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Grunge and heroin chic: the ’90s fashion reboot

Kai Ryssdal Sep 5, 2014
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Everybody who’s anybody in the rarefied world of high fashion is in New York City. Fashion Week is upon us once again.

While the runway shows, lavish parties, and air kisses are a mainstay, fashion hasn’t consistently been ground for avant garde experimentation, says Maureen Callahan. She has long covered the industry as a reporter and editor at the New York Post, and has written a book called “Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and the ’90’s Renegades Who Remade Fashion.”

Why did you pick these three people to anchor your book?

Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen epitomized the revolution that took place in fashion in the ’90s. And they remain as culturally relevant today as they were 20 years ago. 

The odd one out, it seems, is Marc Jacobs. By the time this book starts he’s already won a big fashion award, he’s a VP at Perry Ellis. He doesn’t seem to need much of a boost, and yet he engineers the move toward grunge fashion. 

On the surface of it, it does seem that Marc Jacobs is the odd one out. It’s easy to see why. He is the most famous, impactful, influential designer — I think ever. But he, like Kate and McQueen, has a dark origin story. The grunge collection, which today is rightly regarded as the most seminal American collection of the 1990s, was, at the time, a colossal failure. The critics loathed it. The buyers did not know what to do with it. The editors hated it. And the girls he was designing for thought it was a highly cynical co-option of their authentic, organic culture. They thought Marc Jacobs killed it. 

Early on in this book you talk about how what rock ‘n’ roll was to the ’50s, drugs to the ’60s, film to the ’70s and modern art to the ’80s, fashion was to the ’90s. What is fashion today? 

What you see now, and this is a legacy of the ’90s, is a democratization of fashion that’s unprecedented. A lot of that has to do with technology — the idea that you can go to H&M and buy something days after it was shown on a high fashion runway for a fraction of the price, and then throw it away when it’s no longer on-trend. But you also have the rise of street-style blogs. Any girl can be shot by a photographer, put up online, and that can be an aspirational image for anyone. Fashion now is far more open than it ever has been. Bloggers are seated front row at shows alongside Anna Wintour. 

For all that accessibility though, that high-end stuff is out of reach for over 90 percent of the population. 

It absolutely is. Say you see a piece in Vogue that you would love, but it’s that or your rent. You wait two to three weeks. Some High Street chain, be it Zara or Topshop or H&M, will knock it off. 

Two to three weeks? That speed? That’s insane. 

It becomes this poisonous feedback loop. The pressure on high-end designers to keep producing is incredible for exactly this reason. You have to create newer and more product to convince women that they absolutely need to buy this to be on-trend. Every designer worth their salt, from Marc Jacobs to Tom Ford to Nicolas Ghesquière ,has said the production schedule is crazy, completely inhumane, and unnecessary. 

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