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Friday, January 18th 2019

7:50 PM

It’s Happening Again

Does anyone who reads Fashion Observed recall the 90s?

We're not talking about the journey from the end of shoulder pads to minimalism, then grunge, then normcore, then sportswear, then 70s retro redone, then lab and tech-inspired (Helmut Lang's lab cut coats are completely back again), then romantic and Edwardian, then future-forward and neo 80s before 9/11 set us back? We're speaking about the way that the recession following the global credit collapse brought the go-go 80s to a screeching halt. You know (if you were actually there), the way the excess that fashion reflected, inspired by tremendous innovation supported by the celebration of individuality, became too much. When all that innovation and individuality became a marketing scheme that couldn't sustain itself.

The constant chase to be ahead of the fashion curve burnt out its fans and followers who could not compete with their role models and influences, and as the bills mounted and economies looked to dry up, people stopped buying. Design houses that had not cultivated a sustainable following collapsed, unable to compete with other, more established labels when the message became less about ideas and more about wearability and value in investment. Yes, that part of the 90s. Well, guess what? It's coming back, at least if what has been presented during Pre-fall 2019 (and, so far, some of fall Winter 2019) is any indication.

When looking at the collections from Pre-fall 2019 onwards, there is a clear division happening in what is being presented. There is one camp , seen more prominently in shows outside of the USA where the threat of economic collapse doesn't seem to be as prominent in conversations or in media (yet). The political landscape and its repercussions in the face of history is felt more acutely there, especially as current politics have made this "fear central". What we speak of is where fashion continues its see-saw between mining the late 80s experimentalism (with a dash of protective oversize that still lingers) versus execution innovation, aided in part by more sophisticated technology that carries vision forward, both in materials and in assembly. In the latter, some are still playing with excess while others are streamlining the executions while still keeping the edge of modernity intact. These clothes, as interesting as they are, are for the utterly urban audience. These are the ones who live in major cities and more sophisticated centers where fashion will have special places that welcome it. That is, where large populations that support anonymity more easily allow individuality to mix more freely. This is the fashion that we, who love design, like...but... cannot wear outside of these centers; the concepts are too conspicuous, too high in ideals for the average road trip into less populated and more conservative areas (read: most of the average world). Face it, they're city clothes. Then, there's the other, increasingly larger camp, the camp that embraces demure practicality (the exclamation by Vogue Runway's Luke Leitch covering the recent Fall Winter 2019 menswear collection of Takahiromiyashita The Soloist: "At last! Some art!"; that said it all.). These are the clothes you can wear when living an average life, a life of grocery shopping, running errands, or going into the suburbs and rural areas. It's the world of classics and confirmed retro items that become perennial. It's the kind of clothes that allow one to seamlessly blend into the population. These allow for the individual to find a code within the comforts of conformity to declare one's identity in a more identifiable manner. These are the essentials, the ones that stand the test of time...and preserve relative anonymity by being more non-descript.

Designers know that the runway may need editorial items to keep media interest but the boutiques have the staples because, as often stated in this blog ad infinitum, fashion is ultimately a business and those staples are really what people buy. The problem is when more and more labels in fashion, out of preservation in the face of economic adversity, recalls what happened last time such an extreme shift happened during an explosion of creativity and decide to revert to the tried-and-true tactic that became the go-to in fashion previously. This blog referred to it originally years ago as "the culling" because that is what happened then, it's what happens during every recession, and it unfortunately is what will happen again. There is a huge factor currently anticipated that, like the last time, spurs such a design direction that is appearing in pre-fall collections this year.

Fashion relies on a sustainable customer base to carry it forward. Unfortunately, the business communities at large have allowed avarice to reign (and the public has been largely apathetic as the conditions gradually deteriorated to where they are today), and, let's face it, it is the worst business move ever. Sure, for a few years those nearer the top get richer, but by starving out their customer base that allowed such profits to occur, they have made their future unsustainable while possibly setting up conditions that can result in a less-than-gentile backlash. Think eighteenth century France and please recall the undercurrent of fear among the target of protest when the one percent movement came about...until that movement proved it couldn't focus enough to carry through. Do you think the next time those that protest won't have learned from that? You can't have a consumption-based economy continue when you take out the bulk of the customer base, and the growing divide as a result of wage stagnation and exponential expense growth has left this customer base...the one that our consumption economy is largely based around... tapped out. Now, throw in fears of another huge downturn along with a huge negative balance due to extended credit use for survival and what do you have? A very big and very bad problem...and that problem includes every industry tied to fashion.

