“In a way, I don’t think I am a fashion designer,” Raf Simons told the New York Times this fall. This echoed an interview he did some 10 years prior with Interview Magazine, in which he stated, "I never feel I am a fashion designer. I have even found it problematic that the world defines me as a fashion designer. To me it's more like, ‘Yes, it is what I do now,’ but it's far from my only interest, and I could see myself doing so many other things than fashion." Back in 2018, he told the Times that art, for instance, is higher up on the list of things that are “important” to him than fashion is, noting that “in fashion, the actual practice of being a designer has changed so much.”
Simons is the latest in a string of figures in high places attempting to distance themselves from the title of fashion designer. Virgil Abloh similarly told Vanity Fair this summer that the mantle of “fashion designer” has been a difficult one for him to accept. In that interview, Abloh went so far as to say, plainly, “I’m not a designer.” The Louis Vuitton menswear director has, after all, been rather straightforward – both in terms of his work and his interviews – about the fact that he is more into the idea of “editing” – and incorporating “pre-existing intellectual property into his reference system,” as 032c put it – than “designing and operating from scratch.”
Still yet, at the 2018 Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards, Supreme founder James Jebbia refused to call himself a “designer” while accepting the Best Menswear Design trophy. “I’ve never considered Supreme to be a fashion company or myself a designer. That is what Jebbia said on stage at a fashion design awards event – fashion design trophy in hand – in June.
Practically speaking, it makes sense that Simons, Abloh, and Jebbia do not necessarily subscribe to the traditional “fashion designer” phraseology, since they are not formally educated or trained fashion designers. Simons has an educational background in industrial design; Abloh is an architect-by-education and creative/DJ by trade; and Jebbia, a skater, more-or-less got his start at 19 by screen-printing t-shirts.
But beyond that, their positions speak to a larger movement, one that gives rise to the question: Is it that fashion designers do not want to be designers anymore? In Simons’ case, that might be true; he rather notoriously hates the speed and corporatized nature of the global industry. That may also be true of others, who have also voiced criticism of the modern fashion system, which is, in large part dominated by the balance sheet and corporate concerns. “I think if I had more time, I would reject more things, and bring other ideas or concepts in,” Simons said in an interview for the Autumn/Winter 2015 issue of System magazine.
Before that, Louis Vuitton director Nicolas Ghesquiere, on the heels of his tenure at Balenciaga, lamented the evolution of the modern fashion system (as embodied by Balenciaga at the time), telling System in 2013 about his distaste for the “lack of culture,” the attempts to “homogenize things,” and the overarching focus on “branding” and on turning everything into “an asset for the brand.”
Former Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz stated in a discussion in 2016 that “something needs to change” in the fashion industry, as “designers are not computers. You can't just push a button and say, 'OK be creative.'"
These specific industry issues – which seem to make it less and less about creativity and the art of garment designing (who has the time for that when Instagram is demanding logos and other tribe-enabling signifiers?) and more about revenue and social media buzz – have certainly served to polarize the players within the fashion system. But aside from that – or maybe because of that(?) and because of the nature of the increasingly small/digitally connected modern world – it appears that individuals are not swearing off the industry, but instead, no longer subscribe to the notion of being boxed in by the traditional understanding of the title of fashion designer, which also makes sense.
After all, fashion has never just been about fashion, at least not in theory. It is about life, the time and conditions in which it exists; it is about its wearers and how they differ – and demand different things from fashion – than those that preceded them. As such, fashion design should naturally spill over into larger pools of style, culture, and beyond.
With this in mind, it is not necessarily supposed to be an industry that is closed off from other mediums or other industries. This is something that Abloh – who is currently collaborating with Nike, water company Evian, and bicoastal matcha outpost Cha Cha Matcha, and in the past, has put his name and signature on everything from Ikea furniture and Rimowa luggage to Dr. Martens boots and Warby Parker glasses – touched upon in a discussion at Art Basel in Miami, describing his work and saying that in order to really understand fashion, “we need to get closer to non-fashion areas.”
This seems obvious (even if fashion designers for decades have been happy to occupy rather singular roles) – and this mindset is becoming increasingly clear as more designers engage in extra-industry projects.
This notion of fashion designers as more than just fashion designers also likely speaks to the fact that, as the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman put it this spring, “the definition of a designer is changing.” Mr. Jebbia’s win at the CFDA Awards was, she said at the time, is “the most potent expression of that shift.” The growing unwillingness of individuals to simply hold one title – fashion designer as we traditionally understand it – and act accordingly seems to be a pretty powerful indicator, as well.
So, welcome to the modern fashion designer, who we will not call a fashion designer at all.