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I was only 5 years old the first time I wondered about why we wear what we wear. I used to sit in a corner of our living-room so I could observe my parents and their friends. Why did they wear what they wore, and how did their clothes connect with who they were and wanted to be?
As I grew older, my reflections on clothes and the connection with the human behind them grew deeper. I started to more systematically examine the puzzle of human interaction with clothes. Every time, the question was the same: Why do we wear what we wear and what does it tell us about the person we are and want to become?
I began studying psychology, communication, sociology, and philosophy, and my questions became more and more complex. The aim was to get a deeper understanding of fashion as a phenomenon. The treasure hunt had begun. I sought to uncover the meaning and understanding of the relationship between humans and fashion, how the two dimensions interact and what they gain from each other. One of my first results, and steps in the right direction, was my master thesis “I dress -therefore I am.” Here, I explored how our personality and choice of clothes changes according to the different context we interact in. The answers, that described how our personality and clothes change according to the situation we are in, gave me motivation to go further. I wanted to create change. Or to be more precise, I wanted to help the fashion industry to become more robust. I wanted to investigate consumer needs and find out what we really wear, so brands all over the world could begin designing clothes and products that not only lasted a season, but maybe years or even decades.
I knew it was possible. When I looked into my own closet it wasn´t dominated by the latest trends – even though I am a sucker for trends (everything new always get my attention). My wardrobe was a mix of clothes that worked for me and pieces that never really worked out. But we will discuss the latter later. The important lesson and motivation in that moment was: We have wardrobe favorites, and we need to explore and better understand them so brands can better create such favorites instead of clothes that never really seem to work. So, part two of my treasure-hunt began, the journey of finding out what defines a favorite-fashion product.
The result was the book “Robust Mode,” which means “Robust Fashion,” published in Danish in 2017. It is a book that investigates consumers’ favorite products to find out what we really wear, what really works for us, and what defines our best-loved clothes. When we have this definition, we can reach the recipe for robust fashion. We can come to understand why some products are used for years and why others end up in the trash.
So, what defines our favorite clothes? It wasn´t one thing. I found it was five different areas that define whether or not you will love the next thing you buy. Because we never buy trends only, we buy, and use, products that score in the following five areas:
Let’s go through the five areas. The first area is about aesthetics. It is about how the product looks. Do we find it beautiful, trendy or exciting to look at? The more aesthetically pleasing we perceive the product, the more likely we are to use it. In my case, one of the items I have kept in my wardrobe across decades is my grandmother’s old silk scarf from the 60s. It is a tropical landscape with palms and exotic flowers. A motive that will always be beautiful and well-balanced. Whenever I wear something a bit dull, I know this scarf can create a touch of aesthetic magic.
Area two is the physical level; how does it feel on our body? Is it smooth, soft and comfortable or is it itchy and too tight? The better the product feels on our body, the more likely we are to use it and love it. When it comes to my own wardrobe and use, the physical level means a lot to me. I was born and raised in Scandinavia with a cold climate and a rough nature, so I also want to make sure I am dressed for a spontaneous walk in the forest or a walk and talk meeting in the city. This is also the reason I tend to spend a lot of time in my black winter-running stretch pants. You can blame the pandemic for this slightly dubious choice of pants, but nevertheless these pants feel so good on my body that I use any excuse to wear them.
Area three is the psychological level. It is all about how the product makes us feel on an emotional level. Is the product telling the story of who you are, or is it telling you a story about someone you really don’t want to be anymore? When the product is affirming how you perceive yourself, you become a bigger fan of the product. This area is one of the most important areas. The psychological aspect of dressing goes much further and deeper than we think. I think this is something we experience on a daily basis. I see it not only in my personal experience, but also in my academic research. When we are talking about the psychological level, we are talking about clothes that give you an extra superpower. For me it is my crisp white Remain business shirt. It is oversize, the collar is lifted so it covers my neck, and the icing on top of the cake; a dark blue crystal is placed on the collar. Wow! I can literally do anything when I wear this shirt. I get extra energy and the shirt expresses exactly who I want to be seen as: an intelligent, modern, and open-minded woman – ready to conquer the world.
