I haven’t felt like buying a new piece of clothing for about two months — since the onset of the pandemic. Along with my dwindling bank account, this lengthy period of NOT shopping and wearing the same clothes day in and day out has reminded me just how decadent fashion is and how we really do not need yet another dress, shoe or handbag. COVID19 has been an unwelcome if badly needed reminder that fashion is made by HUMANS. Now, and only now, when we meet the arrival of a delivery at our doorstep with a spray bottle of sanitizing solution, do we finally realize that the supply chain and its magical logistics, the kind which enable an outfit from Netaporter to appear at our doorstep in a chic beribboned box, cannot be taken for granted. There are no elves, only underpaid hourly wage slaves, most likely from non-OECD countries, with no benefits, whose hands (impeccably clean?) have gingerly picked, packed and gift-wrapped that package. If COVID19 is good for one thing, it is making us think about how and where human hands have touched or handled an object which has entered our personal, physical custody. Isn’t it paradoxical how the depradations of globalization can be brought home by a glossy package of ecommerce goodies? I hope that fashion consumers, even if they do not disavow shopping entirely, will emerge from this crisis with redoubled skepticism about the fashion system and better habits of mind, namely #whomademyclothes with its demands for greater supply chain transparency, environmental sustainability and fair labour practices. In the meantime, we, whose closets are overflowing with tens of unworn clothes, should consider patronizing circular economy fashion retailers for the first time instead of reverting to our previous patterns of wasteful linear consumption. The worst offenders are high street fashion brands whose businesses are unapologetically built on accelerating the take-make-dispose dynamic. At my age, 52, I can actually calculate how many times I”m likely to wear a garment before I die. To be clear, I’m not telling you NOT to shop ever again. I’m just suggesting that you think about it more before buying yet another thing that you really don’t need. OR when you do buy something new, at least consider wearing it to death. Here’s a fantastic article about three startups enabling the reuse/reconditioning/rental of clothes: https://www.fastcompany.com/90457489/caastle-thredup-trove-most-innovative-companies-2020 Did you know, for example, that Patagonia is buying back and reconditioning its products so they can be resold to consumers? These past few months, COVID19 has prevented the usual commercial stakeholders of the fashion industry (editors, buyers, designers) from participating in their customary round of seasonal events, i.e., fashion shows and wholesale presentations. Hopefully, the cataclysm of this non-event will pave the way to the extinction of the industry’s clunky, wasteful and retrograde system. Originally dictated by the slow cadence of the supply chain from decades ago, the formats and structures of the bi-annual fashion cycle are about as necessary as a petticoat. If current technologies cannot already facilitate viewing and buying fashion collections with greater efficiency than the fashion circuses convened in Paris, Milan and New York, then COVID-19 will certainly speed their perfecting. For that matter, the day is coming soon when fashion — even high fashion — will be untethered from any sort of calendar and available to purchase on demand regardless of shape, style, climate or season. If there’s a silver lining to COVID19, it is greatly hastening the death of this wasteful industry, along with its destructive psychopathologies. These include not only body dysmorphia, shopping addiction and premature objectification and sexualization of young women but a mainstream culture of envy and comparison.
[This is the original unedited version of my column for Courier Magazine entitled “Death by Algorithm” in their June 2018 issue.]
Remember the good old days when an idea could gestate in the mind of, say, Vivienne Westwood and, then, voila, the hallucinatory output of a single theme like “Seditionaries” or “Buffalo Girls” would emerge on the runway fully formed, causing jaws to drop (one way or the other) among the small cabal of editors who ruled the fashion establishment? “Les Incroyables,” John Galliano’s Central Saint Martin’s 1984 graduation runway show dishing up 18th century French romanticism interpolated with hard-edged punk flair was possibly the zenith of that epoch, just as Marc Jacobs’ ode to the street style of homeless people was an unmitigated critical and commercial catastrophe during the same period.
These days, the fashion industry is spared from giant errors of judgment like Jacobs’ grunge collection — but also from moments of elation and awe, the sort customarily inspired by the collections of Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood twenty years ago. That’s because, for decades, statistics and, now, analytics, have slowly strangled creativity.
