Last week, the other ankle boot dropped. In the latest installment of fashion musical chairs, following the announcement of the departure of Nicolas Ghesquière from the helm of Balenciaga after 15 long years, Alex Wang was proclaimed official heir apparent. Thus begins the second transatlantic migration of Stateside talent to the capital of couture courtesy the PPR stable, Wang joining Hedi Slimane (Paris born, but LA based) who slid into his high perch at YSL last season.
First and foremost, I'd like to begin by drawing your attention to a recent article by Suzy Menkes in the Herald Tribune's Magazine, a rather cynical take on what she dub the "new, commodified attitude reign[ing] in the once genteel world of high fashion." What Menkes writes is without a doubt true, and in a digital age where the Twitterati rule and celebrity culture is king, creative directors rather than the products whose creation they direct have moved to the forefront of fashion. Like prominent pieces on a monochrome chessboard, the key players dose-doe, generating headlines and trending Twitter topics as they go, creating a "buzz" for the brands in question that are no doubt far more lucrative marketing-wise than even the flashiest, brashiest of campaigns or runway extravaganzas. In the case of Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent (or whatever nomenclature one is meant to reach for these days), you can read my less than savory thoughts here on HuffPo. In light of Suzy's postulating, I think that this coupling epitomises this so-called "commodification" in one of its least appealing manifestations. But in the case of Wang for Balenciaga, the result remains to be seen. Here's why.
Forecasting on the positive side, K-Stew bestie Ghesquière has already done a lot of the heavy lifting where brand revamp is concerned, transforming the traditional French couture house into a bastion of rottweiler-screen printed, bad-ass biker jacket cool, coveted by "edgy" celebrities and socialites from San Diego to Shanghai. Wang's own ethos, homegrown on the streets of Lower Manhattan and coveted by sidewalkers worldwide, is more of a natural fit aesthetically than Slimane's was for YSL. Accordingly, we are unlikely to see the same variety of 180 degree aesthetic whip-lashing that constituted the shift from Pilati to Hedi. We will be able to count on ample amounts of black, a grungy underpinning of futuristic luxe and some highly covetable accessories. In the spirit of house founder, couturier Cristobal, Wang is likely to tick the signature boxes of stark simplicity, streamlined silhouettes, fluid lines and innovative waist-lines quite well.
But then comes the question of Wang's tenderness of age. Unlike Slimane, who of course held the reigns of Dior Homme for a good seven years, 28-year-old Alex has never faced the task of submerging his vision to blend harmoniously with the heritage a revered house. Much like the late Lee McQueen at Givenchy (with whom he shares the name Alexander), at this stage of his career, Wang is a talented up-and-comer displaying promise unbound but untempered by the longevity of big gun commercial experience. His eponymous ready to wear label was launched in 2007 and he only opened his first stand-alone store in 2011. Balenciaga, by contrast, operates boutiques in over two dozen countries. The uptick in commercial scale and market responsibility is considerable.
If historical antecedents provide any insight, one need only look to the disaster that was Lee McQueen's five year tenure at Givenchy (1997-2001). Besides Lee's laments that the Parisian fashion house stymied his creativity, as Menkes rightly points out, McQueen leveraged his time at LVMH-owned Givenchy to lure the affections of rival PPR for substantial investment for his own, eponymous line, thus fostering a "sense of distrust and fear of being discarded [that] is a two-way problem." One is just as likely to discard the other when a better, more self-serving opportunity comes along; it's the business of fashion. Wang is well on his way to becoming, like Lee, a flagship brand for his nation's fashion industry, epitomising what it means to be an American designer today and many years to come. An elevation in prominence worldwide vis a vis the securing of the Balenciaga helmsmanship will at once detract from the building of the legacy of his own brand but also make Alexander Wang, the man and the label, a brand more appealing for large-scale investment.
Moving to potential personal consequences, Menkes writes: "within the fashion world there are many other open secrets about drug and alcohol addiction. Without the support of a 'family' -- actual or composed of loyal friends -- the designers are sent off to rehab or may just quietly leave." Case in point: one Monsieur John Galliano. The demands of eight collections per year per brand (Wang heads up two if you don't count his diffusion "T"), are mentally staggering. And we all know that our dear Alex (bless him and his blow-out NYFW after parties) loves to toss those long locks, drink in hand, late into the night. For someone so young who already has a reputation for being a bit of a party boy, the pressures to rise above and navigate the treachery of the road ahead will be watched closely.
So the question remains: who will emerge all the better from this pairing? Or will the match sail on smoothly to the tune of Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton a decade plus on? Can Alex successfully navigate this cross-pollination, keeping the flame of Balenciaga alive without allowing his own line to suffer, or converging them into one giant collection that shows half in New York at calendar's start and half in Paris at its end? Bright young things for bold old brands may seem like a good idea from both designer and conglomerate stand-point, especially as the commodifcation of our little industry marches right along. But if harbingers of the past can issue any words of warning to would be stallions, chomping at the bit of their newer, posher, Frencher stables, it's that the strong and steady steed, well-trained and capable of testing the limits without burning out, is the one worth putting money on.
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