Fashion is an industry that gets a pretty bad rap. It’s widely maligned for being inaccessible, damaging to body image, exploitative, frivolous and unimportant. Somehow the pursuit of beauty has been dismissed as something not worth our time, something shallow, which is a brutal but easy conclusion to come to.
The people that work in fashion don’t help in alleviating the stereotype either. The vapid stick has hit some of them hard and they seem to be carrying it with pride. Many years ago, whilst interning for a now-bankrupt Sydney designer, I listened with fascination as stylists complained about how fat they were (which, of course, they weren’t), business owners bragged about having a staff of 25 unpaid interns, and designers spent thousands of dollars on a pair of shoes for themselves before they paid their own pattern-makers. The people I met were sometimes terribly shallow, with an inability to talk about anything but clothing and accessories, and the world they lived in was objectively crazy. So I went and got a job in marketing and never looked back. After all these years, I see fashion as something that I thoroughly enjoy, but that it is so disconnected from my life, which makes me think. Perhaps fashion is only a bad thing if you are directly involved in it. From the outside, it’s nothing more than a beautiful spectator sport, surely? Pretty women, pretty dresses, the dream of a life we will never have. But after another fashion month comes and goes in these tumultuous times, one has to wonder; is fashion more important to our society, and ourselves, than we realise?
The thing that strikes me most about the fashion world is that underneath the glamour, the industry is loaded with freaks and geeks; creative dreamers that live for self-expression. Backstage at the shows is a place where people can be themselves, however loud or ugly or gay or strange that might be. The design world is populated by people that are eccentric at best and characterise integrity – Vivienne Westwood, Rick Owens, John Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui, Rei Kawakubo. If fashion weren’t an option, they would have been artists; individuality seeps from their very pores. These designers are not in it to make a fortune (admittedly many of them already have) but to bring a different style aesthetic to the world, a rebellious wink in a sea of conformity. These are the romantics that can reveal male genitalia in one collection and cover a woman in sequined tulle in the next. Flicking through a copy of Marie Claire, we might imagine that fashion is all conventional styling and red-carpet frocks, but this only represents the commercial side of fashion – Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, Victoria’s Secret – the real trendsetters are renegades and might make things that scare or challenge you, and that’s ok. The crazy people have made a home for themselves in fashion and they are here to freak you out for as long as you keep looking.
The fashion industry is often criticised for the lack of diversity, and true, many of the luxury houses have only just cottoned on to the desperate need to bring racial diversity into their shows. But while it’s taken some time to happen, most of the major fashion labels in Paris, London and Milan have turned diversity into a red-hot trend. Street casting is the new hip thing, with Vetements, Rachel Comey and Dolce & Gabbana featuring models of all ethnicities, ages, genders and appearances. Fashion has always embraced people that are shunned by the larger community and people that are not considered to be traditionally flawless. From the tiny imperfections – think Lara Stone’s gap-toothed smile – to the more unusual. Winnie Harlow walks the runway with striking skin vitiligo, Hari Nef and Ines Rau are proudly transgender, and industry veteran Hanne Gaby Odiele has recently revealed that she is intersex. These women are paving the way for young girls to understand that, in fact, there is not only one type of beauty, and there is no longer only one type of woman. It’s fashion’s colourful participants that take the narrative of what a woman should look like away from the dominant, heterosexual male and handed it to the queers, the girls, and the weirdos.
So it’s no surprise boundaries are being pushed here. Fashion is constantly being undermined and underestimated, deemed irrelevant. For this reason, political commentary within the collections is rife, whether it is subtle and subliminal or blatantly obvious. In post-GFC Milan, Miuccia Prada sent models down the runway with waxen white faces, morbidly dressed in heavy, grey tweed. Alexander McQueen’s 1995 show, Highland Rape, threw the feminist agenda violently into the faces of viewers, with ripped clothing, bruises and heavy overtones of malevolence. Vogue Italia boldly featured only black models in their 2008 Black Issue, while Chanel hosted a riot in 2014 and Missoni adorned their models with pink pussy hats at the most recent New York fashion week. Fashion reflects the climate, the sentiment of a season. It takes power like Putin and it gives it back like Robin Hood. And while some designers choose to make active statements about the state of the world, others reveal their headspace more subtly. Sometimes an unwavering commitment to escapism is the greatest act of rebellion.
In a film that is synonymous with the tribulations of the fashion industry, The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly dresses down her receptionist with her now-famous Cerulean Blue monologue. I’ll admit, while it’s not my favourite way to illustrate the merits of fashion, she hits on most interesting thing about the whole debate. Fashion is so much more than colours and styles, because even a lack of choice is a choice. By not participating in trends and following style influencers, a consumer is making a choice to visually identify as someone who does not participate. And that is fashion. Fashion is a way to represent yourself, to identify with others, to fit in or stand out. These days it is more available than ever, with the presence of fast-fashion, e-commerce and social media bringing runway knock-offs to the hands of consumers more and more quickly.
In the past, fashion may have only been available to the elite few but nowadays that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is available to everyone that has a vision, that wants to express themselves, that wants to make their life into a tiny piece of art in the most personal possible way. A form of expression that speaks to the people that you want it to speak to and goes unnoticed by those you don’t. Where punk ripped up denim in the 70’s, grunge tore holes in black stockings in the 90’s, and hippies put flowers in their hair in the 60’s…fashion doesn’t live on the runway. It lives and breathes on the street. It is as integral to our society and body politic as art or music.
Every few months, I take in the fashion shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris. There are designers that I have been following for years and whose talents I admire as much as I do Rothko or Lou Reed. Whilst scrolling through Dries Van Noten and Dior, I am struck by a beauty that I don’t see in my everyday life and it takes my breath away, just for a moment. And if that moment isn’t worth having, I don’t know what is.