The following is an edited and revised outline of my keynote lecture that opened the Creative Cut conference at the University of Huddersfield on February 24th, 2016.
Good morning. Thank you Kevin Almond and the University of Huddersfield for the invitation to speak at this conference. Thank you all for being here this morning. It is a privilege to be with you.
I am not the first to declare that fashion is in crisis. For more than a decade my research has focused on the environmental and social crises in fashion, which in fact are environmental and social crises for all humanity. More recently there has been an industry-wide awakening to the related cultural and economic crises that fashion is facing – that we are facing. Through my research I have a deeper sense of the crisis than most, which at times is a burden. As a designer and design educator, however, every day I am present to the collective potential of humanity: we really are brilliant when we want to be.
I wrote the abstract for my talk in September, before the resignation of Raf Simons from Dior, and before the firing of Alber Elbaz from Lanvin. Apart from the tragedies of McQueen in 2010 and Galliano in 2011, I wrote it before the conversations about the amount of pressure placed on creative and artistic directors in fashion today. I wrote it before Burberry, Tom Ford and Vetements, among others, announced that they would show within a new schedule timed with collections hitting retail. I wrote it before Paul Smith announced the consolidation of the company’s collections to two per year. I don’t say this to suggest that I had some premonition about what was to come; the signs have been there for all of us to see for years. On the whole, the industry is facing change on a scale unseen since the 1960s, when ready to wear began to dominate haute couture.
Much has been written in the past few months about these changes. This month, an impassioned Sarah Mower writes in i-D about the industry’s need to change. She makes a distinction between “designer fashion” and “the copyist industry”, for me a shaky distinction, to which I shall return. Also this month, Orsola de Castro, founder of From Somewhere and co-founder of Fashion Revolution, explains how fashion supply chains are now ready for these shifts.
I argue that these events are not solely a symptom of a fashion problem. Fashion often takes an isolationist view of itself, and while sometimes this is for the simple need for focus, often it is a function of naive elitism. Sometimes it is based on an assumption that the world outside of fashion is not relevant to whatever is happening in fashion. I also argue that part of this naive elitism is a rejection of complexity: the seeking of simple explanations or causes to what in fact are complex, interconnected and systemic problems. The rise of fast fashion in the past 15 years, and the more recent emergence of social media and its immediate delivery of information, are presented as the primary causes of the crisis of fashion.
It will take more than shifting an admittedly wacky fashion calendar to create an industry that works for most people. Fashion’s malaise is a symptom of something larger, a systemic ill. We are in an economy without a future, a downward spiral. What we need is a vision for something radically new, together with global action. I am not speaking about fashion now. I will say, however, that we in fashion are particularly comfortable with the radically new, and I expect us to play a key role in the societal changes to come. The rejection of the untenable speed by key members of the industry is perhaps evidence of this.
What unites us here at the conference is a passion for creativity and a passion for cutting. A cut is an act of creation. Celant (1997: 21) stated, “To cut is to think and see.” To cut is to create. This series of images taken over several weeks by two students in Finland provides a snapshot into the thinking that creative cutting is. It also provides a snapshot into the time that the thinking in cutting takes. Just as I am passionate about cutting, I am passionately protective of the time that it takes to cut and to think, and I am passionately protective of the time it takes to create.
The American environmentalist Edward Abbey stated, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Along similar lines, the American economist Herman Daly calls our economic thinking growthism, noting how our obsession with infinite growth is akin to a religion. He and many others have argued since the 1970s that limitless growth is a fallacy given that we exist within a larger, finite system, which is planet Earth. In 2013 Suzy Menkes wondered about the source of the new speed in fashion, whether it was driven by ever-escalating consumer demand for the new, or by business chasing further profit and growth. I argue that both are symptoms of a systemic cause, that of the economic system. This system governs business as well as fashion design, alongside politics and the states of the environment and society today. The same economic system that has 62 people own the same amount as is owned by the poorest half of humanity. The same economic system that has killed thousands of garment workers and cotton farmers in the past two decades. The same economic system that sees many more fashion designers graduate from fashion schools each year than there are fashion design jobs for.
Tony Fry (2009: 28) argues that “Designers design, but how they are themselves designed, and what is designed by the designing of what they design is rarely recognized or understood.” In this argument is part of the solution for fashion, and a hope for the current surfeit of fashion designers globally. Humans are brilliant when we want to be. Similarly designers are brilliant when we want to be. Fashion and society themselves are in need of a redesign, and while there will always be a cherished place for the traditional fashion designers proposing new forms and colours, we also need fashion designers of an entirely new kind. We need fashion designers who are capable of working with economists, and fashion designers capable of collaborating with climate scientists. We need a fashion industry literate in history, in economics, in anthropology and in science. I’m not suggesting we need every person in fashion to be capable of all of this; rather, collectively we need to have this capacity. I call on you to engage actively in this redesign of fashion and society.
