Katharine K. Zarrella interviews legendary fashion journalist Richard Buckley about appropriation and copying in fashion from the past to the present.
Few people understand fashion as thoroughly as Richard Buckley—largely because, over the course of his nearly 40-year career, the legendary journalist and former editor-in-chief of Vogue Hommes International has seen it all. Having worked under Women’s Wear Daily’s John Fairchild starting in the late ’70s, Buckley has watched fashion both evolve and repeat itself, making him uniquely qualified to discuss the industry’s perceived “newness” crisis, which is explored via an in-depth essay in Document 13, out this October.
As evidenced by the rise of Internet critics like the Instagram account Diet Prada (run by Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler), the fashion industry and its observers have recently become hyper focused on tracking reference, copying, and a supposed lack of originality in contemporary design. However, as editors and commentators vociferously demand newness from today’s designers, one must consider what “newness,” as it pertains to fashion, really means.
Since the dawn of modern fashion in the late 19th century, the industry has been built on copying and reference, whether that meant New York’s department stores reproducing designs shown in Paris; Christian Dior pulling inspiration from the Belle Époque for his 1947 New Look collection; or Martin Margiela sending modified thrift store finds down the runway, as he did in his Spring 1991 collection. Sometimes, brands do steal, perhaps fueled by commercial pressures, the ease of Google Image research, and the rapid production cycle. But often, new designers find their voice by building upon what came before—evolving a concept or aesthetic for the next generation.
Here, Buckley takes a hard look at fashion’s current creative state and discusses the triumphs, failures, and hypocrisy in the quest for newness.
Katharine K. Zarrella—Has ‘new,’ in the literal sense of the word, ever really existed in fashion?
Richard Buckley—I think ‘new’ in fashion is something that happens in the flash of an eye. It is something that intuitively and instantly feels and looks fresh. It is all about timing—too early, and people aren’t ready for it and/or don’t see it; too late, and it seems old-fashioned or as if it has been copied. Timing is of the essence. Paul Poiret, for example, took the corset out of women’s clothing, Coco Chanel radically changed the silhouette and formality of dressing, Christian Dior with the New Look, André Courrèges’s and Pierre Cardin’s futuristic silhouettes in the ’60s, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, and countless others have changed the conversation, and moved things along. And someone new will always have a fresh perspective on what defines the look of any given moment.
“It is hard to do ‘new’ when it doesn’t sell.”
Katharine—What do you feel ‘new’ means, as it pertains to fashion, in 2018?
Richard—It is hard for me to answer that question because my time in fashion has come and gone. The standards that existed when I began my career as a fashion journalist in 1979 no longer exist. When I was young I was obsessed by fashion, and as a journalist I was always looking for what was new. I was the first person in America to write about John Galliano when he showed his first collection in a fire exit at Olympia in 1985. The first to write about Leigh Bowery, BodyMap, the New Romantics, and countless others. If I was just starting out today, I am sure my head would be in the same place as that of most young people today.
Katharine—As much as fashion folk talk about the next ‘new’ thing, we’re often drawn to what is comfortable and familiar—perhaps because it sells. Do you think the fashion industry really wants ‘new’?
Richard—I think real creators, like artists, strive to make something new, but it is hard to do ‘new’ when it doesn’t sell. I remember when I first started my career in the late ’70s, I would see photos from the runways of the Paris collections and most of those ‘directional’ clothes never made it into stores, only the ‘safe,’ saleable pieces did. In the early ’90s I went to review a collection from a show I’d seen on the Milan runway the day before. I happened to end up, by accident, in another room where the press was not allowed to go but where they were showing an entirely different selling collection to buyers. Where is the innovation in that?
Of course, in all the larger companies, designers have to contend with the suits and merchandisers, who think they are designers and know better. They tend to confuse the creative process by telling designers what they need to be doing. Just because circle skirts sold like crazy one season, the designer does not need to do them again as both he/she and the customer have moved on.
Posting a ‘like’ next to an outfit is not the same as understanding how the industry works. Fashion folk should know that whilst there are elements of art in fashion, it is, above all, a commercial industry. Everyone wants the next new thing up to a point.
Katharine— Recently, the online fashion community—from journalists to Instagrammers like Diet Prada—has become infatuated with tracking designer influences and references. Do you feel this is a necessary step toward stopping what some are calling ‘copycat culture’? Is it a hostile hindrance to the creative process? Or is it just white noise born out of boredom?
