In addition to the feeling that time keeps on ticking into the future, another measure of time is change. In the fashion world, we see this in the changing of trends each season and each year. Also, it’s how we end up with a Color of the Year, as established by the Pantone Color Institute. On top of that, change comes in the form of what’s in and what’s out of fashion. Remember Heidi Klum’s foreboding warning to budding fashion designers on the hit reality TV show, “Project Runway.” You’re either in, or you’re out, she says, on every episode. But, last week, in my opinion, things went too far. Fashion leaders screwed up.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America [CFDA] held its annual awards gala last week and made a very unusual award. Fashion designers, top fashion retailers, journalists, stylists, and influencers comprise the network of the CFDA Fashion Awards Guild. This group nominates and votes on CFDA Fashion Awards winners, including Womenswear, Menswear, and Accessory Designer of the year. It also honors a winner of the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent. So, this robust body of American fashion movers and shakers creates some of that in-or-out interest. Or, maybe this collective body of fashion insiders rubber stamps what the general public is into.
The CFDA awarded Supreme brand founder, James Jebbia, Menswear Designer of the Year, a major surprise to the reclusive entrepreneur. What made this such a big deal surprise to him, and why do I think that fashion leaders screwed up? Jebbia would never tell anyone that he is a designer. And that is because he is not a designer, not even a creative director.
Supreme is quite a phenomenon. Jebbia founded the brand in 1994 as a subversive skateboard brand. He can’t trademark the brand’s name. Even crazier, he re-appropriated the mass communication and advertising approach to art, as addressed by artist Barbara Kruger. So, in essence, there’s not much original about Supreme, except for Jebbia’s genius for collaborations with other brands and artists. Now one of the hottest brands, Dover Street Market sells it. Supreme even has a deal with top-of-the-line Rimowa luggage, a luxury brand owned by LVMH.
Another element of his genius is that he notoriously underproduces product. In addition, even though the name seems to be everywhere, the distribution is supremely limited [couldn’t help the pun]. This creates more consumer interest and intrigue. It’s no wonder that when new collections launch, people line up around the block just like a new iPhone release. By playing the branding game low and slow, Supreme builds prestige, albeit a democratized one. Can you think of another brand having deals with the likes of Comme des Garçons, Nike, Levi’s, and Louis Vuitton?
So, this is just where I believe that fashion leaders screwed up. Fashion is nothing if subversive. Designers are full of rebellion. They love to shake things up and make us all think about what is happening in the world. But, they actually design clothes to narrate their stories. Slapping that Supreme name on other branded merchandise gives those brands a bit of the bad boy hip-hop street cred. But, there’s no fashion design happening.
Is it any wonder that fashion leaders screwed up? I think the vortex of influencer marketing sucked them in. In a way, Supreme turned itself into the penultimate fashion influencer. Why? Because when Supreme cross pollinates with another brand, the sales of those brands get a bounce. That’s influencer marketing. Every brand would love to benefit from such a bounce. So, this CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award is not really so much about the genius of design. It is about the genius of branding. Jebbia may not have desired the award or the limelight. [He ducked out after receiving the award and took no questions from the media.]
However, he kind of got what was coming to him, which was recognition for his greatest strength. And the American fashion community reached a new low in its recognition of actual design work. Fashion’s desire to capture Supreme’s subversive approach is like chasing after someone wearing fragrant perfume. Watching from the sidelines is a fun spectator sport. Yet, this chasing seems like a joke on the fashion community, in my opinion. Influence has turned into design. It’s time to turn the hourglass over. Let the design community allow design to influence again. It’s time to pull back from the cult of celebrity, of meaningless influence, and from a lack of individuality.
It seems to me that Supreme, so hot these days, has lost its cool.