Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Karen Web­ster

A re­cent visit to a subur­ban shop­ping com­plex on a busy Satur­day evoked a sud­den gut wrench­ing nau­sea. Walk­ing into a mass fash­ion chain, the smell of plas­tic and chem­i­cally re­lated ma­te­ri­als em­a­nat­ing from the chil­dren’s shoe depart­ment was over­whelm­ing. Imag­ine if you worked in the fac­tory that made these shoes, would the po­ten­tial tox­ins leave a long-term im­pact? Part of the ef­fect was just how many of these shoes filled the shelves? In some cases the price was less than what we pay for a rea­son­able cup of cof­fee. I scanned the store with its high shelves and masses of racks that housed an over­pow­er­ing mul­ti­tude of mer­chan­dise. Why, as con­sumers, are we led to be­lieve that we need so much stuff?

Our grand­par­ents spent a sig­nif­i­cant amount of the fam­ily’s earn­ings on clothes. They didn’t buy a high num­ber of gar­ments but they did spend more on bet­ter pieces. Statis­tics that are al­luded to, in­di­cate that fifty years ago ap­prox­i­mately 20% of the fam­ily in­come was spent on cloth­ing re­lated ex­pen­di­ture. Fast for­ward to to­day and that fig­ure is pur­ported to be less than 4%. Are we then buy­ing less? Ac­cord­ing to Sandy Black in her book Eco chic – the Fash­ion Para­dox, “Cloth­ing sales have in­creased by 60% in the last ten years.” When is too much, too much? We spend sig­nif­i­cantly less to buy ex­ces­sively more. Stop the fash­ion sys­tem I want to get off.

No other cre­ative in­dus­try works at the speed of fash­ion, pro­duc­ing new prod­uct on a con­stant ba­sis at ridicu­lously low prices, en­cour­ag­ing a dis­pos­able cul­ture. Fash­ion has shifted from an his­tor­i­cal for­mu­laic process of two sig­nif­i­cant col­lec­tions a year, to mul­ti­ple de­liv­ery drops on a fast track turn around where sim­i­lar styles are re­leased across the globe si­mul­ta­ne­ously. This as­pect of the in­dus­try has cre­ated sig­nif­i­cant im­pacts in­clud­ing un­sus­tain­able prac­tices and overt con­sump­tion lead­ing to ex­cess waste.

The yearn­ing to get fash­ion prod­uct cre­ated quickly and cheaply con­trib­utes to a sys­tem where ‘speed to mar­ket’ is given pri­or­ity over qual­ity prod­uct that is unique and mar­ket ready. The cur­rent global sys­tem ex­poses a lack of re­spect for de­sign orig­i­nal­ity through bla­tantly short­cut­ting man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses and en­cour­ag­ing prod­uct dis­pos­abil­ity. On­line por­tals have di­rectly con­nected anony­mous prod­uct de­vel­op­ment teams with de­sign­ers of in­flu­ence, who re­lease their lat­est looks on in­ter­na­tional run­ways en­abling a plethora of medium to large scale fash­ion or­gan­i­sa­tions across the globe, to down­load and trans­late the key trends into com­mer­cial adap­ta­tions. For an in­dus­try that is renowned for be­ing in­no­va­tive and cre­ative the prac­tice of overt adap­ta­tion is pro­lific.

As the sys­tem con­tin­ues to ramp up and is speed­ing ahead, is the fash­ion in­dus­try in a po­si­tion to re­verse or change? Sim­ply, there is no choice. The con­sid­er­able cost to the en­vi­ron­ment can­not be ig­nored and al­ter­na­tives should be con­sid­ered. There are mil­lions em­ployed in this in­dus­try and to re­verse its un­mit­i­gated im­plo­sion will not be an easy task.

What if the fash­ion in­dus­try wasn’t con­stricted by a fash­ion cal­en­dar? The larger chains and depart­ment stores func­tion on weekly drops. Al­though the fash­ion sea­sons are di­vided by Spring/sum­mer and Au­tumn/win­ter, the year is punc­tu­ated by the con­stant flow of new prod­uct that quickly fills floor space in an­tic­i­pa­tion of quick turn around sales. The re­al­ity is that chains now have over-arch­ing mark­down strate­gies em­bed­ded into their buy­ing sys­tems. Fash­ion ob­so­les­cence is an ugly re­al­ity of the in­dus­try. The costs of over­sup­ply go be­yond the fis­cal is­sues faced by com­pa­nies who have to dump sale prod­uct of­ten at loss. There is also the sig­nif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact.

