Angelo Flaccavento & Alexander Fury

Interview by Jonathan Wingfield

‘There is a great Somerset Maugham quote I use: ‘People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.’ But I’d add to that – and I think I can say this as we are both fashion critics – that the last ten years has proven the sheer impotence of the fashion critic. Hedi’s Saint Laurent was a great example of that. Fashion critics initially loathed it – it got critically drubbed – and yet it became the best-selling thing in fashion.’

‘Ideologically, I think people see Angelo and me as purists,’ says British writer and fashion critic Alexander Fury, referring to the steely, no-bullshit reputation that he and his Italian counterpart Angelo Flaccavento have carved out for themselves. Both men are passionate, highly knowledgeable (to the point of shameless geekdom in Fury’s case), and deeply committed to actual fashion design – and designers – in an industry increasingly defined by the dark arts of branding. In an era in which cheerleading has all but usurped criticism, Flaccavento and Fury possess that rarest of qualities: the ability to bring genuine context and authority to an outspoken opinion.

Both cover the seasonal shows for financial newspapers of record in their respective countries – Fury for the Financial Times, Flaccavento for Il Sole 24 Ore – as well as contributing to myriad respected magazines. Flaccavento also writes notoriously ‘to-the-point’ fashion-week wrap-up missives for the Business of Fashion, while Fury doubles-up as fashion features director for Another magazine. Both, too, are authors, ghostwriters, and consultants; Fury is a respected curator and obsessive fashion-archives collector (think Galliano, Alaïa, Lacroix couture and Westwood crammed into a London storage unit), while Flaccavento is an exhibited artist. In short, theirs are the kind of multi-hyphenate careers your average DJ-slash-art director could only ‘curate’ on Tumblr. (As an additional aside of note, it’s also worth checking out Fury’s Instagram Stories, if only to discover the altogether campier and more self-deprecating facet of his off-duty personality, where unwavering devotion to Galliano gowns is coupled with faux-bitchy captions: ‘Madame Alexander Fury’s rainy day outfit – the look she’ll wear the days she has to get the Tube and doesn’t want to sit next to any basic peasants’ or ‘Beyond. Madame Alexander Fury is selling her Andalusian oil fields and a number of El Grecos of dubious provenance to finance a Valentino spending spree.’)

Couture-client cosplaying aside, what both Flaccavento and Fury offer best is a genuine understanding and analysis of fashion – from historical references to the technical construction of clothes, as well as the necessary task of shining a light on the often-opaque machinations of the industry’s corporate operations. What each delivers is the type of unrivalled fashion criticism that requires designers to bring their A-game, because woe betide the handsomely remunerated creative director of a major Parisian powerhouse who dares to send a lacklustre or predictable collection down the catwalk.

Flaccavento and Fury both began attending Paris Fashion Week towards the end of the 2000s, their respective pathways towards fashion’s upper echelons coinciding with the arrival in the industry of smartphones, social media, selfies, megabrands, Kim and Kanye, cancel culture, cruise shows, greenwashing, going viral, sportswear, streetwear, TikTok, K-Pop, podcasts, NFTs, and clickbait, right up to the announcement, this spring, that LVMH boss Bernard Arnault had become the wealthiest individual in the world. Generous with their time, and robust of opinion, Flaccavento and Fury sat down with System not once but twice – firstly, on the final afternoon of Paris Fashion Week; and a second time, a month later in London, once the dust had settled on the Autumn/Winter 2023-2024 season – to cast an expert eye over the past decade and tell it like it is.

Paris and London,
7 March and 4 April 2023

Jonathan Wingfield: I’d like to begin with a passage from the note that Demna wrote at the Balenciaga show last week: ‘Fashion has become a kind of entertainment, but often that part overshadows the essence of it, which lays in shapes, volumes and silhouettes, and the way clothes have an ability to change us.’ The Balenciaga context was pretty singular, but generally speaking, it feels like fashion really has become entertainment. What effect is this having?
Angelo Flaccavento: What I’ll remember most from this week in Paris is the sound of kids screaming outside the shows. I never know why they’re screaming, although that’s probably because I’m disconnected from TikTok, K-Pop, rock stars, and so on.
Alexander Fury: It’s like that scene from In Bed with Madonna when she goes to the hotel window, and you hear all these screams. You go past the Crillon or the Ritz this week and there are crowds of kids outside, and all I can think is, why are you not in school? You know, 20 or 30 years ago, you’d get Gaultier or Galliano groupies turning up desperately trying to get into the shows, but these days the crowds just seem content to watch people walking in and out; they don’t seem too concerned about the clothes.
Angelo: What we consider ‘the clothes’ during fashion week have gotten muddled up with the increasingly outlandish looks that people are wearing outside the shows. Which of course has less to do with fashion or style or clothes, and more about ‘look at me, take my picture’. I saw someone wearing a lion suit outside the Margiela show! I mean, it was a cold day, but it was just all about them getting their picture taken.
Alexander: Demna is right – fashion has become entertainment, even though as an industry I think we’ve been resisting it for a long time. People used to ask me about it and I’d always say, ‘No, fashion week is a glorified trade show, like a car show; you go there to look at the clothes and it shouldn’t be entertainment.’ But of course that’s exactly what it’s become. As a result, fashion is everywhere, its profile has been raised. These days, taxi drivers in Paris know when it’s fashion week, not just because industry people are taking cabs but because you can feel the vibrations of fashion across the whole city.

‘It’s been an era of overload. Too much fashion; films are too long; people have too much silicon injected into their bodies. Everything’s done to excess.’

Alexander Fury

In System’s debut issue, 10 years ago, Nicolas Ghesquière said: ‘I sometimes fear that what is happening outside the shows might eclipse what is happening inside.’ Do you think the peripheral noise has altered how designers approach their collections and shows?
Angelo: I was talking with a PR the other day who said that some designers actually want that chaos outside their show; they engineer it by posting the venue location the day before.
Alexander: I think this season has actually been something of a reaction against all of that. You can almost sense that it’s been intentionally boring on the catwalk, with lots of black or brown suits. During New York this season, there was all that hype about those huge red [MSCHF] boots – [laughs] this interview is going to date so quickly! I was looking at them, thinking, ‘This is literally the death of fashion.’ It’s like those virtual clothes that you add to pictures of yourself online; it’s everything I loathe. There is zero interaction with a physical garment, which, for someone like me who spends all his money on clothes, is just wrong. If you’ve only seen a piece of clothing in pictures, then to touch it with your hands or wear it on the body changes everything. Everyone knows about my Galliano obsession, but you pick up those Edwardian-looking evening dresses, and they can just be slipped on like a T-shirt. That is about the pure grit of their design, which to me is mind-blowing. So to go back to this season, it feels like it’s been about real clothes – like that Saint Laurent quote: ‘It’s about clothes that have a kind of silence to them.’ When even the Balmain show is smaller and the clothes are relatively quiet, it signals a sea change, which is very interesting. That’s all a reaction to the hullabaloo going on outside the shows, which, I should add, I find quite physically threatening a lot of the time.

Does it feel like we’re coming out of one decade of fashion and moving towards a new one?
Alexander: It does, but after everything we’ve been through, it feels like change tinged with trepidation. It takes a few years before a decade gets going, before it establishes what it’ll ultimately be remembered for. Vetements only emerged in 2014 with that oversized silhouette, but the 2010s will ultimately be remembered for that: everything sloping off the shoulders and being too big. But this season, I really feel like we are pulling it back on, the silhouette is narrower, things are being pulled down, hemlines are dropping, which historically has meant that bad times are coming. I’ve just written a piece for the FT about how I think the silhouette is changing in quite a significant way. That elongated silhouette is everywhere, but the Saint Laurent men’s show in January was the most precise iteration of it. I’m not saying now is the equivalent of a Dior 1947 moment, but it is a new silhouette and I think [Anthony] Vaccarello did it best.

‘I saw someone wearing a lion suit outside the Margiela show! I mean, it was a cold day, but it was just all about them getting their picture taken.’

