the importance of community in fashion

It’s time for people to work out their own way of living, against the system, or alongside it. Self-created groups. Invented families. Communes. Thankfully, among the world’s young fashion designers, Sarah Mower can already see this happening.

by Sarah Mower
03 April 2017, 3:35pm

Walking into the Maison Margiela studio to talk to John Galliano the day before his haute couture show this January was a strange sensation for me: one of those moments when your eyes are hit by something so emotionally relevant, it knocked the breath out of me. It wasn't the clothes — it was the black-and-white photograph stuck on a pin board: a picture of a group of young Americans, long haired, wrapped in blankets and home-made clothes, living somewhere way out on the land in the late 60s. They were one of those communes of friends who decided it was better to quit the society they disagreed with and strike out to live co-operatively together, surviving on what they could farm, build, and sew. There was war — Vietnam — cynical politics and social strife everywhere. These were the kids of a generation that was suffering from it, and they radically decided they could live better on their own. What Galliano didn't know was that I walked in there with the exact same subject and the same images in the back of my mind.

Now that we're facing a time of no jobs for young people, terrorism, threats to the environment, crumbling national infrastructures, and crazed politicians on the loose, what on earth will happen next? There is no way of any of us avoiding that worry. I'd started thinking that the next step will have to be people getting their own people around them, and working out their own way of living, against the system, or alongside it. Self-created groups. Invented families. Communes, even. And actually, I am seeing that this is what is already happening. Galliano talked about it in our preview, speaking about the contrast between online virtual communities of friends, who are mostly alone with their phones and rarely — if ever — meet and the opposite reality of living together on a commune. His spring/summer 17 Maison Margiela Artisanal collection romantically echoed images of pioneer American settlers and deconstructed clothes, which hinted at DIY commune-living, and then, the slap-bang up to references to filters (embroideries on tulle masks; a coat with a grey gauze face floating across it) which occupy so much headspace now.

Read: Eckhaus Latta embodies the idea of a creative community in such an honest and organic way, that it's less a brand than a fashion family.

I love fashion for the way it can tune into, give shape to, or even predict the mood of the times. Galliano, back on form, did that with his couture. It was a million miles from his ivory-tower fantasias of yesteryear. But it also cross-references with actuality how I see young people in fashion are organizing themselves today. Now, it's about families. When your back's up against it, you rely on the people closest to you to get through. Creative people are the best at this, and always have been. I see that all over the place in London — and more to the point, outside London too. There's Charles Jeffrey, leading the orchestra of his whole gang of Loverboy friends — a movement which includes video-makers, set designers, performers. There's Art School, the even younger Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt representing the transgender spectrum at men's fashion week this January, with another performance of friends. Less than the design of the clothes, even, you see the importance of the lifestyle as the message itself. There is a definite shift in the zeitgeist, in what people are doing creative things for — and how they want to display their collective, human, rough-edged do-it-yourself personalities.

Money, or lack of, is a factor in it, but that's like saying everyone breathes air — it's today's general condition of being young. The response of the prolifically creative Matty Bovan is not to live in London, but at home with his parents in York, where his mother Plum helps him make jewelry and a neighbor over the road does the books. Luke Brooks and James Buck, happily treading a new borderline between art and wearable things, live on the south coast, as the name of their joint enterprise, Rottingdean Bazaar, suggests. Steve Brooks, Luke's artist father, is around as backup. So it goes, in this highly adaptable generation: new circumstances have come up, and nobody even wants to pretend they're doing things on their own anymore. They are the opposite of ashamed to have their parents taking roles — the granddad who builds sets, the granny who knits, the boyfriend who does the accounts. It is different from being a daughter or son of privilege, whose parents are the never-ending bank of mum and dad. In a new way, it is more a case of pooling skills to get something done — maybe more akin to village economy than something a hedge-fund manager would recognize as a likely business model.

Read:It's impossible to talk about New York label Gypsy Sport without using the word community.

But this is just the point. This new up-shooting family-and-friends culture is designed precisely to avoid being supplicants to, controlled by, or involved with the ways of big business. It might even now be amounting to a new counter-culture — again, something not seen since the 60s. Counter-culture is where freedom of expression lives. It is where protest and satire always comes from. How exciting is that as a thought? It's a very long time since fashion had anything to say other than "buy me." Drawing back, though, it is fascinating to see how much of the dominant cultural narrative is about families — and the rise, even, of old-fashioned dynastic power. Was it the Kardashians who opened the floodgates to the strutting truimphal parades of the Trump dynasty? Maybe, maybe not. The Obamas did the same, making public characters of their daughters. Same in Britain, too — as with the Beckhams, so with Will, Kate, and their babies, exposed, projected, marketed as family unit to a degree the royals have never yet indulged in.

That is as may be — we can look upon them with admiration, envy, disgust, or despair, or any combination of the above. What they can't do is undermine anyone's power to organize their families in ways that absolutely don't look like them. You don't even need relatives to make your own really effective family. Fashion shows us that: look at Hood by Air, a prime example. Thinking all of this through has changed my point of view on what it takes to succeed, or even survive when the chips are down and chaos surrounds us. I used to think it was wrong, or weak, to rely on your family — nobody I knew ever did. I come from the generation, which kissed our parents goodbye on the day we went off to university at 18, and never went back. We were the lucky individualist generation, who benefitted from free further education that allowed us to climb up career ladders and buy our own houses when property was affordable. Now, there are university fees, no grants, no ladders, only contracts.

Read: French label Koché understands that luxury and the street are vital to each other and that interdependency can lead to wonderful things.

So yes: maybe my generation is waking up to the reality of needing to get into entrepreneurial gear with their own children. If it's not possible to dole out money, then pulling together to make something together might be a good way forward. That, surely, is a very positive thing when it happens. Fun, even. Seeing things through this lens has changed my view of what talent is — or at least to look for the X-factor, which will make someone likely to succeed as an independent designer. I've come to the conclusion that it's always the family behind the designer, which determines it. Christopher Kane had his sisters Tammy and Sandra. Roksanda Ilincic, her business-brain husband; Erdem Moralioglu his interior designer boyfriend Philip Joseph; Simone Rocha her parents Odette and John; Molly Goddard, her boyfriend Tom Shickle, her sister and parents. The younger ones are even more family-centric, and actually I find that fascinating and encouraging.


Text Sarah Mower

sarah mower
the family values issue