For someone obsessed with fashion, I don’t often write about clothes. Fashion is a cultural product and, like any other cultural product, is influenced by a huge range of global and local phenomena. I find these influences – how, for example, economics affects local fashion production – sometimes more interesting than clothing itself.
But I’ve realised that’s not because the clothes of fashion are boring. It’s because the clothes of fashion we’re presented with day-to-day, in mass-read editorial or mass-market retail, are boring.
The ‘trickle down’ effect
Harriet Posner (the author of an important introductory text to fashion marketing) describes the ‘trickle down’ effect in the pyramid of the fashion industry: a creative concept travels from haute couture and high-end ready-to-wear all the way down to mass and value markets (Posner: 2011). At the top there are few products and few customers; at the bottom there are millions. As with any service which must be used by many, many people, what’s produced needs to be loved by as many people as possible, which in turn leads to a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ of product.
To carry on with Posner’s analogy, the creative concepts embodied in couture and designer fashion become ‘watered down’ as they drip down to the mass market, because they need to appeal to a broader range of consumers.
The ‘watered down’ effect
While a high street retailer might produce one or two items a season which turn out to be completely ‘out there’ and commercially unsound, realistically even their most unusual items will be bought by hundreds of thousands of people. Compare that to luxury designer brands, who might make thousands of one item, or couture, who may not even make ten. These higher-end designers, with a smaller and more intimate customer base, can create fashion which is more exciting – because they have fewer customers they need to appeal to, and whom they know much better than those retailers catering to millions.
This mass market is also more in tune with commercial appeal and the importance of sales (and rightly so) than couture or high end, which means if a trend or item works, they keep repeating it. That’s why in summer you can guarantee high street stores will stock floral and ‘tribal’ prints (a troublesome term), and in autumn it’ll be some sort of riff on safari/army and jewel tones. Every single year.
For those of us paying attention to the cycles of fashion, and interested in fashion as a creative cultural product (not just something to wear), this starts to get boring. Certain anomalies might intrigue us (like AW15 suede – impractical but very attractive) but if you looked at the timeline of fashion with half-closed eyes, you’d start to see the same splotches of cultural products occur again and again.
The well of creativity
One of the solutions is to return to the source of fashion: the big ideas driving fashion trends, the couture and luxury designers embodying those trends, and the unannounced influences which send certain trends off in another direction (like sub-cultural groups, political events, individual styling, etc.).
It takes time and energy to go back to the source, and I’ll reiterate here that (like the Internet) the fashion industry is not democratic: there are a number of barriers to seeing designer collections first hand, whether that’s a ticket, circulation figures or a decent WiFi connection. But when you do – as I’ve done for the first time in a while with the recent SS16 shows – there are many more exciting ideas and cultural products than mass editorial and retail would like us to believe.