the fashion industry needs to slow down, step back, and think about what’s relevant

Sarah Mower, the British Fashion Council’s Ambassador for Emerging Talent, delivers a powerful manifesto for change to the fashion industry.

by Sarah Mower
10 February 2016, 2:55pm

Nobody seems to be able to be lucid about why fashion -- by which I mean designer fashion, not the copyist industry -- started to behave as if it has to run on the same schedule as Zara, Topshop, H&M and Primark. When did it become normal for a company, which has womenswear, menswear and pre-collections to have shows in January, February, June, July, September and December? I'm not terribly good at math, but that's six months of the year! One thing it is blatantly not achieving is making designer fashion as accessible and available as fast fashion. Every time there is a show, and samples to be made, it adds to the overall cost of the product. So, the more designer fashion tries to ape fast fashion, the more expensive and out of reach it becomes -- a world in which more or less everything costs over $1500 and that is supposed to be normal. This, in a time of austerity, when incomes are falling and the cost of living is rising all around us.

Actually, what we now call 'pre' always existed in the showrooms of large fashion companies — only, they were called 'commercial' collections. Watered down from or having not a lot to do with the main collection, they were very deliberately kept away from the eyes of the press, not deemed worthy, almost an artistic embarrassment to the designer. Now every house, label and high street brand from Chanel to Topshop Unique wants immediate online coverage of their interim collections, and those designers who are too small to be able to afford to produce pre-collections are pressured by stores to get with the program. The trouble is that all this constantly updated imagery overwrites our perception of what the brand did last, so we're constantly looking at clothes which might exist some time in the future, while searching for actual clothes which we might vaguely remember seeing online six months before, amongst hundreds of other runway shows and lookbooks. That's an ancient fashion problem unsolved so far.

One thing's for sure: for a viewer, the more there is out there, the less possible it is to keep up with everything or distinguish between one thing and the other. And, if you do, or even if you occasionally dip in, it becomes a free form of entertainment, like watching football. Really, you do need the mind of a football fanatic to chart it all out, what with the transfers between teams and who was where when and who's up, who's down and who's made a comeback, who's injured and who's on the bench. It's quite enjoyable as a geeky challenge between friends — fashion's equivalent to A Question of Sport. But no one needs to buy a thing.

On the economic level alone, speeding designer fashion is a spectacularly self-defeating failure. Designer fashion is never going to beat fast fashion at its own game. In fact, the more the silly old beast publicly throws out its brilliant ideas upon the internet, the more it turbo-fuels the rampant success of its arch-rival, the highstreet. I suppose it's no different from when music began to be downloaded or newspapers started to give away their content free online -- 'free' access to the work someone else dedicated their brainpower, time and money creating. The only difference is that there's no market for selling knock-off music or copied writing. Clothes, however -- which everyone seems to insanely forget are physical objects made from fabric and materials -- can be 'taken,' reproduced to within a hairs-breath of contravention of Intellectual Property law, and turned into high street profit. I am all for democratic access to original ideas -- don't get me wrong -- but the more designer fashion loads the spiraling expense of multiple shows onto the retail price of the new garments it is exhibiting every other month, the more it tells us: 'Look how gorgeous this is -- and it isn't for YOU!' I don't like it, but I do not hold the fast-fashion chains responsible for this. High fashion management is doing it to themselves. If fast fashion had hired the devil as a consultant to get high fashion into its clutches, he couldn't have done a better job. It takes every temptation, like a lamb to the slaughter.

We know only too well what the internal fall-out of all this is. The pressure on designers to fuel the ideas that fly out of this mad corporate machine leads to exhaustion, burnout, addiction, even death. Even when someone runs as fast as they possibly can, and is praised to the skies for it, like Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, they can still be given the chop when their sales figures apparently dissatisfy owners. When Raf Simons resigned from Christian Dior, it was the first, very shocking example of a designer deciding that he was going to reject the pressure and walk away. I'm sure it happens all the time further down the line in design teams.

So the tables, to a certain extent, anyway, have been turned now that the age of the fashion designer as a super-adulated god in an ivory tower is over. Today it's more rock-star to walk off the stage sticking a middle finger up to the bosses. The only hope corporations have to overcome these serial disasters is to rely, like politicians, on the short-attention span of the media and the public, who are likely to forget any unpleasantness within weeks, months - or more likely, days. And we do! We forget. But there's a fine line between forgetting and ceasing to care. Politicians cross it at their peril, and it's just as perilous to the ability of the fashion industry to hold us in its golden thrall.

Anyway, one hard fact underlying the increasing rate of turnover of designers at houses and labels is that the average contract is now three years. I read recently that it's more or less the same for people in upper management of major companies, not just fashion (though often the corporate people who are co-opted to run fashion are from other industries). Short-term investors, to whom the management are often answerable, are equally ignorant of how long it takes to establish a reputation (it takes ten years for a new fashion brand). So, if everybody doesn't make an increasing amount of ker-ching every single season - even when uncontrollable outside forces are at work -- well, sorry, it's everybody out. And the next lot in.

