Democracy. Inclusion. Accountability. These are the three cultural hurdles that fashion faces in the 2020s, and they are surprisingly unglamorous ones. Previous eras have seen revolutions in visual style, technology, and even sex, but none have been so disruptive of the way in which fashion’s mystique is created.
Where exclusivity and unfettered creative expression once reigned, these days, relatability and conscientiousness are prized instead. The fantasy fashion world as it was conjured in Funny Face or The Devil Wears Prada is far behind us. Gone are the days of aloof, couture-clad swans perched on ladders beneath chandeliers. Gone, too, are facile caricatures of cliquishly tone-deaf designers, editors, and photographers.
See, for decades, the fashion industry had pushed a glamorous illusion of progress and openness. In reality, though, it was always business as usual, with wealthy, conventionally attractive, and otherwise privileged people taking all and leaving breadcrumbs for the rest. Social media has forced the palace gates open, at last offering outsiders more than just a covetous peek into fashion’s inner workings.
During these socially-conscious (or virtue-signalling, if you’re a cynic) times, insiders and fans are more inclined to pick apart brands’ social media or business strategy — are their campaign models intersectional? Does a creative director have a history of problematic tweets? — than to rhapsodise over a trendy hemline or novel silhouette. It marks a profound shift in how fashion is enjoyed, where intrinsic and ethical concerns have supplanted the sensuous and material in importance.
Some question if this sea change has been to the benefit or detriment of fashion. Where’s the fantasy in a woke hashtag like #whomademyclothes, as urgent as the question may be? What’s happened to the uncomplicated wonderment of admiring a geisha-fied Karlie Kloss throwing shapes for the camera, blissfully ignorant of issues like other-ing and western imperialism?
In the greatest epic fantasies (such as Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings trilogy, or even Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle), one turbulent age of magic must close to pave the way for the next. Old power structures need to be shattered to allow new ones to flourish. As fashion progresses further into the 21st century, it should liberate itself from the baggage of its predecessor. That means leaving behind familiar notions of beauty, prestige, and fantasy, and venturing into contemporary chaos to search for the authentic, next best thing.
Behind The Velvet Rope
Fashion’s notorious gatekeeping ways have oft taken form in the archetypal fashion editor. These formidable dragons — as most women in positions of authority are sadly depicted — zealously guard their glittering hoard, dispensing nuggets of status to the few that meet their standards. Through uncompromising discernment, editors like Diana Vreeland, Carine Roitfeld, and Anna Wintour burnished their reputations as failsafe starmakers. They even became icons in their own right: think Vreeland’s rouged cheekbones, Wintour’s unmistakable bob, and Roitfeld’s panda eyes.
Such cults of personality are seductive, but can also be toxic. The magnitude of influence that Wintour commands, for example, has been accused of homogenising fashion publishing. A cabal of favoured photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Patrick Demarchelier, and Bruce Weber (the latter two now also sporting sexual harassment allegations) have enjoyed an effective monopoly through the decades, while new-but-no-less-deserving talents have largely been frozen out. Worse, these exclusions have frequently intersected with wider racial and socio-economic discrimination.
Eroding the stereotypical editor’s veneer of mystery (in Wintour’s case specifically, see: The September Issue and Vogue’s “Ask Anna” web series) leaves us with fewer legendary figures to be awestruck by. However, that erosion opens the door, at least in theory, to more unexpected and all-encompassing representation. The biases of a single voice, however powerful and talented, should never be allowed to distort fashion’s bigger picture.
Take InStyle’s Laura Brown, a new-gen editor who is every bit as inclusive and down-to-earth as her forebears have been unyielding and grandiose. Since her ascension in 2016, Brown’s cover stars have included outliers like Melissa McCarthy, Taraji P. Henson, and Diane Keaton. She’s opened up to press and followers about her long-term relationship with a younger and less high-flying partner. And she even posts a running photo series which sees everyone from Priyanka Chopra to Woody Harrelson (yes, really) cheekily take a seat #OnLaurasLap.
Brown may never attain pop-culture nirvana with a quotable, love-to-hate-her fictional analogue — we see you, Miranda Priestly — or command a legion of die-hard devotees, enamoured of a coolly impenetrable façade. But she’s breaking new ground in her imagebuilding, as a (-n admittedly publicity-savvy) human being instead of living deity.
The fashion industry, contrary to what pop culture and the fashion world itself would like you to believe, isn’t Mount Olympus. It’s a trade like most others, populated by people
doing their jobs. Although that may be a let-down to the countless aspirants seeking fame and status within it, it’s a healthier albeit less magical perspective than in decades past.
Out Of The Ivory Tower
Beyond personalities, long-standing myths about success and creativity are changing, too. The world of high fashion recently lost two of its most glamorous proponents. American ballgown maestro Zac Posen shuttered his company in November 2019. Meanwhile, January 2020 witnessed showman extraordinaire Jean-Paul Gaultier announce his final haute couture show. These events laid bare a sobering truth about fashion in 2020: that genius — which Gaultier and Posen certainly possess — doesn’t always prevail.
Thanks to The Business of Fashion, Project Runway, and a recent deluge of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, any observer with the slightest curiosity has a better sense of what makes fashion tick than ever before. We’re dimly aware of the tricky balance between commerce and creativity, the limitations of celebrity endorsement, and even the ecologically unsustainable scale of collection-planning and manufacturing.
Fashion’s audience is no longer under the spell of the emotionally tortured, larger-than-life artist. We understand that creativity is, unromantic as it sounds, an applied skill requiring persistence and discipline, belying simplistic — and potentially harmful — ideas of effortless genius. It also humanises creators who are otherwise isolated on pedestals. They, like any professional in similarly cutthroat businesses, are not invulnerable.
For designers who burn out, get unceremoniously booted from their posts, or simply don’t hog the headlines anymore, life goes on. Fashion is clearly not all there is to life, but now, thanks to the internet, we get to see it all. Post-Lanvin exit and pre-Richemont partnership, Alber Elbaz kept sympathisers in the loop with his workouts and Central Saint Martins masterclasses. Posen continues to share snaps of his family getaways and NYC wanderings. And Marc Jacobs, bless him, is serving OOTDs and generally living his best life in dizzying Rick Owens platform boots.
One wonders what someone like Alexander McQueen would have made of this transparent, confessional digital era we now live in. The designer once admitted his complicity in building the working-class savant turned Prince of Darkness couturier persona he later felt hopelessly imprisoned by. Tragically, the enduring allure of his dark mythos is rooted in the same fallacy that claimed his life: that poetic beauty is birthed from torment, and not gritty hustle and craft. If only we treated more of our creatives as ordinary people and nothing more.
Another advantage of demystifying creativity is removing the ‘diplomatic immunity’ typically extended to gifted individuals. Fashion designers, like artists, politicians, and other eminent persons, are not demigods whose caprices we must tolerate in exchange for their gifts. They’re just people, who are flawed, make mistakes, and have the capacity if they’re willing to apologise and learn. Unacceptable behaviour and indefensible values shouldn’t be overlooked just because of talent. If that means we can no longer gleefully savour the misdeeds of designers who position themselves as enfants terribles or irreverent tricksters, then so be it.
Fashion in 2020 looks a little less like a Wonderland than it did in previous decades. For all the glitz, real-world problems like discrimination, pollution, and exploitation are increasingly difficult to ignore. All this might make it harder to dream uncomplicatedly of models swanning about in acres of tulle. However, this unvarnished new take on fashion challenges our complacency, and dares us to imagine new possibilities where the unappealing aspects of the glamorous past no longer taints the present… And isn’t that what fantasy is ultimately about?