The Hypocrisy of Fashion ‘Innovation’

“The more ephemeral fashion is, the more perfect it is. You can’t protect what is already dead.” – Morand

In a recent blog post, Consumerist fashion: Innovation Repressor, author and fashion pioneer Kate Fletcher wrote that “consumerist fashion not only damages the resource base, workers, consumers, etc., but also – and perhaps more insidiously – represses innovation; stifling anything other than that which benefits those invested in the status quo.”

One of the most obvious manifestations of this is in the immense speed of the fashion cycle, a system so rapidly changing that opportunities for “real innovation” are extremely limiting. The speed of change in fashionable dress is an old grievance of cultural observers. “Ah! Quelle Antiquité!” exclaim the couple in Carle Vernet’s etching dressed in the height of 1793 French fashion – “Oh! Quelle Folie que la Nouveauté!!!” replies the couple dressed in fashionable 1778 dress. The exchange roughly translates to  “Ah! What Antiquity!” and “Oh! What Madness of Innovation!” illustrating the rapid changes occurring in fashion in post-revolutionary France – and as a result the remainder of the fashionable world.

Carle Vernet

This “Madness of Innovation” is what still compels the fashion industry onward today. Author Barbara Vinken describes fashion as “the empire of the ephemeral,” in her book Fashion Zeitgeist and French writer and early Modernist Paul Morand claimed, “The more ephemeral fashion is, the more perfect it is. You can’t protect what is already dead”. Such musings are all well and good, but when the ephemeral nature of fashion leads to seemingly mountainous deposits of undesirable fashion items relegated to landfill – perhaps another attitude needs to be encouraged.

Fletcher describes consumerist fashion as a system that continually needs to “self-justify” itself, creating new styles in ever-faster cycles to replace old ones, which inevitably wear out quickly and were never intended to be mended. The phenomenal speed of this cycle relies on the ability of fashion houses large and small, from the high street to fashion week to copy and be influenced by the existing design work of other designers, either contemporary or historical. I say it “relies on it” because for fashion houses at all levels the development time for collections is growing ever shorter, leaving minimal time for true innovation and the pressure to meet deadlines and profit margins necessitates a degree of copying.

A homage or just plain knocking off? From left to right: East West Musical Instruments Co., Balenciaga, and Urban Outfitters

A good friend who was working for a fast fashion producer in London replied to an email I had sent her about my own work addressing sustainable fashion design, production and consumption systems. Describing the design process in the company she worked for she wrote “I don’t actually design them. But, in the loosest sense of design, I ‘adjust.’ Are you laughing??? I do most days. I correct appalling fit, I decided on length/print/colourways. I rip out a Lacroix skirt (out of Vogue) that I love with loads of lace and send it out to the factory with a line drawing and basic spec, cross my fingers and hope that something nice comes back.”

Current international law regarding the protection of fashion designs in theory allows designers to protect their designs, usually through the application of design patents or “trade dress,” and in the case of copyright automatically protects the patterns, textile design and sketches relating to any design and long as it is original. But what is original? The fashion zeitgeist can be described as a continuous line, a progression of ideas for which most are traceable through a cyclical lineage which marries other contemporary designers work with historical dress and often street fashion. As a result the difficulty in proving originality of idea in its entirety is immense.

An added complexity is the evolution of the fashion industry from being a relatively simple “trickle-down” procession of ideas to the non-linear system we have today where fashion ideas appear to come from anywhere. When writing about and discussing Zero Waste Fashion Design with others, I often need to point out that what I do also isn’t new. Zero-waste pattern cutting has been around for thousands of years in the form of Kimono and other historical costume, and more recently many designers worldwide such as Issey Miyake, Timo Rissanen, Mark Liu, Yeohlee Teng and Zandra Rhodes have been engaging with it.

Writer and designer Holly McQuillan at the traveling Yield Zero Waste Exhibit she curates

Miucci Prada famously said, “We let others copy us. And when they do, we drop it”. This altruistic attitude only works when the copied designer is already desirable to fashion consumers and the designer has generated income from being the first to produce the design. However since the advent of the Internet and improvements in manufacturing, the translation from high fashion to high street now only takes weeks, explaining why copying is so much more of a problem now.

Previously high fashion and couture houses were relatively unconcerned by copies as they would only be on the market after the original designs had had their moment and they had made a return on their investment. Indeed the copies indirectly drive later sales due to the obsolescence they induce. The Internet, whilst making fashion more accessible to consumers worldwide, has also made it very easy for fast fashion houses to translate consumer interest into new variations.

Anna Sui spring 2007 RTW on left and Forever 21′s Maven Top on right

Once styles are gleaned from the internet and processed by the design room, manufacturing advances mean that fast fashion firms such as Zara can take as little as 14 days from design room to retail floor – consequently taking income away from the designers that invested in developing the idea in the first place. Contemporary fashion moments pass by so quickly as to negate much of the need to protect individual designs – by the time designers patent their work, the fashion value of that piece is likely to have diminished if not dissolved completely. The result is that the majority of the fashion world treats their outputs as Creative Commons – “shared resources that can be freely reused, recreated and recombined” with a mostly self-governing “shame-police.”

Instead of legislating the rights of designers, fashion savvy consumers and observers can spot, and through blogs, out an overt copy, or as it is more euphemistically labeled “homage.” The loss of reputation can be damaging so most high-end designers try to avoid intentionally referencing other designers work too heavily. The situation becomes much more complex when well known designers copy little known players in the industry. It has been argued that this “referencing” aids the original designer, by giving them publicity which they may have otherwise never received, a convenient viewpoint for those with power in the fashion industry.

Feral Childe Teepee Print

Forever 21 Knockoff Print

Despite the potential benefit to society there appears to be little motivation from either designers or consumers to slow down the rate of change and so-called “innovation” in the fashion industry. The financial benefit from the current system is great. The specter of the derivative-driven fashion cycle is however something that should concern sustainable fashion designers. Indeed if the fashion industry as a whole aims to eventually be sustaining and follow best practice then the rampant excesses of consumption need to be addressed, something that companies such as Marks & Spencer who, whilst making great leaps forward in providing organic product ranges and other sustainable initiatives, fail to address. There are few design companies who actively encourage their consumers to buy less.

There are other ways to measure success. The fashion industry could protect and nurture up and coming designers, it could develop better pay and working conditions for the millions of its workers, it could move toward being an industry which values truly innovative design and prevents the proliferation of so-called “new or innovative” products purely for the sake of a quick return.

The more often that products are released to the public, the more often the consumers feel the need for change, and the faster that consumers get bored with current offerings. This could be attributed to the idea (as French provocateur Jean Baudrillard stated) that we consume as we lack any other real purpose in our lives. So we need alternatives.

Kate Fletcher writes: “To this, the response of those of us who love nature and the creative and cultural power of fashion and design can only be to invigorate innovation of these alternatives and develop a different plan of action.”

Image: Fashion Bomb Daily