In fashion, creative networks are taking over

This column was originally published in Glossy on October 10th 2016.

Choupette has 87,000 followers on Instagram and almost 50,000 followers on Twitter. She flies by private jet and has two personal maids to take care of her. Choupette is attached to a collection of custom-made Louis Vuitton bags, a book and a makeup line. For her modeling, in 2014 she earned more than Cara Delevigne. “There is something unforgettable about her, the way she moves, the way she plays. She’s an inspiration for elegance,” Karl Lagerfeld once said of her.

He should know: Choupette is his cat.

In luxury fashion, the brand identity equals the brand. Luxury brands are named after their founders, who are celebrated in a cult-like manner. This is true of high-end fashion houses’ creative directors as well, and as Choupette demonstrated, it sometimes extends to their pets. (And to those — like Ashley Tschudin Instagram — who wish to satirize it.)

This particular feline aside, the time of a revered fashion figure is nearing its end. Brands that dominate the zeitgeist are either openly collectives, like Vetements, or have creative directors, like Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, who mix with their muses, models and audience to the extent that it’s hard to say where their vision starts and their lifestyle stops.

This is for the better. Another talent industry, Hollywood, swiftly reorganized itself when faced with a fast-changing environment that grew hostile to movie business’ existing economics. The shift happened from a huge vertically integrated studio model towards a network.

In networks, new things spread and get adopted more quickly and organically than in vertically integrated industries. Hood by Air emerged out of the street and to the street it turns for inspiration, models and promotion of its looks. J.W. Anderson turns to Instagram to see how his designs are doing and which ones perform best. Alessandro Michele of Gucci draws on his vast and massively diverse network of inspiration and creative resources to come up with his designs.

Where these modern fashion brands succeed is that they simultaneously build upon what is already out there and use the existing networks to test and spread their ideas. It this low-cost scenario, they remain close to their audience by sharing the same network, be it Snapchat, Instagram, WeChat, Line, a local nightclub, the same favorite DJ or a dive bar.

This network creates the context for designers’ products. Big shoulders and long sleeves and platform boots have been part of an existing aesthetic system long before Vetements turned them into high fashion. Every new look is a network effect of an ecosystem that’s already in place. It gives this ecosystem a face and a voice and a material form.

Demna Gvasalia and Lotta Volkova successfully capitalized on the current cultural network where their oversized, dissonant, disproportionate look make sense. The social discontent, the rise of the cultural contrarian (think Kanye-like figures in fashion and music), the economic uncertainty, fight for LGBTQ equality and the political unrest combined with immediacy, individualism and diversity of digital technology assembled together the perfect market for Vetements products.

On the other end, we have a vertically integrated high-end fashion industry. It’s retail-editorial complex is decidedly anti-network. The recent Vogue protest against the presence of street style bloggers at fashion week tried to convince us that in matters of style, not all voices are meant to be heard.

Betting against your own network is a dangerous game. To achieve desired scale, fashion relies on wide distribution and strong product promotion. It adheres to the seasonal calendar that supports legacy production model, which in turn creatively exhausts designers who opt out of this system by leaving (or getting pushed out). Fashion’s vertical model is costly and risky.

Cost and risk come with commanding people’s attention and “you can’t sit with us” attitude. The pitfall is consumer indifference. At the recent Paris Fashion Week, Koché had its models walk in the midst of the crowd outside. “We are like you,” they said.