After watching the recent film about the life of Yves Saint Laurent, I was reminded of a conversation with an editor friend about the road map of fashion. Yves begins his career as a couturier working for as assistant to Christian Dior, and subsequently opens his own couture house. Over the course of the film, references are made to Karl Lagerfeld’s transition into ready-to-wear, believing that Couture is a relic of the old world. (I’ll point out here that Lagerfeld is to this day designing an Haute Couture collection for Chanel). Ready-to-wear represented access to more women, and cultivated a new kind of relationship between designer fashion and the greater public. Yves makes the transition into ready-to-wear a bit later, but in time to be considered a key player in it’s coming of age.
What my friend and I were discussing was this sequential emergence of secondary lines that most ready-to-wear designers are now beginning to produce. Just as ready-to-wear became the bread and butter that permitted the extravagant expense of Haute Couture to continue, these lower priced, younger leaning diffusion lines are keeping sales numbers healthy and allowing the main collections to continue in their more experimental or indulgent directions. Just as Haute Couture did not die off, (and indeed there are young designers who grew up in mass consumption era introducing new Haute Couture houses) the diffusion of a brand is just that: it is a spreading of the brand over a greater space, not an abandonment of its past form. Because the brand must maintain the allure of it’s Designer collection as compared to it’s secondary collection, the discussion that inevitably precedes the commitment to developing this secondary collection is “will it devalue the brand?”
That question is one I struggle with ideologically, but appreciate as a business owner. Not only do you have the possibility of expanding distribution, but also you create an entry level for customers who could grow into customers for the main line brand. This is, true to form, a function of changing times and the further democratization of designer fashion. As brand awareness grows, the insular world of Haute Couture that used to be the heart and soul of sartorial directionality has become secondary to the authority of Ready-to-Wear. RTW dresses exponentially more women, and also opened the runway to a whole generation of designers emerging in the second half of the 20th century.
The emergence of secondary lines has become an almost presupposed stage of scaling a business. This is what concerns me. There is an ever increasing number of new designers in the market place, and we demand an ever increasing level of production from them to keep up with the ‘Big Boys.’ There are some serious pros and cons to consider in the proliferation of secondary lines as common practice.
It doesn’t stop there, of course. While I find myself sympathetic to both sides of the argument for creating a competitive collection internally within a business, I still allow myself to be cynical regarding collaborations with H&M or Target. This is mostly because I get seduced by the advertised prices and styling of the collaboration, but when I see it in person I get turned off immediately by the cheap fabric or poor finishings. At that point the diffusion has reached a point of desaturation where it’s no longer representative of the source in a valuable way. I love the idea of democratizing fashion, but at what cost?