Let us not deny it: fashion as we know it is dying, as it should be.
As of September, independent fashion businesses were predicted to decrease by 35%, and 50% of Italian fashion companies were enduring enough financial stress to be at risk for complete shutdown. The fashion industry cannot survive much longer as it currently stands. Why is this the case?
Like many industries, the fashion industry has metamorphosed into a profit-first model. And, given the economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic on the general populace, there is no incentive to purchase more clothing, much less designer clothing, and the whole apparatus is falling apart. This is not simply a matter of financial hardship, but a multi-faceted issue. The fashion industry is, in a word, poisoned.
Acclaimed American fashion designer Marc Jacobs admitted in a recent interview that the current state of the fashion industry was stifling free creative expression and risk-taking due to its privileging of mass production.
“We’ve done everything to excess [so] that there is no consumer for all of it, and everybody is exhausted by it. It’s all become a chore that’s just a waste of time and energy, and money and materials. I just think that the whole waste is taking the luxury out of fashion, as well as the creativity out of it, because when you’re on such a tight calendar and you’re just told to ‘produce, produce, produce.’”
Fast-fashion is meant for consumption in excess, a fact made all the more damning when noted alongside the proliferation of labor abuse in the industry. The U.S Department of Labor has found that 85% of garment factories in Los Angeles commit wage violations. Bangladesh’s 2013 Rana Plaza factory explosion killed 1,100 people, injuring another 2,500, and this is only one of many examples of dangerous working environments. In terms of environmental impact, 85% of the United States’s textile waste goes to landfills.
Simply put, the current state of the fashion industry is directly harming human lives. It is this focus on excess, this preoccupation with profit, that has perpetuated so much harm.
In Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger claims, referring to the image of art itself, that “the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is.” That is to say, the original is no longer special because of any quality other than that of it being the first. Comparatively, the original statement of the piece has been replicated to be mass consumed.
The current state of commodification and branding of the fashion industry has replicated this parabole. Major brands like Gucci, Comme Des Garcons, Louis Vuitton, etc. are recognizable by their gaudy and extravagant labels — whether with their name or simply a stark red heart with eyes. A basic shirt can be priced over $100.
We know, of course, that presentation is power, it generates status. The fashion elite of the world co-opt this to not only sell their clothing, but to sell a projection of power. When someone wears a plain black t-shirt with nothing else but “GUCCI” in big block letters across their chest, is it really the aesthetic and statement of the article of clothing they were drawn to, or the projection of status? Are we buying clothes, or are we buying brands? What type of aesthetic are we purchasing — opulence, or the performance of opulence?
The great American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag notes in The Aesthetics of Silence that “it is in the nature of all spiritual projects to tend to consume themselves — exhausting their own sense, the very meaning of the terms in which they are couched. (Which is why “spirituality” must be continually reinvented.)”
The spirit of fashion has cannibalized itself, leaving us with an industry that is killing the planet, violating human rights, and privileges vapid accumulation of capital over real creative risk. Every purchase one makes is tied to a string of misfortunes afflicted onto another.
Of course, this is not an indictment of any one specific designer, but an indictment of the industry itself. There are plenty of designers and fashion houses committed to equity and sustainability, as well as a commitment to creativity and art. As a holistic organism, though, the industry is at a critical moment, one in desperate need of redefining.
And we can see this decline already, from elaborate shows of wealth to the closing of retail shopping malls, which leave the empty corpse of what was once a thriving hub of fashion consumption. Online video essayist Natalie Wynn argues that “There is a new aesthetic sensibility emerging….a gothic aesthetic for the 21st century — [a] decaying opulence that is the carcass of 20th century consumerism.”
But this does not mean there is nowhere to go from here. Instead, both the fashion industry and lovers of fashion are being presented with an opportune chance to direct its future. We can make something out of this detritus.
So, where should we go from here?
Above all, the industry must reckon with its past mistakes and move toward equitable production. It is paramount to pay laborers fair wages, provide safe working environments, rectify systemic racism, and limit the waste of textile factories through recycling and upcycling. Only when the industry considers the rights of its workers will it be able to transcend into a new aesthetic domain.
Let us push the boundaries of what fashion can be. We should look to independent and up-and-coming designers to pave the way toward a new future, while also holding major fashion brands accountable. Let us encourage artistic risk and innovation, combining opulent aesthetic (or lack thereof) with functionality. And, above all, let us embrace a new spirit of fashion, a spirit that respects and honors both those who make our clothing and those who wear it.
Let us leave what is dead, dead.
Ahmed, Osman. “What Will the Fashion Industry Look like Post-Covid 19.” I-d, 25 Sept. 2020, i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/z3eaz4/what-will-the-fashion-industry-look-like-post-covid-19.
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” Living with Contradictions, 2018, pp. 189–198., doi:10.4324/9780429499142-27.
Hobbs, Julia. “Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney on Hope, Creativity and the Future of Fashion.” Vogue, 18 Apr. 2020, http://www.vogue.com/article/15-memorable-moments-vogue-global-conversations-anna-wintour.
Meagher, Syama. “The Not-So-Hidden Ethical Cost Of Fast Fashion: Sneaky Sweatshops In Our Own Backyard.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 Apr. 2020, http://www.forbes.com/sites/syamameagher/2020/02/05/the-not-so-hidden-ethical-cost-of-fast-fashion-sneaky-sweatshops-in-our-own-backyard/.
Schlossberg, Tatiana. “How Fast Fashion Is Destroying the Planet.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Sept. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/books/review/how-fast-fashion-is-destroying-the-planet.html.
Sontag, Susan. Essays of the 1960s & 70s. The Library of America, 2013.
Wynn, Natalie, director. Opulence. Youtube, 2019.