Fashion: are we free-flowing or free falling?

Fashion is going through seismic change. We are aware of this, but do we have any idea as to where it’s heading?

Of course, fashion is always changing. By the very nature of the beast it’s always in a state of flux; from season to season, we eagerly await the dictates of the most currently lauded name to birth their latest offerings.

Decreeing with this, not just what we shall all desire to wear, but to an extent how we will feel and what we will do; fashion holds the power to change the very nature of our own perceptions and those of the world around us. Or it did? In the past, fashion was a wonderful mirror of society. We all know the old adage: when skirts are short, society is confident; when skirts are long, society is worried…

The question raised above is not so much about the individual brands and seasonal updates but more the industry as a whole, which seems to be having a personality crisis, literally from the inside-out, shedding its snake-like skin.  It’s like, well what the hell is fashion anyway?

Maybe we need to take a step back for a moment. To look a little from whence it came, to understand where it is now and where it potentially may go.
Fashion works still to a business model created more or less after the Second World War.  Although the idea of ready-to-wear (or off the peg in graded sizes) was put into practice before the war, it was only when uniforms were mass produced that ready-to-wear really took off.  Up until then, women and men mostly had their clothes made individually.

Women would go to a designer or house and choose the required pieces from a presented seasonal offering.  This, in many ways, was the precursor to what we now refer to as Haute Couture (literally meaning high sewing).  Menswear was not so dissimilar, although many of the fashion trends in menswear have their roots in uniforms rather than designer dictates.

Ready-to-Wear (RTW) grew from technology in the form of industrialisation. Once here, women on far more moderate budgets could buy into high-end fashion in ready-made sizes off the peg as it were. Menswear was also now buyable via the same business model.

RTW are simply  clothes that are mass-produced to fit different people within a standard set of sizes, spanning from high street to designer clothes, making this the first major shift from exclusive towards democratic fashion.  So where has this left the high end of catwalk designers and the exclusive world of luxury designer fashion?

Fashion used to work within a strict criterion. Showing biannually (Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter), a chosen few key editors sat and watched the shows which were akin to an intimate presentation and from their grand positions took the cue from a designers’ vision and appropriated from it what they felt was ‘hot to be seen in’.  Fashion was very much dictated down, from designer to journalist and then to consumer.

It was about ultra-desirable, fashion-forward, high-finished and spectacularly constructed garments made from the finest of materials;  items you had to wait six months to actually own. The only way to see these clothes before they hit the stores was flicking through a handful of glossy fashion magazines.

This made it a relatively exclusive exercise. And that was the point. By buying into designer clothes you were paying the price not just for stunning designers and beautifully crafted outfits, but also buying into a society, if you like, of the ‘ well-groomed, highly fashionable set’.

The business model we know today actually began its slow build up in the 80’s when young designers turned the idea of luxury fashion on its head. From those who took their inspiration straight from the clubs of young Londoners, street-style  and music like House and Hip-hop to those who literally 


turned  things inside-out: showing the seams of the stitching and the craft of an item or even taking it apart to re-sow (deconstruction usually in black). But in many ways, it was technology (as ever) that changed fashion forever.

The invention of Lycra changed the way we could dress; elastane added into fabrics meant designers could work with fabric in completely new ways and create clothing shapes never seen before.  It also brought the first real wave of sportswear as fashion into the arena. Think tracksuit bottoms, extensive use of stretch jerseys, Lycra t-shirt dresses, superstar shell toes etc. From the 80’s onwards, the catwalk became much more of a social mirror for the whole of society than it had ever been before; the rulebook literally cut to pieces. From club kids to Haute Couture everyone could have their own personal angle on high fashion.  A few decades on, this changed yet again with the internet and the digital age and fashion took another democratic step. Or maybe more of a leap…

Suddenly everything was immediate, you didn’t need to be a ‘chosen one’ to be able to watch a fashion show and you didn’t have to wait six months to see them, many being streamed live by designers, whilst others chose to present their collections in the street so any passers-by could experience the glory of the show experience. Other designers chose to go with the digital flow, presenting the  ‘see now-buy now’ system: literally, the moment the show ended the clothes becoming available for sale.

Let’s not forget this was presenting itself as democratic but in fact sat in the slightly murkier shadows of social media bait, getting the millennials to buy into luxury designer clothes by plastering it all over social media channels.  Because what do social media lovers want? The latest thing, and they all want of course to be part of it….now!

