state of dependency: fashion's problem with corporatism

As Kris Van Assche announces the hiatus of his privately owned eponymous brand, is fashion becoming an increasingly less independent industry?

by Anders Christian Madsen
29 May 2015, 11:55am

For an industry dependant upon the independence of its clientele, fashion seems awfully corporate these days. The trend machine has historically drawn on the individuality of the anti-establishment, but in today's fashion industry labels have increasingly narrow chances of survival unless they sell out to the conglomerates. Yesterday, Kris Van Assche announced the hiatus of his decade-old eponymous brand, which, despite his now eight-year tenure as Artistic Director at Dior Homme, isn't actually backed by LVMH. "Times are tough for independent labels," he told WWD. "This wonderful adventure has reached a point where I feel the need to take a break and some distance to better think about how to develop my brand in the future."

The news isn't just sad considering Van Assche's history and position on the Paris menswear schedule, but it signifies yet another blow to independent fashion labels. Over the past couple of years, London's young designers - once considered the most autonomous in the industry - have even jumped on the bandwagon, whether willingly or out of necessity. In 2013, Christopher Kane sold 51 percent of his company to Kering followed by J.W. Anderson and Nicholas Kirkwood, who announced their backing from LVMH. In 2014, Roksanda Ilincic received investment from businesswoman Eiesha Bharti Pasricha, who also announced a deal with Jonathan Saunders early this year. Then it was Peter Pilotto's turn, this time with Escada-owner Megha and MH Luxe on the investor front.

While it's obviously better to get an investor on board and let a brand survive than the alternative, the fashion moguls' commercial cherry-picking of the lucky few doesn't bode well for the independent designers, whose irreverent work means the world to the industry, but who aren't considered investee material. Early this year, Meadham Kirchhoff struck a devastating blow to the industry by announcing their hiatus from the show schedule. It seemed, quite simply, that running a small label in a world dominated by giants wasn't feasible for a brand of their nonconformist calibre. The absence was felt at the London shows in February, which had all the glitz and high production value big fashion business needs, but lacked the defiant creativity and un-commerciality Meadham Kirchhoff brought to the table.

Over in Paris, Kris Van Assche's independent label was part of an even more threatened species. Out of those showing on the men's schedule, only a handful of designers including Dries Van Noten and Rick Owens own their eponymous brands privately, and enjoy the creativity that comes with being your own boss. "It's very powerful," Owens told i-D after he sent exposed male genitalia down his runway last January. "Not many people can do that. I mean, it's a straight world now. And it also, I think, says something about being independent. Who else can really get away with that kind of stuff? It's a corporate world." Van Assche never used his independence for the freedom to provoke, but his eponymous brand still stood for a mentality that's dying out in fashion.

KRISVANASSCHE, the brand, represented the comforting notion that in this corporate age of fashion, some designers were still able to go it alone and develop their aesthetic to a growing clientele over a number of years without the influence of anyone else. This, after all, is the way the fashion industry came to be more than a century ago, and a hugely important part of culture. It's not to say that investment isn't a great thing, because it obviously makes life a lot easier for the designers involved. "It's so much better when you don't need to do everything and you can focus on being creative," Christopher Kane told i-D in an interview for the Summer 2015 issue. "Before we were drawing up jeans, t-shirts, blah, blah, blah, but now we have people to do that. It's good."

Kane, who work's under the Kering umbrella, said the problem in fashion isn't the conglomerates but the virtually impossible expectations put on young designers so early on in their careers. "Knowing that there are so many talented designers out there, who don't have a voice… It's hard, isn't it? When I started ten years ago, we didn't have all these massive collections. We only had two collections to do, whereas young designers today are expected to have this, this, this, this, this, and that's not how it works. I gradually got into doing resort collections and pre-fall, but it was still my choice. It was still a natural progression. Now people just expect everything: bags, shoes—it's a lot of pressure."

Dries Van Noten, who founded the brand he still owns in 1986 and has an annual turnover of some £50 million, has historically refused giving into those pressures—and with much success. "I think people have an interest in things, which are different. My success in part has to do with the fact that my take on fashion is completely different from the big 'group situation', which, I think, for fashion is not so exciting," Van Noten told Dansk in 2011. "A lot of collections are purely designed for marketing reasons. The sales are taken care of with the pre-collections, which is also why the clothes you see on the catwalks, you never see in the stores. And so, people really respect the way I do it because everything we show, we sell. There's not one thing specially designed for the catwalk. If you want to do that, make couture."

Van Assche didn't disclose the specific reasons for his brand's difficulties, but in a week that also saw rumours of an imminent closure of Band of Outsiders, the small-fish-in-a-big-pond scenario is pretty obvious. In London, the flag for independence is now flown predominantly by Erdem, who sells to more than 170 stores worldwide and has received little backing apart from the £200,000 British Vogue Fund award, which he was given a couple of years ago, and which Mary Katrantzou - another independent designer - won this year. With their highly individual expressions and knack for creating fashion that ticks the commercial boxes needed to run a business, their stories represent an optimistic - if increasingly rare - cliff-hanger in a fashion industry that's going through changes.


Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Harry Carr. Backstage at KRISVANASSCHE spring/summer 15

Kris van Assche