Rage Against the Machine: Why Fashion Is in Desperate Need of Reform | Savoir Flair
Op-Ed
Rage Against the Machine: Why Fashion Is in Desperate Need of Reform
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by Grace Gordon 8-minute read October 10, 2023

Fashion is a business, baby. And it’s in the death throes of late-stage capitalism. Just look at what spawned during Spring/Summer 2024.

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“In truth, fashion has been atrophying for a decade or more. It may now simply have achieved the end toward which it has been tending: to short-circuit or completely foil spontaneity in its creators and its followers. The snag is that spontaneity is the whole point of fashion.” — The Fashionable Mind, Kennedy Fraser

Guess when Fraser wrote that statement?

1980.

What surprises me the most about her prescient take is not that it’s a refrain often echoed into today’s fashion circles, but that she wrote this even before Big Business had bought up all the brands — thereby truly ending spontaneity by chaining designers to the capitalist mill. This was before poor-old Maurizio sold Gucci to Investcorp. Before Bernard Arnault set his sights on the fading house of Christian Dior. Before Francois Pinault swooped in on Yves Saint Laurent. If she thought it was atrophying then, Fraser would be horrified to see what fashion has become now.

Like trends, conversations in fashion are cyclical. They seem to ebb and flow with no conclusion; just an infinite horizon of unanswerable questions like the one that has seized popular imagination once more as the Spring/Summer 2024 season swept the world’s fashion capitals: “Is Fashion Week Still Relevant?”

Will we ever be rid of this question? It’s been going on from time immemorial. It really doesn’t feel that long ago that we went through this when fashion’s hierarchical front row of editors gave way to bloggers, and oh, the uproar that ensued. I still remember the blistering articles furiously penned by the Old Guard during that time (it seems that when the Old Guard gets their hackles up, their tendency is to ask, ‘Is Fashion Week still relevant?’ instead of wondering if they still are). 

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It also happened during the “See Now, Buy Now” movement that started out as the dominant news headline and then faded and then flopped. It happened when Creative Director Burnout — the hellish pace that collections are produced and the inability of veteran designers to keep up with the profit churn — led to people like Raf Simons leaving Dior and Alber Elbaz being ousted from Lanvin (side note: these issues have only gotten worse since then). It happened again during the pandemic when physical shows simply weren’t possible. Oh, the promises that were made to us back then. 

“Fashion has to learn something from this endless cycle of sensationalism, consumption, and waste.” 

“Now is our time to really come back better for our suffering.” 

At every level of the industry, thought leaders, CEOs, designers, and more promised that if we survived the pandemic, they would start prioritizing work-life balance, mental health, diversity, inclusivity, and representation. 

Did any of those promises actually come true? 

Furthermore, must we do this again?

Because the discourse kicked up this season around Fashion Week at a time when social media armchair critics seem to be reaching critical mass, I was once again engrossed in the “hot takes” to see how much the conversation has evolved or stayed the same. One video recently went viral where @RunwayNYC asked, “Is New York Fashion Week Overrated?” to a model on the street. She seemed weary of the question, criticizing the lame parties that everyone vies to get into, noting that all of these activations have made it feel less exclusive. She’s not wrong. One buyer responded on TikTok, “Making money is why they’ve made it less exclusive.” She’s also not wrong. But still, in sifting through the discourse, few are really nailing the specifics: What is Fashion Week? And to whom is it relevant?

First, nearly everyone gets it wrong about what Fashion Week is because they are looking at it through too narrow a lens. One commentator said it’s for local designers to show their collections at their local Fashion Weeks (which is sort of close, at least if we’re going to reduce it down to its most basic components). Another said it’s for the fans, and there is much truth to the idea that fashion is the new sports arena when it comes to rabid fanbases. That’s why Pharrell will work so well at Louis Vuitton, incidentally. 

But I think Lauren Sherman said it best in a recent Puck News dispatch when she called it “a customer acquisition cost.” It’s all of these things and so much more. 