Another bait currently used to ‘hook’  is the prolific use of sportswear all over catwalks as though there was never sportswear on the catwalk before. Now it is at addictive levels; with sports brands teaming up with designers for collaborations and celebrities wearing gifted sportswear to aid the trend or even going on to design their own lines…

Now there is just so much. Could it be, that it is easy not just to design but also cost-effective to produce, giving designers great profit-margins?  But most of all could it be because it’s easy to sell? And there lies the rub.  Sportswear, the clothes of the street, were seen on every boy band and rap artist on social media and so designers thought, yup I’ll have me a bit of that. Often utilising the long-standing heritage of the brand as leverage for a collaboration with the latest streetwear brand that was getting the best numbers on social media.

At the same time, street style was abundant and found on social media feeds everywhere.

The selfie approval system, allowing people to be validated by the amount of likes and shares they get was no longer about going to a cool club only a select few could get into, it was about having millions of likes from strangers via your phone. It was like a high school gang mentality of being popular was cool.

MAYBE REPLACE : The selfie approval system meant that ‘cool’ was no longer about going to a club only a select few could get into, it was about popularity in terms of having millions of likes from strangers via your phone.

Sportswear is easy. Comfortable to wear. It appeals to the young. It appeals to those who are not interested in walking about being ‘seen’ in an asymmetric deconstructed skirt and a bullet titted bustier.  Also, sportswear photographs well on social media. Rather than going around in tribes as youths used to do, defined by the outfits they wore, they now have online tribes.

This self-approval system was not full of designer-clad heroes but everyday people wanting approval. They wouldn’t be wearing a couture ball gown but trainers and casual wear: bright, instantly


recognisable, logo-plastered, photogenic, sports-style clothing.

The new generation were not going to clubs, live music or art exhibitions. They were going out to  eat so they could take pictures of their food whilst wearing sportswear and referring to themselves as influencers.

Rather than being dictated to by designers,  designers were following the trends on social media and fashion was being driven by consumers rather than the other way around.  Although most designers now present at least four collections a year (as well as licensed lines of opticals, make-up,  perfumes etc),  this still doesn’t feed an insatiable appetite for the new or build the profits for the accountants, often driving the brands forward towards preparing to ‘float’ the company on the stock exchange.

As shopping in stores massively slows, the fashion industry needs a simple fix to keep the money coming in and sportswear is it; sportswear with its easy selling,  easy wearing,  cost-effective appeal has worked wonders for brands.  It has introduced a new layer of customers to luxury and logos and the brands having their social media done for them whilst keeping the tills full.

Well we all know what is hot today may well be lukewarm tomorrow.  What will be the thing that moves sportswear off the catwalk giving way to something new? Because after all, that is what fashion was always and will always be about.

As already pointed out, it will be technology because it’s always technology that moves the world forward.  In terms of the internet, say in comparison to the industrial revolution, we really are only at the point of the spinning Jenny; these are the early days.  But things are moving fast. We are, for example, grappling with AI and how that will work with fashion.

It may be that in time personal customisation will be the way forward.  Unlike its pre-curser Haute Couture, once fully automated machines are in place you will literally be able to work with some kind of basic design on the internet and order your own colour,  fabric, exact size (maybe your waist is 33 not 32), pick your shoe, choose the buckle,  your colour, your choice of fabric and you can have a slightly more individual pair of shoes, dress trousers etc. An automated couture if you like.

Or will clothing rental be the way forward? Borrow your outfit for a night out, along with the Uber to get there from your Airbnb apartment, in the share nation which is likely to grow and grow.

Or maybe it will take its lead from small designers who are offering more organic ways of designing and working with greener production values, not just for the consumer but for the workers too. So will it be all about a social conscience? Some may say it will all be about wearable technology or non-binary clothing, whilst e-commerce sites such as Matches fashion are already supporting young new designers and Net A Porter have a new platform for young designers called The Vangaurd on the way.  Or the growth could come from as yet undiscovered  technology will come along and bring a whole new dimension with it. More likely, it will be a coming together of everything from the above.

There is one more common thread yet to be discussed here that runs through the wonderful world of fashion and that is creativity.  Although much discussed, the idea that robots will take over everything we do as humans (even having emotions built in).  What we cannot see happening, in at least the near future, is technology replacing creativity. After all creativity is not logical; it’s not a mathematical formula. It is a wonderful, nonsensical, non-linear, emotive thought-process.  It’s this that ultimately holds our faith in fashion so long may it continue: enjoy this A/W18 fashion special in all its glory, from students to couture via RTW from London, Paris, Milan and NYC.

Words Jo Phillips
Image Alison Catchpole