European fashion
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European fashion

The creation of a global industry

Regina Lee Blaszczyk

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eBook - ePub

European fashion

The creation of a global industry

Regina Lee Blaszczyk

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About This Book

The period since 1945 has been a transformative era for the fashion industry. Over the course of seventy years, the fashion world has moved from celebrating the craftsmanship of haute couture to revelling in ever-changing fast-fashion. This volume examines the transition from the old system to the new in a series of case studies grouped around three major themes. Part I focuses on Paris as a creative hub, aiming to understand how the birthplace of haute couture adapted to late-twentieth-century developments. Part II considers the retailer's role in shaping taste, responding to consumer expectations and disseminating fashion merchandise. Part III looks to alternative visions of the European fashion system that have appeared in unexpected places. The volume is highly interdisciplinary, covering design history, cultural anthropology, ethnography, management studies and the cultural history of business.

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Fashion as enterprise

Regina Lee Blaszczyk and Véronique Pouillard

Pierre Cardin, a young Parisian couturier born in Italy, designed the coat dress on the cover of this book (figure 1.1). In his early years, Cardin had been the director of tailoring at the house of Christian Dior, the firm that helped to orchestrate the comeback of haute couture during the postwar era. In 1948, when it became apparent that Christian Dior’s designs were being leaked to mass-market garment manufacturers, the French police interrogated Cardin at length. The young designer was found innocent, but he was deeply offended by the episode. When starting his own business in the 1950s, Cardin innovated and designed fashions that embodied a hopeful future for the postwar consumer. In 1959, he was banned from the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne – the trade association for the haute couture industry that had been established in 1868 – for having designed for All Printemps, one of the large department stores on boulevard Haussmann in Paris. Although Cardin was eventually welcomed back to the Chambre Syndicale, his eyes were fixed on a broader clientele. In the transformative times of the 1950s and 1960s, the old system of haute couture was challenged by the demands of consumer culture. Cardin licensed his brand more widely than any couturier before him, putting the name of Pierre Cardin before the masses.1
Our cover photo from February 1961 is more than a picture of an outfit designed by Pierre Cardin. The image embodies the complexities of the European fashion system and speaks to its place in the new global order that was in its infancy in the postwar years. At first glance, the picture looks to be a publicity photograph taken in a well-heeled Paris suburb to advertise a new collection. However, the picture is not from the archive of Pierre Cardin, but from the vast collection of business records from the American chemical giant, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, of Wilmington, Delaware. As the world’s largest manufacturer of synthetic fibre, the DuPont Company was one of the invisible players in the international fashion-industrial complex of the postwar era. To build consumer trust in man-made materials, DuPont routinely collaborated with French textile mills and couturiers in the Chambre Syndicale to showcase fabrics made from its synthetic fibres. The coat dress by Pierre Cardin was made from a Lesur fabric woven from lightweight Shetland wool blended with Orlon acrylic, a synthetic wool by DuPont.2 If we took the picture at face value, we would only see yet another Parisian costume. But when we look deeper, a far more complex and interesting story emerges.
The new fashion scene
The seventy years that followed World War II witnessed the demise of the old European fashion hierarchy that dated from the mid-1800s. For more than a century, elite haute couture houses, most of them members of the Chambre Syndicale, had dominated Western fashion. In 1858, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth and his young Swedish business partner, Otto Gustaf Bobergh, set up a fashion salon on the rue de la Paix in Paris. This enterprise, Worth and Bobergh, was the first haute couture house to be run on modern principles. Previously, elite dressmakers had collaborated with wealthy clients on the design of a personalized costume. Under the system introduced by Worth, the couturier – or the couturiere (a female designer) – presented the client with an original creation that was the product of his or her imagination.3 In the United States, extremely expensive couture outfits worn by the European social elite were described and illustrated in Godey’s Lady’s Book and emulated by fashion-conscious consumers within their budgets. The story was much the same in other Western consumer societies, from Britain to Germany.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen and the German sociologist Georg Simmel theorized about the global power of fashion centres. Paris ruled over women’s fashion, while London was the capital of men’s tailoring. Veblen observed that fashion was essential to the display of social status and to the emulation of one’s social betters.4 Simmel emphasized the trickle-down movement of fashion. No sooner were designs emulated by the lower ranks than they were abandoned by the elites for newer, more distinctive styles.5 These theorists were fascinated by fashion because it underpinned and reflected the social hierarchy, and because ‘the masses’ seemed so willing to emulate fashions worn by ‘the classes’. While fashion came to encompass a more diverse range of consumer products, including home furnishings, it was particularly powerful in female dress. Men’s wear and children’s attire, although they also followed fashion, overall changed less markedly and less quickly than women’s attire.
More recently, the eminent American sociologist, Diana Crane, observed that a major shift in consumption and meaning occurred within the fashion system in the mid-twentieth century. Fashion went from being an emblem of high social status to being a commodity that could be enjoyed by nearly everyone in the West.6 Ready-to-wear triumphed over custom-made dresses, whether the consumer was a Danish princess who was fitted for her evening gowns in a Parisian couture salon or a British schoolteacher who sewed her own clothes. The casual look, developed in response to changing lifestyles, became the new order of the day. Affordable easy-going outfits were made possible by advanced technologies such as synthetic fibres and high-speed knitting machines, by young designers concerned to create styles that embodied modernity, and eventually, by outsourcing production from Europe and North America to low-wage economies in North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
