MR Round Table: The Burnout Generation

Alber Elbaz is leaving Lanvin. Raf Simons is leaving Dior. Alexander Wang left Balenciaga. What is going on?

10.30.15
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CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist Chris Gelinas and artist Catherine Pearson joined Leandra and Amelia for the round table. See our round table on the endless tech talk here.)

Leandra Medine: I want to have a conversation about burn out. Ever since Raf Simons made the, I think, heroic decision to leave Dior, the conversation on fashion burnout has been coming up in every direction across media. You read Cathy Horyn’s take on the departure for The Cut, you look at Suzy Menkes’ and Sarah Mower’s respective opinions for two different Vogues, you hear what Alber Elbaz said at the Fashion Group International’s Night of Stars and it’s so clear that there’s a huge underlying issue. I think this is particular to fashion (and correct me if I’m wrong) and not as much to art, because the fashion industry, which is largely motivated by creative force and talent, has taken to tech in a way that art may not have, and so, the possibility of burnout is a bit more salient.

I am very curious to hear from your perspectives as artists and designers, whether or not you’re feeling the burn out. Something you said to me last week that really resonated, Chris, was that we have to take a page from the Dries and Alaïa books and set our own paces. I’ve been thinking about it so much.

Chris Gelinas, designer, CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist: We read these articles constantly. I read them at the end of every season, and Bridget Foley, Cathy Horyn, Sarah Mower – all of these amazing people that I respect – are calling out that we just ran around for a month to like, a hundred shows a week, and we’re all burning out, and it’s too much information, and we don’t have enough time to appreciate it, but no one’s actually proposing an answer. We can all complain about it and we’re all aware of it, but what do we do? Which I think is interesting. We enable the pace.

We’re total enablers: the retailers, the designers. You know, we’re telling the consumer you can have more and more, faster and faster. If we cut them off from that, they’ll be forced to adapt. Just like they adapted to twelve deliveries now thirteen deliveries, and merchandise constantly changing on the floor. For me, it’s tough because you see sixth months of work relegated to a sale rack in a third of the time. So what’s the perceived value in these clothes and their ideas?

LM: Stimulatory overload, right? I think I feel so emotionally connected to T Magazine because it comes out kind of sporadically, the content is always stunning and there’s a very strong emotional connection between the reader and the thing. And in thinking through what we’re doing with Man Repeller and whether or not it makes sense for us to grow to the point of ubiquity or get aggressive about scaling… I don’t know, I think it’s really important that instead of having six stories a day go up that are timely and highly ranking for SEO, we just have like, three really solid ones go up that make people feel warm.

CG: It all boils down to, you know, in a bigger-picture sense, what is success to you? As emerging designers, we’ve been so focused on brands, not collections – that’s what we’ve been taught. We don’t nurture ideas anymore because we don’t have time to fail, we don’t have time to make mistakes. It’s like you need to be a brand from your first season. You have to have such a cohesive world and strong message and that perfect package is because I think we’re bombarded by so much information that we need things that are palatable and easy to understand straight out of the gate. Ten years ago, in Proenza Schouler’s first few seasons, they were really finding themselves. And it took a few seasons and that was a known grace period. And now, if you don’t have that perfect package in the first or second season, people lose interest. As an emerging designer, that’s terrifying.

Catherine Pearson: When I first started working in fashion retail, coming from a fine arts background, I thought it would be completely different. Working with the clothes but also seeing the way it had to recycle every six months got me thinking about the branding that gets pushed upon designers. I think it happens in all creative fields because of social media. I see it with a lot of my peers. We see the same obsession with youth — young painters — in the art world that you have in fashion with young designers, the same pressure for a cohesive vision. At 25? Nobody knows what they’re doing at 25. And that’s totally fine. You’re still finding yourself. And there has to be more room to find yourself when you’re young as opposed to this pressure to emerge as a fully formed Greek myth coming out with her uncracked egg, or whatever.

