In the past two years, we have gone from living in sweatpants to revenge dressing, a trend that has led to a super-fast growth of fast fashion. China-made Shein, one of the world’s biggest online retailer, for instance, grew by 60% in 2021. Brands like Zara and H&M, too, have reported a rise in sales, encouraging them to expand further and offer more collections, even sub-brands related to activewear, home furnishings, among others. It’s quite ironical if you consider the findings of The State Of Fashion report, published last year by management consultancy firm McKinsey. The report states that two-thirds of apparel shoppers across the world believe that sustainability is more important to them today than it was before the pandemic rocked the world.
The contradictions and complexities do not end here. The fashion industry has always been driven by political, economic and social change; it is a chronicler of culture, after all. Fashion reflects the times we live in and can reveal a lot more than you think about societal change.
At present, with the world dealing with several problems, designers are using their craft to call bring attention to issues that matter to them. From genderless fashion and size inclusivity, to global warming and cultural appropriation, the issues being discussed are varied and important. With representation and environmental issues especially coming under the spotlight, fashion has never been so political.
But while trying to address this need to make a statement, to respond to pressing issues, to show where a brand stands in terms of its values and beliefs, fashion seems to be overlooking an important aspect of the creative process: to have fun.
Has the industry forgotten that there are two sides to every coin? During difficult times, we need art to elevate us, to make us forget, at least momentarily, the pain of the present. Creativity is the soul of fashion. Where has it gone?
The reality of present
Should we blame the rise of social media, specifically Instagram, for the lack of creativity we are seeing in fashion these days? Designers are being called out for anything and everything—navigating the maze of “cancel culture” can certainly put a damper on the creative flow, forcing people to play safe. It was something Tom Ford spoke about openly last year. During an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Ford said: “Cancel culture inhibits design because rather than feeling free, the tendency is to start locked into a set of rules. Everything is now considered appropriation. We used to be able to celebrate other cultures. Now you can’t do that.” The designer also blamed social media for making style and beauty “increasingly cartoonish”.
Then there is the need to be Instagram-friendly—with everyone living in a virtual world, it is more important now how an outfit looks in a photograph than how it fits or feels. This perhaps explains the rise of a fashion trend like Barbiecore, which is all about the bright, bold and unabashedly fun world of the Barbie doll. Or the Balenciaga Trash Pouch, a $1,790 purse inspired by a garbage bag that recently became the most talked about item on social media. According to news reports, the Bag was made as a statement for climate change. But how do you explain the price tag? Fashion, it seems, has lost all sense of aesthetics.
Then there are market realities. Fashion is a multibillion-dollar business and the textiles industry remains India’s second largest employer, accounting for 5% of India’s GDP and employing over 50 million people directly. With the pandemic seeing several brands fold, designers and brands are putting commerce first.
The start of the pandemic saw designer Malini Ramani close her homegrown label. A few weeks ago, there were reports that a well-known global label was shutting. (Victoria Beckham is struggling despite all the recent positive media she’s been receiving.) This certainly must be weighing heavy on the minds of designers across the world.
While spending on fashion rose last year and many luxury brands are now reporting profits, we all know the inflation is upon us. In the UK, Office National Statistics figures show that sales started slowing down in July as consumers began cutting back on spending. The Chinese, known for their high spending on luxury brands, are also shopping less because of covid and inflation. At the recently concluded India Couture Week, in the capital city of Delhi, you could see that most designers were creating safe pieces for the upcoming wedding and festive season. The need to cash in has come at the cost of creativity, making fashion all about the commodity of apparel.
If couture is no longer about escapist fantastical fashion, then what hope is there for ready-to-wear? Sometimes, all a consumer wants is to step out of their comfort zone by wearing something different, something that brightens up their day and brings a feeling of delight.
But now, fashion labels are using data analytics to quickly learn what styles are currently popular and create garments using a similar formula. Waiting for a style or a trend to pick up momentum is a thing of the past. All this explains the sameness we see in fashion and why so much clothing in shops and online looks cookie cutter, no matter who the creator is. Have you noticed that when you walk around stores or inside malls, there’s nothing that surprises you?
We have forgotten the joy of fashion. Experimentation in fashion has been reduced to clothes having vibrant (and often overdone) prints and bold (verging on gaudy) colours that make for great photographs on social media. Fashion is supposed to be something you have fun with—it does not always need to be taken seriously. The industry seems to have forgotten that you need to put emotions before economics, style before statements and desire before data. Without artistry and imagination, fashion has no mojo.
Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what it means to us.
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.