Recently, however, a new energy has swept through fashion. Designers have become each others’ biggest advocates, with collaborations de rigueur, and a warmly familial spirit the new norm. Case in point: if you email Virgil Abloh, you swiftly receive a cheery response from his personal assistant, Athi, who will tell you, “It is such a joy hearing from you, thank you so warmly for your dear message; we hope that you have such a splendid rest of the day!” It’s certainly a far cry from the clipped tones of Miranda Priestly’s receptionist.
“It’s difficult to tell exactly where the shift is, but I choose to believe it’s there,” reflects Abloh. Having grown up within community-minded streetwear culture, he has upheld the same principles within the ivory tower of Louis Vuitton, where he is artistic director of menswear, as he did circling its walls. “Ultimately,” he says, “being divided as a fashion community isn’t alluring to me.” Abloh, who has experienced its impenetrability first-hand – he was refused entry to shows during his years as Kanye West’s creative collaborator, and a barbed commentary still occasionally surrounds his success – is a prime example of the new age of “friendly” designer. Not only does he know how to command hype better than almost anyone, but he learned his trade while sleeping on Kim Jones’s Maida Vale floor; is regularly seen sitting front row at the shows of friends, such as A-Cold-Wall, Heron Preston and Alyx; and often proclaims his clan’s successes to his four-million-strong Instagram following (his stories offer an introduction to a new wave of international creatives from filmmakers to young designers).
He’s not the only one using social media to shout out his peers: Marc Jacobs, a prolific shopper, is regularly seen flaunting wares from Prada, Celine and Balenciaga (Gucci’s Alessandro Michele sent him an array of custom-designed boots to wear for his wedding earlier this year; #gratefulnothateful, posted Jacobs next to his floral-printed Gucci shopping bags). In fact, during February’s New York Fashion Week, Jacobs went so far as to stage the young Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi’s debut show in his Madison Avenue flagship – and then publicly thanked him for the opportunity to host his “talent, colour and joy”. “There’s a sense – in fact, a reality – of community spirit that’s widening within the industry,” says Samuel Ross, founder of A-Cold-Wall and an Abloh protégé. “Individuals are willing to support one another quite openly. The internet has reformed the once institution-like approach to communication, and social media is allowing the exchange of ideas and conversation to flow faster.” (Incidentally, in an effort to pay Abloh’s support forward, Ross donated the entirety of his NewGen bursary to his former employee, Eastwood Danso, launching his own label.)
But it would be easy for harmony to dissolve behind the glossy façade of Instagram. It is even more momentous, then, that the collective mentality extends beyond public perception. Designers such as Craig Green, Erdem Moralioglu and Christopher Kane are taking seats on panels at NewGen and the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, where they share with the next generation the lessons they learned when building their businesses; Matchesfashion.com has set up open days for young designers to come for advice on commercialising their first collections; and Paul Smith runs mentoring workshops. “I feel it’s designers with their own namesake brands who best understand what young designers go through day-to-day,” says Kane. “It can be daunting: cash-flow issues, late deliveries… Fashion is fierce, and you have to be on top of it all or you will sink fast. Erdem and Roksanda [Ilincic] are among my best friends – we share our ups and downs, and give each other advice all the time. It’s important to create your own family.”
“Speaking to people who really understand what you’re going through is priceless,” says Eden Loweth of Art School, which, in its nascent stages, was taken under the wing of Ilincic, London’s queen of fluid, feminine elegance. “As the brand grew really quickly, we found ourselves struggling with knowing what to do sometimes. Roksanda has supported us with crucial advice. What’s amazing about people like her, Christopher and Erdem is they understand that for London’s identity as the fashion capital to grow they need to share honestly with people like us.”
Equally, like-minded peers are beginning to share insights on factories and suppliers – probably this industry’s most closely guarded secrets. Richard Quinn, whose eponymous brand went stratospheric after he was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design by Her Majesty herself last year, has long been discussing the best seamstresses with London’s purveyor of sequined glamour, Michael Halpern, whom he met while studying at Central Saint Martins. While Mower recalls a time when CSM students inhabited closed cubicles and hid their work from each other, breeding “a general culture of mistrust in which designers were pretty much openly hostile to anyone external to their own cliques”, opening your address book – or even your studio – now seems commonplace.
“When you meet people who are on your level, and who say what they’re doing, it doesn’t feel like a threat – and there doesn’t need to be that competitive, protective mindset of ‘these are my contacts’,” says Quinn, who turned to Halpern when he didn’t know what a line sheet was or how to put one together. Through the print studio he set up in his south London railway arch, where he has produced fabrics for the likes of Wales Bonner, Mowalola and Charles Jeffrey Loverboy, alongside his own designs, Quinn is already passing on information to the students who come and use his machinery at a discounted rate when creating their graduation collections. “I think back to people giving me that sort of advice when I was starting out. Obviously fashion’s a hard industry, but it doesn’t need to be cut-throat.”
That new approach is translating into luxury retail, where an intimidating atmosphere and Pretty Woman sales staff are being replaced by new traditions. Both physical and digital stores are extending a spirit of inclusion into their respective realms: Selfridges’ customers have been invited to boxing sessions with Michèle Lamy, and Matchesfashion.com has offered darts nights with Hillier Bartley and house parties hosted by Neneh Cherry. No longer reserved for big spenders or VIP editors, retail’s new approach is distinctly democratic: first come, first served, and available to all.
“We are always trying to amaze, amuse and surprise our customers,” explains Sebastian Manes, Selfridges’ buying and merchandising director, who has overseen installations including a fully operational in-store skate bowl and a bodega staffed by A$AP Rocky. “We pride ourselves on an environment that feels warm and inviting, and believe that every single customer deserves the same great experience.” Equally, “the aim with [London townhouse] 5 Carlos Place is to ensure all our activities are inspiring, imaginative, democratic and inclusive,” echoes Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director at Matchesfashion.com. “Our strategies are unique as we’ve grown from a small business into a large one, but we always try to go the extra mile, to give a bit of TLC. Manners and kindness count for a lot.”
In a world that seems ever more divided, fashion is offering a radical new sense of inclusivity, where people of different backgrounds, peer groups and practices are uniting to present a framework for the future. Within a global climate of separatism, a world long renowned for its isolationist tendencies is establishing a new agenda. “Right now, we’re setting up all these boundaries – and my generation’s future is no longer in our hands,” explains Mowalola Ogunlesi, a young designer who attributes much of her success to her community, and extends that free-love liberation on to her runways. “Us being together and supporting each other means that – no matter what – we’re going to find a way forward.”