Sunday, July 26, 2009

Design journalism

About a week ago I was commissioned to write a 1000-word feature on 'capsule collections' that are joint ventures between fashion labels and retailers. The story was for Design Reporter, an initiative of the 2009 State Of Design festival that was independently produced by Chase & Galley and edited by Penny Modra and Ray Edgar. (The astute observer will realise that I worked with Stuart and Penny on Is Not Magazine.)

It's really a magazine, with news, features, interviews and reviews about different aspects of design and debates within the field, but it uses the newspaper format to provoke questions about what we currently settle for in design writing and journalism in general. I haven't actually got my hands on a copy yet, so I can't tell if it's achieved its ambitions, but I'm amused by the way the front page makes design topics – which are so often arcane and elitist – seem like urgent news for everyone.

As you can see, my story ended up with the tiniest headline on the front page (it appears just above the giant EAMO'S), which may be a good thing as I worked really hard on it but wasn't especially happy with the results. Within the word limit, I pretty much just had space to give a broad overview of some of the best-known designer/retailer collaborations, gesture towards the way they were viewed by designers, retailers and consumers, and suggest some criteria for a 'successful' collaboration.

I feel frustrated that I didn't really get to the bottom of why these collaborations are everywhere right now, and what's at stake for everyone involved. I can't help thinking that if I'd had more time to think about and shape the piece, more incisive ideas would have emerged. Lately I have been thinking that the way I write often feels like the process of hewing a statue from a hunk of marble – revealing and polishing ideas using words as my tools. The more I chip away with my writing, the more I feel the essence of what I'm trying to say emerges in a recognisable, elegant form.

However, this isn't really compatible with the 'reportage' approach that was important for the Design Reporter project. I felt as if my final story had been a compromise between an interview-driven story and an analysis-driven story, without the strengths of either genre. Also, having to depend on interview material to shape the story was logistically difficult. As well as Fat, I had approached TV, Alpha 60, Alice Euphemia and Chip Chop! for interviews, but only Bianca Wiegard from Fat and Karen Reischieck from Alice Euphemia were able to respond by my deadline. I felt bad about not including Karen in the story but then I didn't want to turn it into a story about how independent boutique owners view mainstream design collaborations.

Anyway, these are just a few thoughts on the constraints and compromises involved in the production of this particular story.

The Beautiful And The Damned

Zac Posen For Target: A replica of the Posen evening dress Katherine Heigl wore to the 2007 Emmy Awards. Only 50 of these dresses were made for Target, retailing at $299.99.

When fashion designers – or fashionable celebrities – “collaborate” with retail chains, it raises intriguing questions about the value we place on “designer clothes”. Just as the movie industry has invested heavily in logics of auteurism, so fashion’s fulcrum is the notion of a single creative vision, distilled in the ‘label’ and personified by the ‘designer’.

These collaborations owe their frisson to the presence of a famous name in a mundane retail environment where it usually doesn’t belong. Linking themselves with labels and designers adds a certain gloss to downmarket retailers.

In return, designers get to grow their brand without having to use their own logistical and marketing resources. The bargain is especially tempting for emerging designers.

Some collaborations operate more like designer diffusion lines exclusive to one retailer. There’s Ksubi’s Alba Fan Club, sold only at Jeans West, and in August, Sportsgirl will spin off The Beautiful And Damned from jeans label 18th Amendment.

Sportsgirl were interested in us creating a one-off style for them and we thought we would go one step better by designing an entirely new brand,” designer Rachel Rose recently told Vogue Australia.

However, collaborations also tend to suffer from a perception of inferior workmanship and dull styling. They can cheapen a designer’s brand and erode its value to smaller boutiques that pride themselves on unearthing new talent and stocking ‘directional’ merchandise.

With new collaborations constantly entering the marketplace, it’s hard to remember the genuine excitement in 2004 when Swedish chain H&M announced it was working with Karl Lagerfeld. Could a couture designer adapt his creative vision to the tyrannies of the fast-fashion marketplace?

Turns out he could – Lagerfeld’s range sold out within hours, and H&M went on to collaborate with Stella McCartney, Viktor & Rolf, Jimmy Choo, Roberto Cavalli and Comme Des Garçons. Celebrities designing H&M ranges have included Madonna and Kylie Minogue, but the best-known celebrity collaboration is Kate Moss for Topshop, in May 2007.

