How do you make something out of nothing? How do you push yourself to do more than you thought possible? How do you create power where there was none before? How do you effect change on your own terms? The answer is: don’t even think about doing it alone.
The overarching narrative of modern fashion design has changed. No longer is it the story of a lone genius, unleashing themselves on an unsuspecting public, but of groups of creative collaborators, clubbing together to make their idea of the world come true. The new mood is born of necessity. A generation ago, fashion and art students had grants and funding. They could afford to be individualists. Now all they have is each other and the communities they can build around a collective desire to make something.
We’ve seen the power of the fashion collective before. Margiela was the pioneer. When the label rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s, the scene was dominated by the personality cults of superstar designers. Yet here was a company that communicated in the collective, speaking in terms of “we”, never “I”. Fast forward 25 years and we see a much less idealistic squashing of the individual in high fashion. With brands unwilling to commit themselves to a creative director for longer than a few seasons, few designers can expect to have a big-brand platform long enough to build global recognition.
No wonder they are turning to their peers and the communities they connect with. “Collaborate to survive” has become the mantra for this new generation. The approach may have started as a response to difficult times, but it has developed its own powerful momentum. Resourceful kids are building new creative aristocracies that not only support and sustain each other, but are also driving fashion forward.
Fashion’s version of people power is starting to infect all of its systems and institutions. Its most successful iteration comes from the Vetements collective, which is also intertwined with Balenciaga and the Kering group. Collaboration allowed Vetements to explore a non-thematic approach to fashion. Instead of telling a story or presenting an idea of a “woman”, they set about rethinking product in a powerful way. Here was a cool new version of the trench coat and a modern way to wear your favourite jeans. It was powerful because it was rooted in a community and had its own reality. No wonder it sold.
Powerful, too, because Vetements showed that the idea of collaboration could be incredibly transformative for brands and consumers. When they presented their 2016 couture show consisting of 18 collaborations, something magical happened to the perception of the labels involved. In the space of a 15-minute show, Vetements’ chosen collaborators went from being well-known purveyors of leather jackets, kitten heels and velour tracksuits to an elevated fashion ranking, where their credentials were ramped up to hero status.
It wasn’t the first designer collaboration and it won’t be the last, but it was the one that most amplified the ability of a fresh set of eyes to bring a seductive energy to something familiar. Here was a blueprint for a new fashion reality, where young and old, established and new, could come together. And from this dynamic network of ideas, a fountain of shoppable product has spewed. Some would say it happened just in time: fashion has reached saturation point. Well-informed customers demand more and are shopping in new ways. They are looking for new points of engagement, because the old ones don’t inspire any more.
And so, big institutions are now adopting what started as a millennial mindset. In one of the most surprising recent business moves, Farfetch and Condé Nast announced a new alliance. Collaboration is seen as the biggest opportunity for established names to pivot into new markets, reach new customers and start a different kind of conversation. Take Dover Street Market and Hello! magazine. Two entities that convention says shouldn’t appear in the same sentence, let alone share billing on a joint project. But this autumn, they will collaborate on a fragrance spurred on by Adrian Joffe’s unashamed love of the schlocky social chronicle. We can only hope that Hello! stalwart Dame Joan Collins will be the guest of honour at the DSM launch party. Never say never.
In fact, there’s never been a better time to say “Yes!” to things that may have seemed abhorrent or antithetical just a few years ago. Witness the success of the Supreme-Louis Vuitton collaboration that came 17 years after the French luxury house slapped a cease and desist notice on the streetwear brand.
Burberry’s collaboration with Gosha Rubchinskiy is the latest example of what a fresh set of eyes can bring. Rubchinskiy is the divining rod of fashion – a taste pioneer who shows others the way. For many Brits, the Burberry check had become an unshakable symbol of chav aspiration. But Rubchinskiy and his crew are far too young to remember Danniella Westbrook teaming her head-to-toe Burberry-check look with a mini-me daughter and matching baby buggy. Rubchinskiy has given that once- dreaded check edgy new meaning.
Collaboration by collaboration, the old rules and associations are being rewritten. It’s working because it chimes with contemporary culture and modern attitudes. Sharing isn’t just caring, it is ingrained into how resourceful people think. It’s about using who and what is around you to the best effect. It’s also about not letting anything go to waste, be it a bolt of secondhand fabric, a creative connection or a golden opportunity to network. We talk about digital natives, but the new generation are sharing natives. Even if they could do it all by themselves, why would they want to?
Pulling together is a very British approach to adversity and deprivation. It’s very punk to repurpose what’s around you to make something new. London designers have always had that ability to join forces to support each other. Ten years ago, it was Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Richard Nicoll and Roksanda Ilincic meeting over pints in The George & Dragon, Shoreditch, and swapping notes on the best zip factory to use. Now it has blossomed into a deeply interconnected creative scene.
You see that most vividly with Charles Jeffrey and his Loverboy troupe of artists, designers, dancers, DJs and drag queens. Born in a Dalston club, taking in art, dance, performance, film and fashion, it’s now a multidisciplinary Hydra that rules the London scene. Jeffrey’s recent London Fashion Week show brimmed with a confidence that comes from the extended Loverboy family. A by-product of those strong group connections is a powerful kind of optimism that comes when you shape your own destiny.
There is strength in numbers, more so now in the digital era, where everything is quantifiable. This collectivism isn’t only driven by altruism. It plays into the economy of exchange, yet you don’t find as strong a sense of fashion community in Milan, Paris or New York. The work- together, play-together ethos is what’s driving London, where creatives tend to cluster, sharing nights out and studio space. If big industry has trade unions, organising, agitating and using the power of the collective for the benefit of their members, then British fashion has an unofficial union of creatives who know they’re better off together than alone.
Text by Claudia Croft
Illustration by Stephen Doherty
Taken from the latest issue of 10, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…