Last month, Rihanna was announced as the new face of the legacy German luggage brand Rimowa, part of LVMH. She joined LeBron James and Virgil Abloh, the latter of which collaborated with the brand on an exclusive range of see-through suitcases in 2018.
This isn’t the first time that Rihanna set the tone of global fashion: her Fenty Beauty collection landed her on the TIME’s most innovative people list. Her Savage x Fenty lingerie line features models who are diverse in every sense — boundary-pushing for the lingerie market. Meanwhile, her collaborations routinely sell out, while even the slightest association with the artist can turn emerging designers into stars overnight. Linking it all together is her democratic, approachable, and unflinchingly modern approach to brand building and communication.
Aesthetically, this model is known as the New American Look for the designers, stylists, musicians, DJs, and reality stars that carry it out: Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Todd Snyder, Matthew Williams, Kim Kardashian, Teddy Santis, Rihanna, and even Kylie Jenner. These global personalities aren’t masters of traditional fashion craftsmanship. They are masters of reference, recontextualization, and cultural symbol making, and that — not craftsmanship — makes fashion today.
Before they influenced fashion, Kanye and Virgil influenced culture. They were once denied access to Paris fashion shows. The chasm between what they represented and how the fashion-editorial establishment perceived itself is linked to the Internet as much as it is to the American vs European style, the idea of “good taste,” and who “belongs” to fashion. The Internet made fashion more democratic, accessible, and genre- and gender-blurring. It also made it less separate from the other forms of cultural expression and more susceptible to the language of references, memes, collabs, merch, remixes, and riff-offs. Today, those most skilled in this cultural OS are the most coveted by fashion houses.
Battle of Versailles, Part Deux
Keeping fashion separate from pop culture was not only the fact, it was an aspiration. When fashion brands collaborated with culture and pioneers in spaces outside of fashion in the past, it was with renowned artists — Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince. It wasn’t with Gucci Ghost.
The fact that, for the first time in history, the influence that American designers have from within the fashion system itself is noteworthy. It is either in the form of artistic director roles at the helm of the established (often luxury European) brands or in the form of collaborations. It wouldn't be an overstatement to claim that the freshest perspectives at the most recent NYFW were put forward by emerging designers like Peter Do, Charles Harbison, Shawn Pean, or Sandy Liang.
We are in for a Battle of Versailles, part deux. Today’s emerging American designers also put forward innovative business models, shunning traditional retail channels in favor of experimentation with new ways to connect with their customers. Telfar TV, Supreme’s branding, Teddy Santis’ drops, Tyler, the Creator’s Golf Wang universe, or Morgan Hoffman’s non-binary GirlBoy brand are all fashion experiments.
American designers obviously played on the global stage before. Prior to Kanye, Virgil, and Rihanna, there was Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Tom Ford at Gucci. There were Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Andre Walker, Oscar de la Renta, and the famous Battle of Versailles. Before them, there was Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell, the originators of the American Look that feels as modern today as it felt when it first appeared.
All of these names added something to the fashion system. But they still played by its rules: the fact that American designers even registered at the original Battle of Versailles was not because they were celebrated in their own right; it is because they were seen as drastically different from Europeans. Equally telling is that the Battle of Versailles is an obscure event known only to fashion aficionados and that Cashin and McCardell are all but forgotten today.
French Have Chic, Americans Have Cool
When Vetements shook European fashion weeks with its post-Soviet punk aesthetic in the mid-2010s, what the brand was really doing was referencing the “urban American aesthetic” — oversized hoodies, sweatpants, and sneakers — and showing it through the lens of Eastern Euro teenage angst.
Alternatively, Dior’s “political knits” can easily be seen as a reflection of Cashin and McCardell’s designs that 70 years earlier freed American women — in reality, not in slogan — to move, work, and live their lives unconstrained by then-trendy Dior corsets. Fashion’s feminist awakening happened back in the mid-last century, with the invention of separates, layering, and practical, movable materials by American designers. At a time when European fashion houses were designing for the countless daily outfit changes, American designers put forward a single, versatile day-to-night look that was comfortable, functional, and that still looked modern.
The American Look was ahead of its time, and it left Europeans unimpressed. There was not much drama around the look you did not know you had — about the look that seamlessly mixed fashion with life, style with movement, that cherished creativity and resourcefulness and which was democratic in both form and price. In the American Look, pockets were meant to pocket things and sleeves were meant to be rolled up.
The American Look sprang up from an uniquely American pastime — a desire to hang out in a backyard, stroll in the city, barbecue, play golf, and go to the beach. Halston’s and Burrows’ dresses were made for movement on a dance floor. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Armani suit mixed uptown polish and downtown irreverence. Irreverence to fashion genres is a big part of the American Look’s appeal.
In the ’80s, working women on the streets of New York wore sneakers with their skirt suits. It is hard to find a sportswear brand that has not crossed over to streetwear in the past 10 years. At the same time, streetwear merged with luxury: Buscemi sneakers retail for at least $1,000 and are created with quality, craftsmanship, and elegance in mind. While fashion genres are blurring much along the lines of the blurred music genres, this uniquely American sartorial mash-up is finally paying off.
A New Value System
The American Look has always been popular in America. Its current global resurgence has less to do with the emerging American designers being an incarnation of their predecessors; it has more to do with the fact that, in order to be relevant today, fashion has to mirror popular culture — its formats, its themes, its personalities, and its values. And, to a large extent, America is still pop culture’s largest exporter.
Until recently, it was inconceivable that Dior would sell T-shirts or that sneakers and puffers would be the hottest items in fashion. Yet, in Q1 2021, at the top of Lyst’s quarterly ranking of fashion’s hottest brands and products were Gucci GG x The North Face puffer coats. The most searched item were Yeezy’s signature slides. There is now haute workwear and couture streetwear at Dior, and luxe sportswear everywhere else. European fashion houses turned American fashion language — workwear, streetwear, sportswear — into couture.
Fashion is a recording mechanism of a social and cultural moment. It is a visual documentation of what we collectively spend our time and money on, and what we value and aspire to. If the New American Look is now trending, that is because our culture and our society are catching up to, and fighting for, its underlying principles of freedom, democracy, accessibility, utilitarian spirit, and a seasonless point of view.
The American Way
The Met’s double-header 2021/2022 event is titled “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” and “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” It celebrates the resurgence of the New American Look and recognizes the emerging American design talent. But it also notes the shift in the fashion system that went from ignoring popular culture — with all its contradictions and complexities — to putting it in its center.
Compared to the New American Look, European houses have an obsolete fashion OS. This obsolescence is by design. No one would call Hermès accessible or inclusive, but no one would call it commercial, either. Under the veneer of democracy, the New American Look commercializes everything it touches: culture, society, politics, fashion.
The goal of The New New American Look is to push consumers to buy more. It turns anyone willing to spend $500 on a puffer or a pair of slides into a cultural participant. The New New American Look takes things from their original context and turns them into stylistic signifiers. Just like on the Internet, everything is a reference, a meme, a riff. Just like on the Internet, everything is for sale. In The New New American Look, democratization is good, and elitism is bad, a sentiment perfectly captured by Abloh: “I am trying to communicate with tourists and purists at the same time.”
If Americans dominate global fashion, it is not because they are more skilled than their counterparts. Remixes and references are how modern culture communicates, and Americans are fashion’s meme-makers supreme. They are masters of using culture to turn fashion into commerce — and is that not what fashion today is really about?