Angelo Flaccavento

If today is narrower silhouettes and dropping hemlines, how would you best define this past decade?
Alexander: Excess!
Angelo: And overload.
Alexander: Overload, overproduction, an era of too much. There is too much fashion; films are too long; people have too much silicon injected into their bodies. Clothes are body-conscious and curvy because everything is so sexualized. Just everything taken to excessive levels. I was working on that Valentino exhibition, which included a room full of red Valentino dresses from different eras. It was interesting looking at a big red dress by Mr Valentino from the late seventies and then a recent big red dress from Pierpaolo. Pierpaolo’s was twice as big because today a big dress has to be much bigger. I went to see Gaultier couture the other day and in the salon there was a dress from Spring/Summer 2000, which, in my mind’s eye, was this enormous thing, but it actually is quite restrained by today’s standards. Everything has to be bigger now to register. And fashion is defined by people demanding more: more clothes, more shows, more clothes in more shows…
Angelo: The same can be said for styling in this decade; it has been all about accumulation, about putting more stuff on.
Alexander: Alessandro [Michele] at Gucci was total maximalism. He did it very well, but when you look at a lot of other houses, it’s just piles upon piles of crap. The more we put on, the more we can strip off and sell. If an outfit has 47 different things to it, then that’s 47 different bits of merch we can sell.
Angelo: This season did feel more rigorous and stripped back, less about that accumulation of different pieces to each look, although the shift felt a bit contrived. It’s like, there’s been this period of excess, so now let’s strip it right back to some kind of reactionary minimalism. It just didn’t feel very organic to me.
A kind of kitsch minimalism.
Angelo: Exactly, kitsch minimalism. As Alex says, this season was all about black pant suits, but how many of those can you have? There didn’t seem to be much thinking behind these shifts. On the other hand, multiplicity was still the order of the day at Bottega [Veneta] in Milan. Each look was totally different from the others, so they called it ‘the story of an Italian piazza’, with this idea of many different people in one place. It was kind of a clever way of saving a very disparate collection from looking like a broken puzzle, by giving it a narrative, even though the multiplicity was there to maximize commercial gain.
Alexander: The more-ness is about satisfying more markets. So if someone comes in and has £200 in their pocket, then brands want them to be able to buy something, which is great in a way because it is democratic. I remember going into shops when I was a teenager and desperately wanting to buy a piece of the dream.

‘Jeff Bezos supplies everyday things everyone needs, and Bernard Arnault trades in the unobtainable to the elite. But now the unobtainable is winning.’

Alexander Fury

What was entry level for you at that age?
Alexander: Late nineties John Galliano at Dior. I had about £150, so I could buy a sweater, but not one with sleeves. So, I got this weird sleeveless sweater, which I still have somewhere, because that was all I could afford. I literally wanted to buy into the dream of John, of Dior, of fashion. I don’t know if people have that urge any more. I feel like it used to be more difficult to access; it was pre-internet and there was very little about fashion on television or in newspapers. As a kid, you really had to seek it out.
People say that about most cultural niches pre-internet.
Alexander: Pre-internet, I never knew when fashion week was happening; all of a sudden there would be a photo in a newspaper and I was like, right, I need to buy every newspaper! Then feeling disappointed if the same look appeared in two different newspapers, because instead of seeing four looks from the collection you only got to see three. Today, of course, fashion is everywhere, and open to everybody.

Is that a good thing? Around the time that Raf left Dior in 2015, he told System: ‘Fashion became pop. And I don’t know if one should be ashamed or not to admit that maybe it was nicer when it was more elitist.’
Alexander: Fashion is incredibly democratic, which I think is a great thing. I come from a family of working-class northerners who had no idea what I was talking about. But through occasional newspaper stories I could discover and fall completely in love with those Galliano things, even if I couldn’t afford them. Falling down the rabbit hole of fashion has never been so easy as it is now, so I think there are far more people exposed to it, more people genuinely interested in it, and probably more hardcore obsessives.
You’re not inclined to agree with Raf?
Alexander: Well, of course, with that mass appeal comes the sense that fashion is less aspirational now – it is more attainable; there are different product levels that people can access. I walk past pubs in London and see guys wearing Balenciaga T-shirts. When would that have happened before?
What do you think they’re buying into?
Angelo: Presumably something they’ve seen on social media, whether that’s via e-commerce or via the hype of people they admire. They’re not buying into the brand itself – Cristóbal [Balenciaga] doesn’t mean anything to them – but what they see famous people wearing, all projected via flat imagery on screens. It’s as if Instagram and fashion were made for one another.
Would you say the rise of social media has led designers to design increasingly with 2D imagery in mind?
Angelo: There was a moment in the middle of this past decade when everything seemed very flat, frontal, and looked great on Instagram or Vogue Runway. It’s worth adding, very few designers actually draw by hand any more, and they drape very rarely. Most use AutoCAD, a tool that engineers use, and which makes everything appear flat, whereas for me the beauty of fashion comes from clothes moving on the body as the body moves. So, you tend to notice when designers are still actually dressmakers or continue to work closely with pattern cutters, because you see the dresses sweeping on the body. And then there are the designers who, subconsciously or otherwise, think of the flat 2D image as the end goal. I am not saying this to diminish his work, but while Nicolas Ghesquière’s Vuitton collections look really good in pictures, I find they move quite badly on the catwalk because everything seems so stiff, almost like they’re characters who’ve stepped out of a Nintendo game.
Alexander: Same with that show Ghesquière did with the flowers when he was at Balenciaga [Spring/Summer 2008].
Angelo: It makes me think that designers are perhaps afraid, which results in everything just becoming these little picture-perfect Instagram squares. But mistakes can be beautiful; sometimes shit happens on the catwalk, which can be a wonderful reminder that life is not perfect. This might also explain why the influence of Martin Margiela – the original one – has diminished a little over the past decade. He was the first designer to bring life into clothing and acknowledge that a skirt lining can be just as beautiful as a couture skirt, and that if things fall apart, they are no less appealing. The dynamic that governs these things is deeply human; it’s the fear of death or imperfection. For some designers these days the dress has to be frozen in a perfect picture, as if they cannot bear to acknowledge that everything crumbles, everything decays.
Rick Owens’ beauty in imperfection comes to mind.
Angelo: Conversely, Rick doesn’t look good in pictures at all, but is always amazing in real life in the show, in movement.
Alexander: Rick drapes; he really works in three dimensions.
Angelo: And you can see that. This season, those big ‘doughnut dresses’ were wonderful on the catwalk, whereas in pictures they can look like you’ve just taken a pillow from the sofa and wrapped it around yourself. The point I’m trying to make is that pictures and videos are of course useful to us because they recall memories, but the show as an experience, with its sense of movement and flow, is something you have to witness first hand. It is unbeatable – and it really puts me in the mood to write.
Alexander: In New York, Proenza [Schouler] was great but again you needed to physically be there to see the way things moved; when the models turned, pleats broke apart to show prints or embroideries under slits or the body – different details were revealed to you. It’s really good when a flat image can’t convey that stuff; it’s more of a challenge.
Angelo: Similarly, The Row was a beautiful show for me, but what really made the difference was that you had a particular kind of style – very proper, rich, white, uptown New York lady, wearing almost nun-like clothes – presented in a kind of mansion setting, and with this wildly incongruous soundtrack of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ by Bauhaus. As soon as I heard the opening notes, I was in a good mood, because it created a really interesting friction. That sensory collision – the music, the spatial awareness – doesn’t translate into a Vogue Runway picture. I remember a few years ago having a conversation with Alexandre Samson, the curator at the Musée Galliera, who told me that he’d done a show specifically about the back of clothing. He’d been inspired by something I wrote, which was basically, ‘If designers want to be inventive, and don’t want to get copied, they should focus on designing the back of clothing, because everything is only ever being seen from the front.’ It comes back to the limitations of 2D imagery; it feels less concerned with actually trying to identify with the woman.
You’re saying it’s about the rapport between the designer and the woman for whom they’re designing?
Angelo: Absolutely, that’s crucial. Because some designers’ collections – and it’s usually male designers – increasingly come across as just fantasy. Female designers are obviously closer to women, as wearers of women’s clothing themselves, and you can sense that. What is interesting to me about The Row is that of course they are pillaging menswear – like from Yohji or Jil Sander – but there is a softness to the way they do it. The fantasy and reality are nicely balanced at The Row, whereas I find men designing womenswear can easily get carried away with only the fantasy of the women they want to be dressing. It’s often invention and unrealistic.
Alexander: The thing that has always impressed me when I speak to Maria Grazia [Chiuri], is how she absolutely knows the market and the customers. When someone asked her last year if miniskirts are really for the Dior customer, she was like, ‘Of course, but they’re going to be 80 centimetres in length for the European market and 60 centimetres for the Asian market because of the differing body types.’ She really does know her role as a designer of clothes, and how all of this will be disseminated; making clothes that will go into a shop and sell and be worn by women. It seems so base level, but you’d be surprised how few designers know this stuff.
Angelo: It makes me think again about what Demna wrote. Fashion as entertainment is here to stay, but I find that the entertainment part is so often disconnected from the collection itself – from the actual designing of clothes – so there’s this whole entirely separate machine that’s just there to generate online content. Theatrics have long been central to fashion, with the likes of McQueen and Galliano and so on, but their theatrics were integral to the narrative of their collections.
Alexander: I think it’s telling that Demna wrote that, because the collections and sets he’s designed for Balenciaga have themselves been disconnected at times. When someone’s walking through a mud pit or the apocalypse dressed in an evening gown, you find yourself asking what the connection is. Although that Balenciaga ‘red carpet’ [Summer 2022] show was all tied together so brilliantly.
Angelo: Absolutely. The vision of that ‘apocalypse’ show [Autumn/Winter 2020-2021] was very lyrical. The show served the collection, whereas the one in the mud just went too far; I felt it lacked any subtlety.
Alexander: Yes, the ‘apocalypse’ show really blew me away. I loved what Cathy Horyn wrote about it: ‘At one point I was looking at this and thinking, “Should I even be watching this?”’ She’s right, it is kind of like watching a horror movie; they are acting within this scenario. But because of his life experience, Demna is the only designer who could do that. It gives the whole thing genuine meaning, and it’s what makes it extraordinary as a fashion experience. But do I remember any clothes from it? Apart from a blue evening dress and the trash bag, no, I don’t. Whereas when I think back to those McQueen and Galliano shows, or Karl’s shows at Chanel with the big sets, like the huge iceberg, I remember exactly what the models were carrying, I remember the shoes and the bags.

