LONDON, United Kingdom — All too often fashion has been painted as a gilded cage. That’s actually luxury: fashion is about rattling said cage, about upsetting the status quo, about flux and change. Sometimes that can be for the better — Poiret’s Ballets Russes, Saint Laurent’s “Vichy Chic,” the New Look. Sometimes for worse — I’m not sure if fashion is really benefitting from the recent rise of the pre-collection, or Topshop’s fifty-something drops of fresh frocks per annum. But it’s always there.
At least in theory. In actual fact, it’s becoming more and more difficult to rattle fashion’s cage and set the industry on a new course. Because, for a sector supposedly obsessed with the new and the next, there’s remarkably little emerging that we haven’t seen before. Jean Baudrillard had a theory that fashion is only new when contrasted with that which has immediately ceased to be fashionable. I’ve used that comparison at least four times this year. And that’s because I’m seeing fewer and fewer things that surprise, let alone shock. Fashion today is about the schlock, not the shock, of the new.
Maybe that’s a defeatist, fatalistic point of view. There’s still a hard-nosed cadre of upstarts that are striving to push fashion into realms we haven’t seen before, rather than striving to make a quick buck. There’s always a disjointed moment when you fly from London to Milan: from young designers with something they desperately need to express through fashion to brands headed by rich men getting richer by richly dressing rich women. A moment of respect, if you will, for those young London labels. Amongst the stars are Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou, Meadham Kirchhoff, J.W. Anderson and the menswear designer Craig Green — I could go on — because all of them are equally and absolutely convinced of what they are doing. They have to be. Fashion is a dirty, difficult business. You can’t go into it lightly. It isn’t fun.
I’m not a flag-waving patriot, but for the latter half of the twentieth century, and the opening years of the twenty-first, Britain has been breeding the upstarts of the fashion world, the image-makers, stylists and, more than anything else, the designers that have rung in the changes that have moved contemporary fashion forward. Two of the instigators, Vivienne Westwood and the late Malcolm McLaren, were near-deified in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute this summer; two years ago, it was Lee Alexander McQueen, a direct descendent of their approach to fashion. That approach? Destroy.
Which isn’t always a bad thing. The whole idea of fashion is to desecrate one idea and move on to the next: this is “in” and that is “out”. Fashion is the only creative industry in which change — as I said, for better or worse — is not a choice, but a demand, and on a schedule to boot. So many creatives in fashion are creative only in name, going through the motions, putting on a show. They do it very nicely.
It’s the ones who rattle the cage, however, that will be remembered.
Alexander Fury is fashion editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday.
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, published to accompany the launch of the BoF 500. To get your copy, click here or visit Colette in Paris, Opening Ceremony in New York, London and Los Angeles, Le Mill in Mumbai and Sneakerboy in Melbourne.