I have to be honest, I’m always more than a little dubious when someone coming from a Fashion Director or Merchandise Manager-type post throws his hat into the design ring.  As a Fashion Director at somewhere special like Bergdorf Goodman, you have access to the best menswear labels and goods that the world has to offer, and your playground is one of the tastiest retail environments going.  It’s hard not to look good with those kind of resources at your fingertips.  The question is– can you truly create your own vision?




I have similar feelings about anyone launched from Ralph Lauren being heralded as the next new “It” Designer.  Some of them are legit– but one thing I definitely observed working for Ralph– there are a lot of people that can regurgitate the good taste and style that surrounds them, and that’s right under their nose everyday, but taken out of that environment and left to their own devices– they can’t design themselves out of a wet paper bag.  So what does that make you– a merchandiser perhaps?  And there is nothing wrong with that, but don’t ever confuse the two.




Brands and labels (yeah, there’s a difference) definitely benefit when there is a healthy push/pull between design and merchandising– like iron sharpening iron.  It’s a relationship that can produce greatness– like Lennon (design) and McCartney (merchandising).  Design brings the creative inspiration (hopefully lots of it) and the merchandiser helps to funnel the resulting vision (hopefully without sterilizing it) into products and assortments that have a branded point of view and are relevant and viable for the current market.




What I’m seeing a lot of these days are the new “designers” that have a look that is highly stylized, but lacking an original vision– like a merchandiser that’s trying to fill a designer’s shoes.  And without true design behind it, you end up with a lot of homogenized sameness in the marketplace.  A lot of trends and “looks” end up getting beaten to death.  Like the current American heritage / workwear / outdoor thing that’s been going on.




What can end up happening to the “designer” if they’re not careful– they start to believe their own press and lose touch with what made them successful in the first place– the ability to deliver focused assortments and a clear brand message that drives sales for retailers.  They can quickly run out of steam and start reaching for inspiration wherever it can be found– maybe the glory days when they personally looked and felt their best in terms of style.




One last ironic thought– the guy that truly appreciates the kind of contrived cooky-ness you see on the runway– doesn’t want someone else jamming that look down his throat.  He wants to create it himself– you know, go out and pull it together from his favorite brands and shops.  It should be about individual taste, not about “follow the leader.”  When it’s too packaged, it loses the essence of its intended appeal and becomes a fashion statement.  And fashion doesn’t necessarily guarantee style.  Ever.




You may think that Michael Bastian’s line looks great on the runway– but if I were a retailer I’d seriously be asking myself this– how will it translate in my store?  Do you cherry-pick it for the best pieces?  But then you don’t get a sense for what the “collection” is about.  Would you really buy the line in depth? Maybe you just pass altogether and go with someone that’s more focused and “on-point.”  That scenario is a designer’s and merchandiser’s worst nightmare. Or maybe you do what any sensible, self-respecting fashion director would do– go to the best brands for their iconic products and assort the perfect mix yourself.




The story from WWD

19 thoughts on “DESIGNER or MERCHANDISER?

  1. I think Bastian’s stuff is great and is the ONLY designer other than RL that I would wear. Most of the stuff you see on the runway during fashion week is utterly ridiculous.

  2. I agree with most of what you wrote. If I were a store buyer, I would lean towards the cherry picking method, especially after reviewing the photos you posted. I know it’s the runway, but these looks feel contrived and I agree that a guy who liked these looks would put it together from his own wardrobe, not buy the complete look off the runway.

  3. Nice post. I especially like this line:

    “And fashion doesn’t necessarily guarantee style. Ever.”


  4. I’d have had a nervous breakdown if I were the wholesale merchant to this product – I mean a full scale meltdown… it is disjointed and makes me feel a little merchandiser-crazy inside.

    Secondly, I agree this transition is not normally a good fit, but I have worked with a few roundly-talented types who could be better than qualified to take on this challenge. Though, probably wholly uninterested. In my work, while everyone thought they were a designer, it always seemed to me the best were those who actually were designers… I don’t go over to their desk and begin to “create” with their swatches and cad – and I am ever so grateful they don’t mess with my assortment wall or spreadsheet…. respecting what makes us different makes us good partners – and profitable, hello.

