Opinion / Oversharing and Underthinking
Contagious Insiders’ Katrina Dodd asks if fashion has become too fashionable?*
When it comes to unedifying spectacles, the US presidential election campaign had serious competition over the last few weeks from the travelling circus that is Fashion Month.
It feels like a betrayal to say that. I love clothes. I love people who make clothes, I love places that sell clothes, I love pictures of clothes. And Fashion month ensures an abundant supply of all things sartorial; four weeks of actual clothing and clothing-related content in joyful abundance. Usually that feels like a win.
But this year it felt like a shambles. The problem was not so much the clothes as the coverage. In fact, the shows themselves have almost ceased to be the main attraction; the industry itself has become the star of its own rolling soap opera.
To recap, we’ve seen designers called out for – and hitting back over accusations of – cultural appropriation, models harassed because their social media fame is somehow incompatible with high fashion, Vogue editors indulge in a huffy takedown of the fashion bloggers and influencers now competing for the hearts and minds of the global fashion audience, Karl Lagerfeld imply that Kim Kardashian had it coming when she was robbed of her diamonds at gunpoint in Paris and Hedi Slimane, outgoing designer at YSL, take to Twitter to set journos straight (in the third person) on the status of the letter ‘Y’ during his tenure.
In her New York Times column, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman diagnosed the problem as ‘the insidious, slippery slope of oversharing.’
A few years back, a similar observation was made – in typically pithy terms – by the late, legendary professor Louise Wilson, head of Central St Martin’s MA Fashion course: ‘I think the problem is that fashion has become too fashionable. For years, fashion wasn’t fashionable. Today fashion is so fashionable that it’s almost embarrassing to say you’re part of fashion. All the parodies of it. All the dreadful magazines. That has destroyed it as well because everyone thinks fashion is attainable.’
That comment first appeared in 2009: seven years later it’s probably safe to say that fashion really IS attainable (subject to all the usual boring conventions of being able to pay for it, obviously), but is it really under threat? Can an industry that's almost defined by change be damaged or destroyed because technology has broadened access and created the potential to evolve the infrastructure?
Disruption tends not to hang around waiting for the incumbents in a given industry to get comfortable with the idea of change: it just rolls on, and the opportunities it creates are there for everyone to take advantage of.
What that means is that Fashion’s North Star has changed from ‘Elite’ to ‘compete’. And that’s a good thing, especially if it forces the fashion establishment to face the uncomfortable reality that ‘change’ is no longer about redefining hemlines and silhouettes, it’s about rethinking every aspect of how the industry works in a world gone digital.
This season has seen a number of fashion houses break with the tradition of showing clothes six months before they hit the shop floor, moving to a ‘see now buy now’ model that synced the runway launch of collections to their immediate availability to purchase in-store and online.
Burberry has been one of the first to embrace the full-scale re-organisation of its supply chain and processes that this requires: not the kind of undertaking you commit to on a whim. Nevertheless, the change led fashion journalist Tim Blanks to ask Burberry's chief creative officer Christopher Bailey about the impact the change would have on the designer’s creativity: would he become ‘so attuned to what people buy immediately that there’s less chance you will take the risks... Do you see that as a potential danger?’
To his eternal credit, Bailey (who often comes across as solicitous to a fault), visibly bristled at this suggestion:
‘I don’t, and I find it an incredibly patronizing argument. Designers are not stupid… What we’re doing is what I feel is right but there is no rule book, no formula. What I do know is everyone around us is changing the way they live, work, shop, engage, are entertained, date, eat, holiday: everything is changing and our industry is not immune to that change, and our customers are not immune to those changes… We are living in a radically different world.’
Happily for fashion, that radically different world has a demonstrable appetite for fashion that should be gladdening hearts at every major label, but while all that interest is a good thing you have to be smart about how you use it.
Two years ago at our Most Contagious event in December 2014, we quoted Tyler Brule, the editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine, on where he thought brands were going wrong when it came to content. His assessment? They were really bad at editing, putting out too much content, seduced by the abundance of free media channels which he memorably described as information buffets. ‘All you can eat. Except in this case it’s sort of the reverse: All you can vomit out.’
Perhaps not the best analogy in the context of fashion... But two years on, it feels like not that much has changed, and the oversharing – and the under-thinking that drives it – needs to be replaced with the kind of rigor, discipline and skill that these aspirational brands apply to the creation of the products that they sell.
The democratisation of fashion is here to stay. No one expects fashion to get everything right all of the time, but we do expect an industry that predicates itself on taste and savoir faire to live those values out with something resembling good grace, good humour and just a modicum of self-awareness across every level of their business, even when they’re still just figuring out their next move in a shifting business landscape.
*No, but sometimes I wish it would shut up and get a grip
Katrina Dodd is a senior consultant at Contagious Insider. Contagious Insider is a dedicated consultancy unit that partners with creatively brave leaders to build the vision, tools and capabilities that drive change. To find out more about Contagious Insider – including our renowned creative capabilities practice – please contact firstname.lastname@example.org