Is “fashion” a Dirty Word ?

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

Yves Saint Laurent with his signature Wayfarer glasses, strong side part and bespoke suiting made a name for himself with his interpretation of haute couture. His take on Fashion versus style: «Fashions fade…style is eternal».

DO THE FASHION VS. STYLE QUOTES EVER STOP ?

Like a child put to the grindstone to learn the multiplication table, when it comes to clothing, we are drilled like clockwork with newfangled quotes on how style is superior to fashion. And yet still, industry bloggers and journalists alike continue to put pen to paper in order to once again reference the illusory difference between fashion and style.

Books like The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War  (whose author was a pioneer of modern design development in Germany) address the fashion versus style conundrum analogously. Parodies have been produced in video to poke fun at the great debate as in the very funny Daily Motion presentation of  «Fcuk Fashion Versus Style».  And countless search engine hits appear when researching the so called great debate, with style camp devotees expressing a sick-joy pleasure in bashing their fashion counterpart and raising the battle flag of superiority while parading around on white stallions.

Is it so difficult to understand that fashion is about the relationship of the clothes with the moment, and style is about the relationship of the clothes-wearer with his clothes? Is it that hard to perceive that fashion is fleeting and style is permanent? That fashion is dictated to us and style is a personal decision? That fashion is immediate and style is formed after a long and arduous process? And, do any of us deny that the relationship we have with our clothing holds a more intimate meaning than how clothing relates to modern day trends?

But still, we cycle through these same definitions expressed in various ways, like perpetual motion, refusing to stop. The mood is reminiscent of the 335 Years War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly (termed a theoretical war) where not a drop of blood was shed. The war itself rose to mythical proportions, until finally the Council of the Isles of Scilly prompted a peace treaty in 1986, signed by both sides with a chuckle and a wink.

Could it also be time to call a truce with this fashion versus style obsession?

Still, if there is a war between team style and team fashion, it seems that team style has been the one to declare war. Although the interest in integrating style components with fashion is growing, a large number of purely fashion enthusiasts are barely interested in wrangling with the style enthusiast.

THE STYLE SNOB

Proust understood that social superiority is a bit of a birthright but that this superiority can also be gained through connoisseurship. With the right waistcoat, a refined use of language, a proper vacationing spot, and allying with the right people, a man can be propelled into a roped-off section of the elegant.

And, the common element among most every “formula for success” usually begins with the right clothing. Even the saying “from rags to riches” forces us to visualize a sorry sap in grim accouterment transforming into a smartly clad Jay from The Great Gatsby.

From the Baz Luhrmann 2013 movie adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s «The Great Gatsby»

Still literature continues to lend us a hand on how snobbery can turn ugly, by showing how “Pip” from Dickens’ Great Expectations loses his basic goodness as a person in his pursuit to be a gentlemanly social climber. But then, the bildungsroman effect is complete when Pip realizes that his behavior is hurting people that he cares for in his life.

Douglass Booth in the BBC 2011 adaptation of the novel «Great Expectations», by Charles Dickens

THE FASHION SNOB

High Fashion: Karl Lagerfeld’s interpretation

There is a different ambience in the world of strictly fashion, one which celebrates creativity over craftsmanship. Fashion enthusiasts perhaps celebrate the artist more than the craftsman. This form of appreciation and wardrobe presentation can be inspiring, particularly for the craftsman enthusiast who prefers panache suiting, who can in turn, receive energy from the fashion realm and use those new ideas in the more delicate realm of bespoke and made-to-order outfitting.

Yet, a shift is quickening in the male fashion designer world, in that now fashion designers are more and more, putting their finger on the pulse of the world of men’s made-to-order and bespoke style, as they witness a greater number of men becoming adept at using a technical eye to determine what is quality and what is garbage. And, the designers who have personally gone bespoke at some point, as Yves Saint Laurent has done, are likely forever altered in the way they design and present clothing.

Consider the evolution of the offerings of Dior Homme that has occurred in the last few years.

This 2009 example is practically void of any sign indicating craftsmanship quality:

Dior Homme, 2009. Here, there is no clear inclination that there has been any attempt to project craftsman quality.

In contrast, here, we see a move towards giving the suit a more custom cut and tailored look.

Dior Homme 2012. A person with a trained eye notices that there appears to be «fit issues» with the suit coat, but nonetheless, there are clear indicators, like the quality of the overcoat and tailored appearance of the shirt, that gives at least «the air» of being handcrafted.

