Harriet Mays Powell on the Business of Fashion
Harriet Mays Powell is fashion director at New York Magazine and a former editor at Tatler. Her work has also appeared in Glamour and Elle magazines.
Question: How does the business of fashion work?
Mays Powell: Well, I think there’s no secret why there’ve been a lot of handbags. It’s… I acquit it to the idea of a lipstick, you know, it’s been a bad day, it’s a little rainy, broke up with the boyfriend, go into the main store of [IB] Avenue, fantastic. New Chanel lipstick, gorgeous little Giorgio Armani perfume [IB] a little investment for a feel good purchase. I think the handbag is the kind of an extension of that as your shoes. You can be short. You can be tall. You can be fat. You can be skinny. You can be young. You can be old. [IB] blonde. You can have long hair, short hair. You can buy a handbag. You can buy a new pair of shoes. Those are ways of generating feel good factor for you and without breaking the bike and it’s less expensive, usually, than buying an entire outfit or wardrobe. So, I think, the accessories market has allowed designers to get an influx of cash that they’ve needed to help support the rest of their business at times. Surely, it’s a business model that has been successful so they’re all trying to jump on it. I remember with a kind of humor, one of the last shows in Paris is the Louis Vuitton, it’s also a Marc Jacobs collection, he designs that as well. And Mr. Arnault, the chairman of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the largest luxury goods company in the world was sitting in the front row, a little annoyed that Mr. Jacobs had to start the show but was relieved to see when the show finally had started. I think, this is two seasons ago, that Marc decided that the first 15 outfits were going to be… take some [IB] but they’re all carrying Louis Vuitton handbags. And as they all went by, Mr. Arnault at eye level, sitting down in his seat were, you know, a plethora of these fantastic new Louis Vuitton handbags. And I think he just thought ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching into the coffers of Louis Vuitton gets more money and women wanting more fantastic handbags, and how smart of you Marc Jacobs. So I think accessories is been a real way for designers to make a lot of money. I think a lot of them do diffusion lines which helps to permeate into other levels. I think some designers do deals and they, you know, do private label. For some of the designers I know that are less well-known but they do private labels for some of the other stores so they can make money other ways. So there are several ways that they can do that. And the other thing is being small, staying small and staying… keeping your business little to really try and concentrate on the bottom line. I look at Nicolas Ghesquiere’s business for Balenciaga, he is clearly, I think, for about… over a year now in the red and, which was his goal as a business plan. And you’ll see, what he does in the runway is not necessarily everything that’s in the store. He’sgot a lot of other things that are in the store, that are a little bit more accessible, little bit easier to wear, clearly his design anesthetic, clearly designed by him but a little more user friendly. So I think there’s been a real intelligence about what they put in the stores, what they put on the runway. And those things are tampered and altered ever so slightly to their customer. So they’re getting to be smart businessmen designers.
Question: Should young people consider a career in fashion?
Mays Powell: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve got an enormous pleasure and continue out of my job because every 6 months, it’s a new set of ingredients. You know, I’ve a whole new set of vegetables and things to start cooking in my kitchen, so to speak, with which to play with and which to alter and change and do what I want. So I find it funny ‘cause it’s just a cycle that fits my temperament and my personality, which is… it’s ever evolving, it’s ever changing under certain constants but within those, it’s… it’s a whole new group. So I think it’s exciting, it’s fun. I love clothes. I’m really happy that I love clothes. I’m really happy that I chose fashion. I kind of fell into it but it was because of a love of clothes. I still get really excited when I see something I love. I still get really excited when the clothes that I’ve ordered from a designer, you know, come in for Fall as I’m about to go to the collection. So I think that thrill is… I think it’s great. I don’t think it’s superficial, I think it’s real. I’ve got to get dressed in the morning. I don’t need to wear a bad T-shirt and a bad pair of boring jeans. I don’t need to be… and dress like a soccer mom even if my kids do play soccer on Saturdays. You know, we’ve all got to get dressed. So, if I’ve got to eat, why not eat well? Why not get dressed well? Why not, you know, live in a home that’s well designed with beautiful things? You don’t have to do it to the lowest common denominator. You know, life’s short and I think having beauty around you or on you or trying to look or be as beautiful is a really nice thing to think about and to go for. I don’t think it’s bad or uncool or politically incorrect at all, I think it’s absolutely fine. And I wish more people would take a little bit more care and not be lazy. While you’re doing it, you might as well get dressed well. It’s my theory.
Question: Does couture still matter?
Mays Powell: Yes. I think the design, talk about Charles Frederick Worth and my great grandmother’s gown. The ability to make couture is a fine, fine art, in my opinion. And again, Karl Lagerfeld has been wonderful through the house of Chanel and supporting these artisans that make couture shoes, that make couture hats, that make couture clothing. These people… Mr. [IB] who does couture the embroidery for all the couture. I mean, the beads and the gems and the stones that are on these gowns and these dresses are one of a kind, I mean, literally, that’s what that means. Couture is one of a kind. And you must, I think, check that industry. I think you have to respect it. These are handicrafts that have gone down through generations for hundreds of years. And thank God for France and the culture that… and a government that supports fashion in such a big way. And supports along, I know with Mr. Lagerfeld’s help, these very very fragile industries that are, literally, barely, barely able to hold on and exist. So I believe the couture. I think designers still use it as a vehicle to experiment, to push, to create the most beautiful things. I know, ‘cause [IB] couture dresses are still breathtaking to me. I think he still gets great excitement out of doing the couture and he does an unbelievably beautiful job. The way they’re made, the hours, the handiwork, I mean, they’re really [IB]. They’re really are. They’re very, very, very, very special things. So I think couture does matter. For historical reasons, I think it matters for the idea of fashion taking care of its great, great, great aging [IB] without which, we wouldn’t be here. That I also… also think it does provide, in more subtle ways, still a laboratory force, some of the top designers who do couture, to push the limits of design and boundaries in the most extraordinary way possible without any barriers or restrictions.
Harriet Mays Powell discusses the advent of accessories, new careers in fashion and the lasting relevance of couture.
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