Opinion: Is fashion dead? And should we care?

Chanel Fall-Winter 2019/20 finale. (PHOTO: Oliver Saillant)
Chanel Fall-Winter 2019/20 finale. (PHOTO: Oliver Saillant)

By: Niki Bruce

Every year pundits around the world make pronouncements about the end of something – television, radio, newspapers etc. In the world of people who like clothes, it is now the turn of the fashion industry.

Is fashion, the influential social phenomenon of telling you what to wear, when and why, finally dead? And if it is, does it really matter?

On February 19, just days before the Chanel Autumn Winter 2019 runway show, Karl Lagerfeld, the outspoken doyenne of 20th century fashion and the mastermind behind the rise of Chanel, died after a short illness.

Fashion fans and industry stalwarts around the world bemoaned his passing, his praises rang to the skies and littered the internet for days. For non fashion fans, it was often the first time they had even heard of the man.

And that is the crux of the current situation of fashion as a global industry. It’s not so much the brands that fashionistas name drop, it’s the rest of the world who buy basic clothes to wear.

Gone are the days of people making their own clothes at home, now it’s all about getting what you want from your phone, delivered to your doorstep, and with little to no thought about how it was made or where it came from.

I recently came across a fantastic quote from William McDonough, an expert in the realm of architecture, community design and consulting based on the Cradle to Cradle philosophy – where products need to be considered from the day they are built, to the day they are recycled into something else.

The quote pointed out that ‘fashion’ is actually a verb; a doing word. We ‘fashion’ something, we make something. Fashion as a noun, as it is used today, is a mutation of the concept of creating clothes (or anything else for that matter).

If you think about modern fashion, when everything is manufactured by machines and shipped around the world in hours or days, we are not ‘fashioning’ anything. We are simply consuming clothes.

Which is where the idea of the ‘death of fashion’ arrives. The massive Fashion Industry that will be worth about US$325.8 billion in 2022, is certainly not dying. But the concept of the glamorous, unique and interesting world of Fashion as a craft-based business, as a set of ‘rules’ to dress by, does seem to be declining.

According to a report from Forbes, in 1930 an average American woman owned nine outfits – yes, just nine! Now, it’s 10 times that; the same average American woman has an outfit for every day of the month.

What’s more concerning, however, is that during the 30s you would be spending about 15% of your income on those nine outfits, whereas today, you are spending more like 52% of your income. That means that you are buying more, but the quality and value of those pieces are worth a whole lot less.


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A woman enters a store as a sign advertising a sale is displayed in the window on Orchard Road in Singapore, on Sunday, June 3, 2018. (PHOTO: Getty Images)
A woman enters a store as a sign advertising a sale is displayed in the window on Orchard Road in Singapore, on Sunday, June 3, 2018. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

What we are now buying are clothes, not ‘fashion’.

Even the fashionistas have begun to question just what all those clothes on runways at fashion weeks around the world are for. Finally there was an agreement among the big name designers that clothes, or fashion, actually had to be wearable, and there was less emphasis on throwaway trends, and more focus on clothes that can last for more than a season or two.

“I think a dress has to be wearable. Otherwise it’s a piece of art you can put on your wall. You have to make creative pieces for real life. If I buy something it’s because I want to use it every day,” said Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri to Vogue.

And even the most intellectual of fashion brands, Maison Margiela, saw its designer John Galliano thinking about the amount of waste and excess of clothes and things in general in our modern world.

“We are overwhelmed with so much imagery that you almost want to regurgitate,” he said, noted Vogue. “But perhaps inverted excess could lead to something a little more minimal?”

Does that mean that the mainstream major fashion houses are going to stop making things and trying to sell us more stuff? No, probably not. In the last 10 years, the industry has “grown at 5.5 percent annually, according to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, [and is now worth] an estimated US$2.4 trillion.

So it is highly unlikely that any of those businesses is going to try to slow down any time soon. Likewise, the fashion industry employs millions of people, mostly women in the manufacturing, and the death of fashion, would be hugely disruptive globally.

A scavenger in Keputih landfill in Indonesia. (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A scavenger in Keputih landfill in Indonesia. (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

But what do we do about all the excess clothes now littering our planet?

Well, there are lots of organisations who are trying very hard to raise the issues of global sustainability – including many designers and even high street fast fashion brands.

You can make a change yourself by shopping more consciously; read our story Shop Sustainable and Ethical Fashion with these Social Enterprises

The death of fashion is not all bad…

The rise of fast fashion, online shopping, blogshops and the decline of fashion magazines as the only source of information on fashion trends and news, has seen the democratisation of ‘fashion’. Fashion is no longer just for the very rich, or even the mostly rich. Modern fashion, in the context of clothes designed to fit into a trend, is now available to everyone just about.

You might not be able to afford a Chanel jacket, but you can find something that looks just about the same for a 100th of the price.

As well as the improved access, the idea that trends and fashion movements can only come from the top down – from the major brands to the ordinary people – is long gone. Now global high-end fashion brands surf Instagram looking for cool ideas from the world’s streets.

And fashion trends can rise and fall practically overnight thanks to the influence of a couple of celebrities.

We are now in a time period when there are no trends. You can wear whatever you like – short skirts, long skirts, pants, any colour you want – and still be considered ‘fashionable’. You just have to look at the rise of ‘ugly shoes’ and sneakers, and the return to the 80s and 90s.

Some of this interest in older styles is due to the increase in people choosing to live more sustainably by shopping more consciously at second-hand and resale stores. Which is a really good thing; after all, it’s better to try to reuse and recycle all the billions of pieces of clothes in the world, than just send them to landfill after a few wears.

Pedestrians walk past a Michael Kors luxury goods boutique, operated by Capri Holdings Ltd., on Karl Johans Gate, the main shopping street in Oslo, Norway, on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (PHOTO: Odin Jaeger/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians walk past a Michael Kors luxury goods boutique, operated by Capri Holdings Ltd., on Karl Johans Gate, the main shopping street in Oslo, Norway, on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (PHOTO: Odin Jaeger/Bloomberg)

Things we need to stop doing…

However, most people who buy clothes don’t actually care that much about them. The lack of dress rules means that they can, and do, buy clothes that are harming the environment. If you don’t care about what you wear, you buy the cheapest thing that will suit your needs, you wear it as long as you want, then you throw it out.

And it goes into landfill. In America alone people throw away about 36 kilos of clothes per year, and 85% of that goes to landfill. That’s around 10.46 million tonnes of clothing per year. And it just sits there.

So, we need to stop buying so much stuff. There’s no reason at all for you to have a wardrobe full of clothes you never wear, can’t fit into, or don’t like. But there’s also no reason for you to not wear everything in your wardrobe that you can.

This doesn’t mean you can never buy a lovely new dress or pair of shoes again, you just need to buy the best that you can.

If you buy fewer, but better quality, items, you will be able to still have a stunning – and fashionable – wardrobe that shows off your personal style, while not feeling so guilty about destroying the environment.

The next time you want to buy a cheap $5 t-shirt or a new party dress, ask yourself these questions:

1. Do you really NEED it, or do you just WANT it?

2. Do you already have one like it?

3. Where was it made?

3. How much money was paid to the maker to make it?

4. How much oil was used to fly it to you?

5. How many times will you wear it and will it last enough washes to make it useful?

6. Who will notice if you wear it? (Apart from your fashion friends)

If we choose to shop more consciously, at least we are making an effort to not add more cheap clothes to those non-degrading, ever-growing landfills around the world.

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