Fashion Trends of 2011: McQueen, China Consumerism, and More

A model walks the runaway during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City.; An Alexander McQueen dress. Peter Michael Dills / Getty Images (left); Sølve sundsbo / Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

The fashion industry marks shifts in style by seasons, not years. Yet despite the constant churning of trends, real change—the kind that upends business models, subverts traditions, and shakes up aesthetics—isn’t so common.

There was plenty of fashion news in 2011, but making news isn’t the same thing as instigating change. Lady Gaga captured the imagination of the frock industry and helped to propel Nicola Formichetti to fame as the new designer for a relaunched Mugler. But there’s little evidence that Gaga’s predilection for perilously high heels and spiked thongs has caused the fashion world—or the culture—to rethink its assumptions about anything.

Fashion aficionados were stunned when an alcohol- and drug-addicted John Galliano was dismissed from Christian Dior after spewing anti-Semitic insults at a couple in a Paris bistro. Galliano’s troubles sparked an industrywide conversation about the pressures facing the modern corporate designer. But that debate soon faded, and Christian Dior carried on handily without Galliano—and without any lead designer for an extended period of time. The company’s bottom line showed no signs of faltering. In the first nine months of 2011, Dior’s revenue was up 15 percent over the same period last year.

There were, as always, provocative collections that made audiences think. One can hope that Kanye West’s inauspicious ready-to-wear debut made other celebrities reconsider a part-time career in fashion. Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo critiqued the cultural traditions of weddings. And fashion’s definition of beauty became more ethnically diverse thanks to the sweeping grace of world traveler Haider Ackermann.

London-based designers wooed independent retailers like Karen Daskas, co-owner of Tender in Birmingham, Mich. The unique sensibility and limited distribution of labels such as Erdem and Peter Pilotto help her stand out as a David amid a bunch of Goliath merchants. “I can’t compete with department stores,” Daskas says. “And I don’t want to compete with them. I’m constantly looking for new things.”

Fashion grappled with a lousy economy by simultaneously going more upmarket and more mass market. It rewarded new media’s bloggers with front-row seats at fashion shows and, in some cases, free frocks and trips. The industry’s favorite heiress, Daphne Guinness, dressed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala while posing in the windows of Barneys New York and had her own exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Fashion teased and titillated, but there were no bolts of lightning in 2011. Change came on quietly, and often it came in counterintuitive ways.

These three events made folks question the status quo. In some cases, insiders were filled with optimism. But often the change was neither all good nor all bad. Sometimes change just meant that it was time for something different.

China Leads In Luxury

CHINA has become a fashion-industry obsession. First came the fretting over its cheap labor and low overheads. Now comes the fixation on its consumers. They represent the key market for producers of luxury goods, from Louis Vuitton to Prada. But American designers, particularly less established ones, seemed to be missing out on those status-hungry customers. The China Design Program may be a turning point.

Established this year, bankrolled by fashion industrialist Silas Chou and overseen by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue, this is a business and cultural-exchange program for young fashion designers. “We want to see how it goes,” says CFDA CEO Steven Kolb. “Assuming all goes well, we’ll continue.”

In the spring of 2012, Chinese designer Uma Wang will spend a month in New York working with Theory executive Andrew Rosen and designer Michael Kors. She’ll attend the CFDA awards in June, visit museums, and take the pulse of American consumers.

American designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler will spend time in Beijing. They’ll focus on Chinese consumers: how do they spend their free time, what kind of art do they like, where do they prefer to eat? “It’ll give them an understanding of who their potential customer is,” says Kolb, “and help them develop a strategy for China.”

Couture Explodes Online

THE Internet continues its march on the fashion industry, most notably with the flood of high-end designs into the world of e-commerce. Net-a-Porter was first to demonstrate that shoppers would spend $2,000 online for a dress. This year, Moda Operandi began offering impatient customers a way to order designer merchandise straight off the runway. The online trunk show, which launched in February, landed a $10 million investment from venture capitalists four months later.

Across the Atlantic, former Gucci designer Alessandra Facchinetti partnered with the Italian company Pinko to launch Uniqueness, another straight-off-the-runway virtual shop—this one offering immediate delivery.

Especially notable, says Robert Burke, a luxury-products consultant, is the rise of high-end menswear sales online. Mr Porter, the menswear cousin to Net-a-Porter, launched this year, along with Gilt Groupe’s Park & Bond.

“They’re revolutionary,” Burke says. “People didn’t think men bought on the Internet.” Now a $7,695 Loro Piana shearling-lined suede coat isn’t out of the question.

Mcqueen Rocks the Met

Design house Alexander McQueen had a busy 2011. Its new creative director, Sarah Burton, designed Kate Middleton’s wedding gown and dressed first lady Michelle Obama for the China state dinner. But the true blockbuster event was Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, an exhibition at the Costume Institute that examined the career of the house’s founder, who committed suicide in 2010 at age 40.

Savage Beauty drew 661,509 visitors over the summer and ranked as the eighth-most-visited exhibition in the Met’s history, alongside such cultural blockbusters as The Treasures of Tutankhamen and Mona Lisa. Lee McQueen’s artistry drew more visitors than the mythology of Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years and the pop-culture dazzle of Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.

This was a show buoyed by fashion at its most creative, provocative, and personal.

Every Costume Institute exhibition is unique—the next major one looks at the work of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada—and sometimes success is all in the luck of timing. Still, curator Harold Koda points to some significant attributes of Savage Beauty.

These weren’t clothes that had influenced the wardrobes of ordinary people—in the manner of, say, a Chanel little black dress. “There was a kind of ‘otherness’ to the clothes,” says Koda. “They weren’t clothes that you’d see on the street.” He adds that the story of McQueen’s work had a concise arc, though tragically so. “The quality of the material allowed for a true expression of his creative life. But it was easy to handle. It had a beginning and an end.”

And an emotional undercurrent that moved the public’s soul.