Fashion Matters in Times of Globalisation and Digitalisation: City Spaces, Designers, Producers, Supply Chains, Technology and IP
24th June 2013, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, United Kingdom
By Nathaniel Dafydd Beard
It is rare for fashion, and more specifically issues pertaining directly to practices within the fashion industry, to be discussed in such an open and frank manner; yet this was refreshingly very much in evidence during this half-day symposium. Fashion Matters in Times of Globalisation and Digitalisation: City Spaces, Designers, Producers, Supply Chains, Technology and IP brought together a diverse range of speakers from London, Milan and Berlin, chaired by Professor Angela McRobbie, to initiate and launch a new research project at Goldsmiths, University of London, as part of CREATe (RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy). This also coincides with the first intake of students for the new MA Fashion course at Goldsmiths in September 2013, under the direction of course leader Ruby Hoette. I happened to arrive a little late to find the thirty or so audience members and speakers, sat around tables in a circular arrangement, being asked to introduce themselves and to comment on their interest in attending this event, engendering a sense of inclusiveness in this gathering, and revealing the wide cross-section of those who participate or have a an active interest in fashion – designers, stylists, journalists, production managers, event hosts, as well as researchers and academics – a timely reminder that fashion and its activities are very much ‘‘live’’ and ongoing.
Symposium Venue: New Academic Building, Goldsmiths
The format of the presentations and ensuing discussions was semi-formal, with presenters talking around their topic of interest, often without notes, rather than giving a formal paper, per se. Giannino Malossi from the Camera Nazionale della Mode Italiana, which organizes Milan Fashion Week, began with addressing the current state of the fashion business in Italy, and in particular the issues designer’s face in country where, surprisingly perhaps, he candidly revealed the government takes little interest in the fashion industry. For example he cited how, in contrast to the efforts of the British Fashion Council, there was little in the way of support of up-coming and newly established designers. In addition, within Italy, there is little general understanding of the importance of prototyping for the fashion industry and the processes necessary to stimulate innovation within the fashion industry through such activities. Malossi also discussed at length the changing dynamics of the contemporary fashion industry, going as far as to assert that ‘‘fashion is finished,’’ in the sense that the accessible fashion developed from the 1960s onwards, with fashionable clothes produced cheaply at a fast turnaround was now disappearing, the likes of ‘‘fast-fashion’’ retailers like H&M not withstanding; rather he views fashion as an industry that is now moving towards catering to a select, elite ‘‘1%’’ of very wealthy consumers able to afford the most expensive clothes produced by the top brands. Malossi asserted that fashion itself describes many different interests, and like music or the cinema, is a cultural issue not just an industry, the main difference being that fashion exists through a greater quantity of material labour. It is for this reason that fashion cannot be neglected, as without its involvement with and through the culture it exists the fashion industry it in turn supports may be in danger of irreversible decline.
In follow up to this Professor Adam Arvidsson, University of Milan cited that today within the Italian fashion industry there is a general lack of creativity and innovation. He gave as an example the fact that many of the larger brands no longer focus on clothes as their key product offering, but rather on ‘‘gadgets’’, such as key-rings or perfume, or in the case of Giorgio Armani, even marmalade, sold as one of many such items in their flagship stores. Increasingly, creativity is linked to a ‘‘financialization’’ of fashion, by which perhaps it is being stifled. In contrast, Arvidsson expressed his enthusiasm for the more dynamic development of fashion as a creative industry in the developing economies of Asia. He stated that in Bangkok, Thailand a number of smaller, ‘‘under-the-radar’’ fashion labels have developed, where many of the designers treat being a fashion designer to something akin to being a DJ in Berlin – a sideline used for its ‘‘networking’’ potential as a part of a portfolio of creative and cultural skills. Towards the end of his talk he also briefly addressed, as an academic, the general academic approach to the study of the fashion industry, and how it is broadly divided between those in academic institutions who are interested in and investigate fashion design, that is the making of clothes and fashion collections, and those who concern themselves with fashion theory; that is fashion as a purely theoretical field of investigation. He seemed to indicate that in many ways such a divide was unhelpful to addressing the contemporary issues facing the fashion industry, and that instead the two should be brought together in a more practical and holistic way.
