we can't even

2009 Killed Fashion As We Knew It

What we talk about when we talk about 2009. Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo by Dennis Valle

Your own time: You love to see it! Good luck trying. We’re suspended in it, swimming through Jell-O, with all the clarity that suggests. Sometimes you can only see where you are by looking at where you were. Ten years ago, when I was a young fashion writer, things looked different, but not dark-to-light different. “President Trump” existed — as a Simpsons character. I was sure we’d never give up BBM. My in-box, that searchable tomb, from September 2009: a birthday reminder (from Friendster), notice of a Netflix delivery (on DVD), a newsletter from Refinery 29, their list of the best models who blog. Recognizable, but off. It was today in embryo, today 1.0: a huge terrain to cover in a mere decade, but not an impossible one. Blink, and you’re here. Thus does the mold of history gel and set.

This week, we’re looking back to the year 2009 in fashion and the culture of fashion, a time that feels, in hindsight, painfully naive — really, almost sweet. Sure, there was a recession, with real anxiety and even realer layoffs at all the major magazines. But the near future was so unknowable as to feel absurd now. Fears about bloggers and front rows now look like the calm before the digital storm. This was before Instagram, before influencers, and for all intents and purposes, before much thought in fashion went into diversity or inclusivity (the famous black issue of Vogue Italia had come out the summer before). If anyone discussed “direct to consumer” shopping, it wasn’t with the consumer, or at least not this one. All of this was a nascent dream then. But it’s the disrupted then, which has brought us to the disrupted now.

In September 2009, I was working for a website — funny how this happens — that no longer exists. I was struggling manfully to elbow my way into a world that was changing more than I knew. We’d all had our teeth rattled by the crash a year earlier, whose shocks, by some measures, were worse than those of 1929, and were settling into the grim reality of recession. (Sound familiar? The next may already be on its way.)

Fashion, which trafficks in fantasy, was trying to grin through the worst of it, see the Champagne coupe half-full, but uneasiness spilled over. Facing a shrinking economy and an exploding internet, the old walls that closed off fashion were starting to shake. As they fell, the industry began experimenting with ways to dismantle them — some successful (Rent the Runway, launched November 2009, now valued at $1 billion), some surreal (step right up to Fashion’s Night Out, where the Olsen twins will mix you a drink or Oscar de la Renta will personally serenade you for your shopping dollars), some disastrous (pooling individual magazines into crowdsourced hubs). In 2009, even more in retrospect than at the time, the old rules were wobbling and the new ones hadn’t yet been written. Members of the fashion press, retailers, and brands, even legacy ones, wondered among themselves where the industry was going, and what place might remain for them in what looked like a new world. “There’s a renaissance brewing,” my friend and colleague Tim Blanks said to Anna Wintour at a show during that Spring ’10 season. “Well,” she said crisply, “we’re all ready for it.”

The crowds at Bergdorf Goodman at the inaugural Fashion’s Night Out: après ça, le déluge. Photo: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

There was a renaissance brewing. Fashion’s fantasy, once foisted onto the many by the few, was opening wide. An eager public lapped it up — they wanted, and were finally invited, in. At the first Fashion’s Night Out in September, the “stimulus package” event Vogue stage-managed, crowds thronged and lines formed: It was fashion turned contact sport, whether or not it made much money for the stores it was hoping to save.

The public appetite for style seemed insatiable. Websites (like this one!) catalogued every new outfit of our new icons, including a vibrant First Lady who wore young American designers and J.Crew. And new stars were exploding: the Gossip Girl girls, a young model named Karlie Kloss who’d debuted, at 15, two years before. Even the little clubhouses, fashion’s private quarters, were beset, and being overrun: That spring, the Beatrice closed its doors, and by the fall, the Jane had, too, victims of their own success. They’d been smoky, noisy, the neighbors hated them; we loved them, of course. I’ll always treasure the night in the Beatrice backroom when Kirsten Dunst accidentally elbowed me in the face.

It wasn’t only models who blogged. Fashion obsessives did too, and that season, they blogged their way to the very front row, in an undreamt-of crashing of the gates. 13-year-old Tavi Gevinson, an Oak Park savant in a crushed hat, was a front-row coup her first season in New York. In Milan that season, the exuberant Bryanboy, who enthused from his bedroom in Manila, was seated sequin-to-cardigan with Vogue’s Sally Singer; Tommy Ton, who’d go on to be one of the biggest names in still rising street style, was a few seats down. Photos of it are few and far between: Dennis Valle, who worked at Dolce & Gabbana at the time in digital and marketing, took the lone photo that he circulated himself, when the usual photographers didn’t for fear of offending Anna Wintour. “It suddenly became clear that the fashion establishment must now share space with, as one blogger has put it ‘outsiders looking in,’” The Financial Times reported. “It is not a question of whether online fashion media is a growing force,” Antoine Arnault, scion of the family that owns LVMH, the world’s largest luxury group, told the paper, “but of where it will stop.”

