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Issue 268
September/October 2011
What Comes Next?

Undercurrents

Rethinking the Season
by
Rethinking the Season, Charlotte: 'Earth', by Olaf Hajek (www.pocko.com)

Rethinking the Season, Charlotte: 'Earth', by Olaf Hajek (www.pocko.com)

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Rethinking the Season

Last time we had this much cultural homogeny we got Punk; before that Hippies and Bohemians. How then will we all respond to this crushing monotony? Charty Durrant has some suggestions.

The world of fashion is going through unprecedented times – though walking down any high street you wouldn’t know it. What marks this time in fashion history is the significant lack of creative self-expression: a soft blanket of bland homogeny has spread around the globe. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these days, for the most part, we all look the same despite our age, background or nationality.

If bland homogeny is an expression of the current cultural zeitgeist, does that mean the cultural fashion barometer is broken? Why is there such a mismatch between our global reality and our everyday personal expression? Are we all in denial, or is something more interesting occurring in the collective mind?

The fashion industry is now a highly complex, multimillion-dollar business, employing millions of people worldwide. And just as the supermarkets have learned to dominate, small food producers, big fashion houses and global chains have learnt to steal the originality of the few and sell it back to the masses in myriad ways.

The last decade has seen the rise and rise of fast fashion and “good taste for all” – a concept that was a licence to print money until the global economic downturn stopped the fashion feeding frenzy in its tracks last year.

Yet even as we slip further into ecocide and suffer the consequences of war, famine and global economic collapse, it’s business as usual on Planet Fashion.

Open any fashion magazine and you will see the fashion industry today continues to peddle an alluring illusion where all women have white teeth and perfect bodies, men are strong and muscle-bound and everybody has a beautiful sunlit kitchen and plenty to eat.

Although we know this is an illusion, we seem to seek great comfort in it and continue to clamour for more as evidenced by the phenomenal success of brands like Cath Kidston and Boden, which sell us comforting dollops of nostalgia, a feeling of safety and an authentic homespun element (even though many of the goods are mass-produced in China).

The unsatisfying and superficial perspective of the current fashion paradigm is clear, for those who have eyes to see, and more conscientious consumers are now starting to think more creatively and shop more discerningly, a shift which has already given rise to phenomena such as informal clothes swaps (swishing), charity shopping and a taste for vintage, as cheaper and more viable solutions to our fashion needs.

Ironically, the fashion industry continues to churn out hundreds of thousands of garments each season whether we buy them or not. And when we don’t, the only place all this fashion will end up is buried deep in landfill, giving rise to the question: could it be that the 21st-century fashion industry is actually out of step and out of style with the people it serves? Is fashion past its very own sell-by date?

This point in history is also marked by extreme polarity, in all areas of our lives. And whilst more than half the world is scraping a living on less than a dollar a day, a small but burgeoning elite is growing colossally rich.

For a significant expression of this imbalance look no further than the recent sales figures for haute couture, which have reached an all-time high. High-street fashion sales, meanwhile, are diminishing fast. Most of us may be in a global recession, but the high end of the fashion industry simply hasn’t noticed. Haute couture – the super-exclusive, fashion premier league, where the price tag for luxurious handmade garments starts at £100,000 – is in fine form. And those lavish couture catwalk shows, which can cost upwards of £2 million to stage and yet last less than an hour, further demonstrate the ever-deepening imbalance between rich and poor.

It is important to recognise, of course, that ever since its inception in the mid-19th century, haute couture has offered a highly valued platform for excellence and craft and it is right that we must continue to honour and protect these special techniques; but they need not, literally, cost us the Earth.

The irony here is that it is in fact this highly specialised ‘craft’ aspect of production that is the vital missing ingredient from all fashion right now. Much has already been written about the global phenomenon of skills loss and its direct correlation with mass production. Whether haute couture, high-end luxury or small-scale production, there are now very few designers creating limited-edition garments which preserve and employ age-old craft techniques: hand-finished pieces made with both kindness and care.

And so just as the mysterious collapse of the global colonies of honeybees has become a potent symbol for a much wider malaise, the year-on-year loss of specialised skills within garment manufacture has come to symbolise a much more profound crisis within our human culture because it is a demise that is clearly connected to the extreme power of a corporate-financier oligarchy that now dominates our fashion industry. And whilst this may be good for business, it is very bad for people.

The polarised extremes of the international fashion industry reflect back at us an ‘all-or-nothing’ distortion; we are faced with the extremes of a fiercely polluting cheap, fast-fashion system at the one end and a ludicrously expensive fashion luxury market at the other: a system which betrays workers, consumers and the planet’s ecosystems.

The fashion landscape, just like the geopolitical landscape, is in its own state of flux. They may not seem connected, but they are. And the crisis in clothing represents those wider issues that affect us all; how we manage all our systems is now top of the political agenda and there is no question we must find ways to meet all our needs in a life-sustaining way if we are to survive as a species.

Academics will look back at this time in history as The Great Re-evaluation. What is the point of being beautifully dressed if in doing so we pollute our rivers, lakes and water systems past repair? Why invest in a new £97 billion Trident missile system when our schools, hospitals and local services are in desperate financial need? Globally humanity is being forced to re-evaluate what is valuable. In hindsight we’ll understand that clean drinking water is infinitely more valuable than a hand-finished pigskin shoulder bag. This kind of assessment demonstrates precisely the level we need to be working at now – this is not a passing fad but a long-term trend and shared global phenomenon that is now playing out on the world stage.

We have come to a point in our evolution where we must now re-examine the true costs of our cultural assumptions. Globalisation and reckless use of our planetary resources have left us with the certainty of social and economic tragedy. It is no longer looming: it is here right now and we must be honest and fearless enough to confront this truth.

