Is High Fashion Really Dying?

The more anxious the expression of identity of the middle class, the faster the pace of fashion. Behind the increasingly frequent power reform, the structural subversion of the fashion system is beginning to take shape.

Drastic changes have taken place in the fashion world after LVMH, the world's largest luxury goods group, announced Virgil Abloh, the founder of the Off-White brand, as the creative director of men's clothing at Louis Vuitton. This was not an isolated decision by chance; in light of the recent adjustments of LVMH's power structure, the seemingly unexpected decision was actually exposing the group's anxiety.

At first, Kim Jones, original creative director of Louis Vuitton's men's clothing, suddenly announced his departure in January. Little did we anticipate that LVMH would proceed next with Dior, the second core brand in which men and women's wear creative directors were still present. On March 19th, Kris Van Assche, who had been in office for 11 years, suddenly announced his departure. The position was taken over by Kim Jones and his first Dior Homme series will be launched in June. The third step was to bring Abloh under the House’s command. This controversial move was considered to be more than just Louis Vuitton's friendly gesture, but rather its submission to popular culture, in which it completely subverts the creative production of luxury brands.

Abloh is familiar with collecting inspirations, making sketches, selecting fabrics and colours, pattern-making, and even the complete production process of the traditional fashion lines of ready-to-wear clothing. However, he almost certainly does not recognize this routine to be as efficient as popular fashion in terms of reproducibility and productivity. Replications, repetitions, and arbitrary combinations are known to be Abloh’s creative style. Off-White has adopted the simple creation of streetwear and was packaged into a luxury high-end brand, becoming one of the most unconventional lines in the high fashion world.

 Virgil Abloh at the Off-White show at Paris Fashion Week in March 2018 SOURCE: The New York Times, 26 March 2018

Virgil Abloh at the Off-White show at Paris Fashion Week in March 2018
SOURCE: The New York Times, 26 March 2018

The fashion industry has long been skeptical about Abloh’s innovative ability, but many have overlooked the fact that his status results from adapting to the pace of the current market, which is exactly what luxury brands are now failing to do. Irregular yet frequent releases of streetwear lines can continue to excite consumers, and the simple and swift creative production process perfectly satisfies the greed of the market.

On the other hand, in the traditional high fashion industry, which is constantly being squeezed by the fast-paced fashion trend, creative directors often create between six and eight fashion collections for the brand every year. The faster the tempo of fashion, the shorter the production process. With the fast-paced environment influencing production methods, the role of creative directors today has also undergone tremendous changes. From collecting inspirational data to actually producing the series, more and more functions are now  given to assistant designers and their teams, while creative designers are responsible for controlling the direction.

In a sense, the creative production represented by Abloh is an extreme form of the existing creative model, which seems to explain the inevitability of Abloh’s acceptance into the industry. The paradigm he endorses is less about design and more about the creative production process of the fashion industry. Such is the premise of the evolution of the current fashion industry. Fundamentally, the fast-paced attitude in fashion comes from the anxiety of middle-class consumers.

Irregular yet frequent releases of streetwear lines can continue to excite consumers, and the simple and swift creative production process perfectly satisfies the greed of the market.

German sociologist Georg Simmel argued in his famous article on Fashion, published in 1904, that fashion’s flux is driven by two forces: imitation and distinction. The middle class represents its social status by following the latest trends, and these trends are gradually being imitated by the lower class. When the middle class finds it hard to distinguish itself from the lower class, it begins to pursue the next popular trend. Therefore, the more anxious the expression of the status of the middle class, the faster the rhythm of fashion becomes. This view still stands today. Therefore, it is not surprising that millennials born in middle-class families have become the driving force behind the subversion of current fashion structure.

Things have also changed for Dior, the 70-year-old fashion house owned by LVMH Group that is known for its high-fashion, couture-style brand image, and for targeting the older upper-class. But ever since Maria Grazia Chiuri joined the brand, Dior's ready-to-wear collection has become the focus of controversy. The denim and cowboy elements added to the first few series most directly expressed its newborn claim of democratization. Such untamed street culture invasion and fashion democratization is not a sign of uprise, but an active acquisition to this culture by the middle class. What the likes of Virgil Abloh and Kanye West represent is not the hip-hop culture and pop culture born from the lower classes, but the acquisition, reproduction, amplification and consumption of such cultural symbols by the middle class.

Hubert de Givenchy, the late founder of Givenchy, once said in an interview that fashion is dead, and now fashion houses rely on selling accessories. Even fashion boutiques on the Champs-Elysées are merely selling conventional handbags and shoes in the name of fashion. And even as early as 2002, Yves Saint Laurent had made the claim that "high fashion is dead."

However, in the contemporary context, fashion and high fashion have long been representing different meanings. At some point in the future, people will forget about haute couture, and high fashion might evolve into the new haute couture. However, the latter, as a way of preserving upper-class privilege, will not die. The fast-paced fashion has become a lifestyle that is so much tied to popular culture, music, art, and social media. High fashion will not die, but it will change.