Whenever I get to talking about languages and fashion, and which languages are “important” for a career in fashion, people naturally cite French as very important. This seems problematic for me seeing as I only have mediocre Spanish, so-so Arabic and know a few greetings in Korean. Having never studied any French formally, I realize that my command of French is basically limited to desserts, swear words and mistranslations like “frappe la route” (hit the road!), none of which will help me much in international fashion circles. But even so, things might turn out okay for me considering that these days, Paris isn’t the nucleus of fashion anymore. From Mumbai Fashion Week to luxury fashion houses out of Shanghai and Dubai, the source of elegance is more nebulous in the world market. The historic roots of French style leadership, however, are full blown.
Beginning with Louis XVI, the export of aesthetics has formed an important part of the French economy. From our colonial origins until World War II, in fact, American tastemakers have turned to France for ideas. In the 1930s and 1940s it was a common economic transaction for American fashion editors to travel to France for fashion shows, buy garments and pay a “caution” to the designer in order to rip them off for the mass market back home. However, between rations and flight restrictions, the world war prevented this exchange and the American fashion industry was forced to swallow and look inward. American ideas? American innovation? American fashion? If America has a national identity I like to think it is ingenuity, and this is what it took to propel the new system forward.
Faced with this blockade, American art publicist Eleanor Lambert rallied the newspapers and magazines around something called “Press Week” to convince fashion editors to look seriously at American designers, previously seen as uninteresting. Apparently Ms. Lambert was a big deal and had been involved with founding New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and promoting Jackson Pollock and Isamu Noguchi and other American artists abroad. She knew how to market America as an international cultural power. Beginning with a fashion week, she branched out by working with the State Department to show American designs in Europe and Asia, culminating in a Franco-American fashion show at Versailles in 1973 to symbolize our equivalency and collaboration. (I’m picturing French Yves Saint Laurent-clad and American Halston-clad models dancing together to ABBA in the gilded halls of the French monarchy under a platinum disco ball! Let’s do this again soon, okay Sarkozy?). However, Lambert’s efforts paid off, and New York Fashion Week, as it became known, has been running consecutively for 67 years.
Previously held in scattered private studios, the shows were officially staged together for the first time in 1994, in the sweet park behind The New York Public Library, called Bryant Park. Having outgrown this space, the Council of Fashion Designers of America president Diane von Furstenburg, in collaboration with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has moved the shows to Lincoln Center this year and the first models will fill the runway tomorrow morning. Lambert herself would have liked this placement of fashion, on par with other cultural establishments, at the Lincoln Center — home to The New York Philharmonic, The New York City Ballet and The Juilliard School. The staging of this event, which will bring hundreds of millions of dollars of direct revenue and hundred of thousands of visitors into the city, not to mention lots of champagne and cocaine, is a testament to the economic scale of American fashion. Of course, France is still a luxury-goods powerhouse, and still a source of inspiration, but it’s worth noting that New York Fashion Week began as an improvised way to showcase American designers own work instead of turning abroad. Lambert’s original question stands, can America be seen internationally as a generator of innovation, and furthermore, can Americans see fashion as a culturally relevant institution within the country?
The move to Lincoln Center demonstrates the cultural contingent of America is convinced, but moving from New York to Washington, D.C., there are also legal issues to be broached with the estimation of fashion as a cultural asset. American fashion designers have had a much harder time than other designers in receiving copyright protection for their innovative work. According to the US Copyright office website, the matter was first brought before Congress in 1914, and has since been brought up several times, including the latest appeal in August 2010. The legal jargon makes a distinction between a “useful article” and a piece of “applied art” — fashion falls between the two in some cases, and the current proposal appeals to an article regarding boat hull design (which itself embodies style and function) that lawmakers believe can be tweaked to apply to garments. In the official documents, the US Copyright office asserts that it just doesn’t have enough evidence yet but it is open to considering this law.
While New York has engaged fashion in a symbiotic embrace and D.C. is cautious to even give it a legal definition, the audience in the front row is left to decide whether the work itself merits the attention. And the front row is everyone, with the dawn of Style.com and the blurring of expertise between elite editors and street-scouring bloggers. You can decided whether it is, as the French would say, comme il faut, or in fact chic, au courant, or even avant-garde.