NEW YORK, United States – In 2006, the American artist Jason Rhoades installed his final work in his Los Angeles studio before overdosing on a combination of heroin and medication. The installation was called Black Pussy and spread over 3,000 square feet. Besides 185 neon signs that spelled out various terms for female genitalia, there were hundreds of hookah pipes, 350 dream catchers, 89 beaver hats, 72 Chinese Scholar stones and more.
The implications were multi-faceted. But the work certainly underscored the rise of an “anything goes” art climate, in which specific movements were dead and the very definition of art was hard to pin down. Anything could be defined as art and so Rhoades threw anything he felt like into his last artwork. Like Marcel Duchamp before him, Rhoades seemed to claim what he did was art simply by virtue of his being an artist.
This is exactly where fashion finds itself today. We have entered a state of pure postmodernism, where anything goes and nothing means anything anymore.
Fashion once had its old masters in Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, its impressionists in Yves Saint Laurent and Cristobal Balenciaga, and a long stretch of its own modernist avant-garde starting with Vivienne Westwood and continuing through Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler to Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and the Antwerp Six.
It has its own pop art in Versace and Moschino, minimalists in Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, deconstructionists in Martin Margiela and Rick Owens, and provocateurs in Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
But what united all of the above is that they were fashion designers, meaning they had aesthetic direction and worked to convey a theme or tell a story.
We have entered a state of pure postmodernism, where anything goes and nothing means anything anymore.
Now we find ourselves in a totally different situation. Fashion in the original sense still exists. But plenty of new forms of fashion have sprung up alongside this. H&M and Zara are fashion. Nike and Adidas are fashion. Supreme and Stüssy are fashion. Any piece of clothing is fashion, and so is the way we dress.
But this phenomenon used to have another name. When I interviewed the art historian Valerie Steele several years ago, I asked her what the word “fashion” meant. She suggested that it was basically how one puts clothes together. To which I thought, wait a minute, that’s what we used to call style.
Style and fashion have collapsed into each other. But being stylish and being fashionable used to mean two different things. One did not require having money to buy designer clothes; the other did. One required a certain sensibility; the other one did not. That’s why you could be called a “fashion victim,” but no one would call you a style victim.
The signs that we are in a postmodernist era of fashion — where fashion has become unmoored and lost its original meaning — are everywhere: the rise of streetwear, a tsunami of product collaborations, normcore, dad sneakers, the ugly-made-pretty aesthetic, the erasure of concern for the quality of both materials and construction.
Some things remain the same, of course. Brands with huge marketing budgets and a compliant fashion media (now flanked by so-called influencers) still dictate taste. The democratisation of fashion is a myth: the masses still buy what they are told. But they are no longer necessarily marching to the beat of the same drum, the same trends.
What this all means for the future is anyone’s guess. Mine is that fashion will dissolve into a myriad stylistic tribes. You will have your streetwear diehards, your ladies who lunch, your workwear enthusiasts, your skinny indie rock wannabes, your fashion goths, and so on.
But fashion will cease to exist as a cohesive conversation. Rather than moving forward, it will move in every direction at once.
This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just is. In other words, whatever.
Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.