LM: There’s a fundamental issue in the messaging. We’re all being fed an unrealistic ideal you are your own business, should be running your own business and must succeed. In 2015, you’re a slacker if you’re not an entrepreneur with a multi-pronged media platform on your back burner, you know? That’s really problematic. This whole conversation about moving to California and the migration to L.A. is a direct result of people burning out.

CP: Oh! I almost just did that. I was literally about to do that and then I went to Vermont instead. You never pause in New York. I’ve been here for a decade and don’t think I took a breath until this summer.

Amelia Diamond: That’s probably why Burning Man has been popular, it’s why all these extractions from society are. My mom went on a ten-day silent retreat. She said it was all young people, who live in cities or work in tech. They all have these lives that push them out of their life because they can’t bare to be in it for a second longer, and everyone knows they’re about to break down.

You know what I was thinking, though? Comedians are some of the only creative people who aren’t expected to be pumping out new content constantly. They’re the last group of people sort of “allowed” to take their time to develop and work on their craft. I’ve seen Amy Schumer do the same bit for years. I have a friend who does standup, and he just posted his reel on Facebook, which is the same bit I saw him do two years ago. And it was funny then and is still funny. But they keep doing jokes until they’re proven funny and good. They do the delivery right, they know when to look at the audience, they really are allowed to hone their craft. But maybe that’s because you don’t go and see the same comedian over and over.

LM: The other thing about creators is that we’re all supposed to connect emotionally with other humans. That can get lost in the ideation phase and the building of the product. I know specifically with content in media, you can get lost in the numbers and the data, in the science of what makes a story go viral. Same thing can happen in fashion where that connectivity you’re supposed to strike with the consumer can get lost in the motions of middleman dealing — where the retailer stops the connection from happening. At a certain point you stop thinking about the people because you’re trying to appease the beast. With comedy that’s not really true.

For one, it’s still a meritocracy because you’re either funny or you’re not, you either succeed or you don’t, and that’s that. There is no conceivable science behind it, whereas you could figure out a math equation to build a line and see it succeed. Fast fashion is a perfect example of that. But in comedy, if you’re not connecting with the people, you’re failing. Period. Somehow that motivation has gotten lost and I think a great deal of our burnout is because of that. I was telling Amelia earlier that I kind of want to write a story investigating who The new Joneses are. When our parents’ generation was expected to keep up with the Joneses, there was a very specific model they were looking toward or aspiring to keep up with. What are “The Joneses” today? Is it the abundant technological connectivity? That’s too big.

CG: Our filters have gotten less and less refined so we let more things pass through them. On the one hand, that’s very democratic and it would be elitist to think, “Oh, fashion design should only be for a small sect of people.” There are so many amazing expressions and we should have the opportunity to hear them all. But at the same time, you get these brands that could build their own worlds. You could make an amazing world and this amazing package, but there could be no content. You could be really successful, we see that all the time: these really cohesive, spot-on worlds that you can associate with, but the product is crap. And then you have amazing designers with amazing product but you don’t have the time or the energy to build this perfectly packaged world and then they’ll never see the light of day, they’ll never get the recognition that their craft deserves. What does it mean to be a designer anymore? Can you be a really good merchandizer, can you be a really good stylist and just have design teams underneath you? I’m sure in art it’s the same thing. You can be perfectly packaged with the right gallery that’s telling you what to do.

CP: Right, are you a designer or do you have a really great eye and then a great team? It’s much more acceptable to not be personally producing this vision that you’re creating. And I realize that with a large brand, things can get away from you and you do need to delegate at a certain point. But maintaining both a human connection and one to why you wanted to be a creative in the first place is important.

