The Genteel
February 25, 2021


Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, founder of Chanel, is buried in Lausanne, Switzerland. The image on the right depicts Coco in her usual attire: pearls, a cigarette and black jersey". (Source: Flickr, Ballyshannon).

A Cologne court recently sentenced a group of four art forgers to prison for painting, and later selling, art works they falsely claimed were by famous artists Max Ernst and Fernand Léger. Similarly, earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, Roland Emmerich premiered Anonymous, a film that attempts to flesh out the age-old suspicion that Edward de Vere is the real author of Shakespeare's oeuvre. In the art world, authenticity is contingent on the recognized artist being the sole creative entity behind a work of art bearing his or her name. But in the fashion industry, it's possible for Sarah Burton to design an Alexander McQueen piece. On April 29, 2011, Catherine Middleton married Prince William wearing a dress McQueen himself never saw or touched, given his shocking death one year earlier. And yet, Middleton's ivory gown with the V-neck décolleté, long lace sleeves and colossal six-foot train will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most important dresses to ever bear his name. Instead of being condemned for forgery, Sarah Burton, the actual designer of the dress, was hailed a fashion messiah. In fact, the dress snagged Burton Harper’s Bazaar's prestigious Designer of the Year Award a few months after the royal nuptials.

The posthumous success of a fashion designer is a game of surrender for both the house left behind and its new creative director. The real question is: who wins?

So why do fashion designers get a pass whereas other artists do not? Blame it on Mickey Mouse. In Dana Thomas' Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, she painstakingly explains how the phenomenon of licensing was one of the first steps towards the end of couture's golden age, and the subsequent death of that rare thing called luxury. Christian Dior was a licensing pioneer. Upon seeing the success of Walt Disney, who enlisted other companies to turn out Mickey Mouse paraphernalia, Dior envisioned a similar model for his fashion house. During the 1940s, he licensed the Dior name and its designs to middle-market manufacturers in the United States. The manufacturers would pay Dior a one-time fee of $2,000, plus royalties and then produce and sell authorized replica dresses and suits for $50. The emergence of the middle-market and its newfound desire for luxury propelled designers into a licensing frenzy. Dior had his name on everything from perfumes to eyeglasses. Yves Saint Laurent introduced his ready-to-wear line, Rive Gauche, which targeted those who were too young - and too poor - to wear couture. "With the advent of licensing names, the fragrance business began to grow, and couture diminished rapidly," writes Thomas. Whether they knew it at the time or not, veteran couturiers opened the door for business tycoons to take licensing and ready-to-wear to the next (financial) level. In a matter of a few decades, the establishment of luxury groups - an umbrella term used to define a group of brands owned by one company - transformed what used to be an industry of small couture houses run by couturiers and their families into billion-dollar corporations. People like Bernard Arnault, LVMH's crowned king, bought out multiple brands, gave original owners the boot, hired young designers to revamp brands, pushed handbags to the fore, cut down on quality, moved production to China (unbeknownst to consumers) and exalted the possession of luxury pieces to the level of godliness through million dollar advertisements.

Craftsman cutting crocodile at the
Hermès leather factory
(Source: Jonathan Blair/CORBIS).

Luxury, as we've come to know it today, is all about profits and very few houses, Hermès being one of them, have resisted the temptation to streamline production in order to increase profits. The Birkin bag, for example, is still made entirely by hand at the Hermès special workshop in Patin, a Parisian suburb, and requires about fifteen hours of workmanship per bag. 

The posthumous deification of the leading names in luxury fashion is a curious phenomenon. Designers (or creative directors as they like to be called) brought on board from the outside have changed the meaning of authenticity and, not unlike the above examples of the forged paintings and Shakespeare, authorship. In the fashion world, the definition of authenticity goes beyond the transient lifetimes of Coco, Cristobal, Christian, Yves and Alexander. Thus, an Alexander McQueen piece is still 100 per cent authentic after McQueen's death if designed by Sarah Burton and produced (hypothetically) entirely by a few girls on an assembly line in China with all profits going to Gucci Group. A McQueen is not authentic, however, if a skilled silk-screen artisan makes a replica that he or she later tries to sell on eBay. It can be argued, however, that both scarves are forgeries, albeit of different degrees: the former just happens to protected by the law while the latter infringes upon those protections. Jeffrey Monteiro, Creative Director of Bill Blass, told that for the S/S 2012 season, he "as always, turned to the considerable archives when putting the collection together". In the fashion industry then, a designer's name is of utmost value - even after death - so much so that other people are enlisted to continue producing collections long afterwards. These "other people" are given incredible creative access to designs, materials, archives and, of course, the name.

There's no denying the talents of Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquière, Sarah Burton, Gianfranco Ferrè, John Galliano, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Christopher Kane and the slew of other designers hired as creative directors. In fact, some of the greatest designs have come out of luxury fashion houses long after their founders have passed away. However, could Monteiro make the kind of clothing that is, each season, rooted in the historical milieu of 20th century American fashion without the name Bill Blass? It was never called the Lagerfeld 2.55 flap bag or the Ghesquière Giant City bag, or the Sarah Burton skull clutch.

It's a catch-22, at best. The posthumous success of a fashion designer is a game of surrender for both the house left behind and its new creative director. The real question is: who wins?




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