In a text on risk-taking in fashion design, Holly McQuillan (2011) describes a fashion designer friend copying a Christian Lacroix skirt from a magazine. When the factory sample came back at £5, it was deemed too expensive to produce. This today is fashion design. As I mentioned earlier, Sarah Mower makes a distinction between designer fashion and the copyist industry. I’ll show you two examples, that for me chip away at this distinction.
This is a Madeleine Vionnet dress from 1938, and a Chanel haute couture dress by Karl Lagerfeld from 1997. Sure enough, the garments are not the same. The beaded horsehair braid fabric, however, is identical. My undergraduate degree was a combined fashion and textile design degree, and I call copying on the textile.
The second example is an Yves Saint Laurent dress from 1983, and a Julien MacDonald dress from 2009. Not unlike the Vionnet/Chanel example, only the fabric, via beading done by Lesage, is the same. Again, the undergraduate textile designer in me calls this a copy. I am sure if questioned, both designers would claim homage to be at play here. For me this chips away at Chanel’s credibility in particular, in their sometimes aggressive claims of having been copied.
During my PhD I discovered that a number of pattern cutting books provide instructions for copying existing designs, through a practice that in America is called “rubbing off”. Missing from these instructions is a criticality about the practice itself, and this is what I have a problem with. I argue that as educators and as authors of texts used in education we should not merely present information. We must empower our students to ask critical questions, to challenge assumptions, and to invite them to dare to imagine new possibilities. To simply show how to copy something, without framing that activity beyond “this is what happens in industry” is akin to pulling the rug from underneath design education itself. Why bother invest the time in research, in idea generation, in creative pattern cutting, if one can simply copy someone else’s work and pass it off as one’s own?
Vivienne Westwood, perhaps the most eminent of self-taught fashion designers, once said: “By trying to copy technique, you build your own technique.” (Wilcox 2004: 9) The dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp (2003: 65) writes about a novelist who taught himself to write fiction by retyping the stories of his favourite authors. This act forced him to examine how other writers constructed stories and created characters. What if copying in pattern cutting manuals was framed in this way? In fact a draping book by Annette Duburg and Rixt van der Tol (2008) does that, by demonstrating how to drape a number of outfits from key designers of the 20th century, garments by Madame Gres and Yohji Yamamoto among others. These are not presented merely for copying: through draping each of these designs one is forced to retrace some of the steps taken by the designer. The act of draping one of the designs is a window into another’s thinking process. I used this technique myself during my undergraduate studies, by draping a number of garments by Madeleine Vionnet, and through this my understanding of Vionnet’s design process deepened. This is not, however, how rubbing off is presented in pattern cutting manuals, and I ask you to join me in demanding that in the future it is.
As educators we know this: To master something takes a lot of work, and a lot of discipline. Copying is certainly part of the learning process of fashion design, however I invite you to join me in empowering the next generation of the industry to stop presenting copying as design, whatever the market level. Claire McCardell could be a guide in this respect: her design was informed by highly intelligent cutting in the American mass market. Again, copying is important here. While a student at Parsons, McCardell spent a year on the Paris campus. She would buy toiles from Madeleine Vionnet and unpick them and study them and this informed her design principles later on. In McCardell we have a historical precedent to demonstrate that creative cutting and originality can comfortably be part of any level of fashion. What we do need is a transformation of the economic system and the business models that have arisen within it. Within these new business models, we need a new creative vision for fashion, from the mass market to haute couture. We need business to nurture creativity.
Fifteen years ago Issey Miyake stated: “To change every six months… is crazy. It’s designer suicide.” (Frankel, 2001) In light of where we now are with the pace of the industry, the statement seems hopelessly nostalgic. Six months have become two or three at best, with virtually no time for deep research and development.
To create something is an intellectual effort, and intellectual effort takes time. Real creativity in fashion design is an intellectual effort first and foremost, and it requires rigorous practice and time. It also requires time for reflection and contemplation. As de Castro (2016) notes: “[Time] has now been almost eradicated from the fashion language, in one carefully orchestrated statement. From fast to faster.”
In that context these three gowns by Yeohlee Teng are an anachronism. She conceived them simultaneously in order to maximize the seven yards of fabric she was able to afford. Spending time can be an investment, however we seem to have lost sight of that. Almond (2010) notes that creative pattern cutting is expensive, as it takes time, and time is money. However, as we are starting to see all too clearly, there are different kinds of costs with pushing prices in fashion down.
Madeleine Vionnet started as a seamstress’s apprentice at the age of 11 (Kirke 1998: 35-36). She opened her own house at 36, in 1912. 25 years of work – of threading a needle, pushing that needle through fabric, repeating this tens of thousands of times, before moving onto fitting clients at Callot Souers and creating designs for Doucet – 25 years of work prepared her for a career that along with Chanel and Poirot established the tone of early 20th century fashion. 25 years of work to refine the ideas, to develop a philosophy. While I’m not suggesting that 25 years is necessary to master anything – mastery can be developed in less than a decade – Vionnet’s example provides a stark contrast with our era where the number of your Instagram followers is directly connected to the influence and authority you have over fashion, no matter how hollow your knowledge or ill-informed your views.