For better or worse, in the past, ideas germinated and developed in a vacuum for the simple reason that we were not instantly connected to ideas, images or each other. That in and of itself was not actually a plus, but simply a fact.
In the late 80s, creativity started becoming big business. Louis Vuitton merged with Moet Hennessey in 1987 to become the world’s largest luxury conglomerate and Johann Rupert set up the Richemont Group one year later. The advent of brands like Calvin Klein Jeans (remember how nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins) and Ralph Lauren signaled the mainstreaming of luxury. Not surprisingly, the professionalization of the fashion and luxury industries, no longer a series of family-run enterprises, brought with it the newfound discipline of numbers. Designers’ imaginations still ran amok but their enthusiasms were curbed, at least at the margin, by sell-through reports and managers with MBAs beholden to shareholders. (Considering that sell-through reports, back then, still required a high level of manual tabulation, they had marginal impact on creativity and were more seasonal post-mortems than predictive blueprints for action.)
Then came the influence of Google and, with it, search results including images which eliminated the necessity of sourcing inspiration from travel, museums or even coffee table books. Suddenly, collections about “Venice” or “safari” started resembling each other rather than their native environments because designers, hard pressed for time or, worse, lazy, started culling references from the same first page of Google search results. Fast-forward to today, with most “creative” visual output a cut-and-paste of freely available design references, and it’s no wonder that the depth and intellectual commitment which marked the creative projects of twenty or thirty years ago have gone missing. The creative process, once based on independent, even solitary exploration, has given way to the mental terrarium of Google.
That artists and designers are discouraged from risk-taking by large-scale capital and our imaginative capacities vastly diminished by Google paint a bleak picture for many creative industries. But the real coup de grace has been analytics and its apparent ability to foretell commercial success or failure, even before the lightbulb goes off in the mind of a designer or artist. With job security based on positive ROI and designers themselves obsessed with Instagram like counts, the sheltered space for creative germination which once led to the birthing of full-blown works of art has been squeezed out of existence. The current system, if anything, penalizes unbridled creativity. (To take an example from an industry which has undergone the same seismic shifts, music, contrast The Wall by Pink Floyd, an entirely original, integrated work of art referring to nothing which came before it, to the music created by today’s major pop stars, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, etc.. The showcase for musical artistry formerly known as the “album” has been abandoned, much like the runway collection, in favor of hit singles based on riffs, tropes and styles known to provoke the desired aural reaction among listeners.)
Thus, consumers are treated to an endless stream of thinly veiled retreads of best sellers and hit-or-miss collaborations, each a desperate stab to reproduce the glory days of last season. The formulaic recycling of old ideas has become so instinctive that it feels practically suicidal to return to the more venturesome days of creative risk-taking, when brand integrity was defined by a philosophy, a mission, an aesthetic. Athletic brands like Nike and Adidas are especially guilty of this form of “product development”, forsaking investment in product R&D to chase after collaborations with the next big streetwear influencer. Similarly, Louis Vuitton has never been the same since Marc Jacobs invited Takashi Murakami to co-create a collection. The brand is practically defined by its collaborations and LV’s recent appointment of Supreme creative director, Virgile Abloh, to helm its menswear design is an unapologetic case of the commercial tail wagging the creative dog. I never thought I’d see the day when streetwear tropes, so easily wielded within the world of Adobe Photoshop, would ascend to the apex of the luxury world.
To put it in the simplest way possible: When is the last time that you experienced an electric frisson looking at a new runway collection, photograph, piece of music — or sneaker? In short, when is the last time you felt like you were looking at something BRAND NEW and it actually gave you a JOLT?
If brands lose their leadership position, it’s their own fault. Why should a consumer look up to them when they fail to demonstrate confidence, leadership or sure-footedness. Commentators complain that “millenials don’t give a sh — -t about brands.” But the truth is, most brands, the big ones anyway, deserve to be abandoned, not just by millennials but by all of us. Soullessly following statistics rather than the inner compass of an original vision, brands have lost their very reason for being in the first place.