Netflix’s stylish new show Next In Fashion got us thinking, "What's a fashion designer supposed to be in 2020?"
The big things
Netflix's first foray into a reality fashion design competition has been a fruitful one. There are (or were) plenty of doubters to be sure, but Next In Fashion has a lot of strengths. For once, its hosts, Alexa Chung and Tan France, make a great pair.
Where Next In Fashion really shines, though, is in its lineup of contestants. The zeitgeist today naturally calls for diversity, and the cast on the show feels like a well-rounded pick of designers. You've got streetwear OGs such as Kiki Kitty (who was behind labels FUBU and Rocawear), queer designers Marco Morante (whose Marco Marco underwear label showed a runway show in New York with an all-trans cast of models), plus elite art and fashion school graduates with their own emerging labels, creative directors who can't draft a pattern or sew, along with skilled designers who've been toiling namelessly at other brands and are trying to strike out on their own. In short, there's a bit of a microcosm of the fashion industry on view.
What's really interesting is the way this show encourages its audience to consider the definition of a working fashion designer today — and what it takes to run your own successful brand. Celebrity endorsements are crucial, and those are name-dropped aplenty in the first episode when the designers introduce themselves. More importantly, the show makes you think about the skill sets designers today need. Take Italian contestant, Angelo Cruciani. He's the founder and creative director of his own Yezael label, and in the first episode spends more time prancing about and trying on accessories than cutting fabric. His teammate, Charles Lu, on the other hand, is a skilled technician and maker of clothes — throughout the show, he's had numerous wins on the garment construction front — without his own label.
It's a great foil, and it makes us question the way most major brands today operate with a similar model. In reality, the creative director who sits on the fashion throne (he/she gets credited in show notes and talked solely about by the press) has a more tastemaking and shepherding role. It's not unlike the way Raf Simons or Miuccia Prada work — using their skill at coercing fashion out of (sometimes) abstract concepts and ideas, directing the design teams they work with to manifest a coherent lineup of clothing. It's vastly different from the way fashion designers are traditionally taught, which is typically to first construct garments according to other's designs.
There are no rights and wrongs, no one archetypal creative director or fashion designer, but it's noteworthy to see that those who made it through to the finale — Minju Kim and Daniel Fletcher — both come from extremely credible design backgrounds. Kim went to the Samsung Art & Design Institute, as well as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp — the latter being the school the famous Antwerp Six were trained in. Fletcher, meanwhile, graduated from Central Saint Martins. Naturally, it has industry credibility of a whole other level as the number one fashion school in the world, as well as the institution that produced graduates along the talents of Lee Alexander McQueen, Phoebe Philo, and John Galliano.
Which is to say that Kim and Fletcher are traditionally trained. They know how to cut and finish garments to a high quality, and their design processes have been critically honed to a professional level. On Next In Fashion, similar to Project Runway, those skills will put contestants heads and shoulders above the competition without technical know-how, or without experience interrogating and formulating a creative concept.
In the business world of fashion, however, the situation is different. Talented designers who work in a brand are often unnamed and uncredited — that spotlight goes to the creative director. You might compete in a high-profile show like Next In Fashion, or the LVMH Prize, or the Vogue Fashion Fund, but the space in the market for a big-name superstar designer is a small and highly prestigious one. It comes down, perhaps, to a sustainability question: do we need another brand? Next In Fashion positions itself traditionally as a show in search of the next big name in fashion but, for all the easy and enjoyable viewing, at times doesn't feel like it's the pertinent question.