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The End of the (Fashion) World as We Know It

If nature is inexorable, a volatile pathogen like coronavirus is its consummate ambassador and the fashion industry must change or die, writes Tim Blanks.
Models David Prost and Juno Mitchell after the Marni show during Milan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2020-2021 | Source: Getty Images
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom — If you've been checking off the Ten Plagues of Egypt in your book of Exodus, you'd probably be casting a concerned eye over your firstborn child round about now. In the first ten weeks of the new decade, we have moved through the fires of hell in Australia, biblical flooding in the UK, tornadoes in the US, unprecedented locust swarms in East Africa and a pandemic that has the entire planet in its feverish grip.

On January 10, when I set off for Milan for the men’s fashion shows, Covid-19 was still concentrated in the province of Hubei in China, where it originated. Then, I was preoccupied with the fires in Australia, where I have family and friends. The first case of Covid-19 appeared in Italy on January 30. When I came back to Milan on February 19 for the women’s shows, two more cases had been reported. By the time I left Milan for Paris five days later, that number had jumped to 157. Soon, it began to rain over the UK… and rain… and rain... At the end of February, an estimated 200-billion-strong swarm of locusts was reported in Kenya, and there were 1,128 cases of Covid-19 in Italy. As of yesterday, that caseload exploded to 59,138 with the death toll rising to 5,476, surpassing China’s and similar exponential growth in cases in countries across the West.

I’ve always been an apocalypsist. Ask anyone. Even as a babe in arms, my philosophy was this: imagine the worst, and whatever else happens, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Every time we left the family home for a holiday, I would bid goodbye to it on the implicit understanding I would never see it again. Which translated effortlessly into morbid teenage years, drawn to all kinds of disaster, from the emotional wreckage of Warhol’s Factory to the cosmic catastrophe of H.P. Lovecraft. Plus, a fascination with Charles Fort, “the patron saint of cranks,” whose Book of the Damned, first published in 1919, was a compendium of the inexplicable. It has a peculiar resonance in these intensely peculiar times. The puniness of people… that was a thread. And their arrogance, too. How very dare they challenge the grandeur of the multiverse, instead of trying to find their proper place in its stream of warm impermanence?

A new renaissance would be the ultimate silver lining, wouldn't it?

Nature is inexplicable. That's why we love David Attenborough. He films Nature's mysteries and leaves us to wonder. Nature is also inexorable. Why do I find myself thinking about the horseshoe crab so often? It's known as "a living fossil," because the horseshoe crab is at least 450 million years old, pre-dating dinosaurs. And still, it thrives. Or it would if its copper-rich blood weren't so useful as a tool for "the identification of bacterial endotoxins in medical applications." The medicine is, of course, being applied by representatives of the species H. Sapiens, the only survivors of the genus homo. (I'll steer you towards Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens to clarify exactly how fate was twisted to our advantage.)

H. Sapiens might be 300,000 years old. It's hard to keep up because the fossil record is continually being adjusted. But how dare he clap his hands on the hapless horseshoe. There's a game I fancy where the entire history of Planet Earth is compressed into 12 hours. On this timeline, humankind as we understand it emerges in the last two seconds, and the Anthropocene Era — the label we're now applying to everything since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1792 — begins one tenth of a second ago. So, feast your eyes on the wreck H.sapiens has wrought in that subliminal flicker of time. The horseshoe crab, happy in its co-existence with its environment for untold aeons, would be a prime witness for the prosecution of our species' wantonness.

It all started with the notion of dominion. There are multitudes who swear by (and on) the King James Bible, in which they read these words: “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” The same sentiment echoes throughout other expressions of institutionalised human faith. Do you interpret dominion as guardianship of the horseshoe and every other living thing, every morsel of flora and fauna on the face of the planet? Or do you see it as an open invitation to use and abuse?

I have recently entered the orbit of the pro-vegan network @thesavemovement and, like any zealous convert, have passed its message on to as many people as I can. (My father-in-law stopped eating meat.) It's hard to follow it on a daily basis without finding the concept of karma creeping back into your consciousness. The exploitation of animals, honed into unthinking yet numbingly sadistic patterns of human behaviour, would seem to invite a response — or at least a reminder — from the Grand Designer (is it true that quantum physicists are the most spiritual scientists because they are the ones who come closest to appreciating there is actually a grand design in the multiverse?) that humankind is as one with life, rather than the agent of its annihilation. Pandemics are one such visceral reminder. After little more than a month of Covid-19 and its enforced reduction of human activity, the sky was blue again over once-smog-choked parts of China. There were rumours of swans and dolphins in the canals of Venice. Oh, how we wanted to believe that joyous fantasia of a world without us.

