Charles Darwin, the perennial disruptor, beetle collector and ‘Saint of Science’ turns 205 today. In the midst of fashion season, the surest paradigm of “survival of the fittest”, Cody Ross considers the topsy-turvy world of fashion through a decidedly Darwinian lens.
It was 205 years ago today that the beetle collecting, globe-roving doyen of evolutionary theory was born. Charles Darwin paved the way for breakthrough ideas like ‘natural selection’, ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘punctuated equilibrium’ and as a result uncrumpled something fundamental. In 1859, at the ripe ole’ age of 50, he wittily hacked scientific orthodoxy with his ‘On the Origin of Species’ and concocted a fantastic set of principles for thinking about biology, business, creativity and human progress (even the wishy-washy world of the Arts—fashion included) that are applicable over two centuries later.
There’s no ‘grand theory’ of fashion—nothing comparable to, say, string theory, relativity or the theory of evolution. Postmodern theory is a kind of pell-mell pulp of Hegelian-Freudian-Lacanian say-sos spiced up with arcane -isms and alt lit spiel; Neoclassical theory—the idea that we are all Vulcan-like, rationality-maximizing machines has proven to be quite crummy in the grand scheme of things; and the next big thing—‘Behavioural economics’—is a grab bag of social psychology, neurobiology, microeconomics and gut feel consisting of more paradoxes and anomalies than you can shake a stick at.
When thinking about fashion, evolutionary theory is still the it-est insight around. That’s because the fashion industry, love it or loathe it, has all of the defining tics and teeter-totters of a true evolutionary scheme: 1. random variation 2. tooth and nail competition 3. genes and memes 4. speciation 5. natural selection 6. collaborative behaviour and 7. scope for extinction. The crux of it is that ‘fashion organisms’—designers, editors, art directors, retailers, bloggers, models; what have you—arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that bump up their ability to compete, survive, and sustain their creative niches. That can be a messy and maddening experience, as most of us in the biz know. But besides its rather merciless and mechanical character, the fashion world jungle has an arguably deeper evolutionary purpose: it serves as a kind of structural template for probing, prospecting, reflecting consciousness and expressing identity. In the end it propels inventiveness and confers on each of us a certain ontological status. As in nature, it is an energy source that makes change possible and fitness essential.
Skitzoid processes are fast at work in the creative economy, churning out all sorts of sartorial ingenuity. “Chance,” Darwin said, “is intrinsic to mutation, which is the process by which fresh variation is offered up for selection, and that process is blind.” That bright insight applies to fashion organisms in spades. When tawdry no-hopes transfigured their rebel yell tees with safety pins and studs in the early 70’s they unconsciously became part of a biota of the fashion sphere—they invented ‘punk’ and in the process coaxed all its splendiferous offspring: grunge, goth, mod, new wave, The Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, etc. When Björk donned Marjan Pejoski’s iconic Swan Dress during the Academy Awards over a decade ago, she paved the way for fashion cyclotron Kokon To Zai (KTZ) and all their rip-roaring intergalactic get-ups. And when First Lady Michelle Obama sported a Jason Wu dress during her hubby’s inauguration she unwittingly catapulted his label to top of the fashion food chain. These are, in effect, but a few instances of fashion’s ‘blind mechanisms’ and nonlinearities at work—the myriad mutations, gestations and random bursts that produce the ever propagating, always germinating sartorial tree of life.
Broadly speaking, the principle of the survival of the fittest applies (what Darwin called “the struggle for existence”). Designers and fashion houses with a ‘selfish gene’ that excel at self-perpetuation and making memes (snazzy branding, in other words), will tend to rise above the rest, at least for a while. Innovation and novelty are byproducts of competition; some labels will work out, many will not. ‘Creative destruction’—the equally incessant process whereby weaker labels go belly up or, quite often, get gobbled up is a menacing but munificent force (think Theory’s takeover of Helmut Lang, PPR’s acquisition of Christopher Kane and Juun J’s absorption into Samsung).