  5. I concur! – I’ve worked with (“frustrated designers”) merchandisers before that have reviewed designs and then after much deliberation, asked…. “Can we take that pocket off that style and that seaming on that style and put them on this block……?” Like it’s a pick and mix.


    It’s not like COLORING BY NUMBERS PEOPLE – believe it or not there is a thought process and a whole shape/line aesthetic that goes into designing.

    I like to call it the “dog pissing” syndrome…. everyone in the process has to make a change or a modification to it to make it ‘theirs’ – like a dog marking it’s territory. Then the deisgn is truly theirs and not yours!

  6. I fear that your intelligent and forthright critique of the fashion industry, complete with the “fake RL” imitators all over, will spell the end of the Selvedge Yard.

    You must kiss ass and lie, and just talk up everyone with air kisses and flattering photos. That is what fashion is about.

  7. I hope not. What are they going to do, anyway– take my blog away? I think there’s room for everyone’s opinion in this business. And what I write is just that– my opinion. And I respect everyone else’s as well.
    Look, we’re all smart enough to know the games that are played, and sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. There is plenty of fashion that I love and fawn over. Then there’s the stuff that is just not right, and we’re all thinking it. And it’s refreshing when someone actually says it– especially someone else.

  8. I think Michael personally has great style, or he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is. Time will tell if he can weather the storm as a designer. When you’re not a formal designer, you tend to rely on your “little bag of tricks”– let’s see how deep his is.

    This is a crude comparison, but it’s kind of like a streetfighter vs. a martial artist– if you follow me. The streetfighter has a few stock moves which can be very effective– but the martial artist has years of training, discipline and technique. He can adapt, create and evolve–he is one with his art.

  9. “We’re all thinking it.”

    It’s just The Emperor’s New Clothes, is it not?

    They can’t take your blog away. Thank goodness.

    I predict they’re going to start reading it more, because a gentleman of vision is intelligently bringing forth the truth. In a manner that is neither strident nor demeaning.

    And, these days, even a little truth feels like a gust of fresh air. And good manners are eternally delightful.

  10. You have to remember…that this is styled intentionally. Every company does this when they are doing a “fashion” presentation or a release. Every outfit has VERY saleable components. As a Buyer/Merchandiser, you can still keep the intention of the designer while buying the line however, the key is to edit properly. Explode the Big items and the rest is frosting.

  11. I tend to think this argument ( designer versus merchandiser ) is pointless. At the end of the day what makes a “designer”. Is it classic design school training: sketching, draping, blocking, pattern making etc. or is it a vision that conceptualizes and ultimately gives life to a brand. Believe me, a lot of great “designers” including the great RL, are not classically trained. I believe he is more like a film director, who can create a glorious vision on screen or in his case with clothes, home products etc.

    Despite the fact that many people will argue otherwise, this is not art we are talking about, it is consumer products. Ultimately the consumer will determine if Michael is successful or not.

    On a personal note I like Michael’s clothes. Like every designer who aspires to the top of the market I think he will struggle in these times but ultimately he may make it out alive.

  12. Great article JP. From the footwear industry side of things it is much the same. There is a definite line between what a merchandiser and a designer does. The connection between Lennon and McCartney was spot on. I do argue that you don’t have to be classically trained in apparel (or footwear) design to successful in our beloved industries. I have known people that are architects or automobile designers that continue to create great lines. I suppose the essential part, as you referred to with the link to the martial artist, is that one must be able to lean on a sturdy foundation of knowledge or discipline in order to win wars versus just winning a few battles.

  13. It begins with creativite idea; and it is a moving target. The real risk from my perspective is not who has it; but what happens when it goes missing??

    If you have an extremely creative, visionary designer- WHEW! Easy to merchandise, easy to buy , easy ( ok not easy- but fun.. ) to sell.

    If you don’t… you can move the creativity to say the merchandiser, or the buyer, or the seller.

    In the environment of the last decade; sadly creativity has been the hot potato. Presenting collections that were highly merchandised is fine and works when you ahve buyers who are not particularly creative and focused only on financials… ONLY if you have highly creative sales team.

    Perhaps the Big 800 pound Gorilla in the room nobody is talking about- and in this I challenge myself as well… the boom times of business can lead to the decline of creativity. Basta.

    The silver lining of course- times like this will inevitably force all aspects of the supply chain to become more creative. And this will be a wonderful next chapter for our industry.

    Great post JP

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