An international fashion industry, benefiting from the boom in online communication platforms, is undoubtedly interested in the virtual and global places of fashion.
Is this an industry still interested in local places?
Local fashion places in Britain are a sensitive subject. Trades like cloth production in West Yorkshire and shoes in Northampton have suffered due to focus shifting from local places in fashion, with the resulting unemployment and socio-economic impact you might expect. Local, global and virtual places exist symbiotically, so erasing the importance of one can dramatically affect the others.
Is there an opportunity to encourage participants in the fashion industry, especially those shaping it (like graduates and retail workers), to take part in remaking their local place to be a place of fashion?
Could these new places help break through the homogenisation fashion increasingly suffers from?
In this article I look at:
- What place-making is
- Why it’s important
- Why the global and the virtual are prioritised in fashion industry and education
- How to reclaim the local
- How to start your own fashion terroir project
The gloriously-lit Leeds City Markets, whose fabric retailers help inform the final collections of fashion students in the area.
What place-making is
The term ‘place-making’ originates from the planning and management of public spaces. But using it as a wider-ranging term, I think place-making is the practice of interacting with a space, absorbing and consuming its qualities or commodities, and putting back into that space through expression or production.
Some examples of place-making might be:
- Local government cleaning graffiti from a skate park
- Property developers building a large shopping centre out of town
- Graduates setting up a co-working design space
Each of these place-making actions has different effects, with different demographics reading effects differently. A skate park without graffiti might be clean and safe, or it might be suppressed and monitored. A co-working design space might be creative and agile, or disruptive and ‘cliquey’.
Place-making is the forming of a ‘terroir’ for something specific. A ‘terroir’ is the character and environmental components deemed essential in the growth of specific food products, like wine, tea or tomatoes. The definition of character is hazy, which is why it can be applied to products that aren’t grown (like cheese) or less successfully to complete products – Champagne, Stilton and the Cornish pasty are all subject to ‘terroir’.
Importantly, terroir operates on a local level, from the hyperlocal (different vineyards) to largely local (regions or counties).
A fashion terroir could be an interesting idea, then, for local areas.
Singapore, just round the corner from a street exclusively populated by fabric stores.
Why place-making is important
On a fundamental level, humans are deeply attached to the places and environments in which we live. Many cultures have sayings denoting the attachment between human and housing (‘Home is where the heart is’); we regularly move to find work or stay put because of attachment and despite unemployment; and we prefer to frequent places where we are socially accepted (either explicitly or implicitly).
Place-making is a continuous process; like most human endeavours it’s done over a long period of time with no obvious direction and plenty of mistakes. Like evolution, it isn’t by design but a mutation process. That’s why top-down place-making – when local government decides a terroir development plan – can feel uncomfortable.
For fashion, developing terroirs could be an interesting challenge. Fashion is an industry which takes place simultaneously at sites across the globe and in virtual geographies, and draws from the globe for inspiration, yet houses millions of local places in which fashion is being learnt, practised and re-shaped – eventually to be absorbed into the global and virtual geography of fashion.
It might not be accurate that local places are becoming redundant in today’s fashion industry. Design houses still need the ateliers of Paris to be deemed ‘couture’; others need the lace, embroidery, button or fastening industries of towns in Italy, America, India and more to create their products. However, global and virtual geographies are taking priority when it comes to publicising the fashion industry and within fashion education.
Why is this happening, and why has it happened within living memory?
The inside of Linva, a famous qipao (traditional Chinese dress) maker in Hong Kong.
Prioritising global places
First, it isn’t specific to fashion – it’s specific to capitalism.
David Harvey, a geographer and economist, describes the need for the flow of capital (money and assets) to be made easier to facilitate continuous growth. Part of this is achieved through breaking down geographical and spatial barriers. One example of this process might be trade agreements between countries, which mean import and export is easier. This has happened increasingly since the 1970s and the development of neo-liberalism.
