza Schouler (2007), Rodarte (2009, from which I still wear a dress), Missoni (2011, which famously crashed their site), Jason Wu (2012), Phillip Lim (2013), Peter Pilotto (2014), and Altazurra (2014) – and have a great formula for creating an absolutely vicious feeding frenzy around the limited-edition capsule collections.

Target’s latest designer collaborations, with Lily Pulitzer (2015) and Marimekko (2016), especially, were met with a collective huh? and sluggish sales – honestly, who thought Lily Pulitzer was a good idea? – but Beckham’s line, which will be composed of apparel and accessories for women and children, will be explosive both because of the content and its famous designer.

 

Beckham is aspirational – wife, mother, multi-hyphenate career woman, cultural icon– and makes clothes that both fashion and non-fashion women alike will want to wear: flattering, simply-cut dresses, pencil skirts, structured bags, and classic, oversized sunglasses. She is also a hands-on mum to four very cute kids with her handsome, superstar husband, making her an ideal candidate to design functional yet stylish childrenswear (anyone who birthed Romeo, my much-documented favorite child in all of Hollywood, and the very cute and precocious Harper, I trust completely with all aspects of child rearing.)

 

Partnering with Target for a lower-priced line, and especially for childrenswear, is a better course of action than trying to incorporate them into her label, which already has a lower (ha) price sub-label, Victoria Victoria Beckham. They will be much more accessible to American shoppers that way, and won’t be siloed only among the fashion crowd, in the way that Stella McCartney’s childrenswear is. And an in-house sub-label at fast-fashion prices would hurt her overall brand if not distributed in collaboration with a reputable yet accessible third party like Target.

 

 

So good and accessible in fact, is Beckham’s simple, fashion-forward aesthetic and so aspirational is her lifestyle to women, especially mothers, that I think the she could be hugely successful in a long-term partnership with Target, à la Isaac Mizrahi. She is more suited to this kind of partnership than any other Target collaborator because of her mainstream celebrity, unlike Pilotto or Altazurra, who would only be recognizable to the fashion set. I wouldn’t imagine that this kind of high-low partnership with would threaten to dilute Beckham’s high-end line because of the difference in price and quality – women buying thousand-pound Victoria Beckham pieces aren’t going to stop buying those pieces because plebs can now get items by the same designer in Target; the two ventures are very different animals for two very different audiences.

 

Beckham’s partnership with Estée Lauder is also a mutually beneficial endeavor. As the most established cosmetics brand, working with Estée Lauder automatically legitimizes the quality of Beckham’s product, a range of pretty pinks, soft browns, and classic reds for eyes, lips, and cheeks, which can be bought individually, or in London, Paris, and New York-themed kits – a marketing venture to which I am extremely susceptible. The Beckham factor brings some contemporary glamour and pop cultural relevance to Estée Lauder, which, while being the gold standard for good quality cosmetics, can read a bit old-fashioned, especially to the younger set who prefer the likes of slick Milk Makeup and other cult-y labels.

 

The price point on VB x Estée Lauder, however, is shockingly high – I imagined it would be in the YSL-Dior-Dolce & Gabbana price arena, but it’s closer to altitudinous Tom Ford level. The offerings are pretty and wearable, but not, I think, worth $95 for an eyeshadow palette. The prices won’t be a deterrent for women already splashing out on Beckham’s high-end clothing, but for most women, and young women especially, whose entry point to a luxury brand begins in cosmetics, it’s too dear. While this Estée partnership is brilliant in theory, I think the execution was too ambitions, and not inclusive enough for the millennial and young Gen-X audience.

 

Victoria Beckham is on the perfect track to expand her empire through partnerships with esteemed, established brands that will allow her to capitalize on her celebrity and aspirational lifestyle and validate her ventures into new categories. I can see both collaborations extending into the long-term, if she re-thinks the pricing structure for VB x Estée Lauder. As it stands, it’s a little too Posh for a sizeable and lucrative section of her audience.

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State of the Art: Burberry’s Post-Brexit Guild-ed Age

burberry-fw16Is Burberry making a conservative political statement with its latest campaign?

Fall collections (spring collections? What are we calling them now? In any case: clothes shown in September) are always a bit more academic than their spring counterparts. Labels love to embrace the the back-to-school conceit: warm layers, crisp fall days of paging through course descriptions, and cozy autumn nights spent pouring over books in a university library in front of a roaring fire with the brilliant but troubled heir to England’s most storied dukedom.

Oh, just me?