‘What keeps the industry going is this need for constant validation. Us as writers, designers as designers, brands as brands – it’s a real engine.’ 

Angelo Flaccavento

Let’s talk about fashion’s CEOs. They’ve become such visible players this past decade. Thirty years ago, no CEO, besides perhaps Pierre Bergé, had any kind of media profile.
Alexander: Bergé was the first one to have that media presence because Saint Laurent wouldn’t talk to anyone. He became the front man, the blustering ball who would talk.
Angelo: In the early 2000s, the more the CEOs brought in big revenues, the more people were paying attention to the numbers, and the more the CEOs came to prominence. Initially, the creative director was the star, with the CEO behind them – like with Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole – but when Marco Bizzarri was appointed CEO of Gucci, he was the one hiring Alessandro Michele and masterminding the huge success, and it made him the rock star of the house. Today, I consider him the CEO who best epitomizes this decade, and I think that’s created this whole new dynamic between the CEO and the creative director about who the mastermind is, and who has the star power.
The answer is pretty clear when you see Marco Bizzarri photographed at the Gucci show wearing a lime-green velvet suit.
Alexander: After the financial crash in 2008, people demanded a lot more transparency financially, and it became more important to talk about fashion in terms of finance, hence the increased presence of CEOs. That does give a different perspective. I don’t think it’s how things should be judged, but people wanted more of that concrete information, because of the whole subprime mortgage crisis, this idea that finances had been misty and opaque, and people didn’t know who actually had money.
And now Bernard Arnault has been declared the wealthiest person on the planet.
Alexander: I was reading that when Tesla’s stock dropped – the fact I even know about this stuff when I’m not really interested in it says a lot – and Bernard Arnault became the richest man in the world, there were pieces online, like, ‘Who is Bernard Arnault?’ It made me think of that Jeanloup Sieff quote that fashion is like ‘a storm in a teacup, but when you’re in the teacup it is very important’. Of course, most people outside of fashion know nothing about the CEOs or very little about the industry and its history. I remember talking to Raf when he was at Dior, and he said, ‘People have no idea who I am; they think Christian Dior is still alive.’ I thought he was joking and then I worked with someone who talked about doing an interview with Coco Chanel and I was like, ‘She is pretty fucking dead, like 60 years dead.’ People think Olivier Rousteing invented Balmain and ask him why he called it Balmain. There is an assumption that people know this massive history that we all know, and they often don’t. Even if there are many others who do know and do care increasingly about this stuff, whether that’s via the FT’s business pages or the Met Ball and fashion’s adjacency to celebrity. It has projected itself larger.
And it’s paid off.
Alexander: When it used to be Arnault and Jeff Bezos on the rich list, it was like, Jeff Bezos supplies everyday things everyone needs, and Arnault trades in the unobtainable to the elite. But now elite fashion is winning. Which I think says a lot about fashion, and a lot about the world we live in today. When people still try to say that they don’t think fashion is important, I’m like, ‘The richest man in the world is that rich because he owns Vuitton and Dior!’
Angelo: But these CEOs only really interest me because I am interested in the theatre of life, the personalities. I think [Francesca] Bellettini at Saint Laurent comes from the same school of thought as Marco Bizzarri. She actually comes from his management team; she was trained by him. They have the same kind of rock’n’roll approach; she could be a singer from a band. People like her and Bizzarri enjoy this kind of exposure, which I think is both a problem and an opportunity for fashion. But what she has done at Saint Laurent is remarkable. She and Anthony Vaccarello have really built something up, even though no one believed in him after the departure of Hedi. We were all super sceptical – and they proved us wrong.
Alexander: I agree. Francesca Bellettini is great, and you can just tell that there is something about her being a woman in this matriarchy that makes a massive difference.

It’s interesting that you see fashion as a matriarchy.
Alexander: I mean here we are, three men talking, but fashion is a matriarchy; we are absolutely in the minority. If you look at it in terms of editors and designers, and increasingly the people who work the guts of the fashion industry, it is female. Of course, when you get to the C-suite, it becomes way more cis-white-male dominated, and you can sense it. That’s become way more evident in the past ten years.
Angelo: I have a lot of admiration for Elsa Lanzo at Owenscorp. In this particular case, you have Rick Owens, a designer with a super-strong personality, and someone who won’t be told how to do things, but they have created an environment in which he can express himself creatively and still do well commercially. She is there to help him, not to smother his creativity.
You make it sound like an anomaly.
Angelo: Yes, and it is evident now that the only cook in the kitchen is the CEO, more than the creative director, because it is the CEO who hires the creative director. It’s creating a new and different dynamic from before, when the creative directors were gods, demanding their authorship of everything be acknowledged and publicized.
That dynamic seems focused more on a long-term strategy for the houses themselves, and less on the power of creative directors who, in some cases, seem to be regarded as transient custodians.
Angelo: Completely. For me, the wake-up call on all of this was Alessandro Michele’s exit. In the old world, the successful creative director would have been there until he left on his own will. Who would have imagined that someone who did so much for a brand would be let go? We’ll probably never know exactly how it went down internally, but what happened demonstrated the CEO’s power. Alessandro was not the superstar; he might have looked like it, but he was not bigger than the house itself.

‘I’ve heard instances of CEOs shoving handbags into models’ hands as they head out onto the catwalk for a designer’s debut show.’