Focusing on the global quality of fashion, therefore, is a good way to encourage movement of lots of fashion commodities (and therefore capital) around the world. It means we start to ‘place-make’ fashion on a global scale, often through defining certain areas as consumers (like the West) and producers (like the East). And these concepts of places have been created in part due to overcoming barriers to capital flow and accumulation: shifting labour to the East means a greater profit for capitalists in the West.
Our education system is becoming more global and therefore global place-making is a high priority in institutions. Students from China, Europe, Britain and America cross continents to study, contributing to a rich community of creativity that also comes with its own unique challenges.
So, global place-making seems to be a natural priority as there are many (apparent) benefits for ecommerce, customer choice, creative culture and, essentially, the continued growth of the fashion industry.
However, global place-making – like any place-making – isn’t necessarily inclusive or positive.
It’s easier for us to conceive of places whose inhabitants number the billions in a simple form. Diverse geographies get pushed into dichotic roles like ‘producing nation/consuming nation’, with wide-spreading negative social and cultural repercussions. The UK’s Empire past can also dominate ideas about global place-making, reinforced by the actions of brands – for example, Manolo Blahnik won’t sell in China due to concerns over counterfeiting, compounding negative ideas of Chinese originality and ingenuity.
Six of the top posts with the hashtag ‘fashion’ on Instagram, possibly the home of crowd-created fashion online: there are over 25 million photos tagged #fashion.
Prioritising virtual places
Virtual place-making, too, isn’t a specific fashion issue but a larger mechanic to overcome barriers to economic growth through shifting capital into the apparently infinite world of The Internet.
Some examples of overcoming barriers include digitised garment ordering and production systems which remove the need for physical storage, and easy-to-build ecommerce websites which mean new designers don’t need physical retail space.
An interesting insight from Harvey that can be applied to virtual place-making in fashion is the need for capital (money, especially) to have a home – a place it can be invested and expand as capitalists accrue more capital. We see the Internet as an ever-expanding territory, making it an ideal place for investment.
A notable example is Instagram, which was purchased by Facebook in 2012 for US$1bn after raising US$57.5m in venture capital funding between 2010 and 2012. At no point in this journey did Instagram have a clear business model which made money, yet investors queued up to fund them. It’s because these ‘unicorn’ tech companies are a good way to “mop up” (Harvey’s term) the surplus capital which capitalists need to invest to make more money. Fashion and Instagram are made for each other; Michael Kors was the first company to advertise on the platform, and nine of the top 14 most-followed brands are fashion/retail companies.
Virtual places are newer than other geographies, and fashion (like capitalism) is obsessed with the new. A major contributing factor to their prioritisation in industry and fashion education is the perception that younger consumer demographics are more ‘at home’ with virtual technologies and geographies like Facebook or Snapchat.
Therefore an industry will publicise itself as ‘owning’ virtual geography, because its customers are hanging out there. Educational institutions will pour money into the digitisation of teaching practices, fashion work and assessment, thinking ‘digital natives’ will find this a more comfortable geography to roam around in.
So prioritising virtual places, again, seems obvious: they’re an excellent home for surplus capital, they transcend barriers to growth, they’re new and exciting and young consumers really like them.
But just like prioritising the global, prioritising virtual geographies is rife with issues.
As a home for surplus capital it’s unstable, unproven and could result in another dot com bubble (and burst). The Internet is also not democratic. It’s posited as a democratising tool, but there are millions across the world without online access (nearly six million people in the UK alone have never been online). Just like any communication channel, there is a hierarchy to the Internet and the virtual places in it, and it often reflects some of the more entrenched divisions in ‘real life’ especially regarding the white, Western-centric fashion industry.
For education, institutions which prioritise virtual place-making and technologies are missing a crucial point: there is a difference between ‘digital natives’ and early adopters. Early adopters of the virtual will try anything, take risks, build weird websites and re-make virtual geographies through disruptive actions.
On the other hand, digital natives have grown up with a clear status quo of the virtual world, heavily aware of its dangers and not necessarily willing to challenge or re-make that place.
