what does it mean to be a designer in 2019?

As the fashion industry modernises, the once Svengali-like figure of the fashion designer is more fluid and fragmented than ever.

by Osman Ahmed
13 June 2019, 8:00am

Vivienne Westwood AW19, photography @mitchell_sams

What does it mean to be a designer in 2019? As the fashion industry becomes bigger by the minute — this year it is estimated to be worth £33 billion to the UK economy alone — the all-important role of the designer is dramatically evolving. The ivory towers they once ruled down from are now fragile glass bungalows. Today, designers don’t just design clothes — they must be politicians, environmental activists, cultural anthropologists, and curators of endless collaborations and archives. They can even be DJs or popstars, too.

It’s no longer a question of inventing a silhouette or tracking hemlines to the economy. Then again, it hasn’t been for a while. As far back as 1979, the late Karl Lagerfeld understood the tectonic shifts that would modernise the rag trade: “It’s not very modern any more to talk about the new silhouette. The mood is more important than the line in a way because we are not in the 50s any more…. It’s more a spirit and an atmosphere.”

There’s something else that even the Kaiser couldn’t have predicted. It’s the P-word. Not purses, playsuits or (smart)phones. It’s politics. Yep, fashion has reached political fever-pitch and designers are faced with a tougher challenge than just creating grand sets and securing celebrity endorsements to remain relevant. It’s becoming increasingly important for them to make clothes that speak to a new generation of shoppers and spectators who largely are politically active, hyper-connected, environmentally conscious, body-positive and diversity-demanding.

Is it a necessity? Not particularly. Is it a bonus? Absolutely. Is it exciting? You bet.

We are living through an age of political nightmares after all, where all hope is thin and hate is big. It’s only natural that creative people feel the need to respond to the current climate. What’s more, this newfound sense of political awareness might just stem from fashion’s murky past (and in many cases, present). It certainly hasn’t been the most environmentally-friendly industry over the years and is still one of the world's biggest polluters. Then there’s the darker terrain of global exploitative labour, unpaid internships, sexual harassment and accusations of bullying across the board. Not to mention the unhealthy beauty ideals and lack of diversity that has defined the lacquer-sleek glossiness of fashion for so — too — long. It’s time for fashion to wake up.

Fashion has a history of co-opting political and countercultural movements, marginalised groups and non-western cultures, which can render it a slightly peculiar landscape to meaningfully articulate political ideas and convey real social change. ‘Democratic’ is a word often bandied around in luxury fashion, but with little resonance with a system that is predicated on big egos and bottom lines. But consumers and fashion spectators have a far greater influence on the direction of fashion than ever before, and the question remains as to what a designer’s job truly is. Is it to dictate political statements through buttons and boleros? Not technically. Is it to authoritatively convey how they think we should dress in six months and create a universe that is desirable, aspirational and accessible enough that it translates into sales? Perhaps.

Grace Wales Bonner, AW19, photography @mitchell_sams

“There is a request from the fashion industry to talk about other subjects, political subjects, which is very problematic,” Miuccia Prada said after her autumn/winter 19 womenswear show in Milan. Devoted to love stories as a romantic antidote to the increasingly bleak political landscape, no one could accuse Prada of making anything other than good clothes, but her comments came after a scandal erupted over a Prada keychain and a Gucci sweater resembled blackface. Outrage ensued and both brands in turn responded by establishing diversity councils to avoid the same kind of damaging misrepresentations in the future.

“To approach [political issues] from a fashion point of view can be superficial and criticised by many people,” she explained, taking the opportunity to reflect on the changing landscape. “That’s a problem, the duality between one part that is political and serious, and the things for pleasure… From one side, honestly, we do rich clothes for rich people. In a world of pleasant things, to approach political issues there is something different to find a way that is intelligent but not too political. [It’s] not real politics.”

Mrs Prada raised an interesting question -- Is looking for sociopolitical meaning in fashion's superficial world ultimately pointless? Just as in politics itself, where loud statements and shouting over each other wins, fashion has often grappled with politics in the most simplistic way. You only have to look at the Union Jacks and burgundy passport pendants at Burberry, climate-crisis messages scribbled all over tartans at Vivienne Westwood, feminism-themed tees and tutus at Dior and Bernie-branded Balenciaga a few seasons ago — to see that. If fashion doesn't seize on populism, it retreats instead to the age-old notion of escapist glamour. But sparkle and frivolity in the face of terror and oppression isn’t so convincing, is it?

And so, as it often does, the tapestry of nuanced political ideas rests on the shoulders of the independent auteurs of fashion. The New Guard of designers are the ones putting forward mindful meditations on exactly where we are and where on earth we’re heading. In many of their cases, the personal is political and the political is emotional. Where it really strikes a sociopolitical nerve is when it goes deeper and wider than just a slogan on a T-shirt or a black leather beret.

Graces Wales Bonner quietly asserts a radical vision through her exploration of black masculinity and spirituality, imbuing clothes with talismanic emblems, shamanic motifs and Afro-Caribbean symbols. In what can seem like an amoral political landscape, her immersive shows, exhibitions and devotional gatherings feel like a warm salve, a beautiful evocation of entwined and forgotten multicultural histories.

In New York, Telfar Clemens has anchored his label in community, staging shows that are music gigs, bringing people together to bask in gender-fluid black excellence. “Our story is they, them, their,” said Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright behind off-Broadway play Slave Play, who was the master of ceremonies at Telfar’s show in February. He was presiding over an audience of hundreds, many of whom were simply fans of the label, against a backdrop of a huge frayed American flag. “In this sweet land of impunity, there is no California or New York, this land is your land. This is our country: Telfar Country.” The clothes riffed on western-style Americana, that heartland of right-wing white values, and reframed them with prints of black cowboys.

Fashion has often been called the world’s second-biggest polluter, so when a designer manages to establish a label that is predicated on social enterprise and environmentalism, it is a political act in itself. London-based designer Bethany Williams’s collections are made from jersey made by female inmates at HMP Downview in Sutton, her textiles are woven by recovering addicts in the San Padriagno commune in Rimini, her buttons are made by the Manx Workshop for the Disabled on the Isle of Man, her denim is recycled from a waste depository in Kent. She pays everyone that works with her and works with a charity every season that she donates 20% of profits to.

These are just a few examples of designers channeling fashion’s new political spirit. So is it enough to just make brilliant clothes anymore? Clothes that are just pretty or well-tailored or nice to look at? “It never was,” according to Fabio Piras, the head of the MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins, who also points out that “you need to design your job before your dress”. For students, those prized roles at fashion houses and dreams of research trips to India are just a fantasy. Instead, Piras is urging them to re-think, re-work, re-evaluate. “You don’t need to have a manifesto at all times, but your work needs to be a manifesto,” he adds. “For a long time, we talked about luxury, but you need to justify that now. Humanity needs that explanation. Designers need to explain.”

Of course, there are still brilliant designers who make clothes that are just that. If this season’s dominant trend for nu-bourgeois (classic staples in fifty shades of brown imbued with the sentimental warmth of the 70s, an era when clothes were practical and flattering) says anything, it’s that good ol’ fashioned fashion and its swinging pendulum will be around for a while. Ditto political slogan T-shirts. Yet for the designers who have redesigned the framework for fashion design, to be radically environmental or deeply personal and political, there’s no going back. Their time has come.