Richard— Let’s start with pot-kettle-black. I get daily press clippings from one designer. The number of times journalists, bloggers, and Instagrammers just read a story and then copy it as their own, whether it is factually correct or not, is astounding. Back in my day you wrote your own stories and there were fact checkers. It is clear that no one bothers with fact checkers any longer. There also seems to be a lack of basic knowledge about how garments are made. I get the impression that most journalists, Instagrammers, and influencers don’t know organza from Eugene Ormandy or a godet from Jean Paul Gaultier. Much easier to slap on a heart or smiley face emoji to a post than to do the homework.
“I get the impression that most journalists, Instagrammers, and influencers don’t know organza from Eugene Ormandy or a godet from Jean Paul Gaultier.”
I can’t help but think there is a lack of responsibility within the fashion community. One of my favorite fashion stories took place in Paris in the early ’90s. I was leaving the Helmut Lang show with one of my colleagues. Outside we ran into a stylist who had styled the show of a designer the night before. The collection was dreadful. The stylist came up to us and asked if we’d seen the show. My colleague responded, ‘Oh yes, it was quite good.’ (She lied.) The stylist said, ‘I styled that show. I did it.’ Another one of my colleagues came out to join us and the stylist asked her the same question, to which my co-worker replied, ‘Oh yes. What a mess. He is a one trick pony.’ The stylist looked at her and said, ‘He asked me to help him style the show but then wouldn’t listen to me. There was nothing I could do.’ One minute that stylist was claiming ownership and the next she was blaming the designer. One way or the other, it is always the fault of the designer. I still can’t get my head around the idea of why Alber Elbaz was let go from Lanvin. As much as fashion people demand newness and change, if anyone attempts to rock the boat of the status quo, there is an outcry.
Katharine—In your experience, have industry insiders always discussed who was copying whom? Or is this a new phenomenon?
Richard—Discussing copying is not a new phenomenon. When I started out in fashion it was a much different environment. I remember one designer telling me once in an interview that she tried not to ever see work by other designers because, ‘I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I copied it.’ Back in the ’70s and ’80s, fashion companies in New York would wait for Women’s Wear Daily to see what was on the cover from the Milan and Paris collections, rip that page out, and run down to the sample room. One designer told their assistant, ‘We are not copying, we are improving upon it.’ In those days the New York collections came after the European shows, so it was easier to improve on ideas put forth on foreign shores. Even so, the New York shows seemed to be more commercial versions of their European counterparts. Helmut Lang changed all that in 1998 when he started showing his collection in New York before Milan and Paris, and everyone followed.
Ultimately, everyone gets their inspiration from somewhere. We no longer live in the world where couturiers have the luxury of draping fabric on forms for six months between collections. Most designers today do as many as eight collections a year. They haven’t finished one and they are already working on another. If you have to create mood boards full of references, then so be it. Yves Saint Laurent is credited for introducing Le Smoking, a men’s tuxedo for women, in 1966. I have always thought Saint Laurent’s inspiration for Le Smoking came from Marlene Dietrich, who wore one in the 1930 film Morocco.
John Fairchild, who ruled Women’s Wear Daily and W with a velvet iron fist, should be credited for creating the cult of the designer in those publications during the ’70s and ’80s. When I worked in Fairchild’s Paris office, I would hear him on the phone with a select few New York designers discreetly telling the direction they should be taking based on the Paris shows. He once said to me, ‘Richard, you are nobody in this business unless you are copied.’ There is no better example than the 1956 episode of I Love Lucy called, “Lucy Gets a Paris Gown.” Lucy goes on a hunger strike to get her husband, Ricky, to buy her a dress from couturier Jacques Marcel. As a joke, Ricky and his neighbor, Fred, have fake dresses made out of burlap with hats made from a horse feeder and champagne bucket. Ricky and Fred give their wives the dresses as Jacques Marcel originals. The girls wear the outfits out to their local café. Jacques Marcel, who also frequents the same café, sees the dresses and leaves. The woman are told of the prank and are absolutely mortified. The next day as they sit in the café, Marcel and his models pass wearing copies of Ricky’s and Fred’s creations.
“[John Fairchild] once said to me, ‘Richard, you are nobody in this business unless you are copied.’’
