If you’ve paid attention to SA fashion long enough, you perhaps recall a time, in the not so distant past, when it felt special. Former Celine creative director Phoebe Philo’s recent decision to launch a collection without any advertising or shows, took me back to that time, when, as a fresh-faced fashion writer, it felt like I was part of a small, exclusive club.
I remember when pitching up to fashion week felt less like an entertainment event, but more like an industry-insider thing, where only buyers, editors and stylists — traditional industry practitioners — would descend upon the shows. Celebrity spottings were quite rare, limited only to big name designer shows like David Tlale, Thula Sindi, Stoned Cherrie and the like. There were certainly no “influencers” jostling for front row seats; just fashion industry nerds and, more often than not, fashion school students who wanted to take a peek into the industry they were preparing to join.
Designers would wait with bated breath after every show to see which fashion editors would come pull from their rails for their next fashion spreads. Landing a coveted spot in an ELLE Magazine or Marie Claire shoot was the big prize.
Fast-forward to now, and of course, things are much different. As social media became a thing, so did designer fashion campaigns. Sure, it wasn’t like independent designers were shooting these campaigns to advertise in magazines in the way global luxury brands did, but they started sharing these on their own social media pages and through blogs and other digital platforms.
Brand collaborations meant better campaigns and, of course, today it is no longer unusual to see people on Twitter/X discussing the latest Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi or Wanda Lephoto campaign.
The global industry was in a similar space in the early 1990s. It was the start of the golden age of fashion advertising. The supermodel became a thing due to more people paying attention to runway shows, and campaigns by the likes of Gucci — then under Tom Ford’s creative direction — became something of a cultural phenomenon. Fashion images felt special. Today? Not so much.
The fashion image is now an expected part of everyday life, and unless someone does something quite groundbreaking — an increasingly rare occurrence — fashion images feel no different to any social media post by literally anyone.
It is in this context that Phoebe Philo, one of the world’s most revered designers, dropped a collection without so much as a peep, and yet it is perhaps the year’s most hyped.
Everyone from the New York Times, to Vogue and Business of Fashion was waiting for the first look of the return of Philo’s namesake label. Writing for The Cut, Cathy Horyn said: “When I previewed her new collection in London, I thought: People will lose their minds.” It felt special.
Horyn shares that only a few journalists were invited for the big reveal, “all under conditions of secrecy”. At a time when big luxury brands have become mammoth, and some are hiring celebrities as creative directors, there’s something truly classic about an IRL designer of Philo’s profile putting her own name to her label, making smaller collections.
As I read Horyn’s review, I feel transported to the noughties, when my own interest in fashion was just budding. It was a delight reading reviews that spoke about visits to studios where designers would painstakingly take writers through every detail of their latest collections and the only way to take a peek into that world was through their words rather than a constant stream of Instagram reels, Tik Toks and the like.
It was not much different to how one read music and movie reviews on in the Sunday papers before making their way to a Musica or Look & Listen, or even a Ster-Kinekor, having first taken in the words and thoughts of a critic — a professional who has taken the time to listen or watch before developing an opinion on something the artists involved have spent much of their time creating.
Much of today’s culture, with all the accessibility it guarantees, makes things feel far less special, and we treat it as such. People dismiss the creative pursuits of artists even before they can experience them because, you know what? It’s all in oversupply and whoever is able to cut through the noise, by hook or by crook, wins the social media day, and the attention of people with it. Fashion, music, art ... it all happens so often and so fast, we barely pause to take it in. Nothing feels at all considered, and that’s perhaps what makes this Phoebe Philo drop seem like an outlier — one that sold out within a few hours.
In the absence of the social media gaze, Philo forced those who care about fashion to sit up and listen instead of just scrolling past. She completely and expertly subverted the fashion marketing machine by avoiding it altogether.