CG: Andrew Rosen [CEO of Theory] would say that all the time, “We’re looking to evolve, not have a revolution.” Alber Elbaz also said it perfectly. “Evolution lives longer and better in history books. Revolution looks great, but only on TV.” And I think in terms of American fashion, what do we want defining this next generation? Do we want this constantly revolving system of images and not a lot of substance? Or do we want to appreciate something that quietly evolves? And that’s what I think about Dries Van Noten or Alaïa, two designers who you know have always steered their own course. Alaïa especially. He’s had his difficulties with that model, but at the end of the day, it has value. You see Alaïa hanging in a store and it’s as covetable as it was ten years ago and as it will be in another ten years. He really represents that upper price range in luxury too, in terms of the market. And there’s a reason why he’s been able to maintain that value: he’s never had to do diffusion lines, or have another product category. He’s content with what he has.

LM: Specifically with media – because this is something I feel like as a boss I struggle with at Man Repeller or as the founder of a media property – how do you play on this concept of evolution without acknowledging the fact that revolution is what interests people, right?

CG: This is the difficulty I’m facing constantly. I’m not fully embracing the social media thing as much as I could. I’m much more comfortable putting my head down and working. My focus is really on the craft. And I like to pay homage to the people and the processes behind it. I think that integrity is really important and is what’s lacking. In the wake of this oversaturation of fast fashion, we need to educate consumers about what it is to have a luxury product. What domestic production means, what craft means – we’ve really lost that. I think 50 years ago when there was a lot less out there and you bought a dress and you wore that dress over and over again, you understood what it meant to have luxury. Look at vintage — it doesn’t even have to be an old brand, it’s all beautifully made. I think a little bit of re-emphasizing the people behind the process. But it’s the least sexy, least glossy message.

LM: I think what you said before is exactly right, which is that we’re the enablers. The consumer today is a complete reflection of the consumer we’ve contributed to create. In competing with one another and in trying to compete with ourselves, we’ve conditioned them to expect more of us. I think that when they say, “You can’t un-see things,” this is exactly what it means. Is there a possibility of regression? Can you regress? Can you market a change as not really a regression, not really even a step back, just a healthy change? Or do we have no choice but to continue stampeding forward? I’m specifically saying stampeding and not marching because that’s what it is.

CP: I feel like the only recourse is over-saturation. It’s a pendulum that has to swing completely, and it’s almost there, but not yet. We’re at that point of unbearable tension.

AD: I was just interviewing people in this industry on diversity in fashion and something that was brought up repeatedly is that fashion is moving too fast. Because of that, models will be “it girls” for just a blip, then it’s on to the next one. It turns people into trends, race intro a trend…

But, I think the problem with burn out is that we are so in it that to say we are burnt out and that we need to take a week off feels like a cop out. It feels very self-indulgent. I feel it myself, we talk about it all the time, I can feel it happening, I know it’s a real thing. But it’s almost like anxiety, it’s self-indulgent to say, “I’m anxious, I’m stressed.”…The whole world is stressed. Did our grandparents’ generation experience burn out and if they did, did they just power through it? And did that make them happier, healthier people? People used to make fun of California because it was so hippie dippy, free love — like what the fuck is everyone doing out there? Why are you guys always hiking or at the beach? But is that lifestyle so wrong? They’re all very happy, everyone has low blood pressure and takes walks and hangs out with their kids. I don’t know.

CG: God forbid we just introduce a little of the spirit of a retreat into our every day lives so we wouldn’t have to run off to like, you know, a shaman and do ayahuasca.

LM: The thing Americans don’t understand is moderation and that’s the key to happiness. We do not understand moderation.

CG: I walk by the same coffee shop every morning and I tell myself every morning, tomorrow I am going to sit there and have a coffee and read something for an hour in the morning. But sure enough, every day I just walk like a crazy person up Eighth avenue, my heart racing.

AD: Sweden, apparently, is cutting down their work hours to six per day.

LM: But on the other hand…look at how quickly we bounced back from the Great Recession. We are a tremendously efficient country — and that is the capitalist in me talking, which is not a good thing, but there is a balance. There is a level of moderation, which I think manifests as small actionable changes that people in the industry are making. I just cut our content down from 5 stories a day to 3.

