The fashion advice from Jean-Jacques Picart might be his best so far in a beautifully decorated and illustrious career in the fashion industry.
Not many people who are into fashion are familiar with this legendary fashion designer who’s now a consultant in the fashion capital of the whole world, but his advice as he retires, will go a long way to help young fashion designers find their feet.
He is adored by many and feared by many more for his sharp tongue, French fashion consultant Jean-Jacques Picart—the man who paved the way to success for fashion stars including Thierry Mugler, Christian Lacroix, Jil Sander, and a host of others— announced on November 17 he is vacating his front row perch. In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, he spoke with Vogue.com about his “banana theory” of fashion, how the industry has changed, how it hasn’t, and why it probably should. Below, the highlights.
On his departure:
“I’m too proud to be tacky, like the actor who does the one film too many. So I’m closing the door quietly, not slamming it. In fashion, it’s not the clothing I love most, it’s the people: the journalists, designers, models, stylists, and buyers. Even if the people are very different, they belong to the same family. So I am sad to leave the family for now. But I doubt it will be forever.”
On fashion now:
“Every structure and habit has its limit: The system as we know it has worked for 20 years and now it needs to change. If I were 30, I would be terribly excited about it. It would inspire me. It’s a period of rupture, challenge, daring, courage, work—all the things I love. But I’m not 30 anymore. I knew it was time to leave when I felt myself age. I heard myself saying, ‘We’ve seen this before,’ which is something I hate hearing other people say because even if something has the same idea, it will never be worn exactly the same way. You have to know when to stop playing and cheer from the stands. I’ll still be around to applaud and criticize, but I sense my place is no longer down on the field.”
On fashion then:
“When I started, in 1970, it was a little bit like today because it was a period of transition. On the one hand there were the couturiers of the Avenue Montaigne, and all the French elegance and chic that went with it. Ready-to-wear was just beginning, with brands like Cacharel, Christian Aujard and Dorothée bis, Emmanuelle Kahn, and that creative energy balanced out [what was happening on] the Avenue Montaigne. And of course there was YSL Rive Gauche, which was all this French elegance and luxury made accessible. Five years later, designers like Montana, Kenzo, and Mugler arrived and that was a real duel between classicism and aristocracy and the artists who were shaking up the French fashion landscape. The parallels with today are clear. What I miss is a certain lightness. The world was different, more regional. Today, lightness is rare because we live in a world of anxiety. Back then, we worked hard, but the need to make money didn’t stop us from having fun.”
On fashion shows:
“Today’s ‘super-production’ show formula is at a tipping point. Up until the Internet, fashion shows were for professionals; now they’re for general consumption. But the message for the industry is not the same as the one for the street: Professionals can decode the runway and get excited about things that are ‘unwearable,’ but the general public takes it at face value, and then copiers can take the unwearable and make it palatable—all of that worries me.
“And forget standing ovations like the one Alber Elbaz got for his Spring 2003 collection for Lanvin: People hardly applaud anymore because their hands are occupied with their smartphones. People have one eye on the runway and the other on the screen. Who can concentrate like that?
“Do we really need to spend so much when money is hard to come by for almost everyone? You can’t have one show serve two objectives. A spectacle is entertainment for fashion lovers, social networks, and buzz; they should happen when the clothes are in-store because people want to buy clothes when they see them, not six months later. I’d love to see the fashion houses with means do a beautiful, scaled-down presentation during Fashion Week, and a spectacle later, which anyway would be a better advertising strategy. Cash-strapped young designers could just focus on the clothes. Later, when they are established, they can get into entertainment if they want. It’s time to reinvent things, but the answer is going to come from the younger generation—not from an old guy like me.
On designers and the end of the “star” system:
“I’ve always said that when a house focuses more on spectacle than clothes, or when a designer is more obsessed with his own look than the clothes, there’s a problem. Egocentrism is the artist’s process. Fashion is an extrovert’s job: You have to be open to others because no one can do it alone.
“Today, artistic directors are more like symphony conductors who make talented soloists—I don’t call them ‘assistants’—work in harmony. How can just one person handle everything? They can’t. Either you are a head designer or you’re a conductor. Either one can be a star, and it’s not a question of talent: It’s about how you use your talent. Phoebe Philo orchestrates well. Hedi Slimane does too. And in both those cases, they’ve chosen to work at a distance. They were the precursors of what we’re seeing now. The question is: Will major houses dare to take the kind of risks they took 20 years ago?”
