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.