Fashion is running out of ideas, faster and faster

Friday, October 16th 2020
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A couple of weeks ago I picked up a men’s fashion magazine in the new (very nice) newsagent on Chiltern Street. I really miss good print products, and fashion magazines in particular.

I think I flicked through it all in five minutes, and felt almost nothing afterwards. Like bingeing on fast food.

On the one hand, fashion brands seem to be veering towards ever more unwearable extremes. Gucci in some fur-and-spandex 70s fantasy; Prada preferring plastic gilets and oblong sunglasses.

Yet at the same time, the editorial was about product that was very homogenous: trainers, sweatshirts, bags, often indistinguishable from each other. The trainers all looked like a resurrection of a different military training shoe. The bags often had the brand name, founding year, and sometimes address stamped on the outside. Which is a pretty reductive form of design. The T-shirts were similarly just spaces for logos.

(There's a good piece on the business behind logo T-shirts on High Snobiety here.)

It feels like both these things – the extremism and the homogeneity – are symptoms of fashion brands having little idea what they’re saying any more. They’re thrashing about trying to be different, yet the actual products all look the same.

It didn’t use to be this way. Although I’ve always favoured classic clothing, I also enjoy being challenged, and stimulated by high fashion. It stops you becoming narrow-minded.

And there was always a leather jacket in Bottega Veneta in an aubergine colour I’d never seen before in my life, on anything; or a seemingly anonymous Margiela trouser that turned out to have the most beautiful cut. Today, Dunhill is the only brand I can think of (and perhaps the classic collection at Connolly) that rides this classic/fashion line well.

From my particular viewpoint – it’s a high horse I use for ranting about such things – I blame two things for this erosion of good fashion. The growing importance of hype, and of social media.

Hype drives not just fashion, but almost every area of modern consumption. Every new brand has to be a disruptor: they can’t just be launching something good, it has to be revolutionary.

You can see this in burger restaurants, which led to ‘disruptive’ chicken chains, ribs chains and so on. Or gyms, which have had hyper-hyped cycling clubs, then boxing clubs, then rowing, to the point that there’s a club near me that just does stretching. It’s huge.

Some of these have genuinely improved the quality in their particular market, and the choice. But many are driven by hype – just trying to produce the cheapest possible product, undercut the market, and grab enough of it to make money fast.

In menswear, there have been some of these. Glasses spring to mind. But mainstream fashion has had it harder. Cheap, disposable clothing from the likes of Boohoo is stealing their teenage market; celebrities are launching beauty lines; brands’ marketing power is being eroded by influencers.

And yet none of this furious activity seems to produce any actually interesting clothing.

I had two conversations recently with people at opposite ends of the fashion hierarchy, which I found interesting. A friend who heads up marketing for a large French brand, said: “We have no choice now but to work with influencers, with celebrities, with anyone that has a powerful voice – because we’re being drowned out. There’s a new hot name, new hype, every single day.”

The same week, I got into a conversation with a young salesperson at a multi-brand fashion store. She said: “Everyone here is so cynical about each new brand that comes in. It just seems to be about money. No brand is interested in real design; they’re just pushing out new things to grab as much as they can.”

One of the factors driving this is venture capital. Every new brand has funding rounds, when they can, and those investors are driven by short-term growth. I’ve talked to a few friends that have been through this process. One commented: “We were lucky, we found an investor that was interested personally, and for whom it was just an interesting idea. But the vast majority need quick returns – and you can’t do that with things as basic as taste or quality.”

 

Perhaps a bigger driver is social media. We all know what it’s like: you come to expect dozens of new, exciting images every time you flick through Instagram. Each of which must be fresh and attention-grabbing. You’re looking for hype.

Slow craft and elegant clothing cannot compete with this – with this need for newness, this volume of information and the speed of consumption.

They are species of art and of beauty that require careful appreciation. The mind needs to slow down to the speed required to read a novel, or to visualise the development of a theme in a piece of classical music.

The fact is social media can be manipulated, but few of us do so: cut down who you follow, slow the speed, comment genuinely and thoughtfully.

As ever, we get what we deserve. If we do not buy quality magazines, or newspapers, they will go. If we seem to suggest, because we consume it, that we want 100+ fashion images a day, spending an average of 0.15 seconds on each one, then this is what fashion brands will provide.

It seems those brands have resorted to a formula of outré styling, accessible to you with the purchase of overpriced trainers or a branded sweatshirt.

Somehow it feels as if we’re consuming both the most over-seasoned food we could imagine, and the blandest.

This Permanent Style rant is now over. It’s been a while; it felt good. Back to suit reviews next week.

*Also, I cut out a section looking at how much I benefit from this system I criticise so freely. It felt like a distraction. But do let me know if you’d like that as well.

UPDATE: Cut out section added below, thanks for the requests there:

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In writing this article, I have been very aware of the ways in which Permanent Style - and I, personally - have benefited from some of these trends.

One of them is that Permanent Style could not exist in a world without the kind of disruption we have seen in the media in the past 20 years. The internet gave everyone the power to become a publisher; Google made everyone equally findable, and placed value on genuine interest and engagement; social media is the most powerful marketing tool the world has ever seen.

Together, these three mean that I can genuinely compete with the likes of GQ or Vogue for attention, and stand out if what I do is better. In a previous generation, that would have required membership of a particular elite, and many years working a company ladder.

The second way in which PS is related to these trends, is that the 'hype' atmosphere around new products has helped drive interest in our collaborations. Whether they recognise it or not, the speed and appetite of social media makes readers more excited about classic menswear launches as well, whether it be a PS collaboration or a new knitwear colour from Rubato.

I think the first step is recognising this. The second is resisting the urge - and every stage - to push at it too hard. The occasional teaser image on Instagram is fine, and fun, but when you deliberately reduce stock to keep people hungry, or start to approach any of this marketing process cynically, I feel that's very different.

We often sell out of products because we buy small quantities. And we do that because we're small and self-funded, and because we want to ever avoid going on sale. The only way to avoid that is to sell out of products. (You could just never discontinue colours or products, and restock continuously, but that would mean you grew very big, very quickly, which is also not what we want to do - or can afford to do.)

Lastly, I think PS benefits from the fact that fashion brands and magazines are doing a terrible job at appealing to the kind of intelligent, tasteful man that is today a PS reader. And for that I am grateful, if also genuinely sad. I like having something else to read.