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FASHION

the fall collections

Look from Balenciaga fall/winter 2017 men’s collection, Paris, January 18, 2017. Photo: Estrop/Getty.

THE 2017 FALL/WINTER presentations surprised with several historic fashion firsts. Whether in Paris, Milan, London, or New York, we saw brands collapsing into one another and various attempts to lead us into an age of dressing in which traditional modalities of social distinction through status and taste will be ostentatiously disrupted. Creative directors, corporate conglomerates, and traditional fashion designers are exposing the finer nuances and invisible scaffolding of their own multibillion-dollar industry in ways we have never before seen. Is this the beginning of the end of distinction altogether? Or are we just entering a new phase of its ever more intrusive and all-encompassing social mirage?

Young designers must feel challenged by recent developments in international politics and economics and by changing positions in market-making fashion houses (which, finally, have opened up leading positions to more female designers than ever before). The short-lived era of European houses trying to streamline collections and appeal to the broader, global mainstream of Topshop clientele (Alexander Wang for Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane for Yves Saint Laurent) is slowly coming to an end. Traditional luxury brands are now introducing a sharper, more contemporary edge to their creative direction—a reaction, no doubt, to the massive commercial and critical recognition of independent and “emerging” designers like Hood by Air, Off-White, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Eckhaus Latta, and Vetements. Three outstanding collections in particular have shown successful mergers of pre- and postdistinction branding strategies in their recent shows: Balenciaga, Vetements, and Louis Vuitton × Supreme. All have brought the dissolution of older symbols of luxury dressing to a mass audience (and presumably market-successful scale), while Eckhaus Latta is proposing a wardrobe for the system-fatigued consumer in the age of late capitalism.

Balenciaga’s fall 2017 womenswear collection showcased the successful fusion of the contemporary allure of its creative director since 2015, Demna Gvasalia, with the fashion house’s long tradition, lifting heritage couture gown designs directly from the archive and showing these alongside skirts made out of car mats. In his menswear collection, Gvasalia undoubtedly made corporate investors gasp when he sent a hooded sweater adorned not with the expected Balenciaga ᗺB logo but with KERING, the name of its mother enterprise, down the runway. Owned by mega art collector François-Henri Pinault, Kering is one of the two ever-competing French multiluxury conglomerates (the other being LVMH) that have shaped the fashion industry, and French economy at large, into what it is today.

Gvasalia’s exposure of hidden corporate structures triggered memories of the investigative practices and “aesthetics of administration,” to bring Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s phrase uncharacteristically into the fashion world, of such institutional-critique artists as Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke. The designer’s statement couldn’t be clearer. I think it’s safe to say—indeed, it’s become a truism at this point—that fashion labels are an illusion fabricated to satisfy the desires of carefully distinct consumer groups. On a global level, they all lead back to the same three or four major corporations that have bought up smaller houses over the years. At the end of a long shopping day, it’s always the conglomerates you are buying, no matter if the bag you’re holding says Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, or Saint Laurent.

And yet suddenly, with the homogenizing and consolidation of brands, it is designers themselves who wield the cultural power of distinction. Gvasalia and Raf Simons are arguably as famous and marketable now as the brands they design for (Simons is chief creative officer at Calvin Klein). The constant, chiastic shuffle of designers at top houses only underscores this fact. Remarkable, too, is the fact that Gvasalia is able to introduce this new level of brand transparency even as his own team remains hidden in the shadow of his persona. (One of his greatest talents is that of recruiting extraordinary designers like Martine Rose and Hugh Egan Westland to his stable.)

And where is the consumer in this new fashion order? A mirage is in the eyes of the beholder; complacency about being sold what we want (or what we think we want) sets in. If we learned one thing from this past election in the US, it’s that more information, knowledge, and awareness don’t necessarily lead to more critical thinking or behavior.In a climate in which the Electoral College decided that America should be “managed” like a corporation by a person who is mostly known for his failed or fraudulent business ventures, the protosocialist “Banks are bad” campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders seems, in hindsight, to have fallen entirely out of time. What is left of it, for now, is immortalized through Balenciaga’s menswear presentation. Gvasalia lifted that distinctly inelegant middle-class white-collar look from Sanders’s campaign headquarters and presented it asa new form of runway social realism, quite literally co-opting the senator’s campaign typography for Balenciaga’s use, emblazoning it across jackets and blanket scarves. In terms of timing, this was amissed opportunity for a runway-straight-to-retail strategy—but then again, it will be interesting to see how we feel about those Bernie references a few months from now when the clothes hit the shelves.

