The Demise of (Beautiful) Brands

[This is the original unedited version of my column for Courier Magazine entitled “Death by Algorithm” in their June 2018 issue.]

Remember the good old days when an idea could gestate in the mind of, say, Vivienne Westwood and, then, voila, the hallucinatory output of a single theme like “Seditionaries” or “Buffalo Girls” would emerge on the runway fully formed, causing jaws to drop (one way or the other) among the small cabal of editors who ruled the fashion establishment? “Les Incroyables,” John Galliano’s Central Saint Martin’s 1984 graduation runway show dishing up 18th century French romanticism interpolated with hard-edged punk flair was possibly the zenith of that epoch, just as Marc Jacobs’ ode to the street style of homeless people was an unmitigated critical and commercial catastrophe during the same period.

These days, the fashion industry is spared from giant errors of judgment like Jacobs’ grunge collection — but also from moments of elation and awe, the sort customarily inspired by the collections of Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood twenty years ago. That’s because, for decades, statistics and, now, analytics, have slowly strangled creativity.

For better or worse, in the past, ideas germinated and developed in a vacuum for the simple reason that we were not instantly connected to ideas, images or each other. That in and of itself was not actually a plus, but simply a fact.

In the late 80s, creativity started becoming big business. Louis Vuitton merged with Moet Hennessey in 1987 to become the world’s largest luxury conglomerate and Johann Rupert set up the Richemont Group one year later. The advent of brands like Calvin Klein Jeans (remember how nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins) and Ralph Lauren signaled the mainstreaming of luxury. Not surprisingly, the professionalization of the fashion and luxury industries, no longer a series of family-run enterprises, brought with it the newfound discipline of numbers. Designers’ imaginations still ran amok but their enthusiasms were curbed, at least at the margin, by sell-through reports and managers with MBAs beholden to shareholders. (Considering that sell-through reports, back then, still required a high level of manual tabulation, they had marginal impact on creativity and were more seasonal post-mortems than predictive blueprints for action.)

Then came the influence of Google and, with it, search results including images which eliminated the necessity of sourcing inspiration from travel, museums or even coffee table books. Suddenly, collections about “Venice” or “safari” started resembling each other rather than their native environments because designers, hard pressed for time or, worse, lazy, started culling references from the same first page of Google search results. Fast-forward to today, with most “creative” visual output a cut-and-paste of freely available design references, and it’s no wonder that the depth and intellectual commitment which marked the creative projects of twenty or thirty years ago have gone missing. The creative process, once based on independent, even solitary exploration, has given way to the mental terrarium of Google.

That artists and designers are discouraged from risk-taking by large-scale capital and our imaginative capacities vastly diminished by Google paint a bleak picture for many creative industries. But the real coup de grace has been analytics and its apparent ability to foretell commercial success or failure, even before the lightbulb goes off in the mind of a designer or artist. With job security based on positive ROI and designers themselves obsessed with Instagram like counts, the sheltered space for creative germination which once led to the birthing of full-blown works of art has been squeezed out of existence. The current system, if anything, penalizes unbridled creativity. (To take an example from an industry which has undergone the same seismic shifts, music, contrast The Wall by Pink Floyd, an entirely original, integrated work of art referring to nothing which came before it, to the music created by today’s major pop stars, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, etc.. The showcase for musical artistry formerly known as the “album” has been abandoned, much like the runway collection, in favor of hit singles based on riffs, tropes and styles known to provoke the desired aural reaction among listeners.)

Thus, consumers are treated to an endless stream of thinly veiled retreads of best sellers and hit-or-miss collaborations, each a desperate stab to reproduce the glory days of last season. The formulaic recycling of old ideas has become so instinctive that it feels practically suicidal to return to the more venturesome days of creative risk-taking, when brand integrity was defined by a philosophy, a mission, an aesthetic. Athletic brands like Nike and Adidas are especially guilty of this form of “product development”, forsaking investment in product R&D to chase after collaborations with the next big streetwear influencer. Similarly, Louis Vuitton has never been the same since Marc Jacobs invited Takashi Murakami to co-create a collection. The brand is practically defined by its collaborations and LV’s recent appointment of Supreme creative director, Virgile Abloh, to helm its menswear design is an unapologetic case of the commercial tail wagging the creative dog. I never thought I’d see the day when streetwear tropes, so easily wielded within the world of Adobe Photoshop, would ascend to the apex of the luxury world.

To put it in the simplest way possible: When is the last time that you experienced an electric frisson looking at a new runway collection, photograph, piece of music — or sneaker? In short, when is the last time you felt like you were looking at something BRAND NEW and it actually gave you a JOLT?