Anyway, this year’s back-to-school fashion has pulled at interesting art-historical and art-philosophical threads, spawning interesting conversations about fashion as art, art in advertising, and artistic quotations — or appropriations — in apparel. This will be the first post in a three-part series unpacking these conversations, and what they mean for luxury strategy in a time of great industry upheaval. Take notes!

Burberry & The Makers

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No, not a tribute band to the criminally underrated Reverend and the Makers, but the overarching theme of Burberry’s Fall 2016 strategy.

Following the Romantic, ruff-tastic September runway show, the label put on a pop-up exhibition in London called Maker’s House, where visitors could explore activities corresponding to crafts involved in the process of creating a Burberry garment or accessory, such as embroidery, engraving, and metalworking; or chat with a Burberry archivist about the brand’s history of craftsmanship (archivists: CALL ME). Guests could also interact with other artistic activities either tangentially connected with or theoretically adjacent to fashion, including drama, bookbinding, portrait painting, screenprinting, and calligraphy. I separate the categories here, but they were all presented side-by-side in a holistic way, treating all of the arts categories as relevant to the fashion-making process, but with a heavy emphasis on “making,” particularly of a physical product with one’s hands.

The subsequent ad campaign, a huge step up from last season’s tween-ish, Snappchatty-misstep, similarly reflects the process of creating heritage fashion, featuring either a sketch of the accessory or outfit, or an image of a craftsman opposite the finished product.

Burberry’s Maker’s House, while feeling a little too earnest for my taste and too ready to deploy my least favorite word, artisan, is both a safe yet unadventurous strategy for a post-Brexit Burberry, and an interesting plot point on the fashion-as-art chart.

Maker’s House exhibition explicitly situates fashion, specifically its technical side, squarely within the fine arts spectrum, almost like a guild-ish, specialty trade very specific to Britain. This is a great way to sell products to a discerning audience that values craftsmanship, but of all the rich and romantic cultural and historical connotations of Britishness, craftsmanship is not an especially glamorous tack to take. In fact, it’s the kind of traditionalism embodied by the Leave vote.

Now, I wouldn’t be so indelicate as to implicate anyone in the fashion community as being anything but the most ardent Remainers, but strategically, Maker’s House, despite its celebrity visitors and fun PR opportunity, is a very conservative concept. With this exhibition, Burberry has aligned its luxury fashion production with humble tradesmen, celebrating tradition, individualism, and manus over machina as their definition of Britishness post-Brexit. I would have expected a more cosmopolitan response from Christopher Bailey, something like a YBA collaboration, a campaign starring Zadie Smith and Zayn instead of Edie Campbell, AGAIN, or a zeitgeist-y celebration of Cool Brittania, with the Moss, Gallagher, Beckham, and Law kids as a response to what Britishness means now, and not, as one reader has put it, a return to the Shire. I think Maker’s House should have been more of a celebration of fashion as a visual, experiential, and performative art, and slotted fashion alongside the more analogous (and glamorous) British traditions of music, painting, literature, and drama, rather than a manual craft. But then again, this might be a London or England-centric point of view. However, I think it’s essential for Burberry to keep its cool edge, and not fall into a Mulberry slump, or worse, become a leather-goods-only bore or a suburban joke. Coach, I’m looking at you. Don’t you. Even. Think. About. It.

The weak pound might actually give Burberry some room to play and embrace a more cosmopolitan narrative of Britishness in upcoming seasons. Although their shares are down and the luxury market is having a difficult year, Burberry has been doing relatively well in the home market, thanks to tourists flocking in to shop. Not well enough to counteract the overall luxury slump, since 85% of their sales are made outside of Britain, but much better than expected.

A double down on their uniquely British identity post-Brexit was exactly the right tactic for Burberry to take in this first season after the political shake-up, but they chose the wrong strand of British creative arts to celebrate and with which to associate the brand – the technical crafts rather than the visual arts. With all the romantic, rich cultural and historical cache from which to draw surrounding what it means to be British today, Burberry played it too safe in placing their craftsmanship heritage above a more interesting and consumer-friendly facets of the brand, like their long investigation of British rock & roll, celebrity ambassador opportunities, and, simply, really interesting, fashion-forward pieces that could make a killing if they hit Instagram Gucci-style.

I’m hoping Burberry changes direction for their always-great holiday campaign, where they can really have fun and hit heavy with star power. All I am saying is that it BETTER star Millie Bobby Brown, Tracy Emin, and Harry Styles or I’m going to have to up my dosage of antidepressants.

