It was 26 years ago that Corinne Day put Kate Moss on the cover of Face magazine – bright eyed and elf-like, the shoot would launch Moss’s career and set up the grunge movement that defined the 90s. It was a time synonymous with bare skin and bold silhouettes, with clean lines and textured fabrics.
It was a time when photographers like Day, Nan Goldin and Juergen Teller rebelled against the glossiness of high fashion and sought to express something real.[i]When stylists would trawl charity stores looking for vintage finds that could be twisted and customised to better tell a story about who someone really was.
A time before Instagram, when anyone that loved fashion embraced newness and self-expression by altering, and tailoring things themselves. When there was individuality on the streets and creativity in each outfit and the way it was worn, when fabric was expensive and clothes cost what they should. They were an investment of money or energy or time, and it showed.
You can point to photos from the grunge era of the early 90s as relics of a world that understood the value of self-expression and what it really meant to wear clothes in a way that defined who you were.
Of course globalisation and the shift towards freer trade laws in the late 90s and early 2000s changed all of that. As wave after wave of new technology, from methods of production to SnapChat, have seen fashion arrive at this new place where clothes cost less, are worn and loved less, but are purchased more.
Prior to January 2005 two major trade agreements regulated the international textile market – the Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA, 1974 to 1994) and the Agreement on Textile and Clothing (ATC, 1995 to 2005).[ii] The MFA imposed quotas on the export of textiles and garments made from wool, cotton and synthetic ﬁbres from developing to developed countries.
The quotas were designed to protect fashion houses in developed countries from low cost goods produced en masse in developing countries. In 1995, the ATC agreed to encourage free trade within the industry and prepare to phase out quotas on trade in clothing and textiles; this was done by January 2005. In the four years following this, one third more clothing was consumed per capita.[iii]
On a humanitarian level, the shift towards using the cheap labour available in developing countries has seen more tragedy than just an influx of clothing into the market place and over cluttered wardrobes across the Western world. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2014, where 1135 people were killed, is just one example of the human cost behind the clothes we buy.[iv] Then of course, there are the well-documented environmental impacts.[v]
The acceleration of High Street fashion has infiltrated up the chain too, seeing the increased demands of fashion drive industry figures like Raf Simmons, Alber Elbaz and Hedi Slimane to take time out amidst complaints of not having the time or space to be creative. In an interview with System Magazine in the weeks before he resigned from Dior, Simons lamented, “actually everything is done in three weeks, maximum five. And when I think back to the first couture show for Dior, in July 2012, I was concerned because we only had eight weeks.”[vi]
2016 also saw brands like Burberry, Tom Ford and Vetements announce they would show just twice a year and Paul Smith altered his business model to consolidate his diffusion lines to just two collections and four drops of stock annually.[vii] In an interview with the Business of Fashion in February this year Smith said about the industry, “There’s this absolute horrendous disease of greed and over-expansion and unnecessary, massive over-supply of product.”[viii] The mood has certainly shifted in recognition that the current system is unsustainable, but it is still a long way from having an impact on consumer behaviour.
This is best evidenced in the lack of response from liberal minded 18-30 year olds. The demographic who have historically taken on the establishment and challenged the status quo. They currently vote green, recycle what they can, have embraced fourth wave feminism and gender fluidity. They champion the rights of immigrants and rail against discrimination based on sexuality or race, but largely, they are still buying clothes that are mass-produced.
They don’t seem to be concerned that their new £12 t-shirt could have been from a factory with poor working conditions, or made of cotton grown using toxic pesticides, or that in fact to increase the margins on each t-shirt the brand ordered 100,000 more than it knew it could sell because that way the factory would lower the cost price – and that isn’t even the worst thing.[ix]
The worst thing is that each of those tiny purchase choices keeps a very dangerous beast afloat. And when “the kids” aren’t willing to embrace it, it makes the movement needed – back towards real fashion with all of its artistry, considered design and smarter business models – feel so far away, like nothing more than a speck on the horizon.
Fashion used to be poetic, equal parts authentic and mysterious, immortalised in film and photography, it used to be inspired. It was a worn leather jacket on a young star with tousled hair. It was faded Levi 501s. It was a double-breasted, wide-legged men’s pinstripe pantsuit on a moody tomboy. It was a favourite overcoat coat thrown on in the morning, pockets full from the day before, worn with those boots, or over that dress, a coat that was yours and yours alone.
Fashion used to be on the street, and that was all that mattered. It didn’t take 100 photos to find one that would get the most likes, because there was no medium for that kind of photography (film was precious too) – fashion was there to be worn.
It was really and truly personal. It told a story. Fashion used to be cool.
[ii] Allwood, J and co. (2006) Well Dressed. The University of Cambridge Press, Great Britain, ISBN 1-902546-52-0 pp.4-21
[iii] Fletcher, K (2007) Slow fashion, The ecologist: June:2007, pp:1-2http://www.fashioninganethicalindustry.org/resources/reports/conferencereport/
[vi] Cathy Horyn’s interview with Raf Simons in the Autumn/Winter 2015 issue of System magazine.
[ix] Organic Cotton, (2009) NatraCare, Bodywise United Kingdom Ltd.http://www.natracare.com/p139/en-GB/Our-Environment/Organic-Cotton.aspx