Suddenly the concept of looking glamorous has slipped down the agenda. We can continue to celebrate our style, our humanity and our uniqueness but we need to find a new and more elegant way of doing so.

Thanks to the tireless work of organisations like the Environmental Justice Foundation, No Sweat and the Ethical Fashion Forum, it is becoming harder to maintain the ‘disconnect’ between the cheap clothes we purchase in places like Primark and Topshop and the now widely known fact that these are likely made in sweatshops thousands of miles away.

In terms of accessories, the iPad stands alone as an iconic fashion-brand example of this dwindling disconnect, following numerous reports of suicides as a result of inhumane treatment of Chinese workers at the Apple factory. Documents seen by The Independent newspaper revealed widespread failures by Apple’s suppliers to respect standards on labour rights and safety. Audits at the Apple plant uncovered violations involving child labour, falsified records and irresponsible disposal of hazardous waste. And whilst cutting these corners, Apple reported sales of a staggering £30 billion last year.

As we look around and see the multiple systems failure of our society, it is tempting to feel deep despair about our future. Indeed, we live in critical times. We need to do things differently if we want to live sustainably; we need a new set of values and rules. Quite simply, we need to overhaul the system if it is going to serve us and save us in the years ahead.

The fashion industry is notoriously slow to change and clings rigidly to old ways of doing business and a system that has gone unchecked (and unchallenged) since the 1950s.

A good example of this stasis is the endless merry-go-round of the fashion shows: two seasons a year – spring/summer and autumn/winter – and a system that finds hundreds, if not thousands, of the world’s fashion models, designers, buyers, journalists, hairdressers, make-up artists, publicists and agents flying around the world, at vast expense, on what is quite literally a carousel – New York, London, Milan and Paris. This happens twice a year, every year and is a non-stop gruelling binge of back-to-back mediocre shows and lavish bacchanalian parties. (This circus does not include the twice-yearly haute couture and menswear shows and other notable fashion weeks now staged in Brazil, India and Japan, all of which follow the same rigid pattern.)

The seasonal system worked well in the 1950s and 1960s, when seasons were actually seasons, there were fewer designers and only a handful of fashion magazines. But in our relentless pursuit of growth – the prevailing ideology of achievement at all costs – there are now thousands of fashion companies and fashion people all jockeying for pole position in a ludicrously over-crowded market.

We have reached an unprecedented level of hysteria in our fetish for production – we now produce so much, that specialist websites like ShopStyle exist to decode the thousands and thousands of items on offer. The nightmare of this mass of mass production is sickening. So is the idea that we are being buried alive amidst all these stylist choices.

The fashion industry is full of wonderful talented creatives who are perpetually exhausted due to the strict adherence to this broken and outmoded model, and high burnout rates in the industry are well documented. Yet nobody dares to question the paradigm. Not many stop to wonder why the industry is fuelled by drugs and alcohol, and rarely does anyone dare to step off the merry-go-round. The fashion show must go on!

Actually, though, there are enough creatives to collectively change the paradigm and create a ‘quality over quantity’ approach, although this won’t happen until we are willing to detach from the current (and corrupt) corporate power structures which force fashion producers to make and sell more, more, more!

Significant amounts of cash, carbon, electricity, creativity, sanity and physical energy would be saved if the current seasonal fashion system was re-evaluated too.

So, how would this work?

The first step to changing what is considered ‘normal’ on Planet Fashion would be to change the outmoded seasonal approach into a holistic one. By staging fashion shows just once a year, with an event that put both seasons on one runway at the same time, the industry could halve the time, energy and money involved and revolutionise buying and selling patterns, thus freeing designers up to be yet more creative.

However, fashion shows remain the norm for 90% of the industry, and this shows how hard it is to break the rules, even in an industry full of mavericks and radical young creatives. As the great social commentator Upton Sinclair once observed, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it”.

There is growing evidence of a new zeitgeist, and despite the best efforts of a tired fashion industry to keep doing things the same old (and unsustainable) way, new themes and modes of self-expression are emerging, with astonishingly original and vibrant designs (which also happen to be ethical) from truly pioneering designers such as From Somewhere, Reem, Noki and Ciel.

Years of being ‘educated’ by the fashion press have led to a burgeoning new personal style revolution and, although still very much in its infancy, there is a growing trend of turning voluntary simplicity into a ‘look’. Trends are, of course, made by people, and the cultural trends and tastes of the 21st century are changing much faster than most pundits can document. The current tired old fashion paradigm is no longer relevant for most of us.

And the new crop of independent fashion blogs and self-style websites such as Lookbook and Patternity are giving fashionistas a new platform from which to speak; this is an egalitarian platform free of corporate greed and full of originality and spirit.

One of the most charming new trends is that of the Mori girls in Japan – elegant simplicity and graceful, pared-down looks displaying ecological consciousness and a turn towards something authentic, gentle and meaningful. (Mori girls wear a mix of old and new clothes and make and embellish many of their own garments.)

Humanity is being forced into simplicity whether we like it or not. And, as we increasingly work with authentic self-expression, the new fashion aesthetic that truly matches this paradigm shift will slowly emerge. Dictatorial fashion statements like “Get the look!” or “Steal her style” are already starting to look passé. More and more of us are freeing ourselves up to wear what we want, when we want. And anyway, as the true fashion cognoscenti have always known, only losers follow trends!

Charty Durrant is a former Fashion Editor of The Sunday Times, The Observer and British Vogue. She is now a lecturer at The London College of Fashion. fablefoundation.com/

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