Fashion at the Intersection of Art and Commerce

November 25th, 2005

One of the things
that makes fashion particularly interesting is its position at the
intersection of art and commerce. With one foot in the art world and
the other solidly in the business world, there exists an inherent
tension.

Unsurprisingly,
the fear among the fashion community is that fashion is moving too far
towards the side of commerce. Indeed, the last decade has seen the
close of a number of haute couture houses, perhaps most notably that of
Yves St. Laurent in 2002. But it’s not just couture houses that are in
danger. Teri Agins of the Wall Street Journal wrote in September:

"Mr.
Lam has built a $4.8 million-a-year business but it has yet to reach
the critical mass necessary to operate profitably and efficiently.
Derek Lam Co. will lose money this year, as it has every year since it
was formed in 2002, although Mr. Schlottmann declines to say how much.

Mr.
Lam is part of a new generation of rising fashion stars struggling to
follow the path to financial success blazed by American fashion icons
such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, and Bill Blass.
Handicapped by broad changes in retailing and manufacturing, these
young designers are finding it difficult to capitalize on industry
acclaim and turn a healthy profit."

Agins
is right on the mark when she identifies the financial difficulties
faced by designer ready to wear designers like Derek Lam. Lam’s
contemporaries–Zac Posen, Peter Som, and Behnaz Sarafpour, to name a
few–are also feeling the tension between fashion as art and the need
to make a buck.

Today’s fashion marketplace is especially unfriendly to such designer ready to wear manufacturers. But why is this?

At
the top of the fashion totem pole sits haute couture, where fashion as
art reigns. With a steadily declining number of customers as patrons,
couture is often "subsidized" by other divisions of a luxury
house–fragrances, handbags, perhaps even ready to wear apparel. While
couture isn’t a great revenue generator, it can generate favorable PR,
which intangibly helps other parts of a design house.

On
the other edge of the market sits mass market fashion. Think of
H&M, the Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch. Mall stores and the like that
make their money on volume. However stylish their goods may be, they’re
primarily driven by commerce. At their core, they’re not about a
designer’s artistic vision–they’re about what will increase sales.

Between
these two extremes lies designer ready to wear, the province of the
up-and-coming fashion elite like Lam and Posen. Such designers are
faced to walk the tightrope between art and commerce, and the end
result all too often is failure. In the same WSJ article, Silas Chou,
the former financial backer of Tommy Hilfiger who now backs Michael
Kors, was quoted, "Out of all the 15 or so young designers, there will
probably be just one that will make it and become a big name."

We
don’t pretend to have the answers here, and there are no established
paths for upstart designers to follow, short of giving up (some)
control of the company in exchange for outside money, which is in and
of itself difficult to obtain.

Nevertheless,
we do have hope for the future of fashion art, in spite of luxury
conglomeration, regardless of the travails faced by developing
designers, and in the face of the almighty dollar (or euro, RMB, or
yen). Though intangible artistic merit is difficult to justify on a
balance sheet, its value exists nonetheless…even if it’s only in the
hearts and minds of style philes like us.

Entry Filed under: News, Off Topic

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