Alexander Fury

When did you start coming to the shows in Paris?
Angelo: My first season was October 2006. At the time I was writing for this free-press magazine that asked me to write wrap-up pieces about fashion week. At that point, I’d been around enough, and felt Milano was too restricting, so I needed to get to Paris. I wanted to see fashion with a capital F, so to speak. The first show I saw was Gaspard Yurkievich in the Espace Pierre Cardin, that little theatre behind the Champs-Élysées. This was pre-iPhone and I remember walking around with a printed map, feeling wide-eyed in the middle of the fashion dream. Probably like Emily in Paris, if I knew what that actually meant. What about you, Alex?
Alexander: My first Paris show was Stella McCartney on 28 February 2008, making this my 15th year. I remember taking the first Eurostar in the morning, going straight to the venue, and being frogmarched in by Susannah Frankel and Penny Martin. I was smuggled into Saint Laurent, too. People said to me, if you’ve got a person with a ticket either side of you, you can get into the Chanel show, you just need to front it. That would never happen now.
Angelo: If I look back, I used to have so much time for myself, just wandering through the Marais, going to the showrooms or into shops simply because I liked the look of the window. It was a time for research, whereas now there’s only time for shows.
Alexander: It was already busy when I started going, but then the week filled up, and then it got shorter but just as intense. They’re like a breathing organism, these fashion weeks. I’ve just calculated that today is day 46 of the season. Did you do New York?
Angelo: I didn’t, but I never count the days. I just go with the flow.
Alexander: I started in January in Florence, then Milan, Paris, couture, Alaïa, 11 days off, then New York, London, Milan, and now we’re here on the final day of Paris, with just Miu Miu left. So today is day 46. It’s fucking exhausting just thinking about it.

What do you find yourself doing at shows today that you weren’t doing a decade ago?
Alexander: We all film the finale and then it’s like, why am I actually filming this? Who is it for?
Angelo: And it is always bad quality anyway.
Alexander: I have just been to the 1997 exhibition at the Musée Galliera, which has all these videos of the shows from that year. I went with someone who is a bit younger than me, and she said, ‘Wow, they’re clapping individual outfits, not just the finale!’ Which, of course, no one does any more because everyone has their phone in their hands, desperately filming. These days, you still feel that same impulse to want to acknowledge an amazing look, but the reaction now is to record it, not applaud it.
Isn’t that impulse to document just everyday life now?
Alexander: Yes, I’ll go to a restaurant – nothing to do with fashion week – and someone is positioning their Chanel bag just so, preparing their perfect photo moment, and I just want to go over and ask, ‘Who is this for? Who cares that you’re having lunch with a bag?’ This perpetual documentation of every aspect of life feeds into CCTV and AI and all this kind of stuff, but it is the general nature of our time: everything is documented in an ephemeral way, and no one writes letters any more. I do sometimes think, ‘What are we going to leave as the legacy of our time?’

How do you feel as more visible protagonists yourselves now? I have never seen so many pictures of the two of you.
Angelo: [aghast] Really?
Alexander: Do you mean incidental photos, in the background?
No, everywhere! The two of you being part of the wider documentation of fashion week, of the industry as a whole.
Alexander: I would love to be more anonymous. I loved wearing a mask during the pandemic, and carried on wearing one for quite a long time afterwards; I still have them.
Angelo: The Americans are still wearing masks at shows.
Alexander: It hinders your reaction, which is great because no one can tell if you’re sneering at a look or saying something horrible. I went to someone’s child’s christening recently, a big thing, and she said there were 2,500 pictures taken at it and that I wasn’t in a single one of them, which I was very proud of. I want to be the Margiela of fashion journalism.

Alex mentioned before that fashion now appeals to both a mass audience and hardcore obsessives. Do you think it’s easier these days for hardcore fans to access the industry and make a living from fashion?
Angelo: Yes and no. The industry remains a little hard to penetrate, but of course today you have different ways in, like that guy Beka [Gvishiani] from Stylenotcom. I was just reading yesterday what [journalist] Eugene Rabkin had to say about Stylenotcom, which was pretty damning. But Beka has been very intelligent in targeting people at the centre of the industry to write about. He grabbed the spotlight even though he’s not a writer – what he ‘writes’ is just facts and press-release snippets – but he got a fast-track entryway into the system by taking a different approach.

In that Stylenotcom piece, Eugene Rabkin made the point that designers, whether they like it or not, intrinsically seek the point of view of the critic. They may not appreciate bad criticism, but criticism is fundamental to fostering progress, and if you remove the arena of criticism then you’re just left with the kind of benign cheerleading that Stylenotcom has become known for. Of course, brands prefer cheerleading to criticism, but it ultimately hinders fashion’s sense of propelling itself forward. I thought it was an interesting point.
Angelo: On one hand you have more of these benign cheerleaders, and on the other hand, I think this past decade has seen an increased resistance to established critics and criticism in general. Like, from a brand’s perspective, if it’s bad for business, it should be discouraged. Alex, do you increasingly find yourself having to ‘go for a coffee’ with a CEO or comms director or designer to discuss something you’ve written?
Alexander: Yes, and I’ve had designers phone me. People sometimes take things incredibly personally, which I do understand in some ways. It depends on who it is and what I’ve written.
Angelo: Yes, it’s never supposed to be personal, but sometimes the words come across that way.
Alexander: Or the tone.
Angelo: English is not my first language, so occasionally I’ll use the wrong word. I once described Kris Van Assche’s approach to fashion as ‘cold’; I was referring to it being quite controlled, but that word ‘cold’ was perceived as a personal criticism, and that season became a nightmare for me.
Do you find yourselves under increasing pressure from your publications to keep on the right side of the advertisers?
Alexander: I’ve had people [from brands] ask me to attend shows or events that I am not particularly interested in or just don’t have time to go to, and they’ll put pressure on me by saying, ‘But we advertise with the FT.’ And the FT are like, ‘We don’t care about advertisers; they don’t get to say that to you; that is not the way we operate.’
Angelo: PRs tend to apply a lot of pressure, but I am lucky that as long as a photograph of their collection appears alongside my wrap-up article – even if I don’t attend that particular show – then it’s usually fine. But there have been problems with some designers who consider any form of criticism as a personal takedown.
Alexander: Do you get invited to Dolce & Gabbana shows?
Angelo: I’ve been readmitted recently for BoF, so I can choose whether to write about them or not; they want me to be there though, which is a nice way of saying, ‘OK, we are taking some steps towards re-establishing a rapport, rather than a total ban.’
Alexander: I can understand that in some instances you just don’t see eye-to-eye. Like with Hedi Slimane, I wasn’t invited to his Saint Laurent shows towards the end, which was disappointing because I loved that last one he did. But then when he went to Celine, they reached out and invited me, which I have a lot of respect for. There is something very big about a designer being able to say, ‘I’ve moved somewhere else; it’s a clean slate – let’s start again.’ Because I do understand people taking it personally. I certainly take it personally if people slag off my writing; it affects me.
Angelo: Absolutely! What keeps the industry going in a way is this need for constant validation. Us as writers, designers as designers, brands as brands – it’s a real engine.
Alexander: There is a great Somerset Maugham quote I use: ‘People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.’ But I’d add to that – and I think I can say this as we are both fashion critics – that the last ten years has proven the sheer impotence of the fashion critic.
Angelo: [laughs] Very true!
Alexander: Hedi’s Saint Laurent was a great example of that. Fashion critics initially loathed it – it got critically drubbed – and yet it became the best-selling thing in fashion. There used to be a time, which I should say was before my time in the industry, when a bad critique could ruin a collection. If Suzy [Menkes] gave something a bad review, buyers would cancel their orders. That was a very eighties and nineties thing. I occasionally write things for the Financial Times that then end up being quoted or reused in its business pages, and that’s when the CEO or head of marketing asks to have the coffee, because it’s reaching a different audience and can affect the share price. I think the FT does have that impact, especially when the point I’m making implies, who is actually going to buy this? I have gone in hard on certain things, such as Frida [Giannini]’s final collection for Gucci. I remember the exact line – it was a very hippie collection, and they were just launching beauty, so I wrote, ‘Hippy won’t sell lippy.’
Presumably you got the coffee call for that one.
Alexander: I did. But I can understand their annoyance because I commented on the business, and so many people are invested in fashion these days. I know people who work at a hedge fund in the UK who are massive investors in Kering. They have nothing to do with fashion, no knowledge of it whatsoever, but they are interested in industry opinions, they want guidance on whether something is good or bad, if it’s going to give them ROI or not.