Katharine—Do you think it’s possible for a designer to escape the influence of those who came before him? Is it necessary to do so?
Richard—There is that scene in Unzipped, the 1995 film about Isaac Mizrahi, where Mizrahi had spent months and months and months working on a Nanook of the North collection only to find out that Jean Paul Gaultier showed Eskimos in Paris a week before the New York collections. Mr. Mizrahi was faced with the dilemma of whether he should go ahead and show his Eskimo-inspired collection and get grouped into Eskimo trend pieces or pilloried by the press for copying Gaultier. There are only so many ideas out there and they keep circulating. The longer a designer stays in the business, the quicker the trend rotation comes around. And in most cases, designers react to what they see in the world, on the streets, and in the marketplace and they must respond with something different to what they have seen or create their own version of it.
Katharine—In a recent interview with The New York Times, Nicolas Ghesquière noted that there is a certain ‘sameness’ permeating fashion and dressing today. Do you agree? And if so, what do you think is causing it?
Richard—I think Mr. Ghesquière is correct. In Trust, a television series about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, his father, John Paul Getty Jr., says, ‘When you have everything you could ever dream of, what do you value? Nothing.’ That is sort of how I see fashion and dressing. Not so much a sameness as a glut. We have too much of everything. Too many films, too many ‘original series’ television shows, and too many books. Too much art. Everyone is a photographer now. And in fashion there is way too much of everything. From cheap fast fashion to very expensive ready-to-wear. Marylebone High Street in London used to have a village feel with mom-and-pop stores. Now the whole street is full of clothing boutiques. Talk about sameness. All those clothes and nary a point of view.
“We have too much of everything. Too many films, too many ‘original series’ television shows, and too many books. Too much art. Everyone is a photographer now. And in fashion there is way too much of everything.”
Katharine—What does it mean to create meaningful work in the fashion realm in 2018? What does it mean to be an authentic designer? And does authenticity ultimately lead to success?
Richard—It probably means you have someone in your clothes on Instagram who has over a million followers and most of those followers posting a response that they ‘like’ what they see. And, UGH, how I hate the word ‘authentic.’ Authenticity means about as much to me as the word ‘awesome,’ which really means nothing at all. What passes for authenticity is just another name for marketing and merchandising. Remember when drinking out of a canning jar was considered authentic? Now Ball, the company that makes them in the US and has made them since 1858, actually sells them as something to drink from rather than fill with homemade pickles and jam. If every man is authentic in his millennial beard how is he anything but trendy? Authenticity is great when it is real, but most of it is sameness masquerading as new. I read a quote in an interview years ago and although I didn’t write it down, or know who said it, the idea was: ‘Fashion is a costume, style is an identity.’ Where are women and men with style? If anyone has it today it would be black people.
I went shopping in Selfridges one day before my husband, [Tom Ford], launched his own men’s line. I found a shirt I liked on the rack in the Maison Martin Margiela area. The fabric looked like it has been washed for years and years and the shirt had a ’60s look in its design. It looked like it had been bought in a vintage store. I thought, I like this. I looked to see the price and it was £215 ($281). An authentic flea market find for £215 ($281). Puh-leeze. I put it back on the rack, but I am sure other men bought them.
As for influencers, they replaced bloggers, who replaced stylists as the darlings of people labelling themselves fashionistas. It is hard for me to take them seriously as they are meant to be people with style. An influencer who is on the payroll of a brand to promote brand awareness is not really an influencer at all, but an employee. A form of advertising for the digital age.
“An influencer who is on the payroll of a brand to promote brand awareness is not really an influencer at all, but an employee. A form of advertising for the digital age.”
Katharine—What is necessary to push fashion creativity forward?
Richard—As a species, humans will always need to change—to embrace what is new. How that is done and what it will look like will depend on the younger generations who have come after me and my ilk. I hope I am still around to see how my five-year-old son dresses himself in 20 years.
Katharine—Is there anything you’d like to add?
Richard—Yes, sorry to be such a curmudgeon. I am not always so grumpy. I will let a designer have the last word. What he says is what a lot of people who have been in the business for a number years have been saying for a while now. ‘I don’t understand fashion today, at all, as a fashion designer,’ Narciso Rodriguez reportedly said after his last show. ‘I’m also sort of burned out by it and really not interested in a lot of it.’