Fashion reflects our population well. In fact, protest movements (Yellow Vest) and fringe collectives (clothing collections online for the alt-right) are taking to utilizing fashion as a unifier as much as clothing styles define a "tribe". Some within it see opportunity and remain, honing their voice and keeping their business in check with confidence on the customer base it knows and has established. Some will forge forward with hope and will not remain, not able to sustain in a downturn due to poor timing or a vision that cannot sustain itself in changing times. That is, fashion that is too unique when the bulk of the population goes normcore out of necessity spells doom for individuality regardless of where it might work. It failed for creative in the early 90s as nobody wanted to stand out when homelessness exploded. That's why logos, flamboyance and individualistic creative expression ended. It was vulgar to stand out in obviously pricey finery, passing people who were suffering with no money for food or a home to go to. It was like rubbing their faces in your good fortune, which nobody wanted to do. The change in dress also was out of survival as fashion fans realized the kind of attention being flashy got in less prosperous circumstances invited trouble. All that the 80s was about was, abruptly, out of fashion.

Fashion Observed doesn't enjoy bringing gloomy observations. Who doesn't feel bad for anyone affected negatively by misfortune? Given the understanding of investing one's life in one's passions, there is a particularly soft spot reserved for those who will not be able to sustain their revolutionary visions when the proverbial poo hits the fan. Their vision will feed future generations who will look for innovation when time passes and situations (hopefully) rebound. But one also feels bad for the many designers who have decided to forgo individuality and innovation out of survival. In failing to lead the public forward by standing ground creatively in unison, this shift dooms the industry to seeing redundancy punished; many labels who produce what a Walmart or Gap make who have not fully established themselves in that zone will have a hard time surviving because those who can buy will not see much of a difference between what is a bargain and what is not, and will naturally gravitate to the bargain. Those who understood business who survived the last time this happened know it's what propelled many labels to shut down back then. And with tariff wars, political instability, and environmental concerns added to consumers' concerns (Elliot Wave, anyone?) and exacerbating the entire scenario, there will be less impetus for the next while for people to shop the way they do when times are good. That doesn't take into consideration the new growing trend of purchasing direct from manufacturers, forsaking supporting and being loyal to labels in lieu of seeking bargains on quality workmanship. This, plus the growing resale economy, will not help sales, but those who read the article written by this blog's author for Scandinavia's largest trend organization and WGSN partner Pej Gruppen a couple of years back on how to maximize the expected fashion rental market will know better on how to thrive.

If only one can remake the world; it's easy to say "what ifs" like how fashion should have collectively stuck to individuality as a new direction for the century, albeit by scaling down the collection sizes and volume. Sure, it would have meant downsizing. Some people would lose positions, and some profit would have been lost. But the chances of overall survival while fashion reconciles sustainability and adapts to changing consumer values would have been better. If fashion had collectively done this, it could have reprogrammed the direction of fashion and thus preserved more labels while the economy corrects itself. But it didn't then, and all indicators look as though it's not about to now. Not the way things stand as far as trying to retain the status quo. Perhaps that's the problem who's solution doesn't fit this century.

But fret not and take it in stride; not everything can be accurately predicted. And also, please take heart that nothing ever stays the same. Even bad times eventually give way to good ones. Let's not forget how tech reinvigorated interest in fashion in the 90s; our tech blows out of the water anything from the last century. We have some of that to address issues, just as it did back then. And sustainability is, as mentioned in prior articles, forging new design approaches that could impact how fashion proceeds to circumnavigate a repeat of this experience. We'll always have fashion; we gotta wear something. We just need a stronger cause to accompany our road ahead. We need the initiatives to save the customer to avoid social catastrophe as we figure on how to save the planet from ourselves. Cheerful stuff!

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