New York Fashion Week Was All about Individuality, Not Fashion

There two ways to react to an almost post-apocalyptic reality: to address it or to ignore it altogether while diving in frenzied escapism. For most New York Fashion Week designers, the idea of setting trends appeared less and less enticing-instead they opted to celebrate individuality and self-acceptance. A good cause, indeed. From luxury pajamas to re-invented classics, this stripping back to fashion basics had a lot to do with manifestos-but nothing with design.

Optimism aside, New York Fashion Week has been having a serious identity crisis even before the pandemic. This season, one with no buyers and no influencers, street style stars or international press, most of America’s big names saved power for later. The Row, Proenza Schouler, Ralph Lauren were absent while the typically flamboyant Tom Ford show was replaced by a series of images showcasing the designer’s offering for the season. Ten new names made their debut but did very little to overturn the feeling that there was something seriously lacking-be it emotion, inspiration, or simply, design.

In fact, all the best moments were those that fashion innovation gave way to fierce manifestos on individuality and uniqueness. For the resurrected Imitation of Christ, Tara Subkoff enlisted a group of LA-based teenage female skateboarders to create a film showcasing their bad-ass confidence and skils. Initially, a “political art project disguised as a ‘fashion house’”  the brand’s team staged a show in L.A. and one in New York where they screened the collection video unexpectedly accompanied by opera hits. It was nothing new but was refreshing, full of youthful energy, and fitting for a brand that started off with tremendous success 20 years ago.

Maisie Schloss, who launched her brand, Maisie Wilen, last year, had her own statement to make. Schloss started as a designer at Yeezy and knows one thing or two about unexpected materials and on-trend design. For her collection, she focused on creative ‘weirdness’ and the idea of seeing clothes through screens.The designer didnt shy away from the back her work is almost made to be Instagrammed, in fact, she embraced its two-dimensional qualities by using strong trompe l’oeil techniques.

Yet, it was Private Policy’s collection that summarized the New York season. The genderless streetwear label used CFDA’s new digital platform Runway 360, to present their Spring 2021 collection called “Searching for Aphrodite.” For designers Haoran Li and Siying Qu, Aphrodite is a notion of beauty that goes far beyond the stereotypical approaches, a call for inclusion and representation that is characteristic to the brand since its birth. Their many Afrodites included vitiligo Calvin Klein star Yvesmark Chery, amputee musician Marsha Elle and Dominique Castelano, who dedicated her inclusion to “all the hot queer Asians,”. As in most New York Fashion Week cases, the message was indeed powerful, the clothes came second best. Or as Tom Ford best-summarized it “the last thing I want to see is serious clothes”. Well, you got it.

Politically Correct Is Boring -Is ‘Canceling Culture’ Killing Creative Inspiration?

Last week, “Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood, “Midnight’s Children” writer Salman Rushdie, literary figure Noam Chomsky and feminist Gloria Steinem were amongst 150 public figures to have signed a letter published in Harper’s Magazine condemning the practice of public shaming, or –as popularly known-‘cancel culture’.The letter openly denouncing ” a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” and “a blinding moral certainty”.This was one of the few public attempts to define what cancel culture really is and does.

‘Cancel culture’ is a true product on our social media playground and our new found freedom of expression that goes with it. Described as the desire to cancel out a person or community from social media platforms.it refers to the -by now popular -practice of un-supporting or ‘canceling’ public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable. Performed in the form of mobbing or group shaming via Instagram, Twitter or Reddit, cancel culture is also present in the fashion world in the form of “call-out culture”.

It is this very emergence of online ‘call-out culture’ a cultural phenomenon that gave a ‘platform’ to many independent voices allowing them to penetrate the rather exclusive fashion industry -and hold fashion designers marketers and editors accountable for copycat fashion products, cultural appropriations and lack of diversity and representation. Instagram watchdog account Diet Prada was the first account to call out designers copying fellow brands’ designs followed closely by Estée Laundry, a similar account that keeps a close eye on the boosting beauty industry.

Their influence-and impact-should not be underestimated. Diet Prada’s criticism over Dolce & Gabbana’s offensive 2018 China campaign resulted in an army of followers angrily shaming the brand –and was so impactful that the label shut down its Shanghai show altogether. In other words, it was ‘canceled’. Since then, the account has called out failings: lack of model diversity, toleration of abuse, and exploitation in the industry.

Canceling culture is present and powerful. A new breed of consumer watchdogs along with their millions of followers are currently forcing global fashion and beauty brands into action. Infallible? Not quite so. Emerging British designer Richard Quinn was publicly accused of knocking off Demna Gvasalia and its distinctive aesthetics when in fact, Quinn had been experimenting with similar designs since his graduate collection.

For Carolin Mair, Behavioural Psychologist and Business Consultant and author of The Psychology of Fashion, this a positive sign of the times.“Social media accounts such as Diet Prada broadcast to millions of their followers. Fashion creatives who ignore their messages, do so at their peril. As a result of these channels, current political and economic turmoil, fashion is now recognized as more than adornment, it is how we express and navigate identity. ” For the creatives themselves. this might be a new and tricky territory they can’t afford to ignore.

“Fashion creatives need to be part of the zeitgeist in their words and actions as well as their creations. adds Mair.  Authenticity, social responsibility, community, respect, and inclusion have always mattered, but these characteristics have often been ignored or sidelined by many in the industry, until recently. It is no longer enough to say and not do.”

