Genius is so last season

Deifying young fashion designers does them no favours and slights the many who make their work possible, says Sally Feldman

February 26, 2015

What qualities should we be nurturing in the next generation of designers? It’s a question brilliantly tackled in the newly released documentary, Dior and I, which shows the young Belgian designer Raf Simons preparing his debut collection for the legendary fashion house. By taking us behind the scenes at the ateliers, a maelstrom of barely controlled panics, frantic calls, last-minute crises and all-night production sessions, the film highlights the tensions between creative impetus and practical realities, between front-of-house glamour and backstage slog.

Simons himself, tackling his first-ever haute couture project with an unfeasibly tight deadline, initially comes over as a rather enigmatic character: seemingly diffident, modest, passionately identifying with Christian Dior himself. But as the production process unfolds, a rather different Simons emerges: obstinate, lordly, uncompromising. When he decides to reproduce the work of the American artist Sterling Ruby on to fabric, for example, he chooses a specialised technique known to only four engravers in France. When told they’re unavailable, he insists that it must happen anyway.

If young designers such as Raf Simons are treated with such reverence, it’s hardly surprising that they see themselves as separate

Even more tellingly, he throws a hissy fit on learning that the person in charge of dresses isn’t there for an important viewing of the frocks in progress. She’s in New York. That’s because she’d been summoned for an immediate fitting by an important client who spends €350,000 (£228,000) a season on couture. So, explains the manager of the atelier, there was no question about it. She had to go.

But maybe Simons’ tantrum is understandable given the vital role played by the two directors of dresses and tailoring respectively. “They are”, says Pieter Mulier, Simons’ right hand at Dior, “the two most important people in the house.” Indeed, it’s their teams of seamstresses and technicians who are the real stars, fretting, slaving, stitching and troubleshooting while our prima donna is busy having his vision.

And this dichotomy between the male creator and his female support is perniciously common, as Mary Evans demonstrates in her analysis of the latest bout of hagiographic biopics (“The lives and loves of geniuses”, Times Higher Education, 12 February). In both Mr. Turner and The Theory of Everything, she points out, “the central male characters (the artist J. M. W. Turner and the cosmologist Stephen Hawking) are supported in various ways by women, who readily acknowledge their ‘genius’ ”.

And it’s that assignment of the term “genius” that Evans finds so suspect. She deplores the tendency, exemplified by the two films, to ignore the fact that “none of us can achieve even ordinary competence, let alone ‘genius’, without various forms of institutional assistance and the dedication of others”.

That assistance and dedication is exemplified in Dior and I, where each member of the almost all-female team is shown not merely executing Simons’ ideas but interpreting and adding to them. Their role is to surround the master with an aura of greatness, adding mystique to the very nature of “genius” and so obscuring, as Evans puts it, “how and why great, innovative work is achieved and then endorsed”.

Moreover, it’s that label of “genius” that gives such a sense of entitlement to the chosen ones. Considerations of practicality, viability, courtesy, finance and even the environment must give way before their vision. Which, for Simons, in the Dior film, includes covering every wall of a Paris mansion with fresh blooms – a stunt requiring a million flowers and the work of 50 florists. Money, clearly, does not worry him, any more than the customary imperative to publicise the show does. He won’t walk the length of the runway in case he faints, is reluctant to do press interviews and claims to be too shy to be photographed, even when that may mean sacrificing the cover of Paris-Match.

Simons, in other words, is a bit of a spoiled brat. In that sense he is not unlike another hugely revered fashion enfant terrible, the late Alexander McQueen, whose own genius is about to be hallowed in the forthcoming show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Andrew Wilson’s new biography, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin, reveals not only the designer’s troubled background and the demons that eventually led to his suicide, but also his frankly dreadful behaviour: threats, betrayals, bouts of destructiveness, bullying, even cruelty.

Much has been said to justify McQueen’s questionable obsession with sexual exploitation. His “Highland Rape” show, for example, in which models with matted hair and eyes blanked by opaque contact lenses wore ripped dresses with their breasts exposed, was claimed to be a commentary on the clearance of Scottish land in the 18th century. He used to say his aim was to empower women. But that doesn’t really explain why he turned repeatedly to images of savagery and violence; why he chose Jack the Ripper as the inspiration for one collection; why, in another, a model was encircled with flames. And let’s not forget the 2001 show that featured a glass box shattering to reveal moths fluttering round a masked, naked woman. He may have been a tormented genius – but he was also clearly a pouting, swaggering show-off.

If young men such as McQueen and Simons are treated with such total reverence and given carte blanche to indulge their every whim, it is hardly surprising that they begin to see themselves as separate from ordinary people – those of us known by insiders as “civilians”.

Surely, as responsible educators, we should be aiming to halt this trend. What about a radical semantic solution? Let’s abandon the very notion of “genius”, with all its negative offshoots. That way we may instil a little more humility, kindness, a proper recognition of the work of others, and even, perhaps, an understanding of the vulgarity of waste.

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