The following talks were by two fashion ‘‘insiders’’ from Berlin, Marte Henschel, Designer, Producer and CEO of Common Works and Maria Exner, Lifestyle Editor for Die Zeit newspaper online. Henschel’s company was set up to provide a Berlin-based local manufacturing centre for locally-based fashion designers, and she gave a very insightful perspective on the challenges faced by smaller and newly-established fashion labels in Berlin. Henschel asserted that while Berlin is an attractive city for young aspiring designers, with ten fashion schools or academies located in the city and the cost of living and renting still relatively cheap, networking opportunities and also an appreciative local audience for locally designed and made fashion are still lacking. For example, there are very few supported slots for local designers at the Mercedes Benz -sponsored Berlin Fashion Week. While Berlin is situated in the very centre of Europe, between the established consumer markets of Western Europe, and the relatively cheaper manufacturing locales of East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe, there remains a very big question over whether Berlin-based designers can really establish not just German fashion brands, but rather a European fashion brand with a greater resonance beyond the confines of Berlin and Germany. In response to this, Maria Exner explained how in many ways it was still necessary for Berlin-based designers to have the ‘‘stamp of approval’’ from outside before being able to be accepted within Germany; citing IHT Fashion Editor Suzy Menkes’ approval of Berlin Fashion Week during her visit in 2009.1 This is perhaps a common problem for many other so-called smaller fashion markets outside of France, Italy, UK, USA, and Japan, yet in Germany Exner also cited how in many ways this is perhaps exasperated by the way many German media brands make use of fashion as way to promote themselves, seeking a ‘‘good story’’, as much as, on the surface at least, appearing to support the local talents of the German fashion industry. For many fashion journalists in Germany local, up-coming designers are written about in terms of their guise as ‘‘fashion designer as artist,’’ with those generally written about being the ones who attend the ‘‘best’’ fashion schools and/or have interned or assisted an already established ‘‘big name’’ fashion designer in Germany or abroad. Within the local Berlin-based media there is some reporting of the less-glossy side of being a fledgling fashion designer, together with some support from local fashion bloggers. Yet, as Malossi asserted during the general discussion at the end of this segment, there needs to be a changing of the mindset amongst the fashion media in general, away from just looking for the ‘‘next-big-thing,’’ to a genuine support of the developing career of such designers. This remains a key issue to be addressed, amongst a sector of the media industry that remains very much controlled and enthralled to the larger brands that advertise on its pages, both on and offline, to the point where it appears there is no such thing as a genuine ‘‘fashion critic.’’
After a short break for coffee and a hunt for biscuits that finally did materialise, the symposium reconvened with a talk by Rose Sinclair, from Goldsmiths’ Department of Design, on the development and inter-relationships between fashion and technology. Specifically, Sinclair addressed the ways through which fashion designers and brands negotiate technology as a part of their practice, although, as in the many examples she gave, this has so far proved to be not entirely satisfactory. While we may now be in an era of the ‘‘3rd Industrial Age,’’ where digital technology can be perceived as the new ‘‘craft,’’ and the cross-disciplinary relationships that are created and engendered between fashion designers and chemists or engineers, there remains a very real reluctance on the part of fashion consumers to adopt, and indeed adapt to, clothing which incorporates technology. Sinclair cited the example of the failure of Marks & Spencer’s 2008 ‘‘iPod’’ blazers for school children, that were rapidly withdrawn from sale, after parents reluctance to purchase such items, worried about the potential for their children’s safety to-and-from their journey to school. While projects such as ‘‘New Nomads’’ developed by Philips in the late 1990s2 indicate the potential of such products, few if any have been developed further on a mass-scale. Sinclair addressed issues such as ‘‘passive interaction,’’ whereby brands develop products they think their customers want, but in reality have very little to engage or add value to the customers experience of such clothing, and also the sustainable and ethical issues surrounding such products. Are they just fad-like toys or do such products offer genuine and engaging benefits? This remains an area of further investigation and development.