Quality is the fourth area. This area is about the quality of the product and how easy or difficult it is to maintain. If your new sweater looks dull after you wear it once, you are not satisfied. If we want to use something again and again it has to be easy to maintain. When I look at pictures of myself, it is easy for me (and others) to notice my favorite “easy-to-maintain” product. It is (of course) my military camouflage pants. They are the real deal, and not a designer copy. The reason why I say “not a copy” is because of the important fact that real military clothes are built to last. You can sense that in their quality. I don´t know how many times I have worn these pants, but they still look the same. That is impressive and something we should all dig into and explore further – how certain fabrics and cuts have the ability to last for decades. What could be more sustainable?
Which leads us to the last area: Styling. Our clothes have to be easy to use when it comes to styling. We don’t want to think too much about what goes with what – it just has to work. Just like your favorite pair of jeans; they always work! And for me, the easiest item to style are my vintage Levi’s 501 jeans. They fit me like a glove and they literally go with everything. I can use them with high heels at a club, I can use them with a sweater for a chilly weekend, or I can combine them with a black blazer and create a more sophisticated and professional look. All in all – they are easy, and that is really something our energy-saving brain loves.
So, what happens if the products in our wardrobe don’t score highly in the five areas? Then the item is one of those that ends up in the back of the closet. Hidden and forgotten. When we look again, most of us have a product in our wardrobe that looks absolutely amazing, but we still don’t wear it. Why? Because it doesn’t tell the story about who we are anymore, or it feels itchy on our body, or you have to bring it to the cleaner or, or, or. You see the pattern, right?
If we want to create fashion that lasts, we need to focus on levels and areas other than just looks, aesthetics, and appearances. We have to understand how consumers think and how they choose and define their favorite fashion items. In order to create a stronger fashion product, we must look at the resistance to wear what we have. By understanding why we don’t wear a certain garment, like a material that is fraying or a fit that doesn´t look good, we become wiser and can strengthen the design of new products. The goal is not to create a lot of unnecessary stuff, the goal is to create something that lasts. In our current times, our awareness of these issues has grown. We are more conscious about climate change, and the necessity for sustainability and circular fashion, than ever before. But if we really want to create change, we have to understand the consumers we are designing for, and with. We have to get into their skin and understand the purchases they make. Fashion and humans have to meet in the middle if we want to make sure fashion will become more sustainable.
In other words, we have to apply the approach and theory of robust fashion not only when creating clothes, but also after. When I work with fashion brands, I always try to guide them and make them aware of the many reasons why consumers buy x instead of y. And most importantly, I teach them how to understand the importance of truly creating a robust product. It not only pays off right now (because the consumer desires such a product), but also on the long term, because the product is used again and again. The five areas are important for all consumers, but as a fashion brand, you need to be aware of the fact that the importance of each level differs from each consumer group. For instance, the young teenager doesn’t mind wearing high heels that don’t feel comfortable because they may feel like they look hot. On the other hand, the busy mom in her 30s may rather choose some lower and more comfortable heels. The five areas are crucial, but how much each area affects our decisions changes according to where we are in life.
So what is my relationship with clothes today, 33 years after my first conscious thoughts about fashion? It has surely evolved. I have become aware of the fact that clothes are related to our emotions and they have a certain energy attached to them. We are humans created by flesh and blood and we seek identity and meaning through what we wear. Our clothes evolve with us and through us. They affect how we feel, how we perceive ourself, and which possibilities we are able to see in life. These are the aspects we really wear. That is also the reason why clothes are so important. I guess you can feel it too.
Manou Messmann is a brandstrategist and educator working with neuropsychological branding. In 2015 she did her TED talk “Are you wearing your future?” followed by her book “Robust Mode” (“Resistant Fashion”) published in danish. Her theories and future scenarios within fashion have been published in trendmagazines, the book “Cross Channel 2” and the international award winning magazine “Scenario.” You can find more on her website www.manoumessmann.com.