Some years ago I caught up with a former student who now designs for a large brand. She had calculated she had 25 minutes to design each garment in the collection. Those of you familiar with design, take a moment to think about it. What would you design in 25 minutes? 25 minutes is sufficient to find something in existence and to write an instruction to re-fabricate it, based on a photograph or a sketch. Whether this is fashion design is open to debate.
While this example is from a mass retailer, up to 2015 we perhaps thought that the highest designer level was immune from this, that it still was a collective laboratory for ideas. Demna Gvasalia in a recent interview with Imran Amed (2016) said, “You have to be a machine of ideas that produces new things every three months.” Gvasalia critiques brands trying to cover too many things in collections, something I reflected on on Monday visiting John Smedley, a brand that has been doing one thing – knitwear – very well for over 200 years. This has been echoed in conversations among the advisory board for the CFDA Fashion Initiative in New York, that brands are asked to cover too many bases too soon. Designing purely in response to market research and merchandising plans potentially denies a brand the opportunity to specialize in anything.
Several astronauts and cosmonauts have reported a profound shift in perspective when looking back at earth from space. This has become to be called the overview effect. Edgar Mitchell, an astronaut on Apollo 14, summed it up perhaps better than any other: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
Many of you would have seen the Oxfam report a few weeks ago, that noted that 62 individuals own the same portion of the world’s wealth as the poorest half. That is, 62 richest people on the planet own the same amount as the poorest 3.6 billion people. This is down from 388 people in 2010; there has been a drastic increase in wealth inequality, that shows no signs of slowing. Another decade or two, and most of us will not be able to afford to travel to a conference like this. Very much connected to this, we have lost several decades to inaction on climate change; the science has been widely known since the 1980s. Underlying the speeding up of the fashion industry and the increasingly unworkable world for most of humanity is greed. And yet money makes little difference when we run out of arable land or clean water – and both are real prospects for millions around the world in coming decades, and not limited to that which we call the developing world, if that should matter to you. That said, as I noted before, we humans are brilliant when we want to be. The question to ask ourselves is, Do we want to be brilliant? If yes, what are we going to do?
Sarah Mower writes: “We are moving into a more human-scaled down time when collective action, people bonding together in friendship and family groupings are producing things together, which have real meaning, both in terms of clothes and ethos.” On first reading this sounded to me as if written by Professor Kate Fletcher, who has been calling for radical, human scale action in fashion for years. I commend Sarah Mower for building on Fletcher’s call. I urge her, and I urge all of us, to make this a reality in fashion, and make it a reality in the world. The call must not become a one-season lip service to idealism. As I said earlier, we need radical, sustained actions.
Often my students ask me how I keep going in the face of the overwhelming crises that threaten the world as we know it. My simple answer is responsibility. Werner Erhard, an American critical thinker, has described responsibility in a manner that inspired me, and I hope it will inspire you. Erhard says:
“Responsibility begins with the willingness to take the stand that one is cause in the matter of one’s life. It is a declaration not an assertion, that is, it is a context from which one chooses to live. Responsibility is not burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. In responsibility, there is no evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong. There is simply what’s so, and the stand you choose to take on what’s so. Being responsible starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from the view of life that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are. That is not the truth. It is a place to stand. No one can make you responsible, nor can you impose responsibility on another. It is a grace you give yourself – an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of life.”
With that, I call for responsibility in fashion. I will finish with a number of demands.
It is safe to say that we do not need more fashion designers or fashion design schools. However, we do need a reimagining of what fashion design is, and we must empower our students newly to be prepared for unimagined opportunities and challenges. In my PhD I argued that pattern cutting is fashion design, and in many presentations that follow over the two days, the same argument will be made, either explicitly or implicitly. I demand that we stop pretending that merchandising is design. I demand that we slow down and that we scale down.
I demand a fashion industry that benefits the people working in it – all of the people working in it. I demand an economic system that benefits every human on the planet; an entirely new economic system not constrained by the limitations of economies that we have tried before, that have not worked.
I’ve said several times this morning: we humans are brilliant when we want to be. I will finish with a demand to you. My demand to you is, push against the demand to deliver more and to deliver faster. Stand for the strength and integrity of your ideas and the strength and integrity of your students’ ideas. Stand for the time that creativity takes. Continue cutting creatively. Be guardians of creativity.
I look forward to the next two days with you. Thank you very much.
Amed, I. (2016) ‘Demna Gvasalia Reveals Vetements’ Plan to Disrupt the Fashion System’, Business of Fashion, February 5, 2016, http://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/demna-gvasalia-reveals-vetements-plan-to-disrupt-the-fashion-system
Almond, K. (2010) ‘Insufficient allure: the luxurious art and cost of creative pattern cutting’, International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, vol. 3, no.1, pp. 15-24.
Celant, G. (1997) ‘To cut is to think’, in G. Celant (ed.), Art/Fashion, New York: Guggenheim Museum, pp. 22-27.
de Castro, O. (2016) ‘Time’, Fashion Revolution, February 22nd, 2016, http://fashionrevolution.org/time/
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