Dr. Agnès Rocamora, Reader in Social and Cultural Studies at London College of Fashion, introduced the developing and continuing ‘‘mediatization’’ of fashion, specifically as experienced through the realm of digital fashion in the form of blogs and the magazine-like format of many leading online fashion retailers such as Net-a-Porter. As Rocamora demonstrated, fashion has perhaps always been ‘‘mediatized,’’ as through the photography of fashionably dressed women at the Longchamp racecourse by the Séeberger brothers in the early 20th Century. The difference today is that the experience of fashion is layered through our digital interactions via the Internet, which in turn is further filtered through the opinions of fashion bloggers and online fashion retailers and other digitized platforms such as mobile phone apps and ‘‘pop-up’’ devices located in the visual displays of store windows. Much of this calls into question our experience of fashion and the value of this experience in ‘‘real-time,’’ as we are assisted with our fashion purchases by conversations with ‘‘virtual’’ shop assistants; while we cannot see them, they seem to know everything about us, pre-empting our requirements and taste choices. As defined by Rocamora, such layering of fashion experiences through the digital makes us all perhaps re-examine our responses to fashion and the processes and practices that this entails. For example, what does the digital mean for the education, training and evolvement of the role of fashion professionals today? In particular, how does this apply to fashion buyers and fashion journalists?
The final talk of the afternoon was by Tania Phipps-Rufus, a researcher and visiting lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. Concerned with issues surrounding ethical fashion and intellectual property (IP) in particular, Phipps-Rufus addressed the developing area of ‘‘Fashion Law.’’ While issues around the ‘‘greening’’ of fashion are now perhaps well-established, the day-to-day ethical and legal implications of many of the activities pertaining to the running of fashion brands have, surprisingly, been little considered either by fashion professionals themselves, or by the legal profession. Yet, with the publication of books such as ‘‘Fashion Law: A Guide for Designers, Fashion Executives and Attorneys,’’ Phipps-Rufus asserted that there was now a very real identification with legal issues which pertain specifically to the fashion industry, especially in relation to copyright and Intellectual Property (IP). 3 Yet, perhaps the real challenge ahead is to address the often mistaken belief within the fashion industry, and the ensuing confusion caused amongst fashion consumers, that ‘‘ethical = legal,’’ which as Phipps-Rufus asserted, is certainly not often the case in reality. Instead, there needs to be an untangling of what is ‘‘ethical’’ from what is ‘‘legal,’’ and vice versa, to ensure greater clarity not only for fashion consumers but also for those working within the fashion industry at large.
Finishing with an encouragement to continue the discussions arising from the varied and diverse topics covered by the speakers with an adjournment to a nearby pub, this symposium generated a lively, informed and topical discussion on many aspects pertaining to the contemporary fashion industry. Not only to those fashion professionals and academics based in the UK, it also revealed a timely reminder that many across Europe are facing similar issues: How to innovate and remain creatively stimulated while maintaining a sound, sustainable commercial fashion business? How can technology and digital devices be utilised to be captivating and engaging, offering genuine value and benefits to both fashion brands and consumers alike? Is the structure of the Euro-centric fashion industry, as we know it, now finished and how can we ensure its future development through innovation, research and engagement with both cultural and governmental organisations? How can we address the changing dynamics of the fashion industry as professionals and as academics, bringing together practical experience with theoretical models, to develop a more professionalized and holistic approach to fashion industry practices and processes? All of these, and many more, questions will no doubt be further discussed and developed during the ongoing progress of the CREATe research project and its Europe-wide ambitions and the development of the new MA Fashion course at Goldsmiths.
- See Menkes, Suzy (2009) ‘Gritty Glamour in Berlin,’ International Herald Tribune, 16th November, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/fashion/17iht-rberl.html?_r=0, accessed 15th July 2013
- See Eves, David, Green, Josephine, van Heerden Clive, Mama, Jack, Marzano, Stefano, Traldi, Laura, Editors (2000) New Nomads: An Exploration of Wearable Electronics by Philips, Rotterdam: 010 Uitgevers.
- See Jimenz, Guillermo C. and Kolsun, Barbara (2010) Fashion Law: A Guide for Designers, Fashion Executives and Attorneys, New York, NY: Fairchild Books.
MA Fashion, Goldsmiths, University of London: http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/ma-fashion/
Camera Nazionale della Moda (Italy): http://www.cameramoda.it/it/
Common Works (Germany): http://www.common-works.org/
Fox Williams, specialists in Fashion Law (UK): http://www.fashionlaw.co.uk/
Fashion Law Institute (USA): http://fashionlawinstitute.com/
Nathaniel Dafydd Beard is a PhD Candidate (Fashion Womenswear), Department of Fashion and Textiles, School of Material, Royal College of Art, London, UK and is Co-Founder of the Fashion Research Network (FRN). His work has previously been published in Fashion Theory: Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture, Address – Journal of Fashion Writing and Criticism, Sexymachinery and Arc.
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