BESPOKEN FOR LIFE

While it’s not unusual for a high fashion enthusiast to convert to becoming a handcrafted style enthusiast, it seems unlikely to see a handcrafted style enthusiast making the crossover  to become a high fashion convert.

To delve deep into the world of bespoke and made-to-measure creates an allure that is not soon forgotten, and once entered, like the Hotel California, it seems that one can never leave. So it can be understood how bespoken chaps and well-clad women are hellbent to evangelize the merits of style over fashion. Once transported into the universe of handcrafted clothing, we find ourselves in a labyrinth steeped with history, mystique, and the promise of transformation through real self-expression.

For the discerning customer, what chance does the realm of fashion have to go up against the force of unearthing personal style through crafted clothing? And the white elephant that remains in the room is the question of whether the man who spends $5,000 on a high fashion suit is even aware that he may opt for a specifically designed, completely handcrafted suit for the same amount of money or less — a suit that is fitted for him, instead of a suit that he has to try to fit into.

The verve coming from the bespoke gentleman to advocate personal style does not appear to be in the spirit of  Pip-esque snobbery, but rather from an incentive to relay a real discovery of personal transformation. Without having to use words, when comparing the suits of the following two U.S. Presidents, the difference between craftsmanship quality becomes fairly obvious:

Former President Clinton in an oversized suit, perhaps due to weight loss

President Obama in a handcrafted suit

A NEW CONTENDER: BRIDGE LABELS

The arrival of bridge labels into sartoria has added new energy to the market. Bridge labels (most of the time in fact high end sub-labels of global brands) are the missing link between the two worlds of High Fashion and pure classic men’s apparel. These labels lie somewhere in the middle of ready to wear, and the genre of handmade and bespoke clothing. The potential of these bridge brands is exponential, as they manage the tour de force to draw attention from both the high fashion and the handmade and bespoke market.

Tom Ford, former Gucci and YSL director, is said to have put “glamour” back into fashion. He parted the Gucci group in 2004 and has since created an iconic bridge brand that appeals to both high fashion clients and those who prefer the look of made-to-order and custom suiting.

Tom Ford, known for his clever use of pattern play.

In 1994, Ralph Lauren launched his Purple Label, a high end line of men’s suits, which has since piqued the interest of many men with a penchant for a more dapper look.

Purple Label FW 2012

Ralph Lauren Purple Label, SS 2013

These two bridge labels include handcrafted features (as you can notice in the above shots) like a slanted breast pocket, hand sewn buttonholes, a rolled lapel, a high gorge, clean shoulders, a compressed waist on the coat, and a global clean line. Trousers appear to be set higher at the waist with a nice overall drape created from quality fabric.

CROSSING THE BRIDGE…IN BOTH DIRECTIONS 

It remains to be seen whether more high fashion menswear lines will opt to become a bridge label like Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label, adding real handmade features to their suits and linking more closely with the made-to-measure and custom world.

As education about quality and knowledge of tailoring cues becomes more obvious to fashion labels and to the customer, it is likely that we will continue to see an emphasis on at least enforcing quality and style cues like fully canvassed bodies or quality trimmings, in order to grow the market among knowledgeable men, who typically have more money to spend on good suits.

On the flip side, we are also witnessing some renowned bespoke tailoring houses crossing the bridge in the opposite direction, joining the likes of Ford and Lauren on the bridge that links the two worlds of high fashion and handcrafted— while at the same time staying true to their grassroots of handmade suiting.

From Savile Row, Richard James, Richard Anderson, Timothy Everest and Norton and Sons (with sister brand E.Tautz), to name a few, are already crossing the bridge since a few years, seducing a new range of more and more style-conscious gentlemen.

Joining the ranks  of these Savile Row houses, are Rubinacci in Italy and Cifonelli in France, among others.

Through using their prominent house names, these houses interject cutting and tailoring knowledge into their ready to wear line with real handcrafted features, as opposed to gimmicky spruce-ups like six working cuff buttonholes and ungodly high gorges as a way to fool the customer into believing the suit is something that it is not.

And, many agree that the RTW lines of these houses are in the end, quite impressive.

Quickly, we are noticing that the bridge is becoming more and more crowded with the passing of each season, to the point that the bridge may soon become an entire entity of its own.  At last, as the market is beginning to intermingle at a higher pace, everyone wins.

Perhaps now is a good time to call a truce between those in the high fashion camp and those in the classic tailoring camp.

But … are they really ready-to-share ?

Sonya Glyn Nicholson, Senior Editor