‘I remember talking to Raf Simons when he was at Dior, and he said, ‘People have no idea who I am; they think Christian Dior is still alive.’’

Alexander Fury

Being a designer, stylist, photographer, writer or model remains a subjective discipline, which means appraisal of the work will be equally subjective. Whereas the CEO is largely performative, and their success is basically indisputable. You can’t be a great CEO and not deliver revenue growth. Of course, there are varying levels of performance: Adrian Joffe does a great job for Comme, and then there’s Pietro Beccari at Louis Vuitton.
Alexander: But it does depend on how you measure the success of a CEO. Is it one who makes a lot of money or one who has the synergy with a designer and allows them to achieve greatness? Pierre Bergé was – and I hope I can say this and that he won’t turn in his grave – kind of a crappy CEO; he made some terrible decisions. But did he cemented the legacy of the man he loved and believed to be the greatest designer in the world? Yes, absolutely. For me that is the measure of a great CEO. I’d say Mr Bertelli and Mrs Prada are great CEOs, because fuck me, they’ve positioned Prada at a point where she is an amazing creative and the name is unassailable. There is no way anyone would argue she isn’t one of the greatest designers of our time. Adrian Joffe, again, they make money with Comme des Garçons – it’s a great business – but he isn’t saying to Rei Kawakubo, ‘Make sure the models carry a handbag on the catwalk.’ Because I’ve heard instances of CEOs shoving handbags into models’ hands as they head out onto the catwalk for a designer’s debut show, or overseeing bag campaigns that the designers themselves have never even seen or been a part of. For me, the great CEOs are the ones who truly care. Mrs Prada’s name is over the door; there is no way she is going to let anyone dick about with Prada or Miu Miu. The same was the case for Pierre Bergé – he had a deeply emotional investment. That’s what I think makes a great CEO, even though that might sound like a contradiction given that I write for the FT!

‘I really appreciate what Anthony Vaccarello is doing at Saint Laurent; he’s not a maverick per se, but he’s the closest thing we’ve got today in a big house.’ 

Angelo Flaccavento

Conversely, what does interest you about the number and figures, beyond the sheer performative nature of business one-upmanship?
Alexander: The figures make you think about fashion in different ways. Like, you might think a product is great but it’s not making money – why? You think something is shit but it’s making a fortune – why? I’ve spoken with Mrs Prada about this and it’s something she’s equally fascinated by. Like, if I make a black dress and a pink dress, why do we sell ten times more of the black dress? Why if I make a brown coat and a leopard-print coat, how come we sell ten times more of the leopard-print coat? That might be a philosophical consideration, but a lot of the financial CEO stuff actually slots into the basic premise of, why do people desire certain things?

If you looked at the three big Parisian fashion houses 20 years ago, you had Galliano at Dior, total maverick; Karl at Chanel, in his own way a maverick persona; and at Yves Saint Laurent, you had Tom Ford, who had reinvented the role of the designer as a kind of entrepreneurial-creative-director-sex-symbol. If you look at those same houses now, you have Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, Virginie Viard at Chanel, and Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent, all of whom are very successfully serving their respective houses. But could you envisage a true maverick at the helm of one of those big Parisian houses today?
Alexander: I don’t know if those types of designers would even want to do that now. I feel like maybe designers have been offered these big gigs and don’t actually want them. My favourite thing that Rick Owens ever said to me was, we were talking about ownership of his company, and he was like, ‘I own it 100%, and if I wanted to, tomorrow I could burn the whole fucking place down.’ Having that freedom not to have to be answerable to anybody or anything is really amazing. Azzedine was the modern blueprint. Before he passed away, he was doing an exhibition at the Design Museum in London, so he decided he wasn’t going to make a collection at all – he just said, ‘We’re not selling this season’ – because he wanted to focus on the exhibition instead. Besides Rick, no one can really do that. Maybe a bit with Mrs Prada; I think sometimes she wants to make money, but I don’t think it is what drives her. Who else has that degree of freedom and with that mindset as well? People who aren’t answerable to anybody else.
Angelo: Maybe the definition of maverick has changed, too. Today, it’s probably someone who can shift the codes while serving the house in the best possible way. I really appreciate what Anthony Vaccarello is doing at Saint Laurent; he is not a maverick per se, but he is the closest thing to a maverick that we can have today in a big house. Someone who tackles the codes, plays with them, and moves them forward.
Alexander: I have drunk the Kool-Aid with Vaccarello. He has serviced the house and built it up, but in terms of what he puts out as a show, I think it’s extraordinary. As messaging and as clothing, I think something shifted and it is not just product, it is fashion. It is really difficult fashion sometimes, which is great. I loved that show in September [Spring/Summer 2023] that some people hated. I mean, when do you come out of a show and people either love or hate it? I was completely hysterical about this recent one [in March]. He is of my generation and there is an understanding of the power of nostalgia. So you walk in and you see this amazing super-sized restaging of the Hotel InterContinental ballroom [the original Yves Saint Laurent haute-couture show venue]. That exaggeration alone is very modern; you know, it’s the size of a football field, the shoulders are a metre apart, even the shoe buckles are pulled out and exaggerated. But alongside that, there is an understanding of craft and of bodies and of fabric. I think some people see Vaccarello as just styling and image-making rather than incredible clothes, which is fine, but I think it’s extraordinary and I love the focus the brand puts on the actual garments. I think there was only one handbag in this recent show and in the one before there were none at all. Today, that is such a bold proposition from a house that makes so much money from leather goods, to really throw itself behind Vaccarello’s clothes.
Angelo: I agree. He’s stepped in, taken the codes, played with them with taste and intelligence, but not reinvented the house completely. In the same way, Maria Grazia is playing with the Dior codes – a bit like Karl did at Chanel – but there’s always a Bar jacket, a white shirt, and a big skirt. The changes are slight from one collection to another, but she is serving the purpose of the house really well.
Alexander: Yes, what she creates is a great luxury product. But I kind of think that is different to being a fashion designer, different to being someone who is going to shift the way we dress.
That feels like such a rare commodity these days.
Alexander: I mean, Karl desperately wanted to be that, but he wasn’t. You look at those Chanel collections and there is – this is really horrible, but I’m going to say it anyway – a desperation to some of Karl’s collections to do something different. I think possibly because of the competition he had with Yves Saint Laurent or with Azzedine, those people who really did change the way that people dress. Karl wanted to do that; he wanted to invent something. The way he worked with Chanel really changed the way designers go into houses and look at their heritage and how they can reactivate that. I am interested to see what the Met do [with the Karl Lagerfeld exhibition], because you can’t be like, ‘This is his; this belongs to Karl.’ It doesn’t, he was a magpie and borrowed from lots of people, which was his strength.
The thing that belonged to Karl, was Karl, really. The Karlness of it all.
Alexander: I think he even called himself a vampire; this idea of sucking the life out of a moment and encapsulating it in something, and the fact that his Chanel was always Chanel but never the same. Chanel was great; it was like, here’s a bunch of codes and they are so abstract we can work with them in all these different ways, and it encapsulates every fashion moment, but it is not creating that moment. At the end of the nineties it looks like Galliano because Galliano was creating that moment. There are periods in the eighties when it looks like Lacroix because Lacroix created that moment. I know I’m referencing the people I love, but anyway.

‘Are Vuitton, Hermès and Chanel going to be here in a hundred years? Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if anything could stop them. They are too big to fail.’

