BY NICK HILTON
Layoffs, store closings, disastrous quarterly earnings. That’s fashion news today –on the financial side at least. But by any measure it is clear that we have come to the end of the true “designer era” in menswear.
Not that designer labels aren’t important. Far from it. Try selling something based solely on its intrinsic merit. People still want to know “Who made it?” instead of “What’s so good about it” The upside of our fascination with designers was the psychological value of “brand,” creating a cachet via marketing, and resulting in a motion picture fantasy world in which the clothes were the stars. So a shirt with a recognizable logo was worth more than the identical shirt with no brand. I’m wearing this-or-that lifestyle; and it identifies me as a this-or-that kind of a guy. That’s what people have bought for years, and that commercial trend is here to stay.
So what has changed? Try to find an actual designer creating an actual product and selling it to a great store where you can actually buy a real designer creation? Not happening. And it wasn’t a cataclysmic event like a meteorite hitting earth that smothered and snuffed out menswear’s T. Rexes. It was the disease of greed. Unable to control the retailers to whom they started out slavishly devoted, and wanting ever-greater sales growth, the designer houses opened their own retail stores. Removing the respected retailer from the equation, they lost the credibility that having been chosen by a fine retailer gave them in the first place.
Moreover, when you own the store and the season is over and the goods remain. What happens next? Outlets! Now, the answer to the question of “Where did you get that tie?” might be either Madison Avenue or Woodbury Commons, And did you pay $150 or $15? All of this off-selling undermines the prestige of the brand.
The casualization of the world didn’t help the situation. A designer brand’s prestige is enhanced by the elegance and refinement it represents. The designer’s particular genius was to have the brand’s elegant status rub off on all of the products in the collection, from tuxedos to shoes. But putting a European name on a T-shirt or having some American designer name on your underwear is not really going to influence your suit-buying decision. The label just doesn’t mean as much when it’s attached to bunch of undifferentiated, pedestrian, everyday togs.
Indeed, maybe licensing killed the designers. Both consumer and retailers have lost respect for many designer brands, since the name on the back of the tie represents nothing but a tie-maker’s deal to get some brand recognition. Further, most licensees have a big minimum royalty payment to make each year and they can only do that by adding plastic gym bags to the list of “fine luggage” that the actual license was meant for. It starts to mean nothing.
Finally, there’s the lack of a personal touch in menswear; these days, the aesthetic sense the designer actually brings to the product and the identification with a personal point of view has been lost. If everything at every price has a designer name attached, eventually it becomes a big “So what?”
So is the age of the menswear designer a historical quirk, that has come and gone, or are we awaiting the arising of a bunch of new talent? Perhaps there are true emerging artists out there, coming from the likes of Otis or Pratt, or Syracuse, or already slaving away in East Village ateliers? Or maybe the next big thing is slouching toward Paris, or Milano, or Shanghai just waiting to be born? In either case, I’m sure it won’t be just the same old thing in a new package.