 

 

Celebrity Image Rehab with Alessandro Michele

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Tom Hiddleston is covering major ground on the road to an image makeover after a humiliating summer.

Well, well, well, look who it is showing his sheepish and handsome face in the fall Gucci ads.

None other than Mr. Thomas William Hiddleston, actor, Shakespearean, and international punchline on a level of schadenfreude never before witnessed by human eyes.

After a summer of being a gossip site punching bag, human Muppet, and court jester to Satan, and along with losing the Emmy for The Night Manager and any shred of hope of landing the role of 007, Tommy is in need of a serious image overhaul. And what better than posing for the hottest luxury label in the world to regain one’s shredded dignity?

Tommy is a good fit for Gucci because of the new aesthetic direction Alessandro Michele has taken with the brand in the last year and a half. Gucci now codes for quirky, oddball glamour, with its Wes Anderson color palettes, zany accessories, and an overall aesthetic of weirdo chic. Tom is both classically handsome and very normal whilst being a pale, weirdo icon because of his roles in Marvel films and cult-y flicks like Only Lovers Left Alive. It has been sneeringly (and accurately) speculated that Tom wanted to shed his comic-con fanbase and become more of a mainstream movie star, presumably using a high-profile “relationship” with a singer as a spingboard (said singer who is “as big of a danger to the world as ISIS,” as my mother has put it.) But fronting a quirky brand like Gucci, instead of something like an ultra-boring but alpha male suit brand, is a gesture of atonement to disgruntled Dragonflies – I’m still in here, says Tommy. Forgive my desperation and moment of true, fever-dream, out-of-my-mind, insanity. Remember how good I was in Deep Blue Sea?

Tom’s also good for Gucci because of the label’s quest to embody the spirit of bohemian, English eccentricity. Michele, having worked for Gucci in London when under Tom Ford, is my peer in Anglomania, and has implemented a number of initiatives to imbue the Italian label with a British sensibility over the past few seasons, including holding a show at Westminster Abbey, forging a long-term partnership with Chatsworth House, where the Cruise 2017 campaign was shot, and appointing scions of offbeat, British glamour to be brand ambassadors, including Alexa Chung, Florence Welch, and, in a stroke of genius so sublime it makes me want to cry, Vanessa Redgrave. Tom’s a good celebrity to add to this stable, because he’s so very English – he literally looks like he could be an English gentleman from any of the last ten centuries – and yet current, handsome, and a little bit quirky.

This partnership happens to occur precisely when said gentleman is in need of some good press. No other brand is on Gucci’s level in terms of Instagram-mania, excitement, critical acclaim, and just really really cool clothes – exactly the kind of associations Tom needs after his summer of PR thirst exploded in his face over and over again like trick birthday candle. I’m convinced that Gucci is the only label that could rehab Tommy’s image in the public eye just at this moment, and I grudgingly admit that I feel relieved that Michele extended his hand to Tom in a gesture that marks Tom as pathetic no more, but actually cooler, and certainly more fashion-forward, than he was before his bummer summer.

The ads are great, too – saturated confections of satin and velvet dandyism, complete with  Judith Light dogs and feelings of isolation and anxiety that’s all both beautiful and slightly repulsive to look at. I applaud the execution and I think Tom bring something patrician yet geeky to the mix that makes him pitch-perfect embodiment of the Gucci look today.

I think young Tom has a ways to go on his path to media redemption and restoration to the title of the Thinking Woman’s Internet Boyfriend, but I can’t think of a better way to start than by starring in an ad like this for a brand like Gucci. Alessandro Michele might also want to consider a second career in celebrity image rehab. Move over Dr. Drew.

 

 

The Dos and Don’ts of Branding with a Deceased Celebrity

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The recently-launched Natalie Wood fragrance

 

Celebrity fragrances are an incredibly weird concept in the first place. Of all the things for a famous person to sell to fans, why  a fragrance? Everyone can wear a t-shirt or use accessories like a phone case or a wristband, but scent preferences are extremely personal – not everyone is going to like the scent you’re shilling.

I suppose it’s a more upmarket, “sophisticated” product, and even intimate way for plebs, especially young ones, to connect to their favorite celebrity. I get it for pop stars like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Satan, and One Direction*, who have very specific personal brands and hoards of young followers who want a piece of their favorite singer (*might I request a 1D fragrance this upcoming holiday season?). But why do B-ish list actresses like Jennifer Aniston and Hallie Berry have fragrances? My research even confirms that Bruce Willis has a fragrance. These actors probably have a handful of super fans, but besides those weirdos, who buys these fragrances? It is so comically weird and superbly absurd it truly puts me at a loss for words.

