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Fashion Crimes: The BIG Debate
Local fashion experts spar over branding and blogging at the ROM

Last night, to coincide with the textile exhibition “BIG,” the Royal Ontario Museum welcomed local fashion experts for a panel titled “Fashion Crimes: The Big Debate.” Moderated by former Fashion Television host Jeanne Beker, the panelists represented the range of the industry–designer Jeremy Laing, Ryerson University Chair of Fashion Robert Ott, branding and fashion lawyer Ashlee Froese, and Hudson’s Bay Company Vice President and Buying Director Nicholas Mellamphy.

After Beker’s exuberant introductions (she almost ran out of breath listing everyone’s titles), the moderator delved right into the night’s first topic clearly chosen to stir things up: Fast fashion.

“By its nature, fashion is fast,” the soft-spoken Laing said, not taking Beker’s lead to discuss retail giants like H&M and Zara. He explained that fashion had always been fast, but recent technological developments turned the industry into a rolling stone, always picking up speed.

The charming and confident Ott questioned the use of the term ‘fast fashion.’ “When you put a label on something, people see it as a problem. I don’t think it’s a problem.” He explained most of Ryerson’s fashion students won’t go on to become designers, but luckily the industry was now large and varied enough to absorb many of them.

Froese, Vice Chair of the Toronto Intellectual Property Group and board member of Fashion Group International, said designers can choose to ignore fast fashion, or work with companies like H&M to create licensing regimes: “It’s better to play the game, make money, and not get ripped off.”

“Anything you get press for gets ripped off,” Laing said. “My site has analytics–I know which companies look at it in Sweden.”

Froese brought up the theory that knockoffs are what push fashion forward, and Laing agreed. “I’ll just do something different next season,” he conceded.

Ott criticized the proliferation of designer diffusion lines (“There’s a lack of authenticity there”) as well as celebrity designers who don’t know how to drape a piece of fabric. Laing countered that many at the top of the fashion pyramid don’t do the sewing themselves. “There’s a sketch and a whiff of chiffon, and that’s all a courturier has to do.”

Just as the panelists were getting comfortable disagreeing with each other, Beker switched topics to marketing and branding. Froese sounded simultaneously professional and philosophical when he said, “In order to have a good brand a designer really has to know who they are.”

Laing, the only designer on the panel, admitted to being uncomfortable with the concept of brands; “I would never wear clothes that said something on them.”

“You can’t invent a brand over night,” Ott began, before Mellamphy interrupted to say you could. But Ott, whose previous experience was in strategic positioning of corporate brands, pushed on. He argued that the most successful brands start out as ideas. Eventually, they are viewed by enough of the public as authentic that they’re accepted as brands. The buying public likes familiar companies and labels. “We don’t like radical change in fashion.”

The group seamlessly transitioned to talking about fashion media, a topic that stretched out for the rest of the evening.

“You have to be hustling all the time,” Ott said. “If you’re not in the news, you’re over.” For that reason he said Ryerson now teaches fashion students how to talk about their work and encourages them to make videos for YouTube. The line between designer and celebrity is ever blurring. “People want to know whom they’re buying from,” he explained.

Beker went out of her way to explain that she welcomed star blogger Tavi Gevinson to the industry (telling the story of how she handed her the microphone at a fashion show and allowed her to interview for TV), but wondered if we’re overloaded with fashion blogs. She turned to Laing and asked where he got his fashion news.

“I don’t any more,” he answered. “I might look at a magazine…if I’m in it.” The designer predicted an upcoming backlash. “People will get sick of dressing for the internet.”

Beker exclaimed, “All the fashion communications students want my job…or my old job. I don’t know what my job is anymore!” That comment sent the panelists off with ruminations on where fashion media has been and where it’s going.

Ott said it’s a bit like the Wild West right now. It’s his students’ opportunity and responsibility to assert themselves as the new style arbiters and experts. Beker waxed nostalgically about the extravagant, romantic shows of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano that she covered for Fashion Television. She wondered why shows got so much smaller.

“Those shows were designed for your cameras,” Laing pointed out. Without the same TV coverage, there’s no reason to stage a runway show as spectacle. “Now, fashion shows are designed for Instagram.”

The young designer also pointed out that McQueen and Galliano’s early presentations coincided with the takeover of the couture industry by luxury conglomerates. Maybe the companies that had cash to burn in the 1990’s don’t have the same need or desire for publicity today.

Continuing to talk about Instagram, Mellamphy said that when fashion followers see runway shows too quickly it affects sales. “By the time it reaches the stores, people already want the next season.” When the subject of too many simultaneous trends came up, Beker surprised the audience by declaring trends “kind of B.S.”– but she still plays along with them.

The discussion wrapped up faster than I expected, but if you feel a symposium could have been longer it means it was a success. In particular, I could have listened to a lot more from Froese, who spoke succinctly and insightfully on the legal issues that mainstream fashion press rarely delve into. Topics from the overview the panelists forgot about–pressures of the industry, being a Canadian in fashion (leaving that out was probably for the best), and the use of animal fur (ditto).

Considering the setting, it was odd the panelists didn’t discuss the recent success of fashion exhibits at museums and art galleries. Given the connection to the BIG show, perhaps they didn’t want to open the contentious issue, but the fashion industry has nothing to lose by partnering with institutions like the ROM. The museum, on the other hand, shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. When one of the panelists discussing online culture questioned if anyone still cared about “real things,” Dr. Alexandra Palmer, co-curator of BIG, chimed in.

“We do here at the museum. We specialize in ‘real things.’” That got the biggest applause of the night. 

____

Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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