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.