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Image source: Instagram

This is a new type of discussion, one that takes into account values and ethics and dismisses aesthetics as irrelevant, or at best, of secondary importance. This practice may well work for the business aspect of the industry but excludes something vital-that high fashion can, and should be a form of art, a result of innovation, talent, and creative inspiration. One cannot help by bringing to mind prominent art names such as Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and Picasso that operated in the often blurred intersection of copying, interpreting, and innovating. What happens when fashion creatives cross the line?

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible.” writes Mark Twain, in his autobiography. “We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

“The desire to experiment is risky, tantamount to censorship. At the risk of sounding a little like a right-wing, middle-aged internet commenter incensed about the preservation of ‘freedom of speech,’ art does not truly thrive without the oxygen of scandal, or the occasional opportunity to be perverse.” notes Philippa Snow in a 2019 article for Indie magazine.

Basia Szkutnicka is a  Professor of Practice & Programme Leader of the MA in Fashion & Textile Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. For her, it’s a difficult time for creatives-and an uncertain one for all. “Fashion is changing drastically, whether that will be for the better, we don’t know right now, everything is in flux and changes daily. Now everyone is obsessed with encouraging, promoting, and celebrating diversity…we laugh at brands who unashamedly copy others, thinking no one noticed. With a need to generate income (because ultimately, fashion is a business), we may see insecurity in sales manifest as more copyists…or the opposite – a desire for the unique. Who knows right now.

Is this cultural phenomenon of excessive policing of expression killing inspiration? Are artists completely free to innovate by following their very personal inspiration, creating new images and fresh silhouettes? How can artistic inspiration flourish over excessive attention to be politically correct, unoffending? Many designers already privately comment they are so frightened of being caught out that they are completely rethinking their approach.  For Mair, the answer depends on several factors that include the actual definitions of political correctness, fashion, and art. “If the wearer/observer cares more about what is politically correct, then they may consider fashion outside of art. It depends on the perception (worldview, mindset, attitudes, experience, etc.) of the viewer. In fact, that is probably the same for other forms of art.” she notes.

There is criticism, though. “Politically correct’ for me, sounds boring. Fashion and art have been a place to voice an opinion and encourage dialogue…and let’s hope it stays that way. Without discourse, there is no progress’ comments Szkutnicka

Perhaps the last word in this discussion should come from the fashion creatives themselves. They are the ones to figure out their own answers-and to define their inspiration path. For Patrick van Ommeslaghe, art director, fashion designer, and part of the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp graduates’ circle, the authenticity of ideas is crucial for the fashion designer. “I was trained at The Royal Academy at a time when copying was still considered as the worst crime “ he points out. “And I still keep having in mind the Godard quote: It’s not where you take things from, its where to take things to”. Or in the words of  T.S. Eliot in ‘The Sacred Wood’: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Fashion has long been talking about the end of the world. Have we listened?

.The Coronavirus pandemic has been a surprise to most. Many countries and governments struggled to adjust to a new reality and take whatever action was needed in those unprecedented -and turbulent -times.

And yet, post-apocalyptical times have long been the topic of fashion. In fact, fashion designers have subtly-or more boldly-been talking about a dystopian end -of the –world situation coming. For those of us who attended last season’s Paris Fashion Week, the examples were more than obvious.

In fact, there was a great part of fashion designers that were dealing with modern man’s fall from grace -offering post-apocalyptic style collections that worked like mini-warnings for all mankind. Paris fashion week 2020 had at least three thigh profile shows addressing the issue of the world coming to an end as we know it because of man’s behavior. Marine Serre, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga and Jun Takahashi for Undercover did exactly this.

Functionality aesthetics, elaborate protection face masks, utility clothing and staging that made references to post-apocalyptic times told us we need to worry about our future. So how come we didn’t listen?

Clothes are most than a piece of fabric; and fashion tells stories as Virginia Woolf notes: “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us… There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not us them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking”

In that sense, fashion is a communication tool, an expression of social identity and this way one way or another it reflects the socioeconomic status quo Take it one step further, and fashion unveils the true mystery of the world, the visible, as Oscar Wilde would confirm. Fashion’s frivolity is a feast to the senses –but not only. By accurately reflecting its times, fashion in one of the semantic systems to reflect and thus predict the future.

Enter interpretation. Every system that can provide with information is always open to analysis and interpretation. The fashion critic of the past did exactly this-based in scientific knowledge, passion or insight, he would offer a lens through which we could view trends that exposed to forecasting the trends that are to come. Like every true artist, the fashion designer would consciously or subconsciously incorporate his knowledge and interpretation of the world translated into forms, shapes, embellishments.

When designers aren’t artists and fashion critics are fans, no true meaning can be extracted than this: fashion has lacked its unique ability to reflect the world. Can we hold  Millenial and Gen Z’ culture for rendering fashion synonymous with luxury and street style show off-only? Fashion criticism has long given place to relentless praise and press-release reviews that satisfy but don’t offer a view or a new meaning. It was this happy go-like side of the industry that maintained the fairytale-and the fairytale only.

This pandemic is a tragedy that holds many lessons. Let it one be the reinstallation of fashion as a tool for social discussion-and therefore-change. As an opportunity to dive into one of the greatest mysteries of this world-reality.