If brands lose their leadership position, it’s their own fault. Why should a consumer look up to them when they fail to demonstrate confidence, leadership or sure-footedness. Commentators complain that “millenials don’t give a sh — -t about brands.” But the truth is, most brands, the big ones anyway, deserve to be abandoned, not just by millennials but by all of us. Soullessly following statistics rather than the inner compass of an original vision, brands have lost their very reason for being in the first place.

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Daily Mind-ful 17 May 2017 (Goldfinger Factory)

You can’t live in Primrose Hill unless you’re a super high achiever, based on the caliber of speakers featured in the neighborhood’s lecture series. WOW! I book a ticket to the Philip Glass/Laurie Anderson concert at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival after picking up a program guide at the Colchester train station; I visit Westbourne for a reunion with my former intern, Marie. The neighborhood looks gritty as hell but is apparently trendy these days; Marie and her partner, Oliver, have founded a sprawling social enterprise called Goldfinger Factory. The main nut of it is a B2B carpentry operation which employs local craftspeople to make premium custom furniture plus a retail operation selling upcycled recycled furniture and a restaurant in Westbourne Grove, all of the same name. (Oh yeah, they’re also operating an incubator!) The long-term intention is to train and employ local people to custom-make upcycled furniture on a large scale basis. Marie interned for me at Shanghai Tang three years running so I’m not surprised at all — just impressed by the ambitious scale of her business. We eat gorgeous Italian food in the cafe so I can experience as much of Goldfinger Factory as possible during the scant hour I’m in Westbourne Grove. I then hop in a cab to meet up with a friend at Photo London, an overwhelming, confused affair which leaves me feeling like the photography industry is in a deep existential malaise. What accounts for my dissatisfaction with the fair? There was no curation, it was nakedly commercial and all different species of photography were jumbled together; I join up with a friend who brings me to a jewelry event, my first one in many, many months. It feels weird to be attending such a youthful and patently superficial event where making selfies with the designer, Ara Vartanian, is more important than inspecting the cutting-edge diamond jewels; so glad that I don’t have to host events like that any more, because that was my life before; the bank of photographers and we wait for a VIP to exit from a black car, in a moment of Instagram bated breath; alas, it’s “only” Suzy Menkes, meaning that no flash bulbs went off and there was zero fanfare; just to be clear, Menkes is a god for me and I’d be happy to intern for her any day; the best way not to lose an umbrella is to take a photo of the one you’re using on the day and to make it the screensaver of your smartphone for as long as you’re carrying it — and in danger of losing it; my friend takes me to Hunan, one of the best restaurants in London, in any category or cuisine. They serve an endless menu of Chinese dishes, tapas style. Unless you ask them to stop, they won’t. At course sixteen, Ming says, “Don’t go all white on me. You’re not allowed to stop eating.”
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Daily Mind-ful 9 May 2017 (Eco-fashion)

I’m going into London to introduce Christina Dean, the founder of Redress, one of the world’s most dynamic and fast-moving eco-fashion non-profits, to Isabel Encinias, the co-founder of Tejen Collection, an environmentally conscious fine jewelry brand with impeccable design credentials; incredible gold- and silver-plated roses spotted in the window of Sharps Pixley’s St. James showroom. Sharps Pixley is primarily a bullion dealer but makes some interesting peripheral products (like these flowers) to animate its windows, literally, and core offering of bullion. I’ve always been intrigued by their retail storefront on St. James and whether/how it has impacted their business; I meet art consultant, Olga Ovenden of A Consultancy at Franco’s before heading off for lunch at Chutney Mary with Isabel and Christina; Christina has JUST moved from Hong Kong to England full-time, so we enjoy a jubilant reunion moment before entering the restaurant. It’s one of those,
“Holy shit, I can’t believe we both live in the UK (in the middle of nowhere)!” moments; lunch is a combination of life-story-telling, entrepreneurial-pain-point-unburdening and brain storming between all three of us. The upshot is making new friends, cementing old friendships and me offering to make videos about their respective brands, Tejen and Redress’ new eco-fashion brand launching in September, BYT Life. Christina asks if I can make a video before the first week of June and my response, “No f^&*()ing way, are you crazy?” But I promise delivery before the September launch of BYT Life. In the meantime,
consider voting for BYT Life in the Chivas Venture competition here; I meet up with one of my oldest, best friends, John-Paul, after lunch, and he can’t stop stop raving about his recent trip to Iran. It was so incredible and visually bountiful that he posted SIX HUNDRED photos on Facebook about his trip. Considering that John-Paul is an incredible, successful fashion photographer who has visited more than a hundred countries and shoots all over the world, I take this sort of effusive recommendation seriously and make him promise to visit me at home so he can convince John that we MUST go to Iran — SOON. (We missed Burma and Cuba, so I’m determined not to miss the boat on this one.) Esfahan is THE most impressive and beautiful apparently; I learn that Uber is available, even in the middle of the countryside (Eureka!).
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Daily Mind-ful 6 May 2017 (London shopping)