The epochal D&G front row: Suzy Menkes, Michael Roberts, Bryanboy, Sally Singer, Anna Wintour, Hamish Bowles, and Tommy Ton. Photo: © Dennis Valle

Online had barely cracked the perimeter of fashion, which still fetishized the printed page. There was carping from the establishment about the ingress of new voices —“I think she’s very dear, but I think it’s crazy,” one style editor told the Cut back then about Tavi — but the blogs and forums were invigorating. (They also offered opportunities to a newly formed Recession Generation who graduated into a world that wasn’t hiring.) Debates raged in comments sections and forum posts, and it was clear that designers themselves, even up to the top of the food chain, were reading, too. Tavi had the last laugh: magazines began commissioning her, until she decided to go out and improve upon them herself, founding Rookie, an online journal (later, a print “Yearbook”) that spoke more directly to young women like herself than the magazines could.

An even greater tectonic shift was right around the corner: This was the last year before Instagram upended the very way the industry saw, and disseminated, itself. It has become the preeminent platform to see fashion — more than the magazines, more than TV, more than the red carpet. After its advent, Alexander Wang told me in 2014, “The way that we shoot it, the way that we showcase it and the way that we make the clothes and design them changed.”

If the bloggers represented the start of a new democracy in fashion, Instagram would complete the transformation. With it would come a new breed of bloggers: the influencers, who became the magazines, the models, and the front row all at once. They began attending the shows — you can imagine which row the most popular of them are placed in — but they don’t even need the shows. They are the shows. The shows need them.

But even in 2009, the metamorphosis of fashion, from the demesne of a cloistered elite to the main stage of a global mass entertainment, was well underway. Only about ten years earlier, the fashion shows and those who attended them represented a kind of café society. Tim told me once that he’d started going to shows so that he could see the things he’d read about in W Magazine, “like Nan Kempner’s ankles.” (Kempner, who died in 2005, was the original “social X-ray” in Tom Wolfe’s coinage, and a couture client par excellence.) Women like Kempner — lifelong customers, with means, history, and avid interest — were taken for granted as the ideal audience. Now, more and more people were paying attention, and had more ways to do so. If you couldn’t be at the shows, you could see them on your desktop, then your phone, and with the media landscape uncertain, it became everyone’s job and everyone’s safeguard to start feeding the machine.

Fashion on screen(s) was not new. It was enjoying a particularly front-and-center moment on TV just then: Sex and the City, which had introduced Manolo-envy to millions, was enjoying its second life, in syndication; the first film had been a hit the year before, and the second would arrive the next year. But even more of the talk just then was focused on its hormonal, teenaged successor for fashion fanaticism, Gossip Girl, which began its third season that September. The label-conscious adventures of Serena, Blair, and the gang had already had a “profound” impact on shopping (so said Stephanie Solomon, the fashion director for Bloomingdale’s), and that season, its cast members were everywhere during New York Fashion Week. Is there a more 2009 image than Leighton Meester front row at Proenza, giving the Terry Richardson thumbs-up with Uncle Terry himself?

Thumbs up! Photo: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

If they were fashion fan-fiction, films and shows cropped up purporting to show fashion fact. The Devil Wears Prada had been a hit in 2006, and in August 2009, Vogue’s counteroffensive, The September Issue, opened in New York, to show, in the words of its director, R.J. Cutler, “the real Anna Wintour,” not the Oscar-nominated Streep amalgam. The year before, Rachel Zoe had gone from red-carpet stylist to newly minted reality star; the second season of her Rachel Zoe Project premiered in August, too. Kelly Cutrone, the fire-breathing PR fixture, whose cameos on The Hills and The City got her a book deal, was filming a show of her own: The Kell on Earth cameras began rolling that fashion week.

And the collections? Some labels were hoping to get a bit of star shine whichever way they could — in September, the house of Ungaro appointed Lindsay Lohan as “artistic adviser.” (She lasted one season, made heart-shaped nipple pasties.) But back then, fashion was still making its own stars. All anyone could seem to talk about in 2009 was the onrush of a group of young New York designers — curiously or not, all male, all gay, all Asian — who had been variously and collectively anointed the next big thing. The previous anointees, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler — at 28, still constantly referred to as “the boys” — were settling into seriousness, or at least being taken seriously. Behind them raced Alex Wang, Thakoon Panichgul, Jason Wu, Derek Lam, Joseph Altuzarra, Phillip Lim, and Prabal Gurung.

They weren’t all strictly new, more like a first and a second wave — Wang had been staging fashion week shows since 2007, Lam, Lim and Panichgul even longer — but they suddenly had a charge. Michelle Obama wore Wu to her husband’s first inaugural ball in 2009; thereafter, he was a star. Panichgul’s star rose with The September Issue, in which he appeared as Wintour’s chosen one. And Wang, the boy prince, was the hottest of all: irrepressible (he literally barreled down the runway to take his bow), inexhaustible, so eager to begin that he didn’t even bother to finish his Parsons degree.

