This past week, I felt like I was trapped between a bad episode of Black Mirror and the pages of Guy Debord’s “Society of Spectacle.” There is a similarity between the dark British anthology series, which explores society and the effects of modern technology on it, and the French book, published in 1967, which depicts a human society that is heavily influenced by, and dependent, on mass media.
Following the Duma/Sergeenko affair, I found something profoundly pertinent in the dystopian issues raised by the series and the book, because of their relevance to our societal fascination with fashion media culture. Our lives have become fabricated representations of what we think we are experiencing due to the over-consumption of mass media, technology, the homogeneity of culture, social interaction and the lack of diversity.
We are connected 24/7. These permanent interactions on social media platforms, such as Instagram, have produced an illusion of intimacy and dependence between followers and followed. Debord speaks about “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” and the Duma/Sergeenko affair is an example of how that social relationship has evolved into something ubiquitous and rather sinister.
Albert Einstein writes, “worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom — God knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.” Success and fame are unpredictable. Ironically, a social media platform that shaped you so fast can destroy you with the same greediness and rapidity and without any sense of morality or culpability.
Eventually, reality always resurfaces… Even fashion 'It' girls must take off their beauty masks.
Our culture increasingly confuses “being notable” for “being noticed.” Social media is facilitating the latter. Many fashion "It" girls build their career, their empire and their popularity on social media by appealing to a larger audience, showing off their attractive lifestyle and hiding behind their “It” bags without substance. Thus, our judgment is predominantly based on what the person is showing us. Eventually, reality always resurfaces… Even fashion "It" girls must take off their beauty masks.
Having said that, I was truly stunned by the absurdity of Duma’s act. Did she do it on purpose? Or was it ignorance? Some people in the fashion industry take pride in their “virtual” status, and believe they are more sophisticated and knowledgeable than the rest of us. They engage in all kind of behaviours. While knowledge is power, power does not necessarily bring knowledge and understanding. An Instagram status and the number of followers certainly do not give you the right to be offensive. How can you post without thinking about the consequences of a controversial post? It was certainly not naivety, as some good Samaritans labelled it.
The Duma/Sergeenko affair is a testimony of the high level of ignorance that prevails in the fashion industry. In our digital world, everything you post can be judged, reposted and saved. I cannot help but wonder if Duma’s post was an acte manqué, a parapraxis, a sign of some unconscious desire? Was she trying to sabotage herself because she feels her success in fashion is not legitimate? If it is ignorance, is her influential position in fashion legitimate?
The issue of ignorance remains a fundamental danger in our fashion media culture. Some of us know where to draw the line. We know that there is much more to our industry than bigotry, superficiality, racism, homophobes and transphobes. It’s 2018, the more you speak with some people in our profession, the more you realise that these statements are passé, unoriginal and boring. Paradoxically, the industry supposedly despises those 3 words.
Fashion is problematic. And it exhibits plenty of WTF moments.
Was she trying to sabotage herself because she feels her success in fashion is not legitimate?
However, we defend it because we are passionate about our jobs. We work hard to stay ahead, we design, we style, we embroider, we recycle, we invent, we write and we criticise. Primarily, we wear fashion. Virginia Woolf describes clothing in “Orlando” as having “more important offices than merely to keep us worn. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” There is a symbolic dimension to fashion. Fashion acts as a vehicle of identity, expression and gender fluidity. It is omnipresent in our everyday life. The social media influencers do not represent all of us.
Let’s start following people that matter, ones that inspire us.
Follow the journey of a photographer sent on an island in the Caribbean because fashion is escapism and pertains to the realm of fantasy and dreams. Fashion is also nostalgia, and story-telling. Follow fashion historians to learn about the history of our society and industry, and to reminisce over an old photograph of Farida Khelfa in Azzedine Alaïa’s atelier. Follow a fashion journalist who gives you first access to couture week in Paris and whose critical analysis will open up new perspectives.
We admire fashion entrepreneurs and activists who are taking the lead in shaking our industry, who are fighting for inclusivity, disrupting the status quo. We admire their initiatives, and their innovative ideas because, we think, they are working for the betterment of our industry, toward its sustainability, fighting for human rights, labour rights, for environmental issues. There are so many incredible people.
So, I hope you don’t mind Duma/Sergeenko that ultimately, we had to click the “unfollow” button.
As with so many Black Mirror episodes, the Duma/Sergeenko story shines an uncomfortable light on the ways in which we are living and interacting today. However, technology is not our enemy. It is the humans that are empowered by technology that are the danger.
Keeping in mind the narrow-minded ideals that some people in the industry still preach, we shall move forward and leave the ignorant to wander. We have bigger fish to fry. Because we know, in the words of Maxwell Osborne at W Magazine, that “fashion is always at its best when it looks outside of itself for inspiration and holds up a mirror to society. Sometimes we do that on the runway and sometimes when we come together as an industry and take up important causes.”
Joelle Firzli is a fashion researcher, writer and curator based in Washington DC .
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.