Eugene Rabkin may seem a bit severe with the fashion criticism he regularly levels for his own publication StyleZeitgest and as a contributor for HighSnobiety and Business of Fashion, but that’s only because he may be one of the last vocal critics left in the highly political world of fashion. Big labels have quickly seeped into the way we write and therefore talk about fashion. ‘Criticism is never in the service of commerce,’ Rabkin declares in this exclusive interview for RAIN.
Rabkin recalls a different time: When fashion was an informed modernist pursuit that rewarded creativity and innovation. The practice is being overshadowed by huge corporate luxury brands, as Rabkin notes, or worse co-opted by big brands. This was famously demonstrated recently by the appropriation of one of fashion’s legendary Antwerp Six, Walter Van Beirendonck, by Virgil Abloh, who in turn built his brand codes according to Baudrillard’s simulacra. Rabkin was one of the few journalists to call out the appropriation act, which only further highlighted how constrained fashion journalists are today. In fact, one very confused journalist wrote in support of Abloh and simply dismissed Van Beirendonck as a colonist. So why all the confusion? What’s really at play? We sat down with Rabkin to better understand the changing landscape of commerce and creativity in fashion.
Into the mix
Mark Benjamin: How did you become interested in fashion?
Eugene Rabkin: I first became interested in clothes and looking stylish as a teenager. Also, as an immigrant, there is a lot of aspirational consumption that goes on. Parallel to that, I was into rock music. That led me to industrial music, goth, and synth pop. There were two sides to my wardrobe–one was going out to clubs and one was showing the world what’s inside me.
There was also a moment when I discovered the Belgian and Japanese designers at Barneys New York. My entire world fell apart. I didn’t know that what they were doing could be fashion. It was an infinitely more elegant, better-made version of what I was wearing. I didn’t know who these designers were either, but I knew that they had the same cultural references that I was picking up on. They had to be listening to the same kind of music and enjoying the same kind of art as me, maybe even reading the same books.
I also started reading magazines like i-D. I would buy almost every issue and go deep because, where I’m from, nobody knows that kind of fashion. At the time, I felt connected to the musicians and authors that I was listening to and reading about. Although I didn’t know them, I felt close to them because in my life, in the cultural wasteland where I grew up, there was nothing like it and there was no one I could talk to about it either.
One day I was googling Raf Simons when I stumbled upon The Fashion Spot, which was the original message board for fashion. That’s where I found like-minded people for the first time. I was working on Wall Street and was bored out of my mind. Half the day I would spend at the office chatting on The Fashion Spot. I quickly developed a reputation for knowing things about the creative avant-garde.
At some point, I got a job where I was working with software developers. One day, a person sitting next to me in the office said, ‘Why don’t you start your own forum?’ I started thinking about it and then I did. That’s how StyleZeitgeist was born. I wanted to just talk about fashion design.
“What I do know is fashion became so popular because it used to be amazing and people wanted it. It became the coolest thing on Earth, cooler than music, cooler than art.”Eugene Rabkin, StyleZeitgeist
MB: One of the interesting things you mentioned was how you wore clothes that tied back to music or books you were reading at the time. In the early 2000s and ’90s, music was everything. If you were into grunge and Nirvana you dressed a certain way or if you were into Slipknot you dressed like them. Today that’s all disappeared.
ER: Yeah. Nothing means anything anymore. All the meaning has been decoupled between the aesthetics and the substance of all the music movements, of all the cultural movements. It’s a free-for-all. Our current culture has not been able to produce a lasting aesthetic movement. So it has to inevitably go back and mine the past, and what’s in the past? Punk, goth, alternative. This is what culture is mining today. This is why you have kids wearing the same thing that Kurt Cobain was wearing. You’ve got Young Thug and Justin Bieber producing basically Iron Maiden T-shirts with this heavy metal font. The culture is so bankrupt. There is nothing that has substance.
The dominant problem is that culture is a dead end and doesn’t produce anything. It only consumes. If you’re wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt and you haven’t listened to a Floyd album, I really have nothing to say to you. I talked to the kids and some say, ‘Well, people created the artwork so we’re rewarding them for it by buying the shirt.’ The rest doesn’t matter to them. I find that incredibly sad. We wonder why we live in such an impoverished culture. It’s because everything is on the surface.