Alexander Fury

You could argue that in the early 2000s those Chanel couture shows had touches of Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme.
Alexander: Yes. To go back to your original point about maverick designers, it’s worth adding that what Virginie Viard at Chanel or Maria Grazia at Dior does is different again to what Karl was doing at Chanel. They are capturing what is going on, servicing the house, and producing incredibly successful collections in terms of selling, but they are not changing the way we look at ourselves and our bodies. But, you know, the purpose of a house like Dior has fundamentally changed. It’s become a different type of business now.
Compared to when?
Alexander: Back when John was at Dior – yes, I’m enthusing about him again – it was like, ‘We don’t care if the collection sells; we want publicity!’ It is really interesting when you look at that first John ready-to-wear show because he just obliterated the Dior client base. There’s all these women sitting there neatly in their little tweed suits, and Eva Herzigová comes out in a skirt so short you can basically see her crotch. Looking at that now, it’s absolutely deranged. It was an amazing moment in fashion because there was this build-up to the millennium and we all thought the world was going to end, so there was this dancing-on-the-lip-of-the-volcano thing happening. There was a real frenzy to Galliano’s shows, to McQueen’s, to lots of the stuff going on at that particular moment.
Is that frenzied revolution happening anywhere today?
Alexander: You do see it in some places, but not at the scale of Dior. It’s often pretty wayward, too. Like, I feel at Nina Ricci, they’ve just torched the house. That show was horrendous. It’s one of those examples of things that can happen in fashion where the hype just obliterates everything, with no one bothering to think if this has any design context or desirability.
Are design and desirability not the cornerstones of any fashion endeavour?
Alexander: Designers just need to stop and look at what they’re doing. If it has a logo on it or a designer name attached, it will probably sell. It’s desirable in that sense, but is it bringing something to the world? What is the point of it? I actually think people should ask themselves the question, ‘Is this attractive?’ more often. I don’t mean like some prissy 1950s prom dress, but rather, ‘Is there a beauty to it?’ Rick Owens clearly asks himself that question, and his response is, ‘Yeah, this is my fucking idea of beauty!’ and that’s the great thing he is pumping out into the world. I remember him saying to me once, ‘It’s an antidote to airport fashion.’
This all begs the question, who or what constitutes a great designer today? Or rather, who are the designers that are really expressing or defining the moment we’re currently living in? Who is the Galliano, the McQueen, the Rei Kawakubo or the Helmut Lang of this generation?
Angelo: It’s very difficult for someone to express the moment now because the moment is way more fragmented than ever before. So you cannot have just one shift. There are so many different things. I would say that in a certain way Jonathan Anderson speaks about the moment, also Rick Owens. Who else? [Pauses] Pierpaolo is a great designer. He is not in his best moment right now, but in haute couture he has made some things that are so beautiful he can only be a great designer.
Alexander: This is something I am perpetually asking myself, like, who is in the top 20? Who’s in the pantheon of the greats? And then they keep dying. It’s really sad.
That’s true. Over the past decade we’ve lost Azzedine Alaïa, Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood, Thierry Mugler, Paco Rabanne, Virgil Abloh, Alber Elbaz, and Issey Miyake among others.
Alexander: And more are going to come.

You mentioned Karl Lagerfeld before, and this distinction between a designer and a creative director serving a house. Do you think the current creative director role is here to stay or will it evolve into something else again?
Angelo: There are designers, like the Japanese or Dries, who design stuff and there are designers – creative directors – who coordinate design with great ideas. The past 20 years has been peak time for the creative director, someone who can turn around a whole house with their vision, and who can apply this vision to clothes, campaigns, stores and everything else required of them. Alessandro [Michele] has been a wonderful creative director and stylist, assembling things, but the design element has been relatively limited. I think there is a new character coming up who is the chief marketing officer, who sometimes overlaps with the communications director, which is very interesting because they liken marketing to communications, of course. But the overlap of narrative, marketing and product can have lethal effects on collections – they can lose sight of the clothes they’re making. A case in point is Valentino: all this storytelling about inclusivity is pillaged from Gucci and doesn’t make sense within that particular house. It doesn’t matter how significant Valentino’s stylistic turnaround has been – from the era of Mr Valentino to now – as far as I’m concerned, the house will always be linked to this world of Latin-American socialites with big villas.
Alexander: I’m sometimes surprised by who we consider to be designers, stylists or creative directors. It’s not always as clean cut as that. The first time I interviewed Mrs Prada I assumed we were going to have this really highbrow conceptual conversation, not at all about clothes. It was in 2015, around the time of the Prada collection that was duchess satin; everything was pink, and it was very, very sweet, like too sweet. As soon as we sat down, she was like, ‘We found this fabric and it was a complete nightmare to work with. We had to work on how to stitch it; you see, this is how we sewed it.’ So it goes back to design, back to the craft, even for Mrs Prada, who is perceived as being totally disconnected from clothes. She used to reject the idea of fashion and now she embraces the power of being a designer and what she can do with the reality of her collections. Ultimately, I’ve found that when people drill down it becomes about the craft. So, it’s Rick, it’s Mrs Prada, it’s John Galliano, it’s Marc Jacobs, who people might perceive as lots of styling, but Marc is there on the floor cutting things out.

What about Jonathan Anderson in all this? Angelo just said he speaks of the moment.
Angelo: He is the epitome of the great creative director of our times, the one who will be studied in books in 40 years’ time. You can see his vision through everything.
Alexander: Jonathan is definitely someone who is very in tune with how people consume, and is engineered for now, but he is actually different. He is not a stylist; he is a curator – it is about assembling in a different way. I’d still say he is up there with the greats though because the way he looks at fashion is extraordinary, and so many people copy it.
Angelo: It was interesting what Alex was just saying about designers like Miuccia Prada ultimately being about craft. Because for me, as an Italian, I’m particularly impressed by the way Jonathan Anderson has managed to transform craft, which is historically very Italian, into something entirely modern. When most brands talk about craft, you immediately think about the past, but with Loewe, Jonathan has made it modern and inventive and really special. So, yes, his work is like that of a curator – of ideas, of culture, of craft – but with such an exacting vision that he achieves what he wants… even though I suspect he doesn’t design a single piece himself!

