Passion for Fashion, by Philip Warkander On the relationship between creativity and commerce
The business of fashion is organised around the paradoxical relationship between creativity and commerce. This binary organisation was introduced already in the nineteenth century, when the modern fashion system first emerged. Before this time, the concept of designers did not exist, and instead there was the tailor, often operating at the same level as other servants. However, the couturier Charles Fredrick Worth decided to change the status of the trade. He based his strategy on the the myth of the artist created by the art world of his time. As a creative genius, producing individual and original pieces, Worth transferred this concept to the fashion industry. Instead of tailors visiting clients at their mansions, the nineteenth century bourgeoisie now had to come to the designer in his studio, which was made to resemble the artist’s studio. The garments carried the signature of the designer – in the shape of a label – inspired by the artist’s signature on paintings. Ever since, fashion has been defined as a creative industry, revolving around the idea of the designer as the inventor of new ideas, shapes and cuts, but according to a specific temporal line of production. The mechanics of fashion have been thinly veiled under the guise of a creative, seemingly spontaneous flow of new design ideas. The early fashion system used the calendar year to introduce a capitalist interpretation of the changing seasons, namely the fashion year. Taking inspiration from how the seasons follow one another – how Spring turns into Summer, only to be replaced by Fall and then Winter – Worth suggested that this sequence should be reflected through changing consumption of garments. He introduced trends that were specific for the seasons Spring and Summer, differing from the fashion dictates for the Fall and Winter that follow. Today, traces of that logic still exist, but in current times the pace has accelerated so immensely, and fashion is now existing in so many versions and on all levels, that it is now difficult to see any real difference between seasons. As the Spring/summer season designs are shown at fashion weeks in the Fall, to be immediately communicated, commented on and turned into collages through Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr, by the time the clothes arrive in the shop, they already feel old. Haute couture is finding inspiration in street culture, while High Street brands are turning to high fashion for help to interpret trends. A few, such as Moschino, Versace Versus and Loewe, have even begun to ignore the temporal logic of the traditional fashion year, instead choosing to make their clothes instantly accessible to consumers, only days after they have appeared on the catwalk. An industry that is always speeding up, never showing any tendency of slowing down, quickly develops a need for new blood. In an almost cannibalistic manner, contemporary fashion requires new talents to be implemented into the machinery of producing, promoting and selling new commodities. Young people, often while still enrolled in fashion schools, work insanely long days without pay in order to support the constant expansion of the industry. The myth that is often being invoked is that a passion for fashion should in itself be a sufficient driving force, more important than an actual salary or decent work conditions. People from a working-class backgrounds are therefore now finding it increasingly difficult to access the world of fashion, as it requires that you already have money to support you while you work for free, hoping that your commitment one day will translate into some kind of more stable position. For people with more financially stable backgrounds, this might actually be a possible scenario, but for many, the first internship will be followed by another, and then another, and then another, with stable work conditions being no closer than when they first started out. In addition, when they tire of working for nothing and living hand to mouth, there is an army of eager candidates who all want to have a go at the same dream, waiting in line to take the unpaid job. This problem is discussed on a regular basis both in fashion media and in cultural debates in general, but the more dominant discourse revolves around the myth of the creative designer, whose passion drives him or her to constantly develop new designs, someone working in harmony with the insatiable but seductive fashion business. In glossy magazines, on online platforms and through smart apps, designers are being interviewed and their collections analyzed regarding the inspirations and thoughts behind the latest design. To tell the story of how the garments reflect a personal and heartfelt experience, or to connect the style of the collection to a journey through some remote and exotic place, is generally considered a more interesting article idea than asking questions of how meaningful the designer considers the job of designing yet another handbag to actually be. The correlation between media’s interests and the buying habits of consumers is vague to say the
least. The reality behind the glossy media image is often that designers – especially those in the niche field of fashion or in the lower hierarchies of larger fashion houses – are over-worked and underpaid, unable to take holidays or even weekends off. Even designers who appear successful as their garments grace the cover of Vogue or other high level magazines, might have difficulty making ends meet. But because of the glamorous framing of the work that is carried out, it is difficult for people outside the business to understand the severity of the situation. Fashion articles might touch briefly upon this subject, but the physical experience of being completely worn out and stripped of any creative thought due to regularly high stress levels, is quite different from having it implicitly mentioned between lines in a lifestyle piece. To add even more pressure, now even niche fashion brands are often expected to show preseason collections, which means that there is even more work to be done but in the same timemperiod as before. This development also has consequences for the fashion year, since at any given moment there seems to be a fashion week going on somewhere in the world. These trends about where fashion is heading lead to one question: why do people actively choose to work creatively? What is the driving force between wanting to be in an industry where the reward is rarely financial, free time is kept to a minimum and career opportunities are rare? There are plenty of other jobs with far fewer neurotic dimensions, in industries not nearly as demanding as fashion. Perhaps one answer could be that the myth of the passion-driven fashion designer has become integrated with our understanding of reality, that we take the current situation for granted. We have become so used to thinking of creativity and commerce as merged into one that we no longer question the pace in which fashion currently exists. However, at the moment there is also another aspect to consider, as more and more people subtly appear to be resisting the push for rapid expansion, in order to focus on more experimental and avant-garde ways of working. Last year, Jean-paul Gaultier bid farewell to ready-to-wear precisely because of the unrealistic demands he felt that it was making, in its quest to constantly have new things to show. Dutch duo Victor and Rolf soon followed his example, also choosing to focus exclusively on haute couture. In addition, John Galliano has been very public about the fact that the La Perle incident in 2012 was actually a kind of professional suicide, a traumatic and last resort to way to find an exit, albeit temporary, out of the industry that was threatening his life. I consider these small and far-scattered signs to be hopeful. Even though I do not personally work as a designer, but instead as a scholar and a writer, I also feel the pressure to be constantly informed, to always have an opinion and to be present in the media. For this reason, I have started to quite consciously say, when asked what I think of the latest collaboration or collection by the designer currently in the spotlight, that I simply do not know. Stating lack of knowledge means that people cannot ask you any more questions. Instead, there is silence and peace. I use the phrase “I don’t know” as a tool to create a place of stillness and tranquility within an otherwise capitalist industry. As an additional effect, it allows me to see where there are gaps in my knowledge, ways for me to develop and grow, but according to my own interests and inclinations, and not following the pressed time-schedule of fashion media. In the past few months, I haven’t visited fashion shops or other retail spaces as regularly as I have in the past, when I would feel it was my duty to be updated and informed on the latest interior design trend at Céline or to know what Prada were doing in visual merchandising. Instead, I go to art galleries, watch bad TV shows, read books on subjects far removed from fashion. There is no clear purpose for this, no aim of incorporating these experiences into articles or teaching. I do it simply for the pleasure of doing things without an agenda, without feeling the need to constantly be making more money by promoting new things. Because fashion is both a visual and a material expression, both a cultural sign of our times and a commodity with a fixed price, it is interconnected with all things that surround us in Western culture. In my opinion, this is what makes it so deeply fascinating to think about and to engage with, even though it momentarily is lacking in luster. Hopefully, the shift into slowness and a renewed interest in craftsmanship is not yet another short-lived trend, but a sign that more people are questioning fashion’s current lack of meaningfulness. It is time to let go of how old ideas of what fashion can be, to search for ways in which the industry can reinvent itself, to question the narrow boundaries of its own definition. Refusing to spend our lives obsessing over underpaid work can also be a way to rediscover what we are actually passionate about. In this way, perhaps it can also be possible to find new beginnings for fashion as an aesthetic expression, but from a more experimental, humorous and less mechanical perspective.