So imagine my out of body disbelief when I discovered this week that Natalie Wood’s daughter is launching a fragrance inspired by the late actress.

Sure, I like Natalie Wood as a consumer of mid-century Hollywood glamour and as someone unhealthily interested in true crime. I don’t however, think of her as a beauty or cosmetics icon, but maybe could be persuaded to make that leap with a strategically-marketed product. But that’s not the case with her fragrance, and there’s a larger problem at hand: she’s, well, dead, and under suspicious circumstances. I don’t want something as intimate and personal as a perfume to be a blend of a watery grave with hints of Christopher Walken, and framed by some rich top notes of Du Maurier. And it’s not as if Wood lovingly created the fragrance herself whilst alive – it’s simply “inspired” by her favorite fragrance with her name and image licensed to it. It’s supposed to be glamorous and slightly maudlin and the next White Diamonds, but I just find it creepy and inauthentic. Let’s take it a step further: would you buy a Sharon Tate brand fragrance? I didn’t think so – the negative connotations are too strong.

Now, if Luca Dotti licensed his mother, Audrey Hepburn’s, image to a fragrance, it would be less odd because Hepburn was more of a mainstream celebrity upon whom so much aspirational projection is made, and whose death was only the most minor footnote to her legacy. It would still seem a little garish and profit-driven, but not cloaked in the macabre. Dotti, smartly, has released a cookbook of Hepburn’s favorite recipes and a photography book of rare photos of his mother during the years she lived in Rome, both of which, incidentally, are on my Amazon wish list. This is the way to honor a deceased celebrity parent – it is tasteful, personal, and restrained. Wagner girls, take note.

But there are other ways to successfully market a deceased celebrity – even one who met an untimely end – without any elements of eeriness.

MAC is launching a highly-anticipated limited edition Selena Quintanilla cosmetics line in October 2016, in collaboration with the late singer’s sister. Superstar Texan-born singer Quintanilla, as you will know, was murdered in 1995, but remains one of the foremost Latin music and beauty icons. People are going berserk over this cosmetics line and desperately trying to preorder any pieces they can, presaging what is sure to be a sell-out debut.

The Selena range, which is tightly comprised of three lipsticks, a handful of eye shadows, a liner, a mascara, and a blush-bronzer duo, isn’t weird at all. It’s an exciting, well-deserved mainstream celebration of her legacy. This is because of the authoritative partnership with MAC and the exclusive feel of the limited-edition run. Having an established beauty brand back a celebrity product gives the entire venture a feeling of expertise and legitimacy – it’s not just a famous name flapping in the breeze by itself. The presentation of the products also helps banish any feeling of creepiness. No soft-edged black and white photos here – the range is photographed and packaged in glorious technicolor with a slick logo and bright purple casings. It’s fun, youthful, and celebratory in a way that only makes a consumer think of the singer’s life and art, and not her tragic demise.

If the Natalie Wood perfume had been presented as a special collaboration with a cosmetics brand like Estée Lauder, it would loose all connotations of creepiness, and instead take on a must-have, glamorous quality (and likely be resold for three digit figures on Ebay.) The importance of a legitimating partnership with a global beauty brand is absolutely paramount to the success of such a product, and scarcity the best way to create a fan frenzy. Perhaps the Misses Aniston and Berry should note this in the event they try to launch follow-up fragrances. Mr. Willis, however, might want to just cease and desist.

Now that we know the rules, here are a few dream collaborations:
— Nars x Marlene Dietrich
— Nars x David Bowie
— Nars x Hitchcock Heroines
— Anistasia x Vivien Liegh
— Estée Lauder x Princess Diana
— Estée Lauder x Grace Kelly

Can Ubiquity Make a Brand Invisible?

michael-phelps-rio-olympics-gold-medal-1.jpgDo we even see the Nike logo anymore?

 

The USA Men’s Olympic Swim Team faced not one, but two scandales last week — the lesser-known and more interesting of which is that Michael Phelps, the superstar of Under Armor’s stable of representatives wore sweatpants featuring a very prominent swoosh on the cover of this month’s Sports Illustrated.

But did he even realize he was wearing it?

