fashion press versus garment design

While hunting for stories told by garments, I often find myself lost in the jungle of fashion reports. As surprising as it might seem, it’s rather rare someone actually writes about garments per se – an observation that links back to Roland Barthes famous text on ‘the fashion system’: considering the language of fashion magazines in order to depict the concept of semiology, he uses fashion to lunge out explaining the difference between significate and signifier and the ‘sign’ as a combination of both. Within this highly analytical text I came across one section called ‘II./A–Complex: Functions with a sign character’ / ‘19.2 signs and functions of real garments’

While Barthes references the ‘Blaumann’ (the typical blue-collar overall used for working) as a ‘real garment’, he mentions his temptation to compare it to a ‘fashion garment’ such as the little black dress. Stating that however functional a garment like the ‘Blaumann’ might seem, even ‘real clothes’ will always include a symbolic element and he desists the comparison. Why? Every function is a sign in itself: while the raincoat offers shelter from the rain (function) – it also depicts rain (symbol). In order to find a purely nondescript garment, one would have to imagine an improvised one that hence won’t reference another known garment. However and if you’d like to know why even this won’t work – go read the book.

In the meantime and asking you to keep Barthes’ differentiation of real garment and fashion garment in mind, I will return to the origin of this article: browsing fashion magazines effectively feels like a maze to me. The garments I find depicted in the header images are what I stupidly hope to be discussed. Although they are understood as the author’s initial motivation for writing the article, they most likely are not refered to in written language. The many layers of delivered information are deeply embeded in those pictures and have overgrown the wish to consider the design of the actual piece. These layers follow an interesting hierarchy of information and often start out naming the location they have been presented or found in. Further, they are characterized by the person wearing them and will always be substitutes to the bigger system of the collection, the brand, the season, the author, the press, the visitors, the colour, the front row, the history, politics, religion, country – an endless semiotic jungle. A current Vogue article titled ‘Galliano For Margiela: The Vogue Verdict’ manages to make a significant point. Half the way through the article the author actually starts to name single garments, only to highlight that these are items noone of the spectators was or will be too interested in, neither were they the focus of the label itself:

‘Yes there were a few clothes – a perfect black blazer, a mandarin-collared red velvet gown, an immaculate tuxedo suit to rival the work of any couturier and a single draped LBD but it wasn’t a collection intended to scoop up orders (despite the humorous soundtrack of a remixed “Big Spender”). Instead it was a carefully calibrated marker of intent, from the white-coated attendants that littered the building (a Margiela legacy) to Galliano’s blink-and-you-missed-him fleeting appearance on the runway at the end of the show (in contrast to his lingering, theatrical performances of old).’

This time, Maison Margiela’s Show did not take place to present garments. It ment to present the story of Galliano taking over Margiela, it ment to define the ‘new route’ and it ment to brisk a legacy that was worn out. Martin Margiela, who earned his respect as he outsmarted the crowd by refusing to stage himself, is long gone. Will someone buy the new collection? Of course. Probably its garments will become even more important because no one cares about them in the first place: in ten years time, there might be someone actually saying ‘this blazer I am wearing was one of the pieces that Galliano showed in 2015 when he took over and changed the Maison Margiela appearance!’ The importance of this information will alter the meaning of an otherwise well cut but probably seen-before blazer.

While Galliano for Margiela is a story that was artificially constructed and staged, it sure is alluring. Fashion’s talent to spin stories over decades turns its spectators into initiates, connoisseurs even if they paid enough attention and hence will reward them when holding one of the celebrated garments in their own hands. On a last note and in the mood of the topic, I’d like to end this article saying that it is least surprising to me that the Margiela show is so well received by the fashion press: Conceived to support and hail their own existence, the press would be considered failing if it reported on the actual design of the shown garments. However, this is another appeal and motivation for me to try and find narratives within garments that haven’t been staged in a fashion way, although they might have initiated the ‘story-generator’ fashion has become.