Clothes are inevitable. They are nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible, the very mirror of an epoch’s soul’ – James Laver, Style in Costume.
As Head of the London College of Fashion, a college that has recently celebrated its centenary, I have spent some time contemplating the idea that our current delight in all things fashionable is built on the skills, creativity, craftsmanship and desires of previous generations. Yet what sort of legacy are we creating? What sort of fashion industry will there be a hundred years from now? These days, we are able to consume on a level that previous generations could only dream of, and it seems almost impossible to believe that just over a century ago there was no mass production, with fashion the preserve of the elite.
Now, fashion for all has become a reality. Over the course of the 20th century the UK fashion industry has been transformed with the advent of the sewing machine, the arrival of immigrant tailors, two world wars, the development of the department store, ready-to-wear collections, the printing of fashion images and the rise of the fashion magazine. Fashion has moved on from being about handmade craftsmanship designed specifically for society’s wealthy, to a global industry based on mass production dominated by the power of the consumer and new technologies. For someone concerned about the future careers of fashion students, all sorts of questions are raised about just what sort of legacy we are building for future generations. What sort of fashionable soul will we be judged as having had?
We have arrived at a crossroads, as we begin to understand the pressure that we as individuals, and as broader communities, are having on the world’s finite resources. The desire to consume makes it hard for us to resist the power of the purchase – we all love to buy – no matter how good our intentions. It means that, in the UK, we are buying a third more clothes now than we were four years ago. The consequence is that the clothing industry is hugely important economically, as globally it is worth over $1 trillion, and is ranked the second-biggest global economic activity for intensity of trade. It is now unrealistic for us to feel that we can turn the clock back to a time when shopping was not so central a part of our existence. Not only is it difficult for us as individuals; our economies too are interdependent. An item of clothing can be designed in one country using fabric from another and then manufactured in several others. We are also aware that many of the world’s poorest communities depend on our purchases for their living. The global clothing industry employs approximately 26m people, thereby supporting a significant number of economies and individual incomes around the world. But our greatest crime is how careless we are with our purchases, dumping 1.2m tons of clothing into landfill in 2005 in the UK alone. Often we don’t even wear our purchases, consigning them to the back of the wardrobe, showing a disregard for the resources, both human and physical, that have gone into creating them.
I have started a debate in the College about how we fashion an industry that will have a lasting future, one that minimises its effect on the environment, is built on great design yet keeps as its essence its ability to bring real fun and joy to people’s lives. Dynamic designs, textural fabrics, skilful manufacture and real style are timeless qualities we all value: they are also qualities that hopefully encourage us as consumers to appreciate the legacy of our purchases. Yet affirming such qualities doesn’t mean going back to previous traditions, and we don’t need to stop shopping. Rather, we need to be more responsible and thoughtful in our consumption as we embrace a whole series of fashionable solutions. Fabrics that are derived from waste textiles, organic cotton or nanotextiles that don’t require us to wash clothes so frequently are materials that we will come to have in our wardrobes. Real recycling and de-manufacture schemes that include refashioning, clothes swaps and keeping clothes from one season to the next as we evolve our own style are all options that will help us create a new definition of a fashionable existence.
There is no one solution to the future of fashion: understanding that our legacy is establishing new traditions that will guarantee a great fashion industry for the next century is our epoch’s great challenge. It is rather, as Foucault said, ‘The problem is no longer one of lasting foundations, but one of transformations that serve as new foundations, the rebuilding of foundations.’
For Sublime Magazine. Heritage Issue 10