TEL AVIV, Israel — The first suspicious signals surfaced just over six months ago. A plaid short skirt at the Moschino fashion show joined a stray stud from the Versace collection. Both of these were soon incorporated in a number of other collections, both high-end and high-street, culminating in the Autumn/Winter 2013 collection for Saint Laurent Paris. Accompanied by a deafening soundtrack of blaring guitars, any lingering doubt was decimated: the current fashion mood was unmistakably 90s post-punk, or grunge.
Fashion retailers are now racing to align themselves with this nostalgic movement with extraordinary enthusiasm. Indeed, examining the Fall collections of several popular brands, one discovers a scarily similar blend of flannel shirts, black jeans and studded boots. For designers, many of whom grew up during the late 90s, this represents a seemingly pure form of nostalgia, which may serve to explain why they are flocking towards the trend.
But to tell the truth, this glance back towards the 90s gives me a severe sense of discomfort. As opposed to the manner in which 80s fashion derived its sculpted shoulders from the 1940s, mixing in its own sharp angles, and unlike Madeleine Vionnet’s turn-of-the-century neo-classical dresses, which incorporated new bias cuts, the 90s revival apparel appears to be too true to its origins. Today’s grunge looks identical to the original grunge (enabling Hedi Slimane, Saint Laurent’s creative director, to recruit Courtney Love, one of the decade’s irrefutable symbols, as his presenter).
Like other realms of design, fashion always moves forward with one eye on the past, constantly re-examining proven aesthetic codes. That being said, the striking similarities between fashion from 20 years ago and that which is being produced today are not coincidental. The technological advancements of fashion documentation over the last two decades, especially in the realms of digital media and broadcast channels like MTV, have affected fashion itself.
Indeed, it’s become increasingly easy to capture and distribute photos and videos of fashion collections and style icons — driven largely by the growth of the Internet and the digital camera, together with ever-increasing power of MTV — giving rise to seemingly limitless archives, documenting every aspect of fashion in the tiniest possible details.
Since its inception, MTV has been perfectly synched with the current mood of fashion and glancing back at a bundle of video clips from any given era provides a very good indication of what was in vogue at that time. Although it’s true to say that fashion documentation is always evolving, in the 1990s, the growing vividness of this documentation, combined with its wide distribution, created a dramatic shift in terms of both resolution and accessibility. In that decade, it became possible, for perhaps the first time, for anyone to know exactly what a “look” really looked like.
There is a fundamental difference between the creation of nostalgic fashion — fuelled by a distant memory or an old item found in a closet, inspired by vintage collections — and the creation of fashion by scanning a well-stocked archive of photographs and video clips, all delivered in high resolution, describing a specific period in exhaustive detail. The latter ultimately castrates the one’s ability to interpret (as there is nothing left to the imagination), while the former encourages it through necessity. With so many available materials depicting grunge, Kurt Cobain’s style and Gianni Versace’s legacy, there is no need to contemplate or fantasize about anything. One can simply copy what existed down to the last detail, paying no consideration to time-related context or meaning. Madeleine Vionnet, one might imagine, certainly did not enjoy this luxury, being forced rather to bridge the gap of these missing particulars by applying her imagination to the sources she was quoting. To put it simply, this deficit of detail fostered a good deal of artistic freedom.
This shift is the reason why the return to 60s fashion that took place last summer was so similar to the looks depicted on the television series Mad Men. Distributed through mass media, the series provided unambiguous high definition materials that were easily imitated, instead of forcing people to rummage through authentic period photos or scouring fashion museums.
The digital documentation also transforms the way in which designers experience the world. “Once, designers would go to Africa for inspiration. Now they Google Africa,” lamented Alber Elbaz, artistic director of Lanvin, at the company’s Spring/Summer 2014 men’s fashion show. To add to his point: the sharper and more accurate the virtual documentation of reality grows and the more it seemingly provides a precise description of what exists IRL (in real life), the more fashion will reflect computerised reality. The problem? A single Google also means a single reality and at the end of the day, everyone is exposed to the same immediate references.
Overall, it’s safe to say that the advancement of fashion documentation, especially over the last decade, has made a decisive contribution to the manner in which current trends grow. The fact that designers are exposed to so much highly accurate and available data regarding past seasons’ fashions using simple tools like YouTube or Style.com results in the fact that many turn out the same product, the same look and the same inspiration, with seemingly extraordinary coordination.
Animal prints at Mango are not only nearly identical to the animal prints at Zara, but are also distributed at precisely the same time, for precisely the same period, and using precisely the same processes. And if today’s 90s revival is too similar to the actual 90s, and if one animal print is nearly identical to other animal prints, then the area for interpretation is slowly disappearing. And what’s disappearing along with it is the simple excitement brought on by conscientious design.
Liroy Choufan is a consultant and fashion editor based in Israel. This article was originally published in Hebrew on fashion.walla.co.il