Is Humanity Out of Fashion?

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Valentino and Dries Van Noten’s designer changes raise the topic. Since the news broke last week that Valentino’s designer, Pierpaolo Piccioli, was quitting the business, tributes to his ability have flooded social and fashion media. But of all the terms used to characterize Mr. Piccioli’s work—its “genius” and “magic” and “vision,” its “dreaminess” and “beauty”—the one that most leaps out to me is “humanity. ” Not because of the coming menace of A.I., or whatever it means in terms of clothing, but because Mr. Piccioli is not the first designer who has left fashion in the last six months with “humanity” as a calling card. In reality, he is the third.


The first was Alexander McQueen’s designer, Sarah Burton. Ms. Burton left the brand in October, 13 years after taking over as creative director following the death of its creator and more than 20 years after starting as an assistant to Mr. McQueen. The second was Dries Van Noten, who announced his retirement after 40 years in the industry just a few days before the Valentino announcement. And now Mr. Piccioli, who has been with Valentino for 25 years, eight as sole creative director.

It is conceivable to see this as a coincidence. Fashion is in a state of flux due to greater political and economic influences, following a period of relative stability (at least in terms of personnel), and insecurity can inspire a yearning for change. It’s also possible that this transition is merely a generational passing of the torch. Mr. Van Noten is 65, Mr. Piccioli is 56, and Ms. Burton was 49 when she departed McQueen. Designers rarely stay with one brand for more than ten years, unless they own it, as Mr. Van Noten did until 2018, when he sold a controlling ownership to the Spanish firm Puig.

However, according to fashion regulations, three makes a trend, and Mr. Piccioli, Mr. Van Noten, and Ms. Burton have little in common in terms of background or aesthetic. So, what precisely does it mean if three designers best known for their humanity are no longer in fashion? What does “humanity” mean in this context? It’s strange to label something unique in an industry where things are (theoretically) manufactured by people for humans, but consider it a fashion version of Renaissance humanism.


One characterized by a generosity of spirit that permeated everything these designers did, from the clothes they designed to the way they conducted business; a sense that they cared not only about what they created but also about the emotional interior lives of those who wore it. Also included are those who contributed to its creation. That they recognized that they were standing on the shoulders of giants who came before them, as well as the many others who made their work possible.

That they had a responsibility for and to them. Ms. Burton, for example, took on McQueen during a period of extreme trauma, when conventional wisdom suggested that the home should be closed; that no one could or should try to fill Mr. McQueen’s shoes. She not only kept the atelier and crew together, but she also carried on Mr. McQueen’s legacy of remarkable invention and crazy imagination, infused with a touch of compassion and grace, tempering the anger with kindness. She worked with mills and craftspeople all around the United Kingdom, and she credited them in her show notes. She also showcased a variety of forms on her runway long before size diversity became a fashion problem.

Not to mention becoming the closest thing to an in-house couturier Catherine, Princess of Wales, has ever had. Ms. Burton designed not just her wedding gown, but also her coronation gown and that of her daughter, Princess Charlotte, bringing historical pomp into the present day. When Mr. Van Noten was honored with a retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2014, he used the opportunity to highlight the people and works that had inspired him, including the Indian embroiderers with whom he had collaborated for decades.