Image: Alexander McQueen’s spray painted dress for SS99. Image source.
Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort recently likened fast fashion to condoms — disposable. But she also explained that, while the greatest designers of the past — Cristobal Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent, for example — made revolutionary clothes that “changed the way we walk, the way we stand, the way we flirt,” many of today’s designers are simply making more new garments by recycling more old ideas. And in this sense she believes that “with this lack of conceptual innovation, the world is losing the idea of fashion.”
It goes without saying, really, that fashion requires creativity and innovation in order to survive — and certainly in order to continue being considered an art form. In the past, there was no doubt about fashion’s place within the realm of ‘art’; as skilled craftspeople toiled endlessly to push the boundaries of clothing for men and women alike. Today, however, much of that innovation has simply evaporated from fashion and what this comes down to is the current need for speed. Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and Balenciaga is one of those rare innovators still left in fashion and, if you ask him, “the whole system just doesn’t work anymore.”
This is because of the pace now imposed on fashion businesses — a pace that finds its roots in the fast fashion mentality. “This whole vicious circle turns and turns at a very fast speed and kills both the creativity and the business,” Gvasalia explains. And he believes this is something that affects all levels of a fashion business, too. “You have no choice—whether you are the creative director or a designer on the team. You also don’t have time to really analyse and think about what you’re doing. You have to be a machine of ideas that produces new things every three months. The whole industry runs so fast because we need to deliver something new to the store every two weeks so the client isn’t bored. They don’t want to wait for six months, so we have the pre-collection, the pre-pre-collection, and the main collection, which nobody is buying, so it all just ends up on a sales rack.”
Gvasalia certainly isn’t alone in sharing these sentiments; it was a major part of the reason for Raf Simons’ shock departure from Dior in 2015 too. “When you do six shows a year, there’s not enough time for the whole process,” he told Cathy Horyn at the time. “Technically, yes — the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important. When you try an idea, you look at it and think, Hmm, let’s put it away for a week and think about it later. But that’s never possible when you have only one team working on all the collections.”
OK, so it’s pretty clear that the speed of fashion today is having a negative impact on the creative ebb and flow of major fashion houses, but how and why did this need for speed arise in the first place? One only has to look so far as the fast fashion cycle to see the answer unfold. Responsible for producing as many as 52 micro-seasons per year, fast fashion conglomerates are major money machines. International in scope and dubious in practice, they are able to cut corners faster and cheaper than anyone else in order to deliver products to the consumer first. And so, naturally, the consumer has come to expect this kind of speed from all their clothing purchases.
That mentality then makes its way up to the luxury houses, whose customers now want their products faster than ever before. But it affects the creativity of those maisons in more ways than just one. Yes, speed certainly tightens things, but when fast fashion brands are also able to rip off your designs faster than you can manufacture them, the whole thing becomes a race to the finish line. And this pressure puts untold strain on the creative process, which is meant to happen more naturally and intuitively. As a result, fashion has increasingly become about the ‘bestseller’ — which is precisely how fast fashion brands do business — and that is to the detriment of all levels of the fashion system.
When you look back at the legacy of designers like Alexander McQueen, it’s clear that many of his most memorable designs weren’t meant for the masses. A wooden prosthesis carved for Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins, for example; a dress spray painted on the spot; or an elaborate coat with a lock of his own hair stitched into it — these are not the kinds of pieces that are designed to be ‘bestsellers,’ because they’re not the kinds of pieces that are designed for mass production. But looking back, they are amongst his most creative, innovative and memorable moments as a designer. It is this spirit that we have lost. In amongst all the trends that seem to turnover faster than one can blink; the ubiquity of looks created simultaneously by various different companies; and the insatiable desire to create that next bestseller; we have lost the fashion items that truly take our breath away. And that is a shame for the future of the industry as much as it is for our wardrobes as consumers.
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