CG: I know it sounds silly, but was it a big decision? Did it feel risky?

LM: Ya! It scares the shit out of me. What if our page views go down, does that mean that our advertisers are not going to want to work with us anymore, will I be able to continue paying these people? But you know, the more I think about it and the more I feel myself connecting with media that actually elicits emotion in me, the more I think, nobody really cares what we have to say about [insert famous person name here] anyway, they can get that from everywhere else. We are here to talk about the psychology of fashion. We’re building a sisterhood. That doesn’t have a number of daily posts on it…that’s an ethos.

AD: We’re seeing reader burn out across the board.

LM: Even I have content burn out. Yesterday, one of our contributors posted a story she wrote for Elle, and it was the kind of bait-y headline that would have excited me a year ago, and I just looked at it, rolled my eyes and shut my computer. This is my industry, this is what I’m passionate about, and I love this contributor – she’s one of my favorite writers – but I couldn’t look at it. What is that?

CP: That’s the worst scenario, and the worst case outcome. Becoming fatigued and experiencing burn out to the point that you lose some of your original passion. And that, I think, is a constant danger of this over exposure.

LM: I think the important question in the wake of that point – which is a wise one – is: what is actually motivating us? Is it our creative passion, are we being motivated by that? Or is it this sense of financially insecurity, or vanity, or a hunger for respect?Are we being motivated by the right agents?

CG: Creatives, by nature, are sensitive. We are absorbing things and I think the spectrum of creativity is how sensitive are you to the most subtle social and cultural change. And how much visual stimulation you absorb and manifest into yourself.

CP: And that’s why you have to be careful in setting your own pace.

LM: There’s also a middle ground, though, right? Someone like Nicolas Ghesquière who is working at an enormous brand and has somehow made it feel so local and emotional. I always say that a good designer makes you feel like they’re hugging you with their clothing. I very much feel that way about Dries, and I don’t feel that way as strongly about anyone as I do about Rosie. Her clothes hug you hard, they embrace you. And I really feel that way about Louis Vuitton now. Nicolas Ghesquière is a very emotional designer. He is obviously in the process of figuring out a balance, or has figured out a balance, and what does that look like, right?

CG: It takes time and energy to have that kind of transference. You need to invest a lot of emotion in your development and the integrity that goes into it and you’re hoping that the woman who will wear it feels that. And she might not know exactly what it is, but it’s those clothes that make you stand a bit taller, float across a room.

That’s the thing that’s so top of mind with me, is that it’s easy to get sucked into this system of having to churn out ideas. You see someone like Raf who is incredibly sensitive and emotional, and he literally wears his heart on his sleeve in certain collections. And there’s something so beautiful and raw about it, but how can you do that 6 to 8 times a year? And not only that, but this revolution-versus-evolution obsession — it’s like, every collection needs to be ground breaking. It needs to rock our world and show us something so new, but good things take time.

LM: Right. The flip-side of that coin is something that Henry Ford said when he made the first car, which was: “If you’d asked people what they had wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But revolution wasn’t happening on a quarterly schedule then. I think trying to be so revolutionary is really prohibiting the ability to be revolutionary.

CG: Everyone wants a slice of people’s attention.

LM: And everyone wants to revolutionize it.

CP: I want to love the democratization of it all, but at the same time, I can’t be everywhere at once and you have to prioritize your own practice at the end of the day. I am always making these tough decisions cause I am still in a financial circumstance where I have to have a day job. So, I have either my studio or I go to an opening but I can’t always do both. A long time ago I started choosing the studio first, but for a while, I had tons of artwork and no one to show it to because I was just a hermit working in my studio. So I was like, alright, I’m going to go to every opening. And then I have all of these new fast friends and no new work.

