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Redefining the future of fashion

By Philip Warkander

Portrait by Tobias Regell

Three years have passed since trend analyst Lidewij Edelkoort declared that ’fashion is dead.’ Since then, the discussion regarding the state of contemporary fashion has remained intense. Some have claimed that Edelkoort’s statement was little more than a clever marketing device used to sell her own consultancy services — comparable to gimmicky headlines such as ’art is dead’, ’the novel is dead’ and ’cinema is dead’ in related creative industries — while others have said that Edelkoort was in fact correct, and that the future of fashion is uncertain, at best.

But, what is actually implied in the idea of fashion’s death? ’Fashion’ is usually defined as a symbolic value, bestowed to certain clothes for a limited time. Sociologist Werner Sombart famously claimed that, ’fashion is capitalism’s favorite child’, as no other commodity loses its symbolic value faster than fashion. Even before a garment is worn out, its style has often been made to appear outdated, as the industry has continued to produce, brand and market new looks, designed to make the previous collections look old. In this way, the consumer’s desire to stay ’in fashion’ is used as an instrument to keep the wheels of fashion spinning.

Modern fashion was first invented in Paris in the 19th century. The fixed prices, season based collections, branding processes and marketing campaigns that were directed towards particular target groups successively developed into our contemporary version of ready-to-wear.

Because of fashion’s rapid pace and transient character, it has been claimed to reflect the times that we live in. Fashion has been defined as a manifestation of the zeitgeist, as a cultural barometer telling us about how values, ideas and ways of thinking are developing and changing. Lately, however, fashion seems to be losing its edge. During previous eras, trends were easy to spot: the disco style of the 1970s, the yuppie years of the 1980s, the sportswear and Britpop trends of the 1990s.

Nowadays, it’s all more or less a blur.

In these times of climate change, excessive consumption has become unfashionable. Instead of constantly updating one’s wardrobe, attention has been shifted towards food, travel and social relationships. Everyday life is less about what you wear and more about how you have curated your online presence. This has placed fashion in the periphery of contemporary culture.

In the US, this has led to the rapid decline of shopping malls. Previously a vital part of American culture, today they are often empty, as consumers prefer to shop online, if at all. In Scandinavia, traditional brands such as Marc O’Polo and Boomerang are struggling, while the driving force of Swedish fashion, the H&M conglomerate, is showing signs of slowing down. But what does this really signify? Is it indeed a ’death’ that we are witnessing, or is it rather a metamorphosis of a global industry, a readjustment of fashion into a more sustainable practice? Perhaps, the current change has less to do with a dramatic demise and more about the need for new, truly sustainable business models, developed with respect to planetary boundaries and the limitations of the world’s natural resources?

Swedish fashion brand Asket was founded with the aim of inspiring people to buy less. Featuring simple and minimalist design, their garments offer customers staples that are the opposite of season-based logic. They refuse to engage in sales, and during Black Friday last year they even closed down their web shop and instead urged people to reconsider the role of consumption in their lives.

Swedish-British fashion brand BITE Studios still produce collections each season, but their garments are made from 100% sustainably sourced materials, thus minimizing environmental effects in the production chain.

Stockholm based shirt-brand Appletrees offer customers a 30% discount on any new items that they purchase when they bring their old Appletrees garments to the shop. The old garments are then sold at 50% of the original retail price, thus prolonging the life span of the shirts and avoiding them ending up in a landfill.

Other brands choose to increase the level of transparency in their production. When Alexander Stutterheim first started his eponymous raincoat brand, each seamstress signed the garments they produced, so that customers would know exactly who had made them. John Sterner, Alexander Stutterheim’s new fashion label, is produced exclusively in Sweden and only uses wool from sheep found on the small island of Gotland. Similarly, Gothenburg-based Atacac applies a zero waste design strategy, and only produces garments when they have a sufficient number of orders for it to make environmental and financial sense. In this way limiting excess waste, and surplus production.

Returning to Edelkoort, she was both right and wrong in her claim.

Fashion isn’t dead, but it’s not exactly alive, either. Instead, it is on the verge of transforming itself into something new, using both new business models and a new approach to design. The most common definition of design is that it provides solutions to everyday problems. For some time, fashion design has been providing answers to questions that people are no longer posing, stuck in an antiquated interpretation of what fashion is. But now, more and more brands, designers and researchers are not only trying to keep up but to redefine what fashion can be. The future of fashion will be less concerned with high-speed trends. Instead, it will be about working towards an innovative and ingenious lifestyle, dressed in good-looking garments that are meant to last.

August 17, 2018

Philip Warkander is Assistant Professor in Fashion Studies at Lund University.