Just two days into New York fashion week, the new mood for the catwalk season is already emerging – and it's not pretty.
Thorny issues of racism on the catwalk, of the impact of fashion on our relationship with food, of the decreasing relevance of the traditional catwalk show in the digital age, and of the bloated size of the fashion industry are the topics engrossing the front row.
In an industry known for champagne-drenched parties and sequinned celebrities – and where a crisis usually refers to a snapped stiletto – this newly gritty tone is an unexpected new trend. Glamour and gossip are out. Controversy, protest and soul-searching are in.
Discontent has been rumbling at New York fashion week since 2010, when the official catwalks were relocated from the more intimate Bryant Park space to the Lincoln Centre. New York designers, long sensitive to criticism that their city is overly commercial and lacks the creative spark of fashion in Paris or London, have complained that the venue has a "trade show" feel which exacerbates the problem. The event may move as early as next year – but with no new venue lined up, a mood of insecurity has taken hold.
Diane von Fürstenberg, one of the city's star designers and president of its fashion council, the CFDA, has openly speculated that physical fashion shows may be made extinct by digital substitutes within the next few years. Oscar de la Renta, one of the most revered American designers, stoked the fire last week when he told Womenswear Daily that he was cutting his invitation list from 632 to 350 this season in an attempt to avoid "huge crowds of people with no connections to the clothes".
Into this fraught atmosphere, the emotive issue of racism on the catwalk is being brought into focus by Bethann Hardison, a former model and agent who has waged a longstanding campaign for more diversity on the catwalk.
During this week's shows she plans to use social media to "name and shame" the designers who use only white models. The model Iman, lending her support to Hardison, told the New York Times that "it feels to me like the times need a real hard line drawn like in the 1960s, by saying if you don't use black models, then we boycott".
Calvin Klein, a label once known for racially diverse catwalk casting but which has become more homogeneously white in recent seasons, is one of the shows that will come under scrutiny this week.
Meanwhile, the influential French fashion blogger Garance Doré has revived the longstanding debate about how the industry's worship of clothes showcased on very thin models affects our eating habits. After commenters reacted negatively to a video in which Doré and her friends referred to not eating dessert at lunch because of the need to fit into their fashion week outfits, Doré responded with a post attacking the double standards and dishonesty rife in the media, where ultra-slender actresses maintain a pretence of eating cheeseburgers.
"I'm trying to talk about femininity, exactly how it is in life … not that weird distorted version that I see in certain media outlets … What I like to show are the real women around me who aren't trying to make others believe they live in some magic world where they only eat burgers, never work out, and by the way also wear two million dollar outfits as if they were falling from the skies."
Hardison's social media campaign and Doré's use of her blog to weigh into debate are symptomatic of how the internet has energised and expanded fashion.
But faultlines are developing within a once tight-knit world, as the huge growth in numbers of fashion bloggers has brought a backlash among traditionalists who feel their industry is being overtaken by amateurs.
Suzy Menkes, who has been fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune for 25 years, this year prompted controversy with an article lamenting the advent of "mob rule" in the industry, and drew a distinction between the professionals and the "peacocks" who create a "streetstyle" circus around every show.
Ahead of London fashion week, which begins next Friday, the British Fashion Council this week tackled this issue with the announcement of more stringent guidelines on the accreditation of bloggers. The move comes in response to a 25% rise in ticket applications from bloggers in each of the past two years. Only those bloggers who have a wide reach and evidence that they support the work of British designers will be accredited in future, a move which the established blogger Susie Lau of Style Bubble welcomed as helping "establish blogging as a legitimate media channel".
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