how trager delaney are attempting to break free from fashion’s stagnant model
Is the fashion system broken? If so, what can young designers do to fix it? Here, we follow Trager Delaney’s lead.
When Raf Simons resigned from Dior and Alber Elbaz left Lanvin,WWD decided to ask some of the biggest fashion designers, editors and executives if fashion is overheated. Some complained, others were content with the current situation, many said there's nothing to do but to adapt. Or, in Karl Lagerfeld's words: "If you are not a good bullfighter, don't enter the arena."
Agree or disagree, the system of seasonal collections as we know it today practically hasn't changed in the past century. Like Vanessa Friedman recently said in an article she wrote for The New York Times: "Fashion, despite the fact that it likes to think it is edgy, is actually a very conservative, stuck-in-its-way industry."
Kim Trager and Lowell Delaney — who founded their label Trager Delaney after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2012 — agree with Friedman. "The fashion industry is a completely archaic model trying desperately to function in a very fast moving world. The two cannot co-exist," they tell us. Yet the opinions of young designers who break their backs to keep up with the pace (in order to compete with established brands) were left out of the aforementioned WWD report.
The duo started creating collections like any other recent graduate would: copying the current model. Come 2015, they realised it's not the right one for them. In a move that was informed by their investor, they broke with the system and are not adhering to seasons anymore; they do not believe that it is the future of fashion. "No one goes on cruises anymore if you know what we mean," the designers explain.
They also stopped going to Paris to present their clothes to buyers — a crucial part of the business for any designer trying to make a name for themselves, "Unless you are so massive that people come to you." They stopped their wholesaling and instead focus on seven impeccably-made core items that are produced in three colours. "We need to make clothes for real people," they say, "at a pace that does not include delivering fur coats in August. The whole model makes no sense." Reflecting on how that model hasn't changed since the 20s, they note how the nature of how we consume nowadays has changed in an immeasurable way.
Modern consumers are accustomed to having the world at their fingertips and their expectations are higher than ever. This is where the high street has a unique opportunity — with its large design teams and cheap labour forces, they can turn around runway designs within days, not months. "Here we have a problem, not in that the garments are being copied - the woman that is shopping at Celine will not necessarily be shopping at Zara - but the ideas, the creations or the mood is completely diluted and that is the problem," the designers explain. "The woman that is shopping at Celine, does not want to wear a garment that her daughter has been wearing a version of from Zara for 3 months prior. The power of the garment is then lost and this is why the 'brand' becomes more important and why things like accessories and perfumes are always the bread and butter of the huge houses."
Thus, fashion houses need to perform different strategies to lure potential customers into their world. As Alber Elbaz said about creative directors inhis speech at the 'Fashion Group International's Night of Stars' in October: "We have to become image-makers, creating a buzz, making sure that it looks good in the pictures. The screen has to scream, baby. That's the rule." And screaming it does, rather uncontrollably, on a multitude of social platforms trying to grab attention.
According to a study from Microsoft, people now generally lose attention after 8 seconds compared to 12 seconds in 2000. The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. (Oh evolution!)
"People want new garments quicker than the industry can give them," they say. "Everyone must take responsibility for this and it of course has to reach a point where it implodes. Imagine designing six collections a year. What does any of it mean when a designer reaches this point, how do you respect your creativity? How do you make enough garments to keep everyone happy all of the time? Suddenly the power of the collection, the craftsmanship of the clothes and the painful artistry of the designer become obsolete."
That resounds with the Raf Simons/Dior story. For the upcoming issue of Systemhe told Cathy Horyn: "When you do six shows a year, there's not enough time for the whole process. Technically, yes — the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important. When you try an idea, you look at it and think, Hmm, let's put it away for a week and think about it later. But that's never possible when you have only one team working on all the collections."
In the same article, Cathy and Raf deem the 'State of Fashion' question a waste of time. The debate isn't new. "The journalists don't know what to do with that larger question anyway," said Cathy Horyn. But they also don't actively seem to try to answer it. Perhaps this is due to the fact that there's no time to digest and think. As Elizabeth von Guttman — the editor in chief of System — recently said: "It's gone excessive, there are too many shows. You can't focus. If you take people like Suzy Menkes, they spend weeks looking at shows, they're on the road so long, I don't know how you can have an opinion at the end of the day. I admire those who can, but I think a lot of people who do that might not have the best point of view as they lose perspective."