How are billion-dollar brands going to feel when 'want not' is their target customer's mood?

Covid-19 wasn't even a glimmer in Gaia's eye when designers were working on their collections for Autumn/Winter 2020. Their backdrop was the climate crisis, a scenario that, long-term, poses a challenge much more threatening to the survival of the species than Covid-19 (though a pandemic makes for a more immediately mediagenic threat than collapsing ice-shelves in Antarctica.) Consider the biggest issue facing fashion before the onslaught of Covid-19: sustainability.

It's inextricably linked to time: time passing, time running out, time wasted. Time the tyrant, as ominous as the huge pendulum that bisected the set of Gucci's men's show, as relentless as the neon metronome that ticktock-ed the rotations of the carousel on which Alessandro Michele staged his women's show. He made time circular. The adult cycled back to his childhood self. Francesco Risso slowed it right down for his men's show for Marni, then folded it back on itself for his women's presentation, with brocades woven on Venetian looms designed by Leonardo. Marc Jacobs turned time into a frantic modernist sprint. Nicolas Ghesquière theatrically stretched it out through centuries for Louis Vuitton. And Demna Gvasalia turned his Balenciaga show into a dystopian chronology, from fire and flood to total eclipse.

Colour that acknowledgement of the umbilical connection between fashion and time as an effort to emphasise fashion's relevance, how it constitutes a substantial thread in the very fabric of culture. The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum is doing precisely that with its next spectacular. During the shows in Paris, there was a press conference for About Time: Fashion and Duration: fashion as continuity, conflating past, present and future. "Revealing how it can be both linear and cyclical," said the Met's Director Max Hollein. Fashion "not only reflects and represents the spirit of the times, but it also changes and develops with the times, serving as an especially sensitive and accurate timepiece," added the exhibition's curator Andrew Bolton. "Time is like a clock in my heart," Boy George once sang. Is fashion its wristwatch?

But then came a virus to slow the human timetable, to stop and even reverse it, ideally compelling a contemplative reckoning. The internet is now flooded with homilies, a re-vision of lockdown as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Even more ideal, a creative rebirth, like the Black Death begat the Renaissance. We’re nowhere remotely near that scale of wholesale cull yet — I don’t imagine this pandemic will be allowed to reach that point — but a new renaissance would be the ultimate silver lining, wouldn’t it? I do believe people are ready. Well, something’s got to give.

The habits, preferences and sentiment of shoppers will change — are changing already — and this is only the beginning.

If Nature is inexorable, a volatile pathogen like Covid-19 is its consummate ambassador. As an arch-catastrophist, I once fantasised about Lovecraftian behemoths spiralling down from the Pleiades to inflict cosmic horror on Planet Earth. Imagine if such monsters did exist, rather than the domestic abusers, the psychos, the serial killers that we read or hear about every day. How would a tabloid cover a space beast? With such nightmares would I divert myself. But now there actually is a superhuman threat, uniting me and my 91-year-old mother and 8-year-old nephew on the other side of the world under the same umbrella of ominous. And confronting it demands the degree of togetherness that Hollywood cliché has always insisted works best in such situations.

So far, the togetherness isn't looking so solid. I reel when I read that neo-Nazis in the US were apparently looking to "weaponise" Covid-19 to use against "federal agents and non-whites." So much for a common enemy uniting humanity. But, moving away from the predictably moronic to the industry that has been my home for decades, I wonder at the inevitable changes that lie in wait for fashion. Overnight, sustainability means tomorrow, never mind next season, let alone next year. And it's not just the immediate shock to the supply chain and sales. The habits, preferences and sentiment of shoppers will change — are changing already — and this is only the beginning, when "change or die" becomes a necessity, not an option. Again, taking a cue from the social media that has become nowsville's echo chamber, there are endless poignant entreaties to heed Nature's warning (fires, floods, a plague and a wind from nowhere – J.G. Ballard clearly crossed over to become Nature's PR guy). We could use this moment to embrace a common humanity (fuck neo-Nazis and ALL who sail with them) and a humility that currently evades humankind in its relationship with Nature.

And there’s the challenge in a nutshell for an industry that still elevates “the billion-dollar business” as an ambition. Think about all those brands who are elevating “waste not” as a corporate goal. How are they going to feel when “want not” is their target customer’s mood under the enduring influence of Covid-19? Survival’s a bitch. Prepare yourselves for the cult of Gaia.

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