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Fashion is a $1.7 trillion global industry as sprawling and interlaced as MegaMind’s neural pathways. Each sector it touches has its own sub-industry and economy. Take, for instance, the entire ecosystem that has spun out of digital influencers and social media, which now operate as fashion’s primary feeder — where interest is garnered and attention is turned into data. Influencers aren’t there to give a Ted Talk on why so-and-so is America’s most important designer. They are there to wear a look supplied by a brand with attached deliverables and guidelines. They are there to cheek-kiss another influencer on camera. To hold hands skipping into venues. To “wooooo!” at the after-party. 

And then there are the parties, which tend to be a generic wealthy person’s idea of a good time: a never-changing guest list, a DJ, drinks, maybe some food, a selfie wall, and the obligatory goodie bag at the end of the night. Of course they’re going to be boring! There are a bunch of people who are working overtime to ensure that they hit all their brand's KPIs for the event, and guests having a genuinely awesome or even memorable time isn’t one of them.

The reason this conversation keeps happening is because the industry is dominated by multinational conglomerates that prize profit over creativity. Creativity has been blunted, and “safer” more commercial options are preferred. That’s why “quiet luxury” has been such an attractive proposition for brands and why they have adopted the trend with such fervor for Spring/Summer 2024. 

Because that’s what all this comes down to, after all. The data, the insights, the ROI, the KPIs, the OKRs, the CTRs, the DRMs, the measurable, predictable outcome of building attention from standard marketing practices. I call it the ‘Moneyballing’ of fashion; letting data drive the engine of business until everything creative, unpredictable, and spontaneous is erased — or as Rachel Seville astutely put it in The Washington Post, “smooth, risk-averse, people pleasing.” Then there’s Sidney Toledano’s spooky quote in that brilliant The Cut piece by Cathy Horyn: "I know what’s happening in this business. The marketing guys frankly have invaded the companies." He added, "The machine of the industry will produce the designers of the industry." What a potent and portentous reminder of how cynical the fashion business can be. 

It feels disheartening to acknowledge because of the fandom that surrounds fashion. There are kids who are so passionate about certain designers, influencers, and celebrities. The circus of fashion also has millions of bystanders who wait for the high-wire flips and tricks to make them gasp and feel alive again. A well-executed idea, a twist on something classic, beautiful tailoring, a witty reference, these small moments are what fashion’s true fans live for. They exchange them on Telegram groups and write about them on Discord and Substack. They toss barbs at each other on Twitter and post their Tabi collections on Instagram. They live for this. I used to, too.

If you aren’t convinced that we’re on a moving beltway to the bowels of capitalist fashion hell, let’s take a look at some things that happened during Fashion Month. The Staud show at NYFW featured Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sherman making out front row. Anna Delvey and Kelly Cutrone announced their agency pop-up at Delvey’s home, where she remains under house arrest. The New York Times asked the question, “Is That What It Takes?” Apparently, yes, because we’re still talking about it. 

Meanwhile, Elena Velez’s models mud wrestled. Mowalola incited controversy when she turned the Saudi Arabian flag bearing sacred text into a miniskirt. Avavav showed a stress-induced show, and Sunnei’s audience was asked to judge and rate the looks immediately. Meanwhile, flash-in-the-pan TikTok sensation Tube Girl was at Boss and Valentino. Notice almost none of this is about the actual clothes. Most of it feels desperate.

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And this is just what we’re seeing through our screens. Experiencing it in person is a different type of hell. There is a dreadful energy around Fashion Week now that didn’t use to be there. It feels frantic and borderline dangerous. The crowds and traffic around shows are untenable, aggressive, and overwhelming. The celebrity circus has reached its zenith. The urgent demand for content is sickening and exploitative; you either become part of the problem or you get left behind. The reality is, we are steering the algorithm. If this teaches us anything, it’s that our time and attention are the most valuable things we have (and so is our data, but we’ve given most of that away for free by not reading the User Agreement). Your eyeballs and your thumbs are the hottest commodity on the planet. 

Usually, I can muster a rallying cry or find a silver lining. Not anymore. The statement that Fashion Week — actually the whole fashion system — is in desperate need of reform feels hollow without a proposed solution. Maybe there isn’t one; maybe it will combust on its own. But that doesn’t mean I will stop fighting for the things I believe in: spontaneity, individuality, authentic representation, true inclusivity, and creativity. Without these things, the answer to the age-old question becomes clear. Is Fashion Week still relevant? No.


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