Wang, shooting toward the future. Photo: Thomas Concordia/WireImage/Getty Images

He was a comer, and that season, he came. Up until that point, he’d been mostly known for what came to be called the “model off duty look”: he palled around with the models and dressed them how they dressed themselves, which is to say, simply and shruggingly, in mostly black. He was young, they were young. But that September, he staged a show — the first with a newly-hired stylist, the influential editor Karl Templer — that leveled the field, put him on par with his elders. When you were in New York – and international editors and retailers came in bulk to New York — there was buzz and spectacle to go around, but you wanted to see Marc Jacobs and you wanted to see Wang.

He was fun, he was photogenic, he threw the parties everyone wanted to get into: That season, he had the party of the week, taking over a westside gas station and letting guests run amok, pilfering what they pleased. He understood what his customers wanted, not the Nan Kempners, but his contemporaries. The collections would be great one season, so-so the next, but that almost didn’t matter: The energy was all. That season, it was infectious. His accessories were so popular — an open-toed, high-heeled combat boot in particular —that in the months that followed, a Vogue market editor had to ask her editors to stop shooting it.

Was it the beginning of something, or the end? The world was watching, and fashion had to get bigger, draw more eyes, be more exciting. The Bryant Park era was coming to a close after 16 years: It had been announced in February that the tents, a metonym for the industry itself if ever there were one, would come down the next spring.

And yet, in the decade that followed, New York fashion has struggled to fulfill the promise of designers like Wang, or like Rodarte, the sisters from Pasadena whose “California condor” collection that season was a spooky marvel. Even those people who are cheerleaders in public huff privately that there’s less and less to see. European editors and retailers come less, and for less time. The most ambitious designers of New York have a habit of heading to Paris when they spot a chance, with mixed success. The noise of New York Fashion Week (did you RSVP to this season’s Cheetos House of Flamin’ Haute fashion show?), the cost, and the timing have made some wonder whether it’s a particularly efficient mode of communication when so many others are now available, and some, like Wang, have thrown it over altogether, to show off season. I can’t recall a time when there was a collective excitement about New York designers the way there was then.

The designers who elicited it are still going, though one wonders if some of them have outlasted their store of fresh ideas. New designers and movements have bubbled up in turn, many of them exciting: a changing of the guard (Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia taking over for their mentor, Oscar de la Renta, after his death); the art-school moment (Eckhaus Latta, Vaquera); an overdue redistribution of attention to designers of color (Hood by Air, Telfar, Pyer Moss). And of the mainstays, a few remain, Marc Jacobs above all. Still, staleness persists. When Vogue compiled a list of its most important collections of the 2010s in July, it was notable that not one New York collection was included.

The most influential design of the past decade came instead from Europe: most of it with the backing of major corporations. Against Goliaths, even worthy Davids wilted. And there were great things to see, being made within the plush confines of major houses! We were on the precipice of Phoebe Philo’s Celine; her first runway collection was shown that season. Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, and Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia would follow. Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein was supposed to bring some of that spark and verve to New York, but despite some fireworks and a whole hell of a lot of popcorn, it didn’t amount to much.

What happened? I don’t think any single thing. For one thing, there’s just too much: too many shows, too much product, too many opinions to weigh, too much expectation, too many blurry, model-in-motion Instagrams from the runway to like, like, like, like. (The CFDA, mindful of these complaints, has mercifully contracted the NYFW show schedule a bit this season.) The glut of choice and the freedom to share yours will set you free, but it can also snow you under. We ate all our gas station candy, and maybe we feel a little sick.

Partygoers getting into the candy at the Wang gas station after-party. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

But there’s also not enough — not enough design that really matters, that changes the way we see. The smaller, more gated fashion industry of decades before had been ruled by auteurs, men and women like Martin Margiela and Miuccia Prada, who could, in a single piece, set the tone — if not for the entire world, certainly for its fashionable corners. (Was Margiela the canary in the coal mine? Having sold his label to Renzo Rosso, the Diesel czar, seven years before, he exited it, and the industry altogether, sometime in the fall or winter of 2009.) The widening of fashion’s scope brought in a cacophony of new voices, and the loudest of all turned out to be those not of the designers, but of the brands — no accident, the biggest and best-adapted to survive.

When the brand reigns, the logo T-shirt returns, and the creative-director tenure shortens. When Tom Ford quit Gucci, a company he restored to prominence, all the way back in 2003, it was in a kind of existential dispute with its luxury-group owners, who wanted to exert greater control: The implicit message was that brand was bigger than he was. It turned out to be a kind of prophecy fulfilled. Phoebe Philo’s Celine could become Hedi Slimane’s Celine, effectively its inverse, basically overnight: Celine was Celine. A few years ago, I sat over canapés at Cova in Milan with the fashion director of a major department store chain, wondering what about the announcement that Peter Dundas, then the designer of Emilio Pucci, was leaving would mean for the store’s Pucci business. Not much, she said. Her customers assumed Pucci designed it.

Emilio Pucci died in 1992.

More From This Series

See All
2009 Killed Fashion As We Knew It