On young designers:
“Young designers have a less hysterical, egomaniacal relationship with fashion. Everyone has their tics, but I think the new generation, like Cédric Charlier and Anthony Vaccarello, are more objective and calm. They may be ambitious and, rightfully, proud of their work. But they’re simpler, like Kenzo Takada was in his day. To me, even if a designer has talent, there’s something sad about choosing the ‘star’ model of behavior. The new generation of designers wants to do its work well and be happy at home. That’s very new. And it’s completely normal, because we live in a difficult world, business is hard, and if you’re unhappy or you’re totally dispersed, your work suffers. Deciding not to have a personal life is a choice. But it’s no fun.”
On journalism and publishing:
“There’s a new tyrant in town—a wonderful one, but still a tyrant—called the Internet. Of course, it’s changed everything. Our lives are run by the Internet, or rather there’s the Internet and then there’s everything else. You don’t even need to bother remembering things anymore, because it’s out there, like some collective memory, and it’s reshaping how we think. We no longer do anything the way we used to. People read newspapers and magazines on tablets. The way we talk about fashion is rapid and concise—and there are those who have a talent for short and superficial.
“But to me, the future of publishing lies in the paper you keep and collect, like the reviews of 100 years ago, not the paper you recycle. The images should be beautiful, the articles by specialized journalists who have had the time to research and write. That’s the kind of thing people will keep forever. I think there will be a trend toward things that take time to write, create, and make, done by specialists.”
“A new world can’t just live with old names, like a museum. You need fresh eyes. You go to the museum to see the masters and into a gallery to see what’s new. I admire the designers who are sticking to their vision. We need all of them. In any garden, you must have the courage to cull the old trees to make room for new ones.”
On fashion and the Internet:
“I find it incredible that a fashion lover in China or on the beach in L.A. can watch the same fashion show as I am. If a show succeeds, the designer has created desire not only for me, but also for everyone else around the world. Then you have to deliver or else there’s frustration. So you’re creating a desire for something that won’t be ready for six months. Perhaps you can buy pieces of a capsule collection at the time of the show. But it creates a kind of folie: It’s as if the minute you desire something, you’re already over it. That kind of immediacy scares my generation, but to the young it’s normal.”
On global fashion:
“Fashion has become so global, now we want regionalism and specificity. I’m not a fan of ‘Made in.’ I’d love labels to say: designed by a Turk, an African, a Frenchman. There are always cultural differences, and that will become more and more important. It’s a nice breath of fresh air. Talent knows neither gender nor nationality. What counts is what the designer is made of. What counts is: Is the dress pretty? Does the coat sell?”
On being an original:
“The most difficult thing is that competition is global: There are Fashion Weeks all over the world. The one thing you can do to stand out amid it all is to do something particular and original. If you’re going to do what everyone’s doing, you’re in the wrong industry. There’s too much competition. Whenever I hear some designer complain that they already did something two seasons ago, I recall my banana theory of fashion: eat a banana too early or when it’s too ripe, it’s disgusting. You can have a good idea, but if it’s too early or too late, it’s just like having a bad idea. Maybe something was not right two years ago, but it’s right today because it’s being presented in an original way.”
On fashion’s future:
“I see fashion split between what is rare and artisanal, and what is highly accessible and e-commerce. What’s rare has no competition. What’s accessible is something you can get your hands on easily; there’s a physical relationship. And the virtual you buy with your brain, it’s an abstract approach. The ones who will be in trouble are the brands that are too expensive for what they are and not specific enough. But I won’t name names.”
On the fashion dream:
“Fashion will always be important because fashion is life—otherwise you’re wearing a uniform or you’re a nun! Fashion says who you are and where you’re from, what your taste and lifestyle is. Fashion is a passport.”
JJP’s best fashion advice for young designers:
“Be true to yourself. Since we’re in the inspiration business—reflection comes later—you have to follow what’s in your gut. As I tell young designers: ‘Even when you’re wrong, you’re right.’ Mistakes are rich in material.
“Be different. Don’t try to do what’s already out there, there’s already too much of it. Difference is more important than ever if you want people to pay attention.
“You can’t please everyone. I never said this in my entire career, but now I am beginning to understand. In the old world, you had to please everyone. Today, that’s not necessary. You just need to cultivate consistency. That’s the strategy of difference. Before, you had to be sold everywhere and do everything. Today you can be very successful when you don’t try to please everyone.
“Learn to dream realistically. Otherwise, the illusion results in failure. Fashion is not art. It’s a business that has an affinity with art. Isabel Marant, Alexandre Mattiussi, and Alexander Wang dream realistically. They recognize themselves in their fashions. And they don’t copy anyone.
“Dreaming realistically doesn’t mean you have to be reasonable. Even the realistic dream has to remain exciting. Otherwise, life would be boring.”