Darwin banged on endlessly about competition and fitness as the fundamental grease of the system. Indeed, fashion organisms are in competition with one another for finite resources, customers and anyone who will bat an eye. At certain times and in certain places, certain species may become dominant. LVMH is the alpha dog in luxury, and H&M, Uniqlo and Top Shop dominate their respective markets for fast fashion retail. But innovations by competitor species, or the emergence of altogether new players (‘speciation’), prevent any permanent hierarchy or monoculture from crystalizing. Concept shops like Opening Ceremony, VFiles and Machine-A or niche labels like Holly Fulton, Hadria and Katie Eary are smaller in scale and scope, but their creative directors dream big dreams and constantly collaborate, differentiate and produce artistic zings that keeps them fit in the pecking order (what Darwin called ‘differential survival’).
Avant-gardians like Tatsuro Horikawa of the inimitable JULIUS label, Aitor Throup, the philosopher king of London menswear, Chen Man, the Middle Kingdom’s most subversive shutterbug and of course fashion’s darkest horse, Rick Owens, whose insurgent energy has threatened the whole paradigm, have all taken matters into their own hands, evolving their strategies, changing the currents of fashion, its structures and maybe its internal values. These players are at the forefront, confecting the purest, most coveted fashion meth around and constantly tinkering with their aesthetic DNA to make them fitter. SIBLING (designed by happy trio Joe Bates, Cozette McCreery and Sid Bryan) are a prime example of a disruptor rearranging the fashion value pool, especially in men’s avant-garde knitwear; so too are Bernhard Willhelm and cyber-punker Nasir Mazhar, two designers who are pushing the parameters around unisex athletic gear and artisanal streetwear.
What is noteworthy is that these innovators and disruptors grew out of the same creative gene pool as their forbearers, building on past substrates, and paving the way for future offspring. It is fashion’s own version of ‘natural selection’ and gene transfer—when design performs the same role as genes in biology, allowing information to be stored in the organisational memory and passed on from individual to individual or from house to house. Observe the ingenious interbreeding between Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe, the awesome osmosis between Gareth Pugh and Rick Owens, the evolutionary alchemy between Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff or the aesthetic encoding alive in the work of the ‘The Antwerp Six.’ These creatives caromed off each other’s ideas and techniques, leaping from medium to medium in madly unexpected ways, splicing genes, bridging lineages and producing novelty in the process. In evolutionary parlance, they are a kind of ‘Galápagos Islands’ of fashion bubbling with astonishing variety, whose unique traits combine and recombine, perpetuate growth, enrich our habitat and condition our collective consciousness.
Others, too, like Claire Barrow, Carri Munden (Cassette Playa), Shayne Oliver (Hood by Air), Astrid Andersen and Alex Mattsson are a rising crop of artisans making their way up the food chain. Armed with a knack for radical experimentation, a tolerance for failure and a willingness to aggressively co-opt technology and media, these veterans and newbies alike are reshuffling the deck of fashion design and, in their own roguish way, elbow the competition and play a game of ‘survival and revival of the fittest.’
In evolutionary terms, then, the fashion industry appears to be in the midst of a kind of “Cambrian explosion,” with existing species flourishing and new species adding and synchronizing their competencies with it. The giant lumbering Brontosauruses such as Richemont, LVMH, Zara and Vogue (a few of fashion’s ‘apex animals’) represent incumbent power and corporate interests on one level. But, as in the natural world, their existence does not preclude the evolution and continued existence of smaller ‘avant-garde’ species. Size is not everything, in fashion as in nature.
What matters in evolution is not your size or your complexity. All that matters is that you are good at surviving, preserving and passing on your creative DNA. The fashion equivalent of evolutionary success is being good at grasping the zeitgeist, changing as circumstances change, getting recognized, generating returns on investment (at least 51% of the time), and spawning imitators that use a similar marketing model. All are easier for small, witty designers who are creative, highly motivated and ultra-brave.
Oh, it might also help to have a nodding acquaintance with that big-bearded beetle-boffin, Charles Darwin, who married his first cousin, had ten children and once said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Happy birthday, Charles Darwin, you rabble-rouser, you!