3 cases in point: Victoria Beckham, The Row by the Olsen twins, and Alexander Wang.
All 3 are considered designers by the press and that's supported by retail stores. The old definition of a designer has been stretched , reshaped and repackaged. 2 out of the 3 don't really fit the old mold. The definition of a designer until just a few years (3-4) ago was a creator of new ideas. That person or group of people came up with an idea, had it made or made it themselves and then showed it to stores to buy or had a runway show for the press and buyers. For the most part , these were people who passionately believed in the craft and business of fashion. Their particular take on what was new and important and missing in the market was their driving force. Then celebrities got into the game. It seemed that their credibility as stars wasn't complete without a line of clothes or cosmetics. Their stardom was considered by them synonymous with being style arbiters. That's how a Victoria Beckham could come to be.
Allspice or my favorite nickname, Pepper Spray, was a Spice Girl. She married a footballer and then started showing up at fashion shows. Her appearances were always choreographed for maximum mystery ...at least for any lens that was within a few hundred feet. Her coy, in your face, yet paparazzi phobic sort of posturing was pure bait. It seemed like anything for a picture and preferably a picture that showed her to be somehow annoyed with the attention. When that got old, like a speeding bullet, Victoria announced that she was not just an ex show girl, or model ,or the richest pro athlete's wife, but now a Designer. I should have seen it coming. What the hell, everyone and his neighbor's best friend's second cousin is.
What bugged me about this addition to her resume was that it was born overnight. One moment she's a model the next a creator. The first collection which was a sad rack of a dozen poorly made dresses, shot on a very sad faced model in front of a door, were taken seriously by the press and buyers. Why? Well because its Pepper Spray sharing her secrets to high voltage glamor. No one cared that she basically made a group of really tired dresses which were poor copies of the looks she's usually seen in with a few truly regrettable attempts at broadening the range. Then Roland Mouret is enlisted to crank it out for her. She's busy being a model , celebrity, super star's wife and mother, in that order, and needs someone with some talent and imagination to divine her vision. This to me is not a designer. This is a celebrity playing a role. In her case, poorly. When I read that she was giving up her day job as the face for Armani to devote all her energy to her fashion "House" and cosmetics line, I had to wonder. Mouret is still the head on her brainless body and important stores are lending it credibility. I've seen the clothes, they don't warrant it.
The Olsens are also unorthodox examples of the new breed of Designer. It appears that their collection The Row is a different animal altogether. The fact that it has a very broad appeal and is selling extremely well all over the country is the first sign of its success. Another difference is that they appear to be actually involved in its creation in a very hands-on way. The NY Times story on them this week showed them to be serious ,no bullshit directors of their business. So they have a team of assistant designers that do the heavy lifting. They nonetheless, are selecting the fabrics, communicating the direction and styles to be made. The detail and fit of everything seems to go through their hands and what results are some really decent clothes. They are fashion and not just remakes of things that exist everywhere with a clear richness of detail and thought. This is a celebrity cum Designer metamorphosis that works. No shows for them, their identity is kept out of the way. The Row stands on its own. It has legs and uses them effectively.Comparing them to Beckham is almost impossible to avoid. Victoria is your typical example of the tired school of thought that anyone with money, star status and a closet full of designer clothes can in turn be one. I wear it, therefore, I can design it. Well to my eye The Olsens are it.
Alexander Wang is more the actual definition of a designer, a very successful, young one. His business model is more typical of the classic one. Go to design school, which has never been a pre-requisite for anyone, drop out, intern at Teen Vogue and Marc Jacobs , have a perfect T-shirt in mind and turn it into a $20 million business in under 7 years. Presto! His angle is to make all the hip basics that models turn up in and downtown trendsters wear. T-shirts of every sort. Baby cashmere this and that. Vests and jackets and jeans and the sort of clothes that look like nothing until they're styled and shoved down a runway. His roster of retail stores is as impressive as his relationship with Anna Wintour at Vogue and any number of other fashion mags. He's the darling and that adoration has translated to big bucks. $20million? That seems a stretch. Just like Jason Wu selling $4-5 million is a huge stretch. Those calculations are almost always grossly inflated. That aside, Alexander is the designer of today. Recession proof and growing. Or is he? He certainly plugs into the young under 30 market which is huge and the very people who eat up the fake fashion reality shows, flaccid fashion blog sites, and love on line shopping. If you read news flashes about him on these blogs and then the comments, one sees how strong a following he has. They are the new customer. Not very discriminating in their tastes but quick with a credit card. More power to him. Success is hard to capture and even harder to hold.