In January 2006, Target in the United States launched its Go International house brand, which has featured Proenza Schouler, Alexander McQueen and Thakoon Panichgul. US Target has no corporate relationship with the Australian chain of the same name, whose first designer collaboration came in October 2006 with a range by Alice McCall.

Recently, proudly fat singer Beth Ditto’s collection for British plus-size chain Evans has generated some old-school, Lagerfeld-style buzz. The contrast with Lagerfeld is delicious, considering that the once-obese German had railed against H&M’s decision to sell his designs across their full size range. “What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people,” he harrumphed to German magazine Stern.

Lagerfeld swore he’d never do a collab again, also complaining H&M had deliberately made too few garments. “I find it embarrassing that H&M let down so many people,” he said. “I don't think that is very kind, especially for people in small towns and countries in eastern Europe. It is snobbery created by anti-snobbery.”

Meanwhile, the Designers For Target label earned notoriety in March 2007 for the frenzied consumer response to its Stella McCartney collection. Spurred on by the novelty of international designer merchandise in a discount department store, shoppers splurged on huge and random armfuls of clothing, most of which ended up glutting eBay and being returned sheepishly to Target stores.

These are the tensions that plague collaborative ventures: exclusivity versus availability; the ordinary versus the special; a designer’s vision versus consumers’ tastes.

“I’m in two minds – I’m yet to decide whether it’s good or bad,” says Bianca Wiegard, director of Fat boutiques. “From our perspective, as a boutique, cutting-edge retailer, it dilutes the brand for us. What these [designers] are doing, essentially, is selling the same collections that they’re selling to boutiques like us, but with cheaper fabrics.

“But obviously it gives designers the opportunity to get a huge injection of cash,” Wiegard continues. “These big companies come along and they’re obviously targeting businesses like ours, so they’ll see who are the up-and-coming designers and then they’ll offer them cash upfront. A lot of the designers would never have seen that much money.”

Wiegard’s colleague Ben Esakoff adds: “In this market, designers need opportunities, because it’s tiny. For them it’s that fine line between doing something really commercial and selling themselves out to their core market.”

Esakoff wagers that smaller retailers might actually benefit from the collaboration phenomenon. “It’s a different demographic to us at the cheaper end, but creating a cheaper brand makes it more aspirational, which is beneficial for us,” he says. “The only thing that’s bad for us is if the brand is overexposed.”

It also doesn’t pay to underestimate consumers, who’ve become much less willing to be seduced on the promise of celebrity alone. They’re no longer the star-dazzled dupes who filled trolleys with Stella McCartney clothes – indeed, proudly parading around in clothes identifiably from collaborative ranges carries a “Stella stigma”, a whiff of fashion illiteracy.

To succeed these days, collaborative collections must seem like meteorites landing, bright and hot, in a paddock. They’re only exciting if they arrive, fully realised, from somewhere else mysterious and inaccessible, and if they look radically different to everything else in that paddock.

A major criticism of Romance Was Born for Sportsgirl and Josh Goot for Target was that both labels replicated designs from their existing collections. Other collections, such as TV for Sportsgirl, Chip Chop! for Sportsgirl and Zac Posen for Target, disappointed blog commenters and fashion forum users who deemed them “bland” and “boring”.

Without that alien allure, more pragmatic considerations come into play… like uniqueness, price and wearability. “Wearable” is somewhat of a fashion industry euphemism for “unimaginative design”, but from the consumer’s perspective, it’s about quality fabrics and tailoring that make a garment look good when worn. For this reason, Yeojin Bae’s Target collection got a big thumbs-up from fashionistas.

No amount of hype about the designer will save garments that are deemed “overpriced” or “cheap-looking”. The clothes will hang forlornly in the stores forever, getting ignominiously cheaper and cheaper.

“I actually bought the Gail Sorronda black denim skirt today for $4.86, because I needed something to paint my house in,” gloated one Vogue Forums user.

The notion of ‘designer-ness’ alone won’t dazzle shoppers into buying anything. But there’s definitely a certain magic when designer/retailer collaborations yield something genuinely original.

This article first appeared in Design Reporter.