When designers depart, why should we care?

In a late-July article in the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman reported that Peter Copping, who recently left Oscar de la Renta after not even two years, was the eighth designer to engage in such a quickie divorce from a major house. My first thought was,"Who cares?"; my ladies-lunch ensemble is usually jeans and a tee.

But then, I thought, Coherence.

Time was when Chanel was where you counted on bouclé and braid, Pucci's signature was a swirling, audacious colourway, and even prêt-a-porter designers like Holly Harp delivered an identifiable aesthetic. Clients were loyal: Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy, Catherine Deneuve in Yves St. Laurent.

When the alpha dogs rotate by the year, the house looses its focus, but more significant for average consumers is that our entry-level designers, so "influenced" by the big names, are cut adrift, their North Star dimmed. The racks end up crammed with trousers cropped at odd lengths and limp, long sweaters that make women look egg-shaped.

Few department store labels show coherence, save exceptions like Eileen Fisher's relaxed rectangles, and in the loftiest reaches, Phoebe Philo's disciplined luxury at Céline.

You might think, "Not my problem; I just want a camel v-neck I can wash." But one day, you might be in a bind like my friend Jill, who enlisted me to shop for a dress for her daughter's informal daytime wedding this weekend.

Jill, 64, doesn't enjoy shopping (which may be why she left it to the week before?); she's happiest in her garden in swimsuit and wellies. She ruled out sleeveless, dislikes prints, and has problem feet which require flats.

At the department store, those criteria disqualified 85% of everything. Jill was utterly unmoved by the four dresses she tried: "What if I just wear my black palazzo pants and a top?" Daughter on phone: "NO". After an hour and a half, we gave up.

On the drive home, we noticed the 60% off sale sign at the George Rech boutique, and I asked her to make one last stop. Triumph! Here's her dress, a sapphire silk which matches her blue eyes exactly!

She said it would not be a one-occasion numbershe'll wear it to a New Year's Eve fundraiser party, and pack it for an upcoming trip to Napa Valley to celebrate a brother-in-law's 70th.

She will wear it with a thin white gold bangle and sparkly "diamond" hoops borrowed from her daughter. I also mused about a pair of cuffs, which could be (in our dreams) these pearl beauties from Beladora:

For shoes, she already owns heels for a brief photo session and ordered Badgely Mischka jeweled flats for the restaurant reception:
Jill also considered this silk dress in soft red, on double markdown, but thought the blue was better for her peach skin tone.

Rech, characterized by a clean-lined but feminine style, good fabrics, and that little extra detail, offered coherent, chic and well-priced (given the sale) choices. (Womens' sizes will find similar at Marina Rinaldi.) Coherence reduces time and prevents the error of choosing 'the best of the bunch' from among a dizzying array, even though nothing is really great.

Next time that I'm the friend riding along, I'll suggest we go to one or two boutiques who provide a certain perspective, and skip the department store sea of dresses.

It's not so much that individual designers should stay put, I realized, as that their brands need an identity, so women know where to head. All those style books say "figure out what's you and what's not"; designers should follow that principle for their clothes.


LauraH said…
What a lovely dress you helped your friend to choose. Coherence is a great word for what's missing from the retail scene. Consistency also...I'm pretty tired of never knowing whether the size I chose is going to fit big, small or just right...and this from the same brand. I gave up on Brora sweaters for this reason, Eric Bompard seems to have their act together. As always, why is this so hard when there's a sea of clothing out there. Thanks as always for guidance through the shoals:-)
Your choice of dresses is inspired, and your intelligence in remembering where to look is even more impressive! If women shopped less, would it force the companies/designers to do a better job? Or are we always going to be subject to their whims, and to their frequent bouts of atrocious taste?

In Paris, I saw only TWO women wearing those weird wide-legged cropped pants, and on both of them the look was much more that of a split skirt rather than pants - the fabric was soft and fluid, and the rest of the outfit was somewhat on the "skirt-y" side. Except for the rare woman who has been able to make that look work, this has been another broadly touted fashion failure, I'd say...

Duchesse said…
LauraH: We were really down to the wire, so part of it was luck!

Janice: I just hear that Steilmann went under; not a name "designer" brand but a reliable source for the kind of work/dressy casual clothes women actually need, at a decent price point. Sigh. It seems there is so little mid-priced, well-made clothing out there.
spacegeek33 said…
I so agree about coherence! I tend to avoid department stores myself, preferring boutiques of a single brand rather than a "curated" mix. That way I know the right sizes and the fit I will be getting/looking for. Makes a difference in zeroing in on clothing that works for me rather than having to try some of everything. Clothing that flatters ME is the goal! On the other hand, it means that I can get rather staid in the silhouettes I try--I know already what works and what doesn't and perhaps I get mired in styles from the past? Just some musings.
Duchesse said…
spacegeek33: I can relate... and just as I was composing my reply to you, I read an acknowledgment of Arnold Palmer's personal style: ..."His clothes were in constant harmony, perfectly well fit and classic, polished, nothing ever too loud or crazy", and I thought, just change the pronoun and that should work for anyone who isn't interested in disposable clothing.

