Fashion throws the term heritage around a lot, but many rarely explore its actual meaning and the forms it takes beyond the surface. Often, when we think of heritage, we just imagine a compendium of founder stories and brand codes that have been repeated so many times and widely that they are now regarded as part of fashion lore.
But there is a reason brands lean into their heritage: stories and symbols hold great power.
It is why — almost 100 years after its introduction — Coco Chanel’s tweed suit remains a wardrobe staple. It is also why you can never see a wasp-waisted silhouette without thinking of Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look. His Bar jacket has remained a cornerstone of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s stewardship of the brand to this day. Tweed is just a material, and the Bar is just a silhouette. But heritage confers value on both visual codes.
The Time Is Now
A new generation of designers is building their own heritage brands today. While they may not have the marketing dollars of the conglomerates, their visions are crystal-clear, and their codes, emblems, values, and aesthetics have coalesced into fully formed universes.
One of the most exciting talents to emerge in this decade is Marine Serre, who has built a commercially and critically successful brand combining her aesthetically singular vision with a focus on creating consciously and sustainably in the few years since winning the LVMH Prize in 2017. It was she who championed upcycling before it was cool, shedding its homespun connotations for something truly modern and directional. In some circles, her crescent moon motif is as well known and desirable as Chanel’s double-C.
However, her greatest legacy is her thoughtful approach to creativity and materials. She has prompted the industry to rethink the consumption of luxury with her creations fashioned out of old towels and tablecloths and T-shirts from gift shops.
Telfar Clemens is another designer asking tough questions and building a heritage brand based on values. The New Yorker has been making clothes for over 15 years, but only gained mainstream visibility in the past few years.
Clemens began erasing gender boundaries in his work long before genderless fashion became a buzzword. His clothes straddle the line between nondescript and directional. The former quality is deliberate; Clemens wants to represent new all-American dressing with his label. In his American Dream, people like him — Black, queer, and living on the edge — populate the universe.
For the designer, fashion is just one dimension of his grand ambition. Telfar’s primary goal is community. This is clear in the creatives — Solange, Selah Marley, Ashton Sanders and Jeremy O. Harris — he surrounds himself with. Telfar has also partnered with brands such as White Castle, Century 21 and Converse.
His prices, on the affordable end of the spectrum, are the strongest testament to his vision. “Most cool people aren’t rich. We wouldn’t be interested in making clothes our friends couldn’t get,” says Clemens in a conversation with Evan Ross Katz for Paper magazine.
Consider the brand’s bestselling shopping bags. Every drop sells out within minutes, if not seconds, and the largest retails for around S$350. Nicknamed the Bushwick Birkin, it is the most tangible representation of Clemen’s inclusive, democratic approach. To carry a Telfar bag is to be a member of a tribe not defined by price of entry.
“At the end of the day, it’s more than just fashion. It’s about visibility and power,” Clemens tells Devine Blacksher of The Cut.
Old Dogs, New Tricks
The stewards of some brands already have a stronghold on the fashion firmament, but they are finding exciting ways to build upon the heritage they have inherited.
A prime example is Alessandro Michele’s spectacular revival of Gucci. With great aplomb, Michele has remixed and contextualised the codes of Gucci’s 101-year-old history during his tenure.
However, he is not resting on his laurels. Michele returned to Fashion Week with a bang in February with a collection that blended the brand’s Italian heritage with the casual sensibilities of Adidas. It was a tie-up with the sportswear giant but its focal point was the suit, presented in a range of ways — lean and sharp; roomy and louche; and in neutrals or brights — and often splashed with Adidas’ trefoil and three stripes.
Glenn Martens’ runway debut for Diesel was the only other show to surpass it in terms of spectacle and buzz.
With Y/Project’s twisty, witty creations, Martens became an insider favourite. However, he faced an even greater challenge at Diesel, which peaked in the ’90s and ’00s, when hipsters and celebrities wore its fun, loud, and sexy denim. Martens, however, proved he has what it takes. The playful, unpretentious, almost Eurotrash appeal of the brand is reflected through a prism shaped by his own design language.
“The starting point was questioning, ‘How can we reinvent denim or what can we do with denim that’s unexpected? How can we twist it?’” Martens tells Kristen Bateman of W magazine. The Diesel heritage is all over Martens’ output, but equally clear is his elevation of it to the next level.
Diesel’s wasn’t the only heritage brand Martens plumbed for inspiration this past season. He was also appointed as a guest designer for Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer 2022 haute couture collection. Breton stripes, cable knit, corsetry, and frothy ball gowns were given the Glenn Martens’ twist — sometimes literally with his wired forms.
In the end, the result was a perfect balance of Gaultier and Martens, a display of what can be achieved when an exacting eye and a brilliant mind guide heritage.
Getting that balance right is harder than it seems, especially when the heritage of a brand is inextricably linked to one person. But it is something Pieter Mulier has done beautifully since taking over the reins at Alaïa.
The legacy of Azzedine Alaïa, the King of Cling, was not limited to his mastery of sculpting silhouettes, the timeless nature of his designs, or the way he made sensuality and strength equal. He also existed in the fashion ecosystem in a radical way. He would only show his collections when they met his (very high) standards, fashion week schedule be damned.
That maverick spirit is alive and well in Mulier. The designer presented his collections during the couture season, although they are a mix of haute couture and ready-to-wear. He also named them Winter/Spring and Summer/Autumn, according to when they would arrive in stores.
Mulier has also demonstrated a healthy respect for the Alaïa heritage. Throughout his two collections, he has incorporated all the Alaïa building blocks, adding a touch of modernism and a more streamlined feel (along with a lot more tailoring), perfect for the new generation.
“The idea of being in the spotlight always scares the shit out of me,” says the designer to i-D’s Osman Ahmed. Before joining Alaïa, Mulier was Raf Simons’ right-hand man, first at Simons’ label, then at Jil Sander, Dior, and Calvin Klein. “When Alaïa called, I wasn’t scared because this house is inherently not about me. I am not what matters most. I am simply the caretaker.”
When asked about his approach at the house that Azzedine built, Mulier told Alexander Fury of AnOther Magazine that he went into it thinking, “Don’t change it, but push it. Bit by bit.”
That is when heritage becomes a living thing — not just history, but a story. And stories stay around a lot longer.