All members of Team USA are required to wear Nike gear when competing in the Olympics per the USOC, even if it conflicts with an athlete’s personal sponsorship. This is a tricky branding situation for which I can’t think of another analogy — if a celebrity represents a designer label, she usually wears that label to events, but not necessarily in everyday life or in magazine editorials. This spawns its own interesting question: is an athlete obligated to wear his sponsor’s gear in an editorial, if other celebrities are not held to the same standard?

My answer to that question would be no, but in any case, Phelps is decidedly not in Olympic uniform in this photo. His clothes could be his own or chosen for him (unlikely; no self-respecting stylist would put him in that Zuck-ish polo), but regardless, did none of the individuals involved in this photoshoot —the athletes, stylists, photographer, editors, et all — even notice that he was donning a Nike swoosh? I think it was completely invisible to them, even to Phelps himself. This should be a smug moment of triumph for Nike, besting Under Armor, but instead it’s an indication of an issue in Nike’s brand recognition.

Nike is such a behemoth that it’s a synecdoche for all atheleticwear, in the vein of Spandex, Xerox, Kleenex, and, in Texas, Coke, standing in for all of their respective related or competitor’s products. It’s so big, in fact, that our brains barely process the logo anymore, like speed-reading through something you already know. I wouldn’t have even noticed that Phelps was wearing Nike pants in the photo had the fashion industry not started buzzing about it. But is that a good thing or a bad thing for Nike?

I think it’s both. It’s great to be the synecdoche because it’s a guarantee of popularity and quality. But a brand can become too big and lose its meaning  unless it’s kept ultra-current, which Nike is good at doing by offering enormous variety and customization options. But still, the logo can go mentally unprocessed. Who are Nike’s spokespeople? I can’t name a single one besides Michael Jordan in ye olden days. Perhaps more visible advertisement, beyond a small smooth Swoosh on an athlete’s lapel, would lend the brand more concrete meaning to an audience that doesn’t obsessively consume sports. Perhaps they should also consider non-athlete or famous spokespeople to front or even design for the brand, like what Puma has done with Rihanna, or non-traditional athletes, like Misty Copeland for Under Armor. I would love for a celebrity trainer like Mary Helen Bowers to be a spokesperson for Nike, or for Nike to do a black-and-white photoshoot starring an icon like Mikhail Baryshnikov (who, does, I can ah, say from personal experience, wear sneakers in his downtime.)

My next instinct would be to advise Nike to carve out niches within its bigness, like going after the fashion set. Adidas already has the upper hand here, however, with its ultra-popular Stan Smith and its collaborations with Kanye West, Raf Simons, and Stella McCartney. Reebok, too, is collaborating with interesting non-apparel labels like FACE Stockholm to appeal to a young, trendy set.  Nike could continue to expand its fashion collaboration attempts, like the one launched with Ricardo Tischi earlier this year. Carine Roitfeld for Nike has a nice ring to it.

In the short term, to boost its falling stock, Nike could push the Huarache shoe into becoming the next Instagram star, like the white-and-burgundy Nike Free was few years ago. This style is on the precipice of really “happening,” and just needs some more Instagram and editorial coverage.

Nike can combat its logo invisibility with a revamped advertising platform, since it’s not the logo itself, but its ubiquity coupled with a lack of meaningful advertising that causes the brain skip. But really, we don’t have to worry about Nike going anywhere despite interesting and innovative endeavors by its competitors. It already has the cultural resonance (and money) for permanent staying power, as long as it doesn’t get too comfortable on its laurels.

 

What Happens When Your Personality is Your Brand?

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A few weeks ago, I went to see Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History at the Jewish Museum. I thought about what I might see at the exhibition beforehand as I sipped lemonade in a novelty chair at the across-the-street Cooper Hewitt Museum courtyard, but couldn’t really bring anything to mind besides bright colors and maybe some Unzipped footage.

When I finally relinquished my chair and took the walk from 91st to 92nd street, I found the Mizrahi exhibition itself to be refreshingly compact, with only three rooms with clothes and another small room dedicated to sketches. I was right about the bright colors, and this glorious full skirt and white tee combination was among my favorite pieces. I didn’t see a particularly obvious thread running through the first two rooms, besides, very broadly “color” and “texture,” respectively; the third room was dedicated disappointingly nondescript accessories in addition to pieces worn either on stage or screen, which were appropriately zany and over-the-top.

But then I walked to the end of the third gallery where there were screens playing clips of Mizrahi talking – panicking over his collection in Unzipped, spitting out fast, droll, blunt talk on QVC, and answering an impossible stream of questions correctly on Celebrity Jeopardy. His hyper-verbal charisma is so engaging, his unabashed confidence so delightful. Every seat on the benches facing the screen was full – I had to lean against a wall with other viewers who weren’t able to claim a spot. This was the heart of the exhibition; this is why we, a diverse group of museumgoers, were here: for Mizrahi, and not for his clothes.