The only way the industry can change is by new people, young people, coming in from the outside and stating the obvious: this is nonsense, it is not speaking to us and what we want, and we're going to do it differently. 

What I find heart-breaking, and eventually numbing, and finally just plain dumb is the way this ruthless system breaks faith with followers, laying waste to the concept of loyalty and continuity (I don't have an MBA in luxury brand management, but isn't building trust the first lesson these boffins are meant to learn? Did they all forget it?). Standing back, you can sort of understand why it's happened. With the arrival of ecommerce, shops are open twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, all over the world, effectively creating one non-stop perma-season. A revolution, along with global warming, which has done away with the quaint old analogue calendar of spring, summer, fall and winter that people used to live in during the twentieth century. Dear old fashion is still struggling to retro-fit its old seasonal formats -- fashion shows of models walking up and down things called 'runways', drum-roll 'reveals,' lightning-bolt designer inspirations -- the world is waiting for the new digital reality. As if somehow everything will go right if only we do MORE. As if!

It's all very well to bemoan how these conditions have built up -- people in fashion do so all the time -- but what could the solutions be? How about doing something completely different instead? Slowing down, offering less choice, stepping back and thinking about what's relevant. Not saturation-bombing us with images of celebrities and bloggers to whom the clothes have been given or loaned, or who've been paid to parade them. Fashion needs to restore its cool, its surprise, its mystique, and its glamour. I am not a soothsayer. I haven't a clue about the algorithms that run an internet business. All I ever do is try to say what other people are thinking, and to compare what's going on inside fashion to behavior on the outside. The way the industry machine looks and feels to me now is like the banking world before the crash: that is, when the big players were overtaken by an inward looking insanity, basing their actions on competing with each other on the same basis, doing exactly the same as everyone else. The only way it can change is by new people, young people, coming in from the outside and stating the obvious: this is nonsense, it is not speaking to us, and what we want, and we're going to do it differently.

Things can never go backward, but I've got a perspective on this that does mesh with the way things were when I was growing up, fashion-obsessed, in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a time of high unemployment and recession, as it is now. In my hometown, there was a Topshop, a Chelsea Girl (which became River Island), and a Jean Genie. We all wore jeans, white T-shirts, Stan Smiths, Green Flash and army-surplus parkas. We were aware of designer fashion, but never thought we could buy it, because it was for grown ups and rich people, who we looked down on. All our fashion creativity was exerted on raids on jumble sales for vintage clothes that we cut up and restyled. When I saved up for my first 'label' purchase -- it was a pair of Fiorucci jeans -- they were incredibly expensive, but also very practical, too. I felt fantastic in them, and wore them to death.

I see that parallel today, and wonder whether young people relate to high fashion at all? I have no criticism of designer fashion that is incredibly special, value for money, and beautifully made -- it's not possible or ethical to make it dirt cheaply. Mass 'luxury' is a contradiction in terms, the fallacy of our age.

But I do see new models for business and behavior in fashion that are coming from the independent margins that give me hope. We are moving into a more human -- scaled down time when collective action, people bonding together in friendship and family groupings are producing things together, which have real meaning, both in terms of clothes and ethos. None of them are trying to mimic 'posh' high fashion -- cocktail dresses and red-carpet event wear. I could point to any number of young designers in London who are couples or have family members and friends they've grown up with involved in their businesses. The collective spirit is perfectly embodied in New York by the movement that is fronted by Shayne Oliver at Hood by Air, and in Paris by Vetements -- the phenomenon which has Demna Gvasalia as its leader, but is also a collective of young people from all over eastern Europe and from Russia.

What they all have in common is their sensible and pragmatic focus on doing all the things high fashion forgot -- when it boils down to it, jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, leather jackets, bomber jackets, boots, sneakers. It seems lame to call it 'street wear,' because it is also specific and special. It speaks to a real group of people who want the real thing, not the knock-off, because the clothes carry the aura of a generational movement. Anti-fashion, which is fashion. Saving up to own one of these pieces is a proud statement of belonging, and it feels good because it feeds back to a network of people you admire -- not far-off demi-god designers, but people like you.

In this new age of austerity, this is survival fashion -- both inspiring and uplifting, and ordinary and utilitarian. Will these people become the new corporate titans of the future, brands with ambition to dominate markets? I hope not. Though it's exciting to see Denma Gvasalia of Vetements being co-opted to Balenciaga, we will see what his aesthetic brings there -- I think it feels more as if this generation isn't looking for stardom. It is a real struggle to be an independent force today, but then again, it always has been. A whole constellation of designers once earned enough to live like kings and emperors with multiple houses, yachts and chauffeur driven cars - those days are long gone. It now seems a better ambition to be able to pay the rent, live privately, not bend to the pressure to do too much, do what you do well, and stay in touch with reality. Seems like a recipe for sanity in a mad, mad world, to me.

sarah mower
ambassador for emerging talent
the british fashion council
the fashion industry