Shopping in London: Love Delfina Delettrez‘s wacky, surrealist jewels; at Purdey, we met Chris of English Handmade Knives who explained how intricate marbleized effects are created by folding sheets of steel again and again under intense pressure, to increase the metal’s strength while producing an incredible decorative effect; jokey cigar ashtrays in the shape of Havaianas; we visit Thomas Goode, the blue-chip destination for the best china and silverware in the world. But the place is like a museum. No doubt they make their budget each month by selling three or four trousseaus to Qatari princesses. Who else (besides my husband) continues to buy this stuff?; I discover a new and amazing handbag brand (misspelled in the Instagram story): LONB (“Love Or Nothing Baby”). My gut feeling is that their marketing and ad campaign misses the mark (black and white 1960s images) but their bags are to-swoon-for. Hard to believe that someone would launch yet another handbag brand in today’s saturated market. But this team, formerly from Labelux, definitely knows what it’s doing with the product. Equally brave, they’re not wholesaling and ONLY sell through their website and their first and only flagship boutique located on South Audley Street. Seriously, I’m saving up for the Vagabond already….; after a bang-up lunch at yummy new Indian restaurant, Jamavar, on Mount Street, we head to Hampton Court and take a walk around the gardens because it’s too late to enter the house; while buying some wine for dinner, I notice some of the most pretentiously labeled and branded alcohol products ever; trout for dinner; what do people see/taste in rhubarb?!
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Daily Mind-ful 5 May 2017

Weddings; the step change in my tennis game isn’t a fluke; the maximum limit of my concentration; I keep on having to throw out my vlogs about The Week because there’s always a new issue before I can wrap the vlog post about the last issue; undaunted, I post lots of examples illustrating why The Week rocks; the Ritz is badly in need of refurbishment; the people with taste, refinement and style have no money, whereas the people with taste are usually tacky and uneducated; checking out Jorie Jewellery‘s arresting deer tusk jewels at Harvey Nichols with the designer.
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Daily Mind-ful 27 April 2017 (music discovery)

I start the day with a Facebook fail; I’m interviewing photographer, Edgar Martins, next week in London, at the recommendation of a FORMAT Festival curator. Like Konstantin Bessmertny, whom I just vlogged about, he’s from Macau!; it’s outrageous that Maria Sharapova is back on the professional tennis circuit; my 18-year old son is much more organised than I am; experiencing a crisis of self-confidence after realising it won’t be easy to start my new business, I call an old, very good friend, who spurs me on to hustle, a simple but effective exhortation; I spent most of my day editing footage of FORMAT’s artistic director, Louise Clement Mazmanian; much of my day is about music discovery: one of the best resources for royalty-free music is a site called PremiumBeat; after listening to countless tracks on the site, I find a perfect backing track for a project; but of course, I can’t buy it until the client has A-OKed it. Therefore, and in the meantime, I need suggestions from you for an interim specimen backing track which can be used for aural illustration. Any ideas?; pressed for time, I listen to the work of Johann Johannsson who composed the music for Arrival to find a suitably uplifting “human drama” track; his music is perfect; in a related observation: it’s interesting to note how contemporary classical music which is otherwise unbearable to listen to takes on a totally different sci-fi character once the sound of a distorted human voice is overlaid, another, different type of music discovery. You listen to the track in question here; tonight is one of the only occasions when I have to look semi-decent because I have a dinner with civilised people — in the countryside. Not being able to find the single one piece of clothing I’m looking for, a pair of brown corduroys, I put on a Dior Homme suit instead and wear it with my faux mucking out boots from Frye; having been in the fashion industry for so many years, I can make almost any outfit match; I never owned or bought a pair of brown shoes my entire life — until now — giving you some idea of how I’ve been a country chic virgin until now; dinner with the Brexiters was fun and memorable. Contrary to what you may think, there are quite a few people like me in the countryside!; it’s long overdue to vlog, with myself as the talking head; I watch Agon, a ballet by Stravinsky choreographed by George Balanchine. (And, frankly, it’s too conventional for me to vlog about.)
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Vlog #5 Why Fashion (Doesn’t) Matters


I explain why fashion is in terminal decline. (I made this video after seeing the retrospective of Viktor & Rolf at the National Gallery of Victoria — because this design duo has resolutely refused to bow to the usual commercial pressures and social media echo chamber of 99% of the fashion industry.)
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