I don’t think this detracted from the effectiveness of the exhibition; I found it thoroughly enjoyable and engaging. Although it was less thematically cohesive than other clothing exhibitions I’ve seen, it was also tightly edited, and I never felt overwhelmed like I sometimes do, say, at the Met. But nor did I feel unspeakably moved by any of the pieces like I do again, say, at the Met. It would definitely be lacking if not for the video footage, which I think says a few interesting things about Mizrahi as an artist, namely, what happens when your brand is your personality?

I was deeply troubled for what it meant for Mizrahi, who doesn’t have a signature running throughout his body of work. I literally wouldn’t have been able to pick out any of the pieces on display as one of his in the wild.  Mizrahi has made his complete lack of visual branding work for him by selling his clothes on QVC, where his face and personality is front and center. He is his own best salesman, more than any other designer in fashion history. But what will happen in the long run, when he’s not there charming an audience with his frenetic wit?

Other artists known for their personalities like Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol have achieved brand longevity – but then again, they have extremely cohesive bodies of work. I thought about how Mizrahi could cement his artistic legacy through creative production. A signature accessory? A return to the runway? Something to do with his dog clothing line?? But then it dawned on me: he’s already done it. It’s Unzipped, the 1995 making-the-collection documentary that’s spawned a hundred other quietly contained, fascinating, and compulsively watchable fashion documentaries. His fashion line won’t outlive him, and that’s ok; he was at the forefront of a new art and entertainment genre, and helped the shape the modern perception of designer-as-celebrity and made fashion less of a niche cultural interest and more of a mainstream art form.

Isaac Mizrahi isn’t a strictly fashion person, he’s an arts and culture polymath (Alex Trebek can attest); a big personality also who happened to also make it as a designer. It’s perhaps even more fitting that he will be remembered for something beyond his design career, and for making a contribution to the culture at large.

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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.

 

Maria Grazia Chiuri to Dior: A Bittersweet Split

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Hmmm, is the framing of this photo of Valentino Co-Creative Directors telling? Maria Grazia Chiurri is positioned in front of Pierpaolo Piccioli and staring up, while he looks squarely at the camera. If today’s news is any indicator, then yes, this 2015 photo might tease that Chiuri was considering moving on a over year ago. And that my art history classes paid off and that I paid attention to the body language episode of Tyra circa 2008.

In a completely stunning move, Dior appointed Maria Grazia Chiuri as its new creative director following the departure of Raf Simons earlier this year. Usually  whispers trickle around before an appointment, but that wasn’t the case with Chiuri—I stared at my email inbox completely agog with surprise when the news broke this morning.

Surprised I may be, but I am also delighted. Maria Grazia Chiuri is an incredible designer, and has co-created some of the most beautiful, intricate, and feminine pieces of ready-to-wear and couture humanly conceivable during her nine-year tenure at Valentino—pieces so simple in line yet opulent in fabric so as to make one gasp.

Chiuri will be brilliant at Dior; she understands the pressures and rigor of working at a mega-house, and is a near-perfect match in terms of aesthetics with her appreciation for simplicity and graceful femininity. Beyond the tulle and Roman richness, she also knows how to make money. Chiuri and Piccioli pioneered the incredibly commercially successful Valentino Rockstud accessory line, which, six years later, the public is still hungry for. She knows how to walk the fine line between accessibility and exclusivity, and realizes the importance of refreshing and building on cult items each season to maximize their relevance. Chiuri will also be Dior’s first female creative director in its 70 year history—ironic for a label whose image is so tied up in femininity.

As exciting as this news is, it’s not without a scoop of bitterness. I’m so sad to see this harmonious era of exquisite design and seamless execution of Valentino’s sensibilities come to an end. It never occurred to me that Chiuri was even being considered for this role because I figured that she and Piccioli were a package deal and firmly ensconced at Valentino for many years to come.Why did Dior pick only Chiuri and not the pair? Will Chiuri and Piccioli be any good without the other? Perhaps Dior execs had special insight into their creative process to be able to make that call. We will have to wait and see on these. But as to the question of whether or not Valentino is upset that his natural heir has chosen to go elsewhere, well, I think we have our answer from Giancarlo Giametti’s Instagram today. No one does Italian drama quite like Valentino!