Ex­ces­sive sup­ply is united with the quest for speed, which sees de­signs re­leased into re­tail mer­chan­dise and de­liv­ered into store in time frames as tight as ten days. This pat­tern has been spear­headed by global power brands such as Zara, H&M and Top­shop who have set the un­re­al­is­tic pace. More does not equate to bet­ter.

Why is it that the fash­ion in­dus­try has adopted a sys­tem where prod­uct is re­leased into the mar­ket based purely on cal­en­dar re­quire­ments, not con­sumer de­mand or prod­uct readi­ness? In par­al­lel in­dus­tries the time de­voted to de­sign de­vel­op­ment is pur­pose­fully con­sid­ered. This en­sures suf­fi­cient re­view and anal­y­sis to re­fine an idea, test it in the mar­ket and pro­duce it to a qual­ity level that will align to cus­tomer needs. Does an ar­chi­tect re­lease con­cepts and mod­els be­fore they are per­fected? Would a high pro­file elec­tron­ics com­pany re­lease a new toaster be­fore it has been re­solved? A fash­ion prod­uct de­vel­op­ment team by con­trast is re­quired to pro­vide a con­stant flow of ideas for not one prod­uct, but mass col­lec­tions that are de­vel­oped in the fastest cre­ation time frame of any de­sign in­dus­try.

Equally it’s a den­i­grat­ing process where once re­leased the as­sump­tion is made that the de­sign ef­forts are tran­si­tory and of no last­ing value with a lim­ited shelf life. Any prod­uct that is still in store af­ter two months (and some­times shorter) is re­garded as mark down ma­te­rial. Dis­pos­abil­ity and ob­so­les­cence are now ex­pected within the world of fash­ion. The only other in­dus­try that works with this level of dis­pos­abil­ity and aban­don­ment is the food in­dus­try. Food by con­trast is di­rectly linked to sus­te­nance and the rea­son­ing be­hind high lev­els of dis­pos­abil­ity are straight­for­wardly ‘in sync’ with the po­ten­tial chem­i­cal changes that lead to con­tam­i­na­tion and the vi­able time frame for con­sump­tion. Clothes do not re­quire a use-by- date. Re­flect back to the habits of our grand­par­ents who, by con­trast, bought a re­ally good coat and a pair of care­fully con­structed shoes that would last for years. A man’s suit would be a life long pur­chase.

In the pre­mium sec­tor of the fash­ion mar­ket the con­cept of rapid turn­arounds has in­creas­ingly be­come an is­sue. The late Alexan­der Mcqueen, an ex­cep­tional de­signer, ad­dressed the is­sue of the fash­ion in­dus­try churn­ing out mer­chan­dise on a con­stant ba­sis: “This whole sit­u­a­tion is such a cliché. The turnover of fash­ion is just so quick and so throw­away, and I think that is a big part of the prob­lem. There is no longevity” (The Real Mcqueen 2009). There is a be­lief within the fash­ion in­dus­try that the pres­sures of the fash­ion in­dus­try were di­rectly linked to Mcqueen’s sui­cide in 2010 and con­trib­uted to the em­bar­rass­ing pub­lic demise of fash­ion de­signer John Gal­liano in 2011.

Gal­liano and Mcqueen have a his­tory of ex­cep­tional and in­no­va­tive tal­ent; their abil­i­ties should be her­alded and nur­tured within the fash­ion sys­tem. If the sys­tem con­trib­uted to their demise, then it is a re­sound­ing wake up call to the in­dus­try that the mech­a­nisms driv­ing it are sim­ply not right. Is it pos­si­ble to cre­ate a sys­tem that pro­motes unique and in­no­va­tive prod­uct that is de­vel­oped with­out the pres­sures of tim­ing con­straints?