In 1999, Teri Agins, the senior fashion reporter at the Wall Street Journal, sized up the American scene in The End of Fashion. The American woman, who in the postwar years had been celebrated as the ‘best dressed woman in the world’, now drove to the mall in a velour tracksuit, trainers, and a pink baseball cap. Elegance had disappeared, a result of the casualization of everyday life.7 More recently, the Paris-based fashion forecaster, Lidewij ‘Li’ Edelkoort, issued her manifesto on the state of European fashion, similarly declaring the end of an era. ‘It’s the end of fashion as we know it’, she told Dezeen in March 2015. ‘Fashion with a big F is no longer there … Actually the comeback of couture, which I’m predicting, could bring us a host of new ideas of how to handle the idea of clothes. And maybe from these ashes another system will be born … fashion has become a way to say “cool”. And it’s no longer addressing clothes.’8 Edelkoort’s predictions followed on the heels of the growing popularity of ‘normcore’, a unisex clothing style in part popularized by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs. Normcore aficionados have rejected sartorial rules for bland everyday clothing that is practical and anonymous: T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. The goal is to buck the idea that fashion is a vehicle for expressing difference, and to use clothing as a form of camouflage, as a tool for blending into the crowd.9 As historians, we are less concerned with the latest dictates circulating on the Web than with the broad historical developments that transformed the fashion business from 1945 to the present. We contend that the postwar shakeup in Paris did not result in the end of fashion, but gave birth to an ever-powerful and increasingly global fashion industry. The hegemony of Paris and prescriptive modes of dress were replaced by a global network of intermediaries and ‘fashion for everyone’.
In this transformation, the old couture houses shut their doors, and the rue de la Paix lost some of its cachet. However, for most consumers, the world of fashion changed for the better. Fashion became less elitist and more democratic. In the first two decades after World War II, clothing was still expensive, and consumers thought of new apparel as an investment. It was still common for the average European woman to get fitted for her clothes by a local seamstress or to make her own dresses at home. As Europe recovered from the war, these practices gave way to the convenience of buying readymade fashion in the shops. Starting in the 1960s when the Dutch-owned chain retailer, C&A Modes, introduced an early version of ‘fast fashion’ to teenagers in Mod London, more and more consumers had access to clothing that was created to be worn for a season or two and then discarded.10 One unintended consequence of the ramping up of the fashion cycle was the emergence of the used clothing trade and the recycling business, mainly but not exclusively in developing countries. Consumers in the city of Ndola on the Copperbelt of Zambia in Africa rummaged through second-hand clothing stores that stocked discarded Western clothing, while industrial workers in Italy shredded imported American rags to create recycled fibres that the Prato woollen industry would mix with virgin wool to create stylish fabrics for global export.11 One person’s discarded fashion was another person’s treasure, or the fibres were reborn as a jacket available from such diverse companies as the activewear producer The North Face and the creative label Vetements, two prominent brands in the new fashion system.
This book shifts the debate on fashion from the broader culture to the internal culture of the fashion trade – and then returns to the broader culture by explaining the significance of value creation for the fashion industry. While creators and designers of fashion have been the subject of many stimulating studies, this book reconnects the two faces of the fashion system: the designer who stands in the spotlight and the manager who works in the shadows. The history of entrepreneurs, with their charge of strategies, risk, and experimentation – and their failures – complements the more visible creativity of the designer. This book emphasizes the work of fashion professionals who worked behind-the-scenes as intermediaries: trendsetters, retail buyers, stylists, art directors, advertising executives, public relations agents, brand managers, and entrepreneurs. The celebrities of postwar and contemporary fashion, from Elsa Schiaparelli to Karl Lagerfeld, have received their fair share of coverage in the fashion literature. Editors and socialites, from Diana Vreeland to Anna Wintour, are also household names among fashion bloggers and their fashionista followers. In contrast, the intermediaries who served as information brokers and negotiators within the fashion system were omnipresent but often invisible. Their names are lesser-known in the annals of fashion history: Jean d’Allens, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, Erling Persson, Maurice Rentner, Margareta van den Bosch, and Harriet Wilinsky, among others. This constellation of actors was characterized by a cosmopolitan outlook, an openness to new modes of operation, and the acknowledgement that women had something to say about fashion, not simply as consumers, but as fashion buyers, executives, and leaders. It is crucial to understand the role of these actors in order to fathom the process of value creation in the fashion industry.
Fashion, a cultural and economic activity
Over the course of the last seventy years, the European fashion business has moved from celebrating the craftsmanship of haute couture to revelling in ever-changing fast fashion, from everyday elegance to everyday casual (figure 1.2). This book examines the transition from the old system to the new in a series of case studies grouped around three major themes. Part I of the book deals with the transformation of Paris from a couture production centre to a creative hub for design and brand management. Part II examines the special role of retailers and retail brands in promoting European fashion, with reference to transnational exchanges between Europe, America, and the wider world. Part III explores seminal development...

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