Vetements, Gvasalia’s original home, for which he still designs, activated a similar social realism. But in a crude simulacrum, it presented a moment of absence of fashion. Vetements’s “stereotypes” collection appeared like a visual appendix to Pierre Bourdieu’s famous 1979 empirical study of class influence and dressing, La distinction: Critique sociale du jugement, staged today. These looks stressed their status of being pre-deconstructed, going a step back to where Gvasalia’s intellectual fore-fathers like Bless, Maison Margiela, and Bernadette Corporation left off. The global corporate fashion network was exposed in the clothes’ details. For example, a denim vest embroidered with what appeared to be traditional heavy-metal patches carried the names of Vetements’s on- and offline distributors—among them Barneys, Colette, Ssense, and Mr Porter—recast in metal iconography. Here the multitude of retail carriers became exchangeable with the brand itself, and with the cultural capital it might pull on its towline.

This identity collapse points to the larger question of late capitalism’s market collusions: These multibrand sites are the same ones that are maneuvering to slowly replace independent fashion criticism through affiliated editorial platforms. (Jœrg Koch, the founder of Berlin fashion and art periodical and brand 032c, for example, was recently hired by Ssense as its new editor in chief, while former MyTheresa.com and Brioni designer Justin O’Shea is launching a line, somewhat menacingly called SSS World Corp, with 032c next month at the Paris shows that “unite[s] a street aesthetic with luxury sensibilities.”) These platforms are the new power concentration in the runway system, and the new location for the deconstruction of influence and the concept of a collection: Their buyers ultimately decide a designer’s representation in stores and have final editing power over his or her collections. Vetements smartly acknowledged and exposed this paradigm shift, allowing itself to be deconstructed.

All those advertorial collusions and high-low collabs may have finally reached their apex—or nadir—in the Louis Vuitton × Supreme collection, which transformed the subcultural/pop infringements of yore (from street to bling to haute) into an official and exemplary model of two brands collapsing into each other. This merger didn’t even try to invent new products or designs. It exists strictly on a corporate and symbolic level, simply printing the brands’ logos on top of one another on a range of already well-established products from each line. I am looking forward to the social reality of LV boutiques overrun by Supreme kids, interrupting the stores’ former 1-percenter daily grind.

The most politically effective collection this season was at Eckhaus Latta. This despite the complete absence of garments charged with political symbolism, so prevalent elsewhere on the runway, such as pink “pussy hats” (Missoni) or abbreviated sloganeering (Creatures of Comfort, Public School, Prabal Gurung, Christian Siriano, not to mention last season’s Dior, Acne Studios, and Opening Ceremony—the list is endless). Eckhaus Latta’s new looks best illustrated the zombification that has set in, postelection, after a mix of shock and exhaustion created an undeniable inner void for a whole generation. This emptiness was reflected by the washed-out color palette and offhand scribble prints that seemed to say, Nothing really matters anymore, but it matters to say that. A prancing drift between slight rebellion and new conformity was deeply inscribed in the outfits. The loose appropriation of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820–23, as a print on one of the long-sleeve shirts, tied together perfectly the knots of collective generational disappointment following recent political catastrophes and found an echo in the show’s casting. As usual, the art school–trained designers chose to mix models with nonmodels, but this year, the latter appeared to be drafted not from Eckhaus Latta’s immediate cultural peer group, but from a generation before them that had already earned its spurs in the “creative industry,” including artist Collier Schorr and stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington. I couldn’t help but see this entire collection as a dark presumption and subtle commentary by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, exemplified in one of the only texts on their garments that resembled something like a slogan, on a sweater worn by Schorr: IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?

David Lieske is an artist, the founder of Mathew Gallery in Berlin and New York, and a cofounder of 299 792 458 M/S magazine. He lives in New York.

This is a complimentary article from the May issue of Artforum. Subscribe to access the rest of the issue and our online archives.