Therefore, you have a great advantage in knowing what flatters you, and sticking with it. You can work in a lot of variety with accessories.
Duchesse said…
spacegeek33: Which reminds me also of two celebrity sisters who have a high end clothing line; they are now in the vintage jewellery. It is "curated" on a site, and when pieces sells, the selection is "re-curated". The use of this verb for an assortment of merchandise is a synonymous with "pretension" and probably for "overpriced".
Duchesse said…
spacegeek33: Unedited, rushed typing, but I hope it's clear enough.
Rita said…
Duchesse, this is not the first time you've put into words something that's been lurking in the back of my mind for a while! I rarely visit department stores anymore, "incoherent" is a good description for what they've become, and it seems that the quality of the merchandise is comparable to "discount" stores, just with higher prices.
Mary said…
Wonderful dress find for your friend. I am so happy all my children are married. I never want to look for another "mother of" dress in my lifetime. What you say about decently priced, well-made clothing is absolutely true - it is becoming almost impossible to find.
RoseAG said…
You make a good point, even if one doesn't shop in the echelons of designers. It's nice to be able to go to your brand/design and find that blush t-shirt or jeans that are cut the same size even if one is white and one is blue.

While some shoppers may value that, it doesn't seem to do well in the marketplace. The list of brands with coherent fit and design principles has been shrinking every year. High or low end, they seem to embody something that is not producing the returns that keep current management in place.
How I love that red dress and the soft or "kind" red colour! And sleeves!

But isn't the end of the "middle ground" also a metaphor for the economy, with the increasing share of the wealthiest and the proliferation of precarious employment?

A mothridden aside: I discovered tiny mothholes and some of the little "trails" in and on a salmon/peach and hot-pink Hudson's Bay blanket I'd put away until now, obviously laundered before. It is out on my back balcony where I brushed all sides with vigour, but I have no idea what to do with it - my local laundrette (with large machines) is closed for the holidays; guess I'll have to schlepp it to another one. It won't fit in an apartment-sized washing machine... Grrr.
Duchesse said…
Lagatta: If it is secure on your balcony, put it in one of those big green trash bags and keep it out there for a week, freezing will kill any eggs (which are barely visible, I use a loupe to check for them.) Even if your blanket is washable wool, you can't wash wool at high enough temperature to kill eggs. I have also been told that blasting fabric with a hair dryer on high heat will kill eggs but am loathe to try that on a swaeter.
Merci bien!

I've already done that - I took advantage of that horribly cold day - we're having another one today - it has to be seriously cold for exposure to kill the eggs. I do have a very strong loupe for art and research purposes.

Heavy Hudson Bay blankets would stand up to the hot hair dryer. I'm sad that it now has some little holes, as it was in very good condition and it is about as old as I am. One doesn't often see rosy specimens!

Those can go in a large laundromat washing machine, but obviously only on cold. I suppose I could have it dry-cleaned, but then I'd want to hang it out again to eliminate the toxic fumes.
Duchesse said…
lasagna: Yes, you can dryclean, but if the pests are elsewhere, they can find your point blanket again and continue the affair. Freezing seems the way to go, then store in snap lid box.

If you would like your blanket restored to its former condition, though the cost is not small, I recommend Cheeseworth's in Toronto for invisible mending. They are absolute artists. We just had two sweaters repaired, cost was $50 for a medium-sized hole in each, but we can't see where they were. We have been using them for over 25 years. (You could call them to discuss number and size of holes for an estimate.) Having holes in something you treasure is a drag.

There is an invisible mending service here, near the McGill metro, but I tried them and found them more expensive and not really "invisible".
I really can't afford that, but I'm mentioning my problem on your blog as it is a common one, and your advice is helpful for those who can. I'll repair it myself if I can find mending yarn that is a good match. I have a background in visual arts and while my repairs won't be utterly invisible, they'll be very good.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I agree DIY is fine for things that can look OK with visible mending. I was able to mend a small hole on a sweater, where it was at the bottom back. In the case of good cashmere where the hole is smack in front, $35 or $30 to mend it invisibly is a good investment. re finding yarn that matches your aged blanket: professional invisible menders harvest the wool from the actual piece.

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