The question that can then be posed is: can we trust the journalists who see 20 shows per day to have a clear opinion? And, does the attention-span-less audience even care about clear opinions? The desires of press and readers often seem in tandem in that they are hungry for 'the new, the next' — reinforcing the true definition of the word 'fashion' — always on the lookout, hungry from a new McQueen, Galliano or Margiela.
"It is also important to mention that the very people talking and writing about this problem of fashion being out of control, are the people that really facilitate its ferocious pace," Trager Delaney remarks. "These are the people entertaining this idea of fashion weeks and fighting for their place in 'front row', whatever that means. Taking an idea for five seconds and throwing it away for the new idea, the next, to create new content - any content — for a magazine, website, blog, Instagram. The cycle never stops. We need to be educated in the ideas of craftsmanship, skill, making and creating. We should all start to be concerned with what our clothes are made of, where they were made and by whom. What makes the garment unique? Why I am I paying this price? The pace with which we buy clothes and disregard them should concern us. Clothes are now so cheap that we can buy them this week and throw them out the next. There is nothing in place for people to care about the answers to these questions. Even the word and ideology behind sustainability has been adopted by the fashion industry and relatively chewed up and spat out. On to the next."
Back to the goldfish brain: "Catching the attention of the press is increasingly difficult, but that is not to say that emerging brands cannot be more talked about. I think it is imperative to really capitalise on what you have in your deck of cards. If you are small, you have the opportunity to really engage people not by sheer excess but by something meaningful," they explain. "Bring them into your world and make them be completely submerged in an experience or be up close to your hard work. I really feel that presentations are starting to mean so much more than shows and I have had many members of press confirm this."
That's why their spring/summer 16 presentation was out of the ordinary: the viewer was seated in a chair to see the new collection worn by a professional dancer doing a reverse-strip, pole included. They aimed to challenge the way people look at clothes through movement, connotations and expectations. Although to some the presentation may have seem like a 'sex sells' method it is in fact a far cry from it. "The initial idea began with us understanding the need to actually engage an audience that is now caught in this completely insane pace. What can we do that will make them, stop, breathe and really LOOK for more than a minute? It was about a sense of 'we don't need more, all of us, we need to just sit down for a second and understand and absorb.' I also noted quite a majority of our audience being so enthralled, embarrassed or confused by the whole situation that they almost forgot their phones for a second - which on the other hand is our complete dream [compared to the work going viral on social media]."
"The biggest issue is that there is so much pressure on emerging brands to put on a show or presentation," said Daniella Vitale (the COO of Barneys New York) in the WWD report. Ruth Chapman from Matches agrees that the new generation needs to subvert the show system: "A younger brand may not need to do a catwalk show," yet for the biggest part of fashion design students, the runway show is the final manifestation of their college years. Not a presentation, neither a video. Trager Delaney feels that in 2015 it's wrong to feed students the idealised 'show' image, and thinks that the education system needs to be reformed even beyond that aspect. "It is completely irresponsible for institutions — the more prestigious the more guilty — to not discuss with students what their options are within the industry, how to achieve their goals, how to start a business if they choose, how to write a business plan all the way down to how to find fabric agents… we could go on and on. Creativity is key and institutions like CSM are wonderful at drawing that out of students and inspiring them, but what good is that if they have no idea how to apply it? None."
They were judges for this year's BA press show at Central Saint Martins while simultaneously a guerilla-style presentation happened outside the college entrance. Can collections really be judged through seeing it on a runway for a handful of seconds? What's the way forward? "I think students should present their work how they see fit and how it best suits their collection. A catwalk show is completely unconnected to the amount of work that students put into their collection especially at CSM," Trager Delaney conclude. "Their collection should not be judged on how show stopping it is - it should be judged on execution of ideas and craftsmanship, otherwise we end up in Alber's predicament even before they have left school."
Text Jorinde Croese
Photography Kirill Kuletski