Angelo Flaccavento & Alexander Fury - © System Magazine

On the topic of craft and design, the invitation to the Balenciaga show was a mock-up of a tailor’s pattern, as if to say tailoring is the most noble pursuit, the essence of fashion, and the antidote to the negative noise surrounding the brand. It made sense. But it struck me that the term tailoring might be going the same way as luxury, a word that’s associated with some form of inherent value that has been so misused and debased that it no longer holds any value. On one hand, it feels like tailoring is now used as an antidote to logo-heavy sportswear, and on the other we are seeing, in Saint Laurent, Dior Homme, and of course, Balenciaga among others, glimpses of genuinely new and exciting forms of tailoring.
Angelo: Do you remember, Jonathan, we were planning a story for System in early 2020 about tailoring; I was supposed to interview people like Alessandro Michele and Peter Do because we saw something new emerging. While the pandemic killed everything, the movement towards tailoring had started earlier.
Alexander: It’s a bit like the war: you see traces of Dior in 1939, and then they get picked back up after the war. The same way the pandemic essentially stopped everything. The war stopped everything, it just presses pause, and then you slightly exaggerate things around you, but there is no significant movement during that time.
Angelo: The craze for sweatshirts and streetwear peaked before the pandemic and then the pandemic made easy dressing the only solution, where designers were all about loungewear and staying cosy. So now that we are out again with a bang, you want to be suited and booted and looking properly dressed, but I find it sometimes so conservative that it looks like a restoration of sorts.
Alexander: There are so many things you could read into that. In a period of hardship, people tend to become more conservative, it happened after 9/11, that was when you had Olivier Theyskens at Rochas, Lanvin, and this return to lady dressing. With a very cynical eye, you could just say it’s easier to charge more for a tailored suit than for a hoodie.
Angelo: Yes, the mark-up is really high.
Alexander: People are willing to pay more because there is more work and time. ‘Time is the ultimate luxury’ and all that bullshit. There is another thing: one of my favourite quotes about fashion is about it only being new in contrast to that which has just ceased to be fashionable. Hemlines went up, so of course they’ve now dropped; we all wore sweatpants, of course we are going to want to be tailored now. I was talking with Pierpaolo the other day about the show he did with shirts and ties [Autumn/Winter 2023-2024], he said, ‘Kids want to wear it; there is a sense that younger people have never had to wear a suit and shirt and tie, so they don’t have the restrictions that older generations do.’ It’s the idea that people now wear sweatpants and sweatshirts to work in, and then when they go out at night, they wear a suit. It is the opposite of how people used to dress. So as a novelty item, there is this sense of being able to button yourself into a really well-made suit and feel that you look great. It’s what Vivienne Westwood used to say about comfort being a mental thing.
Angelo: Just to go back to the Balenciaga show the other day… as much as I liked it because it felt like a clearance of a few things, I was also hoping that it would take a new direction, a new leap in terms of silhouette. But it felt like an act of repentance, which made me a bit sad, because it looked like he was saying, ‘I’m sorry; I am just a humble tailor.’ I was talking with a friend as we were coming out of a particularly shitty show this season, and I told her, ‘Look, even they’ve put an oversize black jacket on the catwalk, so surely it means the trend is now officially over’, but then seeing another oversize tailored jacket at Balenciaga, albeit a little bit different, made me crave for something radically new from Demna.
Alexander: Talking to him about that show, it felt like he was moving away from being a creative director and going back to being a designer. It’s what we were saying just before – as a creative director, design is part of what you do, but it is not the focus, and because of the pressures of everything else, it actually becomes a small part of what you do. Whereas being a designer has the implication that that is what you are doing. You are making clothes – that is your focus. Even if you have tertiary things.
It is not about designing the stores; it is about designing clothes.
Alexander: Well, it is way more than just designing clothes today, for sure.But when just designing clothes becomes the least of your worries, that is when it becomes a problem. But I think the role of ‘creative director’ does imply that you can go in and oversee stuff, have a direction, and if you can lead people effectively, then there is no reason why you can’t come to that from a field outside of fashion. There are lots of people who are fashion designers who don’t have a fashion-design background. I think it depends on your passion and your curiosity, your commitment.

Which brings us nicely to Pharrell. His appointment at Vuitton has been met with mixed reviews, even though he’s yet to have presented anything.
Alexander: I’d heard he was going to commit 30% of his time to Louis Vuitton, and to me that sounds entirely reasonable. I did some maths and if you are talking about Vuitton now being a €20 billion business, if the menswear business is €500 million – which is bigger than Rick Owens, bigger than a lot of other people – that is like 2.5% of the turnover. So, in a way it doesn’t really matter – it can just be window dressing.

It all comes back to Bernard Arnault’s original vision for using fashion to market the kind of luxury bags that have incredible mark-up potential…
Alexander: He is what everything is based on. At that 1997 exhibition, they’re basically saying that it all starts in October 1996, so it’s John into Dior, McQueen into Givenchy, Narciso into Loewe, Marc at Vuitton, Michael Kors at Céline, Margiela at Hermès, Alber into Guy Laroche, Hedi into Saint Laurent first time around, Stella going into Chloé. It all happened at that point, and it was all people mimicking what Arnault had done. He shook the dice and then everyone else was replicating it. So, it is very interesting that there was this massive influence of how he was reconstituting these houses.

And back to Pharrell. How do you view that appointment, in the lineage of what you’ve just described?
Alexander: Some people have been a little off about Pharrell going to Vuitton, but is it that different from Stella McCartney going to Chloé? There’s that quote from Karl, something like, ‘I think they should have taken a big name. They did – but in music, not fashion. Let’s hope she’s as gifted as her father.’ Some kind of bitchy Karlism. But you know, is it that different from someone with relatively little training and just a famous name? As with all these things, I want to be perpetually surprised. That’s what’s great about fashion – you’re always hoping to be surprised.
Angelo: I’m the same. I am still excited about fashion because there will always be change, new designers, and new houses leading. No one expected Alessandro to turn Gucci around the way he did, and I remember when Demna was appointed at Balenciaga, a friend of mine literally laughed out loud.
Alexander: People have said to me, ‘Oh you must hate the idea of Pharrell at Vuitton’, but I don’t hate it at all. Ideologically, I think people see Angelo and me as purists, but I’m interested to see what happens. I don’t think we should write anything off.
How would you feel about, say, the next Louis Vuitton menswear show being presented in the wider context of a Pharrell concert performance for 60,000 people at the Stade de France?
Angelo: The scale of a big event, like the Balmain Festival, with thousands of people is so different to a fashion show. A fashion show is an event within a calendar, within a day. A big event demands so much of your energy to be there. For me, entertainment is the way it is perceived and broadcast outside because it makes good online content. But fashion still needs to have an element of elitism in whatever form, so having an audience that is the happy few, and then everyone can tap into it, but not physically.
Alexander: When you do a show on that scale, like the Balmain Festival, it’s a show with musical performances tagged on; it’s like the fashion show isn’t enough because it only lasts ten minutes. The idea of getting thousands of people to go to some far-flung destination and then to have them wait for 45 minutes, only to watch something that lasts 10 minutes, and then all go home, would never work. Which is why they tag all these other things on, so it becomes a two-hour event. I mean I get it, if I was going to a Madonna concert, I would expect it to be two hours and not ten minutes. But for anyone in fashion, it couldn’t possibly be two hours long – we don’t have the attention span for that!
Angelo: I just want to see the Pharrell at Vuitton project develop in a way that is plausible.
Did you consider the Virgil Abloh project, Pharrell’s predecessor at Vuitton menswear, as something plausible?
Angelo: In a way, yes. But the project feels incomplete because he died, leaving such a sense of unfinished business. On one hand, the group they’ve created in Italy – New Guards Group, which was formed largely around Virgil’s success with Off-White – is one of today’s new movers and shakers in Milan, and on the other, Virgil represented an interesting shift, being less a trained designer and more a cultural catalyst…
Alexander: Like a DJ of clothes.
Angelo: Exactly. He applied music mentalities to fashion, which wasn’t necessarily new, but in the way a stylist has an eye for visual things, Virgil was using soundbites, communities, and cultural references to express himself.

There is that Tommy Ton photo from 2009 of Virgil, Kanye West and their friends looking like outsiders in front of a Comme show in Paris; fast-forward to 2021 and the shocking news that Virgil had died, far too young. In that interim decade you cannot underestimate his rise to prominence, his presence in fashion, and ultimately, his legacy.
Angelo: Virgil’s legacy will be long-lasting. He opened doors and I think he’ll always be remembered for that. He made it possible for a whole wave of Black creativity, for people to access certain areas and express themselves. It’s no secret how critical I was of some of his output but looking at that work now, compared to all those who came after and what they have done, I’d say he was a very instinctive creative. His period of output was short, sadly for him, but he had something to say. If he was alive today, he’d still be relevant.
Do you sense Vuitton men’s will forever be defined by his time there?
Angelo: It’s too early to tell, but for me what is interesting right now is how Louis Vuitton has dealt with the loss of Virgil in the collections that came since his death. This last one [in January 2023] was a total shipwreck. You had a movie director, a live performer, and a crazy stage set all vying for attention.
Alexander: I read a comment on Instagram about that show that simply said, ‘Why would you create so many distractions from your clothes?’ That is exactly what I felt at the show. I was like, where am I supposed to be looking?
Angelo: It sums up how huge the Vuitton machine has become.
Alexander: I think there was a sense in that show, which you get in a few shows, but particularly in that one because it was so unanchored, of it being a design team; that there were 40 people producing 40 different single outfits, and how do you make that hang together as a collection.
You mean it proves you can’t design by committee?
Alexander: Exactly. It proved that if you don’t have something or someone to pull it all together, people just go in all different directions, each one trying to be the star, whether that’s the clothes, the live performance, or the set design. It comes back once again to what Demna had written: the sets and the noise and the performance and the entertainment overshadowed the clothes.

