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Fashion: Built-in obsolescence and bad quality = waste

If there was something to take away from the Re-shaping Attitudes symposium, it’s that craftsmanship, values and people will pave the way forward for the fashion industry, skip the fakeness and cut the crap.

By Jeanne Tan / 21-06-2009

It’s quite safe to say that fashion went slightly off the rails in the last few years. The burst of the economic bubble has not only had an economic impact on the fashion industry and other creative industries, but forced many designers and companies to rethink their approach (and morals). How is the industry as a whole adapting to the changing values? Is the manic speed of the fashion industry more detrimental than beneficial? And how do we put the lustre back into luxury and love back into fashion?

During last Saturday’s Re-Shaping Attitudes symposium held during the Arnhem Mode Biennale, fashion industry professionals gathered to discuss the current state of affairs in the industry and hear how their colleagues are adapting to changing values. On the panel was fashion theorist Otto von Busch, designer Monique van Heist, Liam Maher, Head of Design Denham the Jeanmaker, Nannet van der Kleijn, deputy director of AMFI Amsterdam Fashion Institute and Anne Chapelle, CEO of BVBA 32, the company behind designers Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann. The Dutch design critic Gert Staal acted as moderator.

The unhealthy obsession with newness and speed of the fashion industry provided much fodder for discussion. The rapid pace of the fashion machine producing two collections a year with a consequent enormous amount of waste is clearly not sustainable. The rigid hierarchy of the industry is also under question. “When society produces too much, we invent rituals to get rid of the surplus," says Otto von Busch. “Can we think of fashion in a similar way? Well, we ritually kill fashion by the sale and then await the new hope that comes after. As soon as there’s surplus, there will be fashion”. In this linear structure, leading the rituals of the contemporary fashion religion is the mythical figure head who dictates the ins and outs of each season. And at the bottom are the ever-faithful followers of fashion who make holy pilgrimages to their chosen flagship stores. Making an analogy also to the hierarchy of evolution which has ended up with individual species, how do these species interconnect across a horizontal level? Relating back to the structure of fashion operations, the internet is breaking down this hierarchy and opening up the system to the users. There’s new ecologies of fashion with less emphasis on the editor or star-designer. Instead of the individual, mutual relationships become more important and more attention will be paid to reconnection. The role of the designer will also become that of educator. Sounds like the extinction of the monobrand is inevitable.

For Anne Chapelle, her new label ‘a moment in’ is set up completely opposite to the monobrand of a traditional fashion house. “There’s no big personality in the middle, only values," Chapelle says. The label, more a platform, sees different young designers create new collections without a head designer at the helm. ‘A moment in’ is based on nine values that Chapelle identified, along with her staff, as the core of her business: belief, love, respect, transparency, authenticity, confidence, creativity, collaboration and quality. “Our promise is our values and our values are our brand. We need to restore the link between economic values and human values which got lost along the way.” For Chapelle, a problem with fashion is its recent preoccupation with improving its luxury content. “Luxury is about status and fashion is about dreams, creativity and innovation. Luxury and fashion can be different but don’t have to exist without each other. The future will be about them becoming more separate.” At the end of the day, fashion is about people. “Don’t forget, somebody put the last button on your jeans. The fashion industry has forgotten about the people behind it.”

Monique van Heist’s new project ‘Hello Fashion’ began from her frustration with the speed of the fashion system. “Designers are creating more and more collections and I'm thinking who's going to wear all these garments?? This is so crazy," van Heist says. ‘Hello Fashion’ is a permanent collection of clothing, accessories and the occasional recipe that will always stay available. “Every product I launch stays in the catalogue. So the catalogue will grow and the range of products will grow. It's actually quite simple," she says matter-of-factly. “Everything I design is worth staying on the market. There's a lot of beauty in fashion and we shouldn't throw it away. I want to keep the good things.” By creating a permanent collection her archive of fashion will continuously evolve. “If I would have to stay in this speed, I would have stopped working in fashion. When things go bad, you’re forced to make things sharper in your mind. There's space for change at this moment but it won’t happen overnight. A lot of people will have to feel the need to change.” 'Hello Fashion’ also takes a stab at the fakeness of the fashion industry. “Fashion has a lot of fakeness, it has had nothing to do with reality. Fashion is about reality because we have to wear clothes all day. I want to put some real reality back in fashion. Fashion is not about being glamorous but about who you want to be and giving people the opportunity to do so. What's glamour anyway?”

Fashion needs to become more tangible again according to Nannet van der Kleijn. “We want to feel things again," she says passionately. “I'm incredibly inspired by Richard Sennett and his view on craftsmanship. Craftsmen have a material consciousness, they’re working directly with the materials. It’s very personal”. At AMFI, where she is Deputy Director, "we start with the person. When do people do something? When it's personal”. Collaboration is key to the future, where already at the school, students are prepared for industry by working together on real, commercial projects like the Individuals collection or the student fashion magazine.

Social responsibility was identified an integral aspect of the changing values of the fashion industry. “I don’t feel socially responsible at all," says Liam Maher very honestly. “But when your focus is on craft, details, execution, all the tangible stuff, there's an accidental nobility to it, an accidental social responsibility. It can be inspiring, not an ego trip”. As head designer of the new jeans label Denham the Jeanmaker and in his personal philosophy, Maher is all about honouring the craft. “For me innovation is about improving on the last idea, not reinventing. Pushing forward tradition. If we can become part of this tradition, it’s a much richer experience. It’s about moving the best forward. We have to live up to these traditions. And if we’re supposed to be so-called smarter now, we have to at least match or better what they were doing in the past.” On the subject of newness, “Built-in obsolescence and bad quality make waste, and they make waste a part of the system. We reshape values when you suffer from a false promise. We can all feel a little ashamed for believing the false promise. The ritual or therapy of focusing on the good stuff is a nice way to address the slight feeling of betrayal of the false promise”.

So what about the future of fashion? According to Anne Chapelle, “We can’t change the fastness of our industry. The industry is so big, you can’t change the machine. It’s going to take a lot of time”. It felt slightly futile to end the discussion on that note however hearing from the speakers the most important thing to take away was that actions speak louder than words. Craftsmanship and quality will again play a central role in fashion. And sounds corny, but be true to yourself.

So how fashionable will it be to keep discussing this topic in the near future? Well stay tuned for the next instalment of this fashion symposium series organised by Premsela and HTNK. To be continued...

Image 1: Otto von Busch and Anne Chapelle, Photography: Nikki van der Velden
Image 2: Monique van Heist and
Nannet van der Kleijn, Photography: Nikki van der Velden
Images 3-5: Hello Fashion, Monique van Heist
Images 6-8: Denham the Jeanmaker

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