‘I, Elizabeth Hawes, have sold, stolen and designed clothes in Paris.’
This is the statement made by Elizabeth Hawes in her 1937’s book ‘Fashion is Spinach’. Hawes was the first American fashion designer to have a collection shown during Paris fashion week, and also a critic for the New Yorker (with ‘Parasite’ as nom de plume), but she was above all a person with a great remorse. Her first occupation was in fact that of the copieuse.
Elizabeth Hawes was one of the numerous ladies sent to Paris by the American fashion industry as correspondents, with the duty to make sketches of Parisian designs to copy, produce and sell to the mass market in the United States. In her book, she tells the story of her years in Paris, depicting a scenario filled with envy, suspicion and above all lack of creativity. Hawes dedicated her book to Madeline Vionnet – known in the industry for her motto ‘Mort aux copieurs’ – calling Vionnet ‘the great creator of style in France’, and ‘the future designers of mass produced clothes.’ The greatest complaint Hawes makes in her book is towards the system of fashion. She describes it as an evil machine that does not take people’s needs and tastes into account, but simply wheels ahead to gather money and power. Creativity as a mean of self-expression, either in designing clothes or simply in choosing them, is completely absent from her perspective, replaced by the cold act of selling … clothes not ideas.
Nowadays, the quality most demanded from a fashion designer, is to be original, to be innovative, to be in possession of a ‘great creative talent’ (Davis, 1992). A uniqueness of point of view can lead designers and fashion houses to not only leave a mark in the history of fashion but also quickly acquire recognition from critics, praise from customers and glory. It is however quite difficult to define creativity in fashion. It is often understood as a given talent, a priori belonging to the designer as to the artist, but it is also an empty word too often used in place of hard work, practice, and technical skills.
Creativity must translate an artistic view into something practical, and in the case of fashion, something sellable. This transformation encompasses many processes from invention to consumption within a narrow time window. In this environment, the act of copying has evolved from being seen as intellectual rape to aesthetic category. Today it is often presented as a celebration, an homage, or better, recognition of value and success.
Copying is no longer simply a tool in the hands of mass retailers to make money from someone else’s ideas, as happened in Hawes’ 1930s, but has become a communication instrument in the hands of the designer and the fashion houses, in order, in the short period of time they have each season, to reach a vaster audience. This way, without having to come to terms with democratic design, they safeguard the hauteur and exclusivity they received in heritage from the brand name. We are far away from Madame Vionnet’s violent struggles to make her clothes unique, both in their technical reality and in the eye of the law: the reproducibility of clothes and accessories (and of the brand itself) is nearly a value, an assurance of a broad visibility.
Fashion, either in the reality of the clothes or their two dimensional images, is at the disposal of all. The Internet and the proliferation of fashion magazines have played a major role in the democratisation of opinions. Invested with of the fundamental duty of translating the signs and suggestions given by designers into clothes available for everyone, the mass market has benefitted from this democratisation. It seems the role of the designer is no longer to size the zeitgeist and catch the will of the consumer but instead to produce a plethora of images.
The consumer simply stands by and admires and generates demand for a style-oriented, recognisable but still affordable product. Our concerns seem far remote from a repentant Hawes who lamented the lack of creativity in the copy market. On the contrary, most designers seem happy to see their ideas (surely not their creations!) walking around in town, styled in a cheapest way but still strong and making their statement.
What seems to have changed, between Hawes’ 30s and now, is not so much the way the fashion industry is organised, but rather the relationship designers and consumers have with the act of copying. The relationship we, customers, have with the copy is surely more relaxed now than when Hawes wrote and worked. In fact, copying and using copy is often seen as canny critique, a statement of estrangement from a system one would secretly love to be part of. Does this means that fashion has reached the dignity of an artistic practice, not looking at profit but rather the circulation of its messages? We cannot forget that fashion is rooted into our culture primarily as an industry. Fashion must be the carefully balanced synthesis between the world of ideas and that of profit, not a hybrid switching its essence according to the situation. Fashion houses should sell ideas before clothes, and be proud of their creative industrial practice, not ashamed of it.
This article was written and submitted by Marta Franceschini for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Marta was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.