As I mentioned in this article, using methods which reflect students’ current outlook only reinforces it more deeply, making it harder for them to be radically creative. Using virtual technologies and places to make digital natives feel at home, then expecting them to be revolutionary with them, is a potential dead-end.
Inside the Victoria Quarter, Leeds’ most luxurious shopping mall.
How to reclaim the local
Understanding why the global and virtual are prioritised in fashion better equips us to make the most of opportunities to reclaim local place-making. There’s the potential to develop fashion terroirs in an interesting way, especially for students, graduates and the youngest members of the industry.
How could we do that? First, define ‘local’.
Local means very different things to different people and industries; is it a ten minute walk on foot (your average local shop distance) or the geography of a whole region? What about hyperlocal, especially in cities with suburban subcultures? Is there a maximum population to ‘local’, and then how much does physical geography play a part?
Defining it through arbitrary distances doesn’t ring true with the slightly intangible part of terroir definition; it’s a character, so how do you define that? This could be one of the most fascinating parts of the place-making itself – defining what ‘local’ means for fashion in your area.
Remember: local doesn’t mean narrow-minded, of which it has an unfortunate connotation in Britain. The scars of cultural memory mean all generations can end up blaming the deterioration of local economies and cultures on victims rather than perpertrators. This is compounded by increasing global migration and the expansion of new sites of production which are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Sometimes the result is a positive, diverse, economically-even geography; sometimes it’s not.
Re-making terroirs for fashion in certain geographies means addressing what the local is like now and will be in the future, not trying to reassemble something which has decayed.
The main barrier to reclaiming local places for fashion, I believe, is overcoming the process by which local geographies are made into passive absorbers of other geographies’ work. It’s a result of that global place-making which puts us into digestible dichotomies: do you make stuff, or do you buy it?
For fashion, this is the difference between a place known for shopping and retail development (passive consumption processes) and a place known for street style and visual merchandising (active production processes).
Active processes might include manufacturing, but they might also be marketing, exhibitions, modelling, illustration or curating shows. They require work, investment, time and plenty of challenging discussions, making them ideal practices to develop in the critical spaces of education. It also makes them less than ideal for local governments with chronic short-termism, who prefer passive, absorbing processes which are a commercial draw for investors (a way to “mop up” their surplus capital) and a recreational draw for consumers (who want something to spend their money on).
So creating terroirs for fashion boils down to this:
to make a place meaningful for the fashion industry by re-introducing active production processes alongside passive consumption processes.
A coat, made in Melbourne, hanging in a pop up shop in the same city.
How to start your own fashion terroir project
How do you start creating a terroir for fashion in your local geography? How do you make your place a place for fashion? This section is intended as a guide for anyone keen to start a creative fashion project in their area.
1. Anthropological research
The first step comes from close observation and analysis of what’s happening in the place. A good creative idea starts with all the research in hand – in this case, anthropological research. Examine all the big exhibitions, the tiny ones, the outfits of people on the street, the visual merchandising of retail, the conversations between sales assistants, the clothes given to second-hand shops, the flyers in the café window.
Get out of the area you live and socialise in and explore a wider geography (this is especially important in cities). Set yourself a good chunk of research time to get a real feel for the place – three to six months is a good start.
2. Open and searchable documentation
The purpose of this anthropological research is to spot patterns which could lead to creative outputs. So a key part of your documentation process is making your research easy to access and search, for the pattern-spotting you-of-the-future and for other people.
The medium you choose is important – for example, you might want to have an open blog which people can read as it progresses – but the method is the most essential to openness and searchability. Use tags, metadata, annotations and descriptions accurately and consistently. If your brain works in that way, use colour or symbols to ‘tag’ information.
Digital services like Evernote, Qwote, Popplet, Google Drive or Pinterest are all useful for collecting and categorising data.