MB: Something that the artist Julie Mehretu said in a previous interview with RAIN stuck with me–paraphrasing here, but basically that we all live in a world that is in constant contradiction with itself. This hypocrisy, I think, makes it harder to have an objective point of view, or it’s like what another artist, Xu Zhen, said–‘Many people don’t believe in anything.’
ER: Yeah, this postmodern mentality is incredibly pernicious and we are right in the midst of it. And if everybody insists that their opinion is as valid as the next person’s, why do we even have civilizations?
“If it’s not from kids, where is the change going to come from? And if it’s not from Gen Z, maybe it will be the next one.”Eugene Rabkin, StyleZeitgeist
MB: That kind of takes me to the next point. What did you think of the recent Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2021 show? Some see it as maybe an amplification of its greatest hits.
ER: It’s been like that for the past few seasons. There are no new ideas coming from them. I don’t know if it’s Demna Gvasalia, I don’t know if it’s Pinault saying, ‘Keep it simple, stupid. We need to sell.’ They are going to stick to the formula–they run it into the ground and then they fire the designers and hire someone else. That’s how it works.
MB: Do you think that the goal of these large fashion brands has changed? It’s not about putting out cutting-edge fashion, interesting ideas and innovations, but more about what you mentioned–just selling.
ER: If Bernard Arnault could make more money selling used cars tomorrow, he would do that instead. He just happened to build a very profitable empire, which is actually based on two brands–Dior and Louis Vuitton. Those two make a ton of money.
It feeds his ego to have all of these other brands in his stable. If you look at corporate reports and finance reports for LVMH, which they have to file publicly, 75% of the business on the fashion side comes from Dior and Louis Vuitton, the rest of the brands are more like trophy acquisitions. They’re not interested in producing cutting-edge clothing.
What they need to understand is that if you have fashion that is bland overall, as an industry, it is going to kill them, too. Fashion needs Comme des Garçons. They need Rick Owens and Iris van Herpen. Because without these people fashion is going to lose its luster and people are going to be less interested in the fashion world, which they already are.
Young kids don’t care much about designers. They care much less than they used to. At the end of the day, the big brands are going to punish themselves. Maybe instinctively they know it. That’s why they have all these funds for young designer awards. Maybe it’s just lip service. What I do know is that fashion became so popular because it used to be amazing and people wanted it. It became the coolest thing on Earth, cooler than music, cooler than art.
It was because of people like Rei, Yohji, and Ann Demeulemeester, who were producing this incredible work that led to an explosion of creativity and excitement. Kids used to want to be artists in the ’80s and ’90s, they all wanted to be musicians, and in the 2000s, they all wanted to be fashion designers. That’s where the energy came from. You had McQueen and Galliano performing magic that had no parallels. It was the same kind of excitement you would feel at a rock concert. That doesn’t really happen anymore. It’s very rare.
So what I see in Balenciaga is pure cynicism. What I see in Demna is pure cynicism. I always argue about Balenciaga when people say, ‘Oh, it’s so creative.’ It’s not, it’s cynical.
MB: The appropriation, since I don’t want to call it ‘collaboration,’ between Gucci and Balenciaga, I think it kind of hints at this rinse and repeat for brands that have gotten a little stale. So they’re trying to stir a bit of controversy, no?
ER: Absolutely. They took that page from pop music. It’s like when one rapper who is washed up gets a feature on a song of another rapper. And then they’re probably on the same record label.
This is the same thing. It’s one huge record label saying you’re going to do a song together and it’s going to be absolutely meaningless because it’s just logo overload. Then people are going to get excited, have this ‘he-he-ha-ha’ moment, because that’s all that’s left today. And then they’re going to move on. It doesn’t matter, because you’re going to sell millions of dollars in one season of that stuff.
“Collaborate with everyone, say yes to everything, get your name in the media, because they’re going to forget you tomorrow.”Eugene Rabkin, StyleZeitgeist
MB: I also wanted to mention the podcast you did on Walter Van Beirendonck when one of Virgil’s Vuitton collections clearly lifted designs from him. I thought it was crazy how accounts like Diet Prada, which is supposed to be on some moral high ground–it’s not–didn’t pick up the story, especially since that’s what they’ve tasked themselves with doing. Nobody was writing about it, but it was just so painfully obvious. I think you were one of the only people, besides the twitterati, to call it out.
