Why we need to stop looking to fashion to solve our morbid reality
Dal Chodha explains why fashion's take on politics will always be limited and why that maybe isn't a bad thing.
Fashion is charged with emotion. It is art and avarice; hyperactivate and regal. It is what Kennedy Fraser, writing in The New Yorker in 1978, called a “materialism that is twined appealingly around the unmaterialistic.” Fashion is communal joy, and that should be prized in times of anxiety. Fraser’s speculation that “the dimension in which fashion operates is an amalgam of the mental and the material – a miasmic half-world where ideas have functions and prices, while objects are hung about with thoughts and dreams,” is essential for understanding where and how fashion operates best.
When a friend messaged from Paris during the AW22 season in March 2022, our conversation turned to the setting for Balenciaga’s epic 360° show: a giant snow globe mimicking a sentimental touristy souvenir, originally conceived to confront the audience with the realities of climate change (during a trip to the mountains at Christmas, Demna had been shaken by the lack of snow there). If we thought that fashion was always in its own bubble – a weird hinterland between the real and the fantastic – then who better to pop it than him?
In light of the political realities that had suddenly taken hold of Ukraine, the climactic staging found new resonance. A personal note from Demna, placed on each of the seats alongside a T-shirt in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, acknowledged that while “fashion week feels like some kind of an absurdity”, to cancel the show would have meant “surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much for almost 30 years.” In the early 90s, he was one of 250,000 Georgians forced from their homes by Abkhazian separatists during the country’s civil war, and here was a poetic gesture of solidarity and solemnity. Footage of models struggling to walk against the harsh winds weighed down by leather trash bags now took on the grain of reportage. The clothes were recontextualised in an instant, understood afresh through the prism of a war against people, not just the planet.
“In our desperation to regard every single thing fashion produces as overtly political, we often lose a grip on its carnal limits.”
The culture of fashion – by and large a material fixation with ephemeral values – becomes all the more crucial during moments of uncertainty because it reminds us of our own humanity. Fashion has always been a billion-dollar haven for misfits, a tireless fantasia of glorious ironies. Yet in our desperation to regard every single thing it produces as overtly political, we often lose a grip on its carnal limits. Every handbag is now examined as if it were an academic manifesto, every picture read as a diktat about how we ought to be living and shopping. Contrarily, every gracious attempt to shed light on a cause is construed as mere marketing – another empty spectacle curated to fleece us. We ought to remember that behind fashion is an almost-animal euphoria, which is why so many are driven wild by its possibilities.
We have to stop looking for fashion to correct our morbid reality. We have to remind ourselves of the joy of dreaming and looking outside of ourselves rather than perpetuating a mood of suspiciousness and doubt. Let’s bask in what fashion is — a galaxy for like-minded fantasists.
As I write, I glance at the trending topics on Twitter. At number one: “Ukraine says ‘tens of thousands’ have died in Mariupol as fighting continues”. At number two: “Emma Corrin’s Bizarre Balloon Bra Is a Glorious Nod to Camp Style.” Scrolling down I see: “Have a safe flight BTS”; “Meet Prince George and Princess Charlotte’s ‘real-life Mary Poppins’ with huge salary”; “#rwandamigrationplan” and “Woman keeps unopened Easter Egg for 62 years.” Itemised like flops on a Spotify playlist, the weird fascinations of life are revealed. The facile remains as absolute as moral outrage or love. The best way to grasp what fashion is, is to respect what it isn’t. Fashion – by definition of its aesthetic and commercial preoccupations – is usually inept at shaping moral and social codes of conduct. Has a Schiaparelli skirt ever changed the way you vote? No. But has it ever made you squeal? Perhaps. Using fashion to find the answers to the ugliness of life is, I think, leading to a certain cowardice. Too many copycat clothes. Too many identikit political poses. A generation scared of doing the wrong thing. Too many logo-ed sneakers. Not enough soul.
The discourse around any global issue will always reveal fashion’s creases. In this age of blitzed attention spans we struggle to compartmentalise unfathomable streams of jarring knowledge: the latest clothes, the cutest bags and the buzziest shoes are all peppered with real-world struggles. We expect fashion — and clothes — to do so much while we do so little. We have convinced ourselves that buying a sustainable cotton dress will help save a dying planet when, truly, the best defence is to not go anywhere near it. We critique with knee jerk flippancy; we want all of fashion’s complications to be neatly organised and magicked away. But let’s reclaim all that’s good about it, too.
Fashion necessitates the coming together of energetic, creative, and curious people. I have been thinking about a generation of people who first got in to fashion by following the life and career of Virgil Abloh who was himself, famously inquisitive. “Don’t get trapped into this ‘everything sucks, the world is coming to an end…’ You can wake up every day and come up with excuses, but it’s exactly the opposite,” he told students at Harvard in 2017. After his death in November 2021, people shared screenshots of DMs they had exchanged with him in an instinctive attempt to express their grief. Virgil lived and worked in an open and convivial style in opposition to the closed-off diktats of luxury fashion. In his fast, rhapsodic responses, you can sense an appetite for the millions of ‘maybes’ and ‘what ifs’ puttering in the air. His work became a conduit for so many previously untouched conversations.
In its September 2000 issue, American Vogue asked: “How Many People Does It Take to Design a Dress?” presenting page after page of lavish yet leaden portraits of designers and their assorted collaborators and flunkies. Look them up – they reveal an industry as it once was – closed-off, largely white, elitist and stuffy. Revisiting them, I was excited to see how out of sync the pictures looked in a post-Abloh world.
“Using fashion to find the answers to the ugliness of life is a certain cowardice. Too many copycat clothes. Too many identikit political poses. A generation scared of doing the wrong thing. Too many logo-ed sneakers. Not enough soul.”
Virgil was committed to moving at breakneck speed, doing as much with as many people as he could in a way that has provoked a generation. This attitude – to make ideas happen quickly and with urgency – is mirrored in the discourse around Telfar’s 'Bushwick Birkin' on Twitter or the fully regenerative open-source supply chain developed by Oshadi Studio. It is collegiate. It’s Donatella going to the Saint Laurent show! It is a gaggle of Y2K barbies in Mowalola trucker caps! It is every designer, student, and fan, who congratulated Maximilian Davis upon his appointment as creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo with a post on Instagram. It’s designers collaborating with each other. It is the attempt to find new voices, not just new faces. Fashion is shifting in benevolent ways. We are entering a Warholian period where Instagram is The Factory: shoots are tagged with assistants, couriers, flower arrangers and caterers, in an important public acknowledgement of the many hands and brains at work.
When we assess the images of shows or the pictures in this magazine, we are weighing up hours and hours of conversation, thousands of WhatsApp messages, emails, muddy videos, texts, misunderstood emojis, irritated calls, late nights, Deliveroos, litres of Pinot Grigio, folders of references, hardbacked books cracked open. Years of sweat, dust, knowledge, and whimsy.
Fashion sweeps all lived experiences into the same spot. We often talk about the lack of diversity in the industry but, in my academic work, I hear conversations from students that are reflective of a rich and cultured tempo – a slowing down to a more thoughtful reconnection to what is at the core of fashion, which goes far beyond economics to a place of escapism and magic. It is a cavalcade of devoted dreamers.
Fashion is or should be the distraction from daily life that focuses our minds on humanity and imagination. A place for beauty, not beast.