The past year will go down in history as a time of radical regime change, not least (well, probably least) in the fashion world. The populist revolution didn’t happen overnight—the first salvo may have been fired during New York Fashion Week, in February of 2001, with the advent of a trend that Simon Doonan, the “Creative Ambassador at Large” for Barneys, who was then still designing the shop’s windows, called haute sauvagerie. In addition to the hip-hop swagger of an early Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs runway collection, it featured camouflage, military hardware, camp-follower deshabille, and jihadi chic. In retrospect, its message seems prescient: 9/11 was seven months away.
This year in fashion not only saw Kanye West, another performer turned designer (in his case, of “athleisure” wear), taking a meeting with the President-elect—a reality-TV summit. Vogue subscribers also opened the April issue to find a fifty-two-page supplement rapturously devoted to the E! star, model, and Kardashian sister Kendall Jenner.
I’m not nostalgic (well, perhaps a little) about the demise of fashion’s Old Guard and its proprieties, but social media have given the verb “to follow” a new meaning. One no longer follows fashion; one follows Kendall and her B.F.F.s. If Google’s trending metrics are to be believed, the top ten designers of 2016 include two Jenners, Kanye, Beyoncé, Zendaya, and Ivanka, who ranked ninth, just below the great Sonia Rykiel, who died in August.
What one cannot follow—it’s too confusing—is the ceaseless turnover of designers at venerable houses, which are more unstable than Stalin’s Politburo. Let’s take Dior. Twenty years ago, the seignorial Gianfranco Ferré was succeeded by the mercurial John Galliano, who was fired ignominiously for an anti-Semitic rant, in 2011. Bill Gaytten, his replacement, was ousted after a few seasons by Raf Simons. When Simons went back to his own label (“I don’t want to show clothes; I want to show my attitude,” he proclaimed), he was replaced by Maria Grazia Chiuri. She took over in September, leaving Valentino in the hands of her former creative partner Pierpaolo Piccioli. (They inherited the helm from Alessandra Facchinetti, the Master’s disciple, who was axed before you could say arrivederci.) Saint Laurent, in the meantime, lured Hedi Slimane away from Dior, where he designed menswear, but he soon bid the job adieu; Anthony Vaccarello moved into his office, in April. It is true that Nicolas Ghesquière had a fifteen-year tenure at Balenciaga, but his successor, Alexander Wang, left in less than thirty-six months. And have you heard of the new guy, Demna Gvasalia? He is a Georgian (not of the U.S. state, of the former Soviet republic), and he was plucked from the design collective Vetements, whose hoodies go for more than a thousand dollars. “Everything is so fast in our digital age,” Gvasalia told a blogger for Refinery29. “I am always on my iPhone just browsing, or being on Instagram or Facebook. . . . If I keep walking the streets of Paris for three days, I wouldn’t get as much information as I can get online.”
As Gvasalia suggests, fashion populism—the instant “like” or “dislike”—is transforming the way designers create and merchandisers sell. It is also transforming fashion criticism. The tastes of a blogger or a celebrity have greater weight than the judgment of a seasoned critic for a newspaper or a magazine. Bloggers with large followings are rewarded with lavish gifts and expense-paid travel from the brands they tout, whereas pay for play is strictly forbidden to mainstream journalists. The digital age has spawned a new job description for fashionistas without a job: the “influencer.” Instagram and Facebook are the measure of their influence. Fashion muses have always existed—It Girls, bad girls, dandies, actors, and eccentrics. They may have inspired an accessory or a collection—Jane Birkin’s eponymous bag, Edie Sedgwick’s heroin chic—but their influencing wasn’t an occupation.
Gvasalia’s interview ran under the rubric “Fuck the Fashion Rules.” It might as easily have been titled “Down with the Élites.” The rules of fashion exist to be redefined, and democracy in fashion is a welcome antidote to the snobbery of what used to be a closed, white world and a courtly métier dominated by men. This year, women of color appeared on the covers of glossy magazines in record numbers; curvaceous models broke out of their “plus-size” holding pen; Anniesa Hasibuan became the first designer to send a hijab down the runway at New York Fashion Week. Yet, in its crudeness, the Refinery29 rubric speaks to a snarling anger—at authority and expertise, but also at adulthood—that was empowered to frightening effect in the last election cycle. It doesn’t matter much that a few designers have said they won’t dress Melania; she has spiked the online sales of those who have dressed her, whether or not they solicited the exposure.High style is an expression of character that resists conformity; you can’t buy it with a click. Nor could you buy the admiration of Bill Cunningham. We will miss his avian figure, bundled against the cold, at the intersection of Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue—a crossing, since November, to avoid for all kinds of reasons. Cunningham’s lens was ecumenical; he loved great dressers, and he didn’t discriminate between young and old, wraithlike and Venusian, high and low. Next year, we will see a different kind of low, and a first, in American fashion: a self-styled designer in the White House, whose menswear and accessories are made in countries he has demonized—China and Mexico. His own power suits, however, are custom-tailored by the élite Italian haberdasher Brioni, which is set to open a new boutique at Trump’s Washington hotel.