Killing Originality: Between Foucault and Balenciaga

April 8, 2014 • Fashion

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Balenciaga & Foucault are in imaginary and intense discussion in my head.

Many writers and cultural figures have cast a cynical eye on the mythos of originality. A particular favorite meditation of mine comes from essayist Fran Leibowitz:

“Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met.

It’s true, I think, that the source of the Original is fundamentally unknowable. What we specify as the “authentic” point of origin becomes a matter of whose words are shouted loudest into the fray. This takes the form of a dominant historical narrative. Just ask Foucault — or Balenciaga.

In fashion, originality equals influence. A designer’s creative clout is directly proportional to his perceived “originality.” (The “originality” club has also been a boy’s club, of late). But what is this originality if not a debatable proposition, a narrative whose content is worth questioning? Upon looking more intently at this narrative, I think we can all agree on its overall silliness.

The story goes like this: fashion progresses every season, fueled by the “new ideas” of a select few creators. Anyone following fashion for a decent period of time knows the new is a reinterpretation of the old, that the gravitas behind fashion’s high pantheon is found not in the present but in the past. The archive is the reservoir from which designers draw, and if it’s not a proper building (31 Rue Cambon in Paris for Chanel or Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa in the Spanish Basque Country), it’s an artful coffee table book defined by similar curatorial properties.

Still, despite our knowledge, fashion persists under the scepter of “originality” as the ruling metric of power and creative significance. Despite our knowledge, our discussions tend to pit designer against designer. There’s a dissonance between what is known and what is practiced, apparent in some the most common fashion dialogues. Balenciaga’s recent power transition has exposed some of these rifts. Claims to Nicolas Ghesquiere’s inventiveness elevated him to what was arguably the central position among fashion greats. Critics agreed that he was the most influential designer of the past decade. I certainly don’t disagree. But the shroud of originality–dubious in its origin but rarely questioned–has made his work untouchable. A designer who mixes technical experimentation with European luxury is seen as derivative. Proenza Schouler “copies” when fashion is read through a lens that privileges all that is “new.” Alexander Wang can never succeed when compared endlessly to his predecessor.

In other words, the mythos of the original–the elusive motor of fashion’s development–darkens the shadow the past casts on the present.

In the history of art, there exists a similar narrative of development and progress. In a seminal writing, “Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting in Sculpture,” 18th century papal antiquary and historian J.J. Winckelmann meditates on emergence of neo-classical art that began to draw significantly from newly discovered Greco-Roman artifact. The ancient was the source of greatness for Winckelmann: “The only way for us to become great or, if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients.” This places significant weight on the contributions of our historical forebearers. It mobilizes the past in the now, rendering what has gone eternally relevant. Whitney Davis, a well-regarded theorist of modern and ancient art, sees Winckelmann’s view of history as an “interminable mourning,” a sort of loss that never ends.

This should sound familiar. Our perception of fashion is often defined by a similar, funereal longing for a hard-to-reach ideal. We’ve replaced Winckelmann’s ancients with the contents of designer archives, which have defined the standard of success. If there’s any swathe of fashion literature that’s most pronounced and popular, it’s constituted by the books that focus on who history has chosen as the greatest. The list can be compiled by perusing some of Amazon’s best-selling fashion books: Dior, Balenciaga, McQueen, Chanel, Yamamoto. They define an inescapable, beckoning past. They are the originals, the ultimate innovators. Their contributions to modern fashion may be incontestable, but the way these contributions have been discussed and understood can be unraveled.

The work of those residing on fashion’s highest plane are used to describe what can be done. More important, the deities of fashion design define our history of what has been done, such that a gray round-shouldered coat produced by one designer is seen as “after” one designer or another. It’s a funeral  procession with the flair of familial drama.

“Originality,” then, is the expression of this forlorn historical view. It indexes our attempts to achieve a greatness locked away by the passing of centuries. It’s what we use to keep the memory of past innovation in the present. It replaces what is lost. Our attention to how original certain designers are (and, more often, are not) attempts to hold two conflicting sentiments at once: the optimistic demand for fashion’s progress and the frustrations that such a demand brings about. The problem with this attempt is that it prevents us from conceiving other ways of valuing fashion. What if value lies in the rephrasing of a great idea? Or in the consistent re-development of a style introduce last season?

Our best bet, in my eyes, is to turn away from “originality” as the metric of greatness. This doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on history. In fact, breaking with “originality” means a deliberate embrace of our current moment’s prologue; it means assuming a more confident regard towards the past. Some designers have already shown signs of this. Jeremy Scott’s recent Moschino collection, which heavily referenced the Karl Lagerfeld-at-Chanel legacy, revealed a great attention to the influence of the past. Scott’s pop-artsy designs were acts of resurrection and appreciation. The tactic is to dissociate unoriginality from tastelessness. This is not necessarily a radical strategy of opposition, but it’s a recognition that unoriginal is what fashion may always be; that unoriginal, in contrast to Leibowitz’s meditation, is assured, intriguing and knowable.

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