Angelo mentioned the huge scale of the Vuitton ‘machine’. Do you think the big brands are now too big to fail?
Alexander: Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès – possibly Dior but I’m not sure – they are too big to fail. Their names mean so much outside of fashion, they are just going to keep growing and growing because that is the momentum they have. I don’t know if anything could stop them. It makes me think of that Chanel supermarket show [Autumn/Winter 2014]; no one really wrote about this, but everyone literally went crazy and ripped the place apart at the end, grabbing the Chanel-branded supermarket products. It was like day of the fucking locust at that show. It was amazing.
Surely Karl had that exact scenario in mind.
Alexander: Absolutely! I was thinking, what other brand could elicit that hysterical reaction over it branding? If Hermès did a supermarket it would happen, if Louis Vuitton did, it would happen, and it happened with Chanel – but I don’t think it would happen with any other house. There’s just this irrational desire for those names, through their products, branding and identity. It really doesn’t matter what they make, as long as you put the name on it, it’s going to work.
Angelo: It’s this idea of branding things in a very simplistic way so it feels instinctive to people.
Alexander: I’ve talked to people outside of fashion – I do have some friends outside fashion – and they’ve been like, ‘Oh, so that’s Valentino’, and I’m like, ‘How do you know?’ and they said, ‘Well, it’s pink.’ Without being aware of any of its heritage, or its use of red. These days, it’s all about Bottega green or now this new Burberry blue. It’s like the London Underground map; the original colour scheme was designed for people who couldn’t read. They knew that they just had to follow the red line and that would get them home. Looking at this in the context of recent fashion history is interesting because it’s such a precise distillation of the past ten years.

Going back to your original point about Chanel, Vuitton and Hermès being the only brands able to elicit supermarket hysteria, it’s interesting that all three of them are French.
Alexander: It is actually that root in French early-20th-century luxury. In a way, they come from very specialized points. Chanel is perfume; Hermès is handbags; Vuitton is trunks. You can boil them down to one thing for each name.
And Dior was fashion?
Alexander: Dior is more nebulous because it is not so easily boiled down. It is getting bigger, and it will continue, but it is less unassailable than the other three. I find that really fascinating. It’s like, are they going to be here in a hundred years? Yes, absolutely.
Angelo: The system in Paris is unbeatable, and the way the French have managed to create a culture around fashion. One of the problems for me with Italy is that as much as fashion is part of its culture, it has always been an industry there. There is not even an institutional museum devoted to fashion in the entire country, whereas you have several just in Paris. So this goes deep into the culture of a country, and that affects the whole thing. If you want to graduate into the major league, you have to go to Paris. If you are in London, you are just a renegade with vision but not much structure. New York for me has always just been Anna Wintour trying to impose her power to make fashion week there relevant.
Alexander: Realistically the thing with Paris and fashion is that it has this history going back to Louis XIV that’s unassailable. That’s where it all starts. It’s just way more part of the culture, and considered very different to all these other places. It has the crafts, it has the infrastructure, and this nucleus. There are people who do craft things in Paris who can’t do that anywhere else. So I think Paris is seen as this real hub of expertise. When you then tag on those houses that have these lineages stretching back hundreds of years it is something else entirely.
Angelo: Of course, it is the world’s number-one tourist capital, too. The scale and grandeur of the city is a beautiful frame to all the fashion we see, so that fashion has spread all over the city.
Alexander: Paris has literally been ‘fashioned’, and so, with haute couture in Paris, there is an artisanal culture dating back to the 17th century that hangs over these big houses, implying their handbags are made by hand, when of course they’re actually made by machines. Whereas in Italy, it is actually a celebration of this same industrialization.

‘I was talking with Rick Owens about his company, and he said, ‘I own it 100%. If I wanted to, I could burn the whole fucking place down tomorrow.’’

Alexander Fury

We can’t talk about Paris without talking a bit more about Hermès. You can’t help but admire how this Parisian institution so stubbornly sticks to its ‘art of discretion’, in spite of the wider industry shift towards attention-grabbing fashion. Yet it continues to have the highest brand equity of any luxury house. Why?
Angelo: As much as The Row can be seen as an interesting fashion interpretation of the Hermès world, there is an element of ‘wrongness’ about Hermès which sets it apart from the rest. I don’t know how to put it into words, but they always present themselves as being a little outside of fashion, or perhaps above it. Although the menswear sometimes gets closer to fashion; it plays with certain trends.
Alexander: It might be a weird comparison to make, but Hermès feels a bit like Margaret Howell. She is always doing her own thing, sometimes there is an intersection with fashion, but she does what she feels like doing. It is the same with Hermès, just on a far grander scale. The other thing that Hermès has, of course, are these status-symbol bags that are like logos without being logos. There is the whole scarcity about it, the inability to buy it obviously makes you want to buy it; it’s the oldest trick in the book – you can’t have it, so it’s the only thing you want. Hermès refused to confirm this to me officially, but I got told by Kyle Richards, the Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, that regardless of how much you spend there, you can only buy two of certain Hermès bags a year, like the Kellys or the Birkins. So, it is this extreme supply and demand.

How significant is it that Hermès remains an independent family business?
Alexander: Hugely significant. Because the family are still involved, it’s not just about making a ton of money; it is a legacy. With Hermès, you get the feeling that they could make far more money if they lowered the quality of everything by making it somewhere else. Or if they made a million Birkins a year they would sell every one of them, but they don’t want to do that.
Angelo: They are not into hype; they’re anti-hype.
Alexander: Hermès have made themselves so valuable by valuing themselves.
We have lived through the opposite end of that with ‘hypebeast culture’ and…
Alexander: …the Supreme brick!
Different product, different audience, same desirability.
Alexander: It’s actual value versus perceived value. Hermès are not trying to sell you a shitty pair of underpants with their name on it.
Angelo: Also, Hermès is one of the last houses that places importance on value for money. You get the feeling the investment is real, whereas in fashion over the last few years, the value you pay is for the hype the brand generates. You are almost aware you’re buying shitty stuff; you want it because of the hype, but once the hype bubble bursts, you’re left with nothing.

Lastly, what do you think is the ambition of someone who wants to start a house or be a designer today? Are they still looking to those megabrands and luxury groups as the gold standard of what to strive for? Or do you think a shift in people’s values – regarding sustainability, responsible practice, and ultimately capitalism – might alter the metrics of success?
Angelo: The big groups cannot be imitated in any way – they are so big and so overgrown – but this leaves an interesting space of movement to any young designer who wants to emerge. If they keep their scale more reasonable, as they grow maybe the groups will turn their attention towards them. I don’t want to say that big money wins, but of course the big groups have all the means at their disposal, in terms of shows and distribution and attention grabbing, but there is still room to manoeuvre.
Alexander: If you were to ask this question to the designers themselves, I’m not sure they’d say they want to be like Dior, Vuitton or Chanel. I think they’d say they want to be more like Rick Owens or Azzedine or Comme des Garçons, because they all have healthy businesses and can support themselves, but they’re creatively free. These are the people who other designers respect, even envy. It will be interesting to see what happens with Phoebe Philo because she might reset the very thing you’re addressing – how people gauge success. We’ve just talked about the scarcity of Hermès, and the idea of wanting something of real value but not being able to buy it because it’s been produced in limited numbers. This may become a wider metric of success. Houses that really believe in what they’re putting out, as opposed to trying to satisfy a market need.
Angelo: But that is not the mentality in these big luxury houses. The mentality is that everything has to be bigger, because the bigger you get and the more profit you make, will only ever be considered a good thing.
Alexander: My big problem is when people say, our profits are up 50%, and I’m like, so are you making things out of poorer quality materials in cheaper production facilities? Because that is how profits go up! You can’t just be like, ‘Oh, crocodile is so much cheaper these days than it used to be!’ You are cutting corners, which begs the question, how much can you hack away at luxury before it isn’t luxurious anymore? I think that is a really big question. And possibly will be answered in the next ten years.

Taken from System No. 21.