3. Spot patterns
Once you have your research, it’s time to spot the patterns. I recommend watching this documentary about Bill Cunningham, the original street style photographer in New York. His method of collection, analysis and trend spotting is very educational. After collecting together your anthropological research, spend time looking through and allowing recurring themes to make themselves visible. When they do, think about their impact: what does this pattern mean for the local area?
This is a difficult process, but if you think systemically – that each element of your research is part of a machine that functions as a whole – it can help. If you think in a linear manner, you’ll end up missing out on interesting patterns because you’ll just follow one ‘thread’ of information.
If you’ve categorised properly, you will find it easier to spot patterns by searching through your tags. And if you spot an interesting pattern, it’s a good idea to confirm it through looking at other sources of information or cross-referencing.
4. Create ideas
Next is using your creative mind to imagine ways to maximise those patterns. Work with other people to generate as many ideas as possible about how those patterns of activity could be highlighted. Share your patterns and the original research – something new might emerge.
Some questions to use in your creative activities might be:
- How can we bring this pattern to life?
- What does this pattern tell us about local people?
- What are my preconceived ideas about this pattern?
5. Make them happen
After imagining different ways to highlight the patterns, and picking a couple you think will be effective, create a plan of action to make them happen. This might involve self-publishing, working with local charities or applying for funding. The idea is to do something creative and outward-focused which will start to create the terroir for your area.
The process in action
Here’s an imaginary example of how these steps might work.
||You study all of the tailors in your city for six months, regularly photographing their window displays, recording customer numbers and interviewing tailors themselves.
|Open and searchable documentation
||You use Google drive to store your data collection and make the interviews available through Soundcloud.
||After six months you spot a pattern: the average age of the tailors’ customer is younger than expected and they shop more frequently. You cross-reference it by conducting focused interviews with the tailors, who confirm your thoughts.
You conclude that this pattern shows younger people in your local area are increasingly interested in bespoke fashion products, potentially helping to revitalise the industry.
||You ask friends to help you come with ideas to highlight this pattern. You decide to host an exhibition featuring photographs of young customers, their garments and the tailors. This will also be used to create a printed directory of tailors in your area.
|Make them happen
||As you’ve built up a good relationship with the tailors, you’re able to source images, stories and more for the exhibition. You team up with a PR student who helps your exhibition get into national press, and your directory is distributed to coffee shops, barbers and galleries where potential new customers hang out.
The aim I’ve articulated for a fashion terroir is “to make a place meaningful for the fashion industry by re-introducing active production processes alongside passive consumption processes”. The example above does this by:
- Identifying existing production and consumption processes (tailoring and buying tailoring)
- Highlighting a specific quality of them in an active way (the exhibition and directory)
- Making the local area meaningful for the fashion industry by drawing attention to a non-mainstream, artisan sub-industry
These sorts of creative activity are just the starting point for creating a terroir, and it’s only with repeated creative work that the terroir will ‘stick’. But working from the bottom-up like this is more meaningful and authentic to a local area than top-down ideas which are forced onto the geography.
A Japanese market selling clothing, technology and homewares to tourists, and food and beverages to locals.
There’s an opportunity to start making local places relevant for fashion again through creating ‘terroir’ (based on the idea of a region’s character required for making certain food products).
The fashion industry and fashion education currently prioritise global and virtual geographies, as they’re profitable, modern and fit in with trends in migration, global communities and younger demographics. However, this activity isn’t always beneficial for a wider population or for individuals.
Reclaiming the local could be a rewarding creative activity which will break through the homogenisation of fashion, but needs careful thought to avoid becoming a ‘top-down’ place-making project. Starting your own fashion terroir project requires research, open and searchable documentation, pattern-spotting, creative ideas, and ways to make them happen.
The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey, 2010 (Profile Books Ltd: London).
Internet Users 2015 report by the Office of National Statistics http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_404497.pdf
All other photographs distributed with Creative Commons attribution non-commercial use license by me, Eleanor Snare
Instagram screen shot and statistic taken 17:28 28 August 2015