LM: When you can’t do the thing that got you recognized to start, because you’re now too recognized, I think is the beginning of burn out. I feel that happening with me and Man Repeller sometimes where I’m just like, “I don’t have time to write anymore because I’m a therapist to my employees, and I have to make sure that this environment allows for everyone to achieve their goals to ensure that we can continue operating as this well oiled machine, and we have to hire new people and think about the evolution and future of the company”…and then I’m like, “I didn’t start Man Repeller because I was passionate about becoming a founder, I had an opinion that was being underserved. I want to keep serving that forward.”

CG: I think it’s hard to maintain that kind of purity and integrity in what got you started, and I think it’s why I’m always asking myself, “What is success?” Can I have a little shop and atelier and have my clients I work directly with and do something seasonally so that I’m still on top of mind and on the radar, and a handful of employees to help facilitate that? That’s my dream. I don’t need a billion dollar IPO. I never even want to come close to that. I think, especially in navigating these different prizes and speaking with the industry leaders, they want to hear that you want to be the next everything to everyone, and you’re not passionate and motivated if you don’t aspire to that.

LM: I think I just had a thought! We’re living through the VC-era, and it’s similar to the era of “Super size me” in that we’re building these companies that are becoming obese. Right now it works, but we’re looking at hard days of heart failure and diabetes ahead. We’re being injected with unnatural materials that are insufficient for our health!

CG: Especially when you hear about tech companies before they even have an idea, and their first round of funding can close at like, 10 million or 15 million dollars. For a lot of companies, that would have been a lifelong goal to achieve in historic revenue. We have sums of money that I would have never dreamed of or considered making, let alone using to get started.

CP: For me, as an artist, and I’m sure for you as a designer, the most amazing thing to me is someone coming to me and being like, “I love this piece, I want to live with it. I want to have it with me all the time. I think in 10 years I am going to love it just as much as I do now, and I want it to be a part of my life.” That’s beautiful.

CG: I think I’ve learned that not every client is going to be that woman who makes me float around my studio saying, “This is why I started this!” I’m nostalgic to a fault and really romanticize a time when a house was really a fashion house and clients came to the atelier and had an experience and a dialogue. And I want to achieve that as much as I can. But like you said, you start to have employees and to feel the pressure of making sure that they’re eating at the end of the day. It’s a balance: creativity and commerce, socialism and capitalism. You need to find that happy middle ground.

LM: What are you doing specifically to find it?

CG: As much as I can, by shutting off from the system. It’s easy to obsess about press as an emerging designer because all of the sudden you have a celebrity wear your thing or you’re in this great piece in a magazine and your inbox gets full with all these pseudo-supporters. So you start wanting to chase after that and you feel like the only barometer of success is having credits, and if you have visibility, the stores will follow. Cutting myself off from that and focusing more on the client and letting the other stuff come secondary, that’s my best recipe for sanity. Because it’s too difficult to try and chase all of those things that are outside of my control when nurturing relationships with my clients is the one thing that I can control.

LM: I think a good thing to do is ask yourself every day: what is giving you energy? Why are you getting out of bed in the morning? And to be able to answer that question, and to build a plan of action based on that answer, seems like a pretty solid way to combat burn out.

CG: Totally. In fact, when you said, “What do we do?” That’s what we do. Every morning you ask yourself, “How am I going to maintain integrity and what got me doing this in the first place?”

Let your actions speak louder than saying that you’re so burnt out.

AD: You also just have to have faith and know that while one camp goes one way, there is the other group of people who do want to read the story and print it out and hold it in a book and not skim it on a Kindle. There is someone buying art because they walk by it and they can’t imagine not seeing it every day, or that they see a dress and have to have. There has to be an element of hope because I just don’t think that creators create just for themselves… you’ve all said you create to touch people. So you have to hope and know that there are people looking to receive and be touched.

CG: Totally. We can’t be so jaded. If we lose that, what’s the point?

LM: I think we’re gonna be okay.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis

Chris Gelinas is a New York based womenswear designer. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website. Catherine Pearson is an artist and “sometimes illustrator” living in New York. Check out her website hereInstagram here and if you’d like to check out her book, see it here.

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