The Death of the Designer

Olivia Dean 16 September 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Success in couture demands good name. Not in a chaste Jane Austen fluttering-of-fans way, but in that the highest grossing brands are fronted by a single moniker synonymous with impeccable design. Often charismatic, Marmite personalities (remember Karl Lagerfeld, who declared that sweatpants were a sign of having given up on life), they have the capacity to become something of a personality cult that usually propagates itself without a hitch: couturiers translate their personas into their collections, cultivating a singularity of design that diversifies the market and allows for freedom of expression.

“Often charismatic, Marmite personalities (remember Karl Lagerfeld, who declared that sweatpants were a sign of having given up on life), they have the capacity to become something of a personality cult that usually propagates itself without a hitch…”

Yet with more than just a hint of physiognomic blind trust we assume that respected design demands a respected designer. The nebulous pretention of artistic talent engenders a divide between creative process and your average Joe – it’s just the same as if you asked a poet how they translate reality into such technical brilliance: mystery lends them their allure. Designers are thus dehumanised, whittled down into a venerated talent from the human with agency that they are.

Perhaps this is why the House of Chanel continue to capitalise on their legendary reputation as the arbiter of Parisienne style. Their late foundress, one of the most recognisable faces in the fashion world, is plastered across their branding. Their handbags fasten with a plaque bearing her ‘CC’ initials. Perfumes Coco and Gabrielle bear her nickname and Christian name respectively. Who’d have known she was sleeping with prominent Nazis throughout their World War Two occupation of Paris! Rest assured, Coco rinsed the fascists however she could. The Wertheimer brothers owned the rights to her iconic No 5 perfume—that is, until she used their Jewish faith to try to claim the profits back for herself. She employed 4000 workers at her Rue Cambon atelier– that is, until she used the excuse of the war to fire many of them after a strike the previous year. Living at the Ritz, the headquarters of the occupying German forces, she embarked on an affair with prominent Nazi von Dincklage. Avoiding prosecution as a collaborator at the end of the war only with the interference of none other than our very own Winston Churchill, her brand continues to thrive. As always, the call of capital gain leads France to gloss over the dirty little secret of one of their largest exports. The soil in Marx’s grave churns with all his turning.

“As always, the call of capital gain leads France to gloss over the dirty little secret of one of their largest exports. The soil in Marx’s grave churns with all his turning…”

To give Chanel her dues, as one of the first female couturiers she used her influence to liberate women through clothing: her ‘Boy’ silhouette didn’t require a corset, skirts were shortened to allow the wearer to get in and out of cars. Up until then, ateliers were pretty much all male, their fantasy for how the woman should look erasing considerations of comfort and practicality. Back then, trends were dictated by the male gaze, whereas now, catwalks have become something of a walking art installation. Form flattery and good tailoring is lost to design that, whilst utterly beautiful, sits on the fairies’ side of reality. This is just as noxious as 20-inch waist corsets. You don’t see the same level of conceptual impracticality in menswear shows: whether it’s subconscious or not women are still objects to be dressed like Barbies—watch the clip of Naomi Campbell falling over walking for Alexander McQueen in 9 inch heels on YouTube and you’ll understand that these clothes are rarely made for walking. Responsible design usually means sustainability, but a social conscience is just as important.

Take Dior for example. Christian Dior’s original mission was to design clothing to accentuate and flatter the woman, the “most beautiful creation of them all”. The creative directors that succeeded him interpreted this in an increasingly fetishized manner, pinnacling with John Galliano’s violently sexual designs in the nineties. It wasn’t until Maria Grazia Chiuri took the helm in 2018 that the house realised the platform it had for social comment: her debut collection featured quotes from Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s essay We Should All Be Feminists, whilst her aesthetic is refreshingly fluid and feminine. Dressing the woman as a being rather than an object, she sees her responsibility to provide practical clothing for modern women.

The issue is that ageing ateliers grant their design teams anonymity. Bearing the name of their long-dead venerated founders grants designers a carte blanche to create without conscience, to separate themselves from the name on the label. Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” theorises that the author is irrelevant once his writing is published. Can the designer be given the same get out of jail free card? Can we appreciate fashion without considering its origins or impact? With all due respect to Barthes, not a cat in hell’s chance. No art form can ever be discrete, as its essence as an imitation of life bonds it inextricably to reality. And aren’t we all grown up enough to realise that a pretty dress doesn’t justify pardoning rampant anti-Semitism? So perhaps good name should reclaim its Austenian meaning in couture and hold the designer accountable: we’re all human, after all.

Do you agree that fashion should be considered within its historical and cultural context? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject “Letter to the Editor”!