What is authenticity?

Wednesday, July 24th 2019
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I never used to like the word ‘authentic’ as applied to menswear. 

Back in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, when everyone was looking backwards and terms like ‘heritage’ and ‘craft’ were popular, ‘authentic’ was often thrown into the same mix.

But it was too vague. Companies with heritage were easy to define: they didn’t necessarily make better products, but you knew how long they’d been doing so. Equally craft: it might not have been clear how much handwork was required, but mass assembly-line products clearly did not apply. 

What did 'authentic' mean? Something that wasn’t pretending to be something it wasn’t? Fakes and knock-offs? 

Somehow, it seemed to be assumed that a craftsman making things by hand in their shed was more authentic than something larger. But that doesn’t really make sense, logically or linguistically. 

However. In the past couple of years ‘authentic’ has become increasingly important to how I see clothing. 

Partly, this is because the other terms - or values - have become less important. 

Heritage has been overemphasised. Frankly, some old companies make terrible products and are stuck in the past, unable to adapt either to changing consumer expectations or the media that markets them. 

So too has craft. The fact it is done by hand doesn’t necessarily make it better. Some craftsmen set out on their own before they’re ready, and deliver a poor product. And some things are just better made by machine. 

At the same time, authenticity feels increasingly relevant.

As regards heritage, for example, in recent years there have been companies buying old brands and re-using them, in order to claim heritage. That doesn't feel authentic. 

It also feels inauthentic when brands claim different cultures. Like some that put random Japanese or Korean characters all over their products. 

Or brands that start up online shouting about ‘cutting out the middle man’, and are in department stores by the end of the year. The reason they started online was because it’s easier and cheaper, not because of any fundamental business philosophy. They shouldn’t pretend otherwise. 

Into this same basket go companies who dress up discount stores as driven by some higher principle. And, more perniciously, online stores that compete purely on price, yet talk about supporting brands.

In fact, they’re doing the exact opposite, undermining brands’ business models. And they're largely driven by money. 

Probably the worst financial example in recent times, however, is venture capital and private equity. 

There’s nothing wrong generally with taking investment. But when that investment is short-term (aiming to grow fast and exit quickly) it often leads to a disconnect between brand and product. Too many stores, with staff that don’t know that product. Too many categories, with little connection to the founding concept. 

There have been an increasing number of companies like this in the past 20 years, as menswear has grown as a sector.

I'm not sure naming names is necessarily helpful here. First because it’s not the easiest thing to prove, and could easily descend into a slagging match. And second because it is primarily something you feel as a consumer, and therefore judge for yourself. Often one discussion with a sales assistant is enough. 

Some areas are also subjective. A lot of big-brand fashion feels inauthentic to me, having neither the artistic drive of couture nor the product-centric focus of a craft brand. But that won’t apply to everyone. 

Those fashion brands are often clearly inauthentic with particular products, though. I’m thinking of pre-distressed trainers, army shirts with made-up names on them, or varsity jackets decorated with random patches. 

All of them are pretending to be something they’re not, and then grates me more than it used to.

One positive response, I think, is to hold brands and people to account for what they say. Make a fashion brand spell out its supply chain when it makes claims to sustainability. Confront an influencer’s fake presentation of their life. 

This is something many serious companies are already doing, and they should be supported. Providing a QR code on a piece of cloth that spells out where it was made seems boring - but it is the ultimate in authenticity. 

There is a temptation also to broaden the point - to say it is a symptom of modern politics, of modern media. Trump and deep fakes. 

But actually these things have been going on for a long time. They come in and out of fashion, and we should push back against them in the same way - through what we say and what we buy.

I used to think that the best way to describe brands that we covered on Permanent Style was that they were ‘product-driven’ - as opposed to profit, likes, or fitting in with a trend. 

But I now think authenticity should be included. Perhaps authenticity, quality, and a sense of subtle elegance. The perfect trifecta. 

As ever, interested to hear your views.