I first began thinking about how we assimilate cultural codes into our clothing when Catherine Malandrino announced her collaboration with Kohl’s’ DesigNation.
In the past, Narciso Rodriguez designed a collection inspired by Istanbul and Derek Lam drew inspiration from Rio de Janeiro. Having chosen Paris as her city of inspiration, Catherine Malandrino is the only designer designing a collection of her native country, and a city with which she is quite familiar. At first I thought the choice was strange, after all isn’t it the discovery of a different culture that creates the interesting design process? It must not be coincidental that a French designer is using Paris as her inspiration; she must have chosen it. Still I wonder if the wonders of Paris have been attenuated to her eyes. Will she use architecture, landscape and experience as inspiration or will this be a this-is-what-French-women-wear collection? I am hoping for the former.
I wonder if Malandrino got tired of people saying a look is Parisien without really knowing the cultural codes that inform the choice. Perhaps she was hoping to avoid another designer choosing Paris and creating un-chic clothes for the city she knows so well? I am only hypothesizing because I wonder why Malandrino didn’t opt for the free guided trip to an exotic locale with the Kohl’s team?
Invariably Malandrino has set herself up to be the most criticized out of all the DesigNation designers for her collection; Paris is too big in the collective unconscious of fashion. In addition, this is the only instance where a consumer can say, she should have known better. She’s French, after all.
What am I hoping for in a Kohl’s/Catherine Malandrino Collection? Well, when I think of Catherine Malandrino, I think of sophisticated sexiness. I think of a woman who has put care into her appearance instead of a louche or casual look. I also think about a woman who is done playing the young girl and wants instead to be dressed like a woman. Basically as long as Malandrino does not make this collection for “the younger consumer” I will be pleased.
My initial negative reaction also had me pondering how an American consumer might assimilate Malandrino’s Kohl’s collection given that the reference points must be different for her and her audience. While Rodriguez and Lam created collections as the outsider looking at a foreign culture, much like the average American consumer buying the clothes, Catherine’s references will be that of an insider hoping that the codes translate to an American consumer. Or that her interpretation of Paris is close enough to the cliché for American consumers to buy into her vision.
On the other hand the video series released to advertise these DesigNation collections has always been impeccable at relaying the designers’ experience and how they translate inspiration into clothing. These videos also brilliantly serve as a way to sidestep the whole issue of cultural appropriation, by showing the inspiration beside the transformed product and having the viewer see the process of creation. Perhaps this type of explication will smooth out anything that is lost in translation for the American consumer.