ER: I have to credit HighSnobiety and HypeBeast here. Independent streetwear publications were they only ones to pick it up. That goes to show that’s where criticism is today. Even the New York Times didn’t pick it up until it went into hyper-drive. What it shows is that no one is going to go up against LVMH.
MB: I’m going to check my rearview mirror after this interview.
ER: Diet Prada will never stray away from the predominant mood of what political correctness is. This is their ammo. So of course they didn’t comment on it. It was so obvious. Virgil is a hack, there is no other way to put it. He was in way over his head. He has stretched himself but he is very much of this day and age.
Kanye set the agenda but Virgil has outgrown him on some level. Collaborate with everyone, say yes to everything, get your name in the media, because they’re going to forget about you tomorrow. Even with LVMH resources–they can give him whatever he wants–the output is mediocre. But it has to be mediocre because that’s the audience.
Too big to critique
MB: Yeah, and so to criticize brands like them is almost pointless.
ER: It’s almost pointless to criticize these massive brands because they’re giving people what they want. Fashion used to be about not giving people what they want. Fashion used to be a very modernist pursuit. It used to be all about elevating, not shutting anyone out, actually. In terms of putting product out, you could go into the store, but it put the fear of God into you.
You had to be committed. I remember walking into Barneys New York for the first time. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was the same with modernist art. No one wouldn’t let me into a gallery or a museum, but you had to be committed. You can call it elitist if you want, but the fact is that it produced great culture.
What we have now is mass production of logos on T-shirts, so yeah, you’re right, it’s almost beside the point to criticize it. I almost want to separate these two concepts. My question to everyone always is, ‘What do you mean when you say “fashion”?’ Because what I mean when I say fashion is a completely different thing. I mean designer fashion. Brunello Cucinelli is not fashion. It doesn’t mean that there is no place for it–it’s very well-made, ethically made, high-quality clothing for rich people. And that’s totally fine, I have respect for that. But that kind of respect is in a different compartment than the kind of respect I have for McQueen.
So, that’s my first question to everyone. When someone starts talking to me about fashion, what I say is, ‘What do you mean? Define it.’ If you keep it vague and what’s now called ‘democratic,’ which has become the sort of catchall shield to deflect criticism, you are going to get what we started with–nothing means anything anymore.
Pole markers for criticism have been steadily erased because it’s not good for commerce. The same thing happened with art before fashion, when gallery owners wrested control from the critics in becoming tastemakers. Criticism is never in the service of commerce, that’s the problem. This is the number one reason criticism is being very actively stamped out. It’s a very concerted effort. Why? Not because it’s an elitist old white male or whatever that nebulous figure of the critic is. No, it’s because it’s not good for commerce.
Holding out hope for the youth
MB: What are some areas or artists or ideas that you’ve been inspired by that give you hope? That we won’t be living in a postmodern Balenciaga fashion show forever?
ER: I still hold out hope for the youth. This is the number one reason I write for HighSnobiety. I want to speak to the youth. I came from youth culture. If it’s not from kids, where is the change going to come from? And if it’s not from Gen Z, maybe it will be the next one. That is my only hope. It’s a faint hope, but it is a hope.
One of the big problems for me is how quickly underground creativity gets co-opted by main street. The number one danger today is that we used to have a notion that the worst thing to do was to sell out. You could be successful and not sell out. Those were two different things. No one could say that Nirvana sold out. No one could say that Pearl Jam sold out, even though they were enormously successful financially and popular. If you sold out, it was a cardinal sin, but no such thing exists today. All it is today is selling and the kids want to sell right away.
Here’s the irony for me, an incredible irony of the postmodern world. We’re told everywhere from every corner, every opinion is the same. But the irony is that creativity is subjective. Creatives will always look for other people’s opinions because no one is ever quite 100% sure if they’ve made something incredible. So you’ll write a piece and think, ‘This is great. I hope it was great. Let’s see what the reception is.’ This is why writers have editors.
The creators themselves will always look at what the critics say. Why? Because the critics are the ones with, hopefully, an informed opinion, because they’ve put in the effort, they’ve put in the time–they’ve put in years of education in taste, in order to acquire a body of knowledge that lets them form criticism.
That is the irony of it. Not every opinion is valid. We like to indulge people as long as they consume. Postmodernism is the best thing that happened to capitalism because anything goes really means anything sells. And if a critic stands in the way, they’re going to be bulldozed or pressured into either keeping silent or saying something they don’t want to say.