If we were to shift the focus from con­stant sup­ply, as well as the ex­ist­ing cal­en­dar decrees im­posed by fash­ion weeks, we may start to make a dif­fer­ence. This is not a rad­i­cal shift as the tra­di­tions of ma­jor fash­ion weeks, sched­uled twice yearly, are al­ready start­ing to blur from a buy­ing model to a mar­ket­ing model. His­tor­i­cally fash­ion weeks were of im­por­tance as they pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for the re­tail buy­ers to view col­lec­tions and place an in­dent or­der in ad­vance, pro­vid­ing the com­pany suf­fi­cient time to pro­duce the quan­ti­ties re­quired. To­day they have evolved into a me­dia cir­cus mar­ket­ing tool with front rows filled with blog­gers and celebri­ties, who will cap­ture the ex­pe­ri­ence and spread the visual ex­trav­a­ganza across the world to in­spire the pur­chase of more hand­bags, per­fume and makeup aligned to the brand con­cerned. We all love a fab­u­lous fash­ion spec­ta­cle but it doesn’t have to dic­tate the re­lease of sea­sonal col­lec­tions.

Per­haps a change in the fash­ion sys­tem will come to fruition if the sea­sonal dic­tates of fash­ion week focus more on ex­cit­ing pro­mo­tional projects that con­tex­tu­alise the de­sign­ers vi­sion, rather than de­mand­ing full col­lec­tions to be pro­duced.

There are some smaller in­de­pen­dent or­gan­i­sa­tions that are im­ple­ment­ing al­ter­na­tive pro­cesses. In Aus­tralia this in­cludes de­signer la­bels such as S!X and Ma­te­ri­al­byprod­uct who re­spect­fully re­lease con­cepts within the frame­work of the sea­sonal cal­en­dar but their col­lec­tions evolve from on­go­ing archetypes that em­body and build on the key el­e­ments of their over­all ethos. They do not need to rein­vent new col­lec­tions from scratch. It’s a jour­ney of cre­ative de­vel­op­ment, rather than dis­tinct rein­ven­tions.

There is an emerg­ing cul­tural shift which recog­nises the im­pli­ca­tions of ex­ces­sive sup­ply and the lack of value in cheap dis­pos­able prod­uct. There is a mind­set shift in the con­tem­po­rary con­sumer, who has in­creas­ing aware­ness of the value of buy­ing less and buy­ing bet­ter. The adop­tion of slow fash­ion prin­ci­pals across the globe has shifted from a fringe con­struct to larger or­gan­i­sa­tions. Con­sumers of fash­ion recog­nise the need to ac­knowl­edge the so­cial, cul­tural, eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of what they pur­chase.

A con­sid­ered op­por­tu­nity for de­sign­ers and fash­ion con­sumers lies in fash­ion that em­braces longevity, within the genre of heir­loom prod­ucts. The con­cept of heir­loom fash­ion does not have to focus only on what is of­ten as­sumed to be long last­ing clas­sics such as the tuxedo jacket, the re­fined white cot­ton shirt or the lit­tle black dress. Con­tem­po­rary fash­ion em­braces con­cepts of per­sonal style and in­di­vid­u­al­ity. As a con­se­quence the fash­ion con­sumer could buy lon­glast­ing, ex­cep­tional de­signs that are unique, ec­cen­tric and flam­boy­ant if that aligns to the wearer’s per­sonal ethos. Longevity equates with qual­ity man­u­fac­tur­ing, con­sid­ered de­sign and con­sumer at­tach­ment, not whether the prod­uct fits into a clas­sic genre.

For the fash­ion in­dus­try to pros­per, there is im­mea­sur­able value in re­con­sid­er­ing cur­rent prac­tices to im­ple­ment slower and more pur­pose­ful pro­cesses. Re­flec­tion and anal­y­sis will help to rein­vig­o­rate de­sign de­vel­op­ment mod­els that un­der­stand ap­pro­pri­ate­ness to the mar­ket within sus­tain­able frame­works. This in­volves re­assess­ing the fash­ion cal­en­dar and re­duc­ing the con­stant sup­ply within the fast fash­ion sec­tor. Most im­por­tantly, the fash­ion con­sumer has to take a con­sid­ered ap­proach to fa­cil­i­tate change. These prac­tices are in­te­gral to the con­tin­u­ing vi­tal­ity of the fash­ion in­dus­try and its fu­ture pros­per­ity.

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