The Dysfunctionality of Fashion

October 14, 2016

by Gracia Ventus

Junya Watanabe Parka

Junya Watanabe N-3B parka and sweater; Comme des Garçons trousers

I spend a lot of time waiting at airports. It used to bother me but now I've come to accept it as a part of my life. I have learned to enjoy the sights and sounds of humanity passing by, strangers from wonderful foreign lands on their way to other foreign lands; observing how us humans, despite all our flaws, are able to put aside our differences to work together. We have invented airplanes, hangars, motor vehicles, and majestic architecture while making sure that a million and one things operate smoothly so we can defy gravity to traverse through the skies. Watching the plane I'm supposed to board taxiing into the hangar gives me a slight sense of joy. Oh it's here on time! Oh no it's late, ah well that's normal. When one flies frequently in and out of China, an hour of delay is miraculous. Two is almost normal. Once I was even stuck on the tarmac in Hong Kong for three hours, waiting for the plane to be given clearance to fly into Shanghai. Not having a choice but to wait allows me to focus on writing, which seems to be how most of my essays are churned out these days. However, there are times when waiting and letting things take its due course still make me feel anxious because they represent things that fall outside of my control.

We know that change is the few constants in life, but we have difficulty accepting the kind of change in life that is not in line with our expectations. This is especially true in fashion, where people always want change at the quickest possible pace. To let time pass aimlessly is to let dollars and cents slip out of our fingertips. Dare I say that this is how our beloved capitalist system has shaped our mindset.

Comme des Garçons Ribbons

Comme des Garçons Crushed vest, ribbon trousers and sneakers

Fashion strives to innovate at the quickest possible speed, buckling under the pressures of the commercial system in the age of social media. As the pursuit of money dominates the power dynamics between commercialism and creativity, the relationship between them begins to turn toxic. Money is the angry guy who has no patience for the undulating course of creativity; it ignores the fact that as with all artistic endeavours, there's bound to be ups and downs. It manipulates and abuses creativity for its own benefit because creativity is at its mercy, ie. We can’t make clothes when we don’t have money. In reality, money is desperately dependent on creativity in order to continue existing.

As the tolerance for this dysfunctionality grows, this toxic relationship becomes the new normal. Hence why we feel it’s perfectly okay to have six seasons a year, or that Zara is producing new (unoriginal) designs at such a fast pace. When money rules the game, commercialism takes the driving seat. This toxic codependency between money and creativity has resulted in the game of revolving door in which designers are booted out or voluntarily quit every other season, and this door is spinning ever quicker. Designers are not given any room to breathe or make mistakes lest sales figure falls. The circus of who’s in and who’s out becomes the must-watch spectacle, and brands are using it as a way to gain eyeballs instead of empowering design teams and fixing problems from within. Every corporate fashion house hopes to snag a Philo or a Slimane, but more often than not it becomes the tragedy that is Justin O’Shea and Brioni.

How do we even begin to slow down? We have been conditioned to expect new ideas every six months from fashion brands in order for them to stay relevant. Considering the exponential increase in fashion labels out there, our limited attention span will never be able to process everything that is presented. It is no wonder that there are many fresh ideas from young labels that go unnoticed. They do not have the marketing resources to build the right brand image that will cater to the right audience every single season.

Imagine a scenario where brands can choose to showcase their work whenever they feel the need to. Designers would have more time to refine their ideas and recuperate. And as consumers we can focus our attention and engage with individual brands on a deeper level. It’s a system that is similar to another commercially driven industry like music. If musicians are allowed to dictate their own schedules, wouldn’t it be possible for fashion to do the same? Designers should be given the right to take part in or skip shows whenever necessary. Some have chosen to do so, but this is more of an exception than the norm.

There are certainly potential downsides to be considered when overhauling a broken system. While independent designers can choose to dictate their own schedules, creative directors are still under the thumbs of their corporate overlords. The idea of skipping a season would be seen as a dent in their yearly revenue, and no shareholders would be happy to hear that. And if an independent designer is only able to produce a collection annually, would that be an economically sustainable strategy? All of these concerns highlight the modern corporatisation of fashion and the influence of money over creativity. One way to get around this problem is to release an entire year’s collection one small batch at a time, which would help to keep the designer in the spotlight a few times a year. Much like how a musician releases music videos several times a year to keep album sales going.

Let’s not forget the proverbial elephant the fashion industry is still unable to address. The main driving force of fashion’s ever-increasing pace is to counter Zara’s knockoff effects. As soon as an idea has been copied and circulated a thousand times on the interwebs, it becomes dated, forcing designers to come up with the next new thing. For corporate houses, this becomes a fight for revenue. For independent designers, it’s a fight for survival. The solution that I can think of is to amp up the See Now Buy Now concept. Designers and manufacturers would have to work hand in hand so only collections that can be produced within a week or two would be shown. It requires innovative production strategies and value chain management that can rival that of Toyota’s. The current situation is such that, instead of making technology work in our favour, we have abused it in a way that works against us, speeding up the pace of change that we can no longer cope with. If creativity were to assert itself in this game, garment manufacturing would be one of the areas to apply itself in. We are still sewing t-shirts the same way since its invention - by manually-operated sewing machine. While I’m not advocating for the complete automation of all areas production, such as hand embroideries or lace making, we can learn to be less dependent on conventional materials and methods.

Yohji Yamamoto Y's For Men

Y's for Men jacket; Yohji Yamamoto trousers; Comme des Garçons shoes

I am aware that these ideas are no more refined than the first sketch on a napkin. So many pitfalls, yet so much to gain. How broken does the system needs to be before everyone considers counter-intuitive ideas? We've gone so far down the rabbit hole that we are unable to imagine what a healthy relationship between profit and artistry would look like.

When I was lamenting the time wasted waiting for flights, my attitude led to unproductive behaviour stemming from agitation and impatience. But when I began to accept it, I learned to appreciate that space in time that allows me to slow down and observe, to read and write. In a similar way, slowing down the pace of fashion requires an adjustment in our entitled attitude. We as creators and consumers should push aside the pursuit of immense profit to make way for long-term economic and environmental sustainability. Most importantly, we need to advocate for an equilibrium in which designers are incentivised to do their best work while allowing consumers to engage with their creations in a meaningful capacity.

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