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Outside the window, it should have been autumn season. With the arrival of more crisp weather, a section of the wardrobe opens for the new possibilities, colors, and textures: jackets and closed shoes, knits and tweed. And layers. Layers force the wearer to think in more complex combinations. With a bit colder weather, dressing just gets a bit richer. It is not only the trees that gets a boost of colors; autumn also brings the arrival of more expressive dressing.
But in a time of social distancing and zooming, the streetscape also appears different. The autumn looks of the office are harder to spot. There is less attention to detail. Some steadfast souls keep up the façade, but on the streets and sidewalks there is much less to see. There are too few in the participating audience, it not worth the effort.
I had a few favorite spots around Union Square where I could run off to take a coffee break. The charm of these places was that they offered a window seat to enjoy the streetscape, studying the people passing on their way about their business. Last fall, I could watch the play of fall colors, a wonderful mix of expressions, styles, and purpose. Sipping my coffee, I would entertain myself by observing people on their ways between their acts in the theatre of life.
But now, not only is Broadway closed. So are most venues where we dress with public purpose, or where we put our own style to display outside the four walls of quotidian boredom. While zooming may be disarming some aesthetic agonies, it has also made it clear there is no adventure dressing for a computer screen. No proportion, no layering, no motivation to challenge any spectators, no strangers to induce with an aura of being in control of things. All too few perform their role with that sense of perky determination that makes heads turn.
Why bother when nobody cares? This autumn’s fashion is lost. While this should be the time for fall fashion, I guess many may ask themselves if this is also the fall of fashion?
Where did the excitement go? All I see is fashion without the purpose of performance. Fashion without the confidence required for social competition. And with the crisis across the fashion industry and retail, is it perhaps even a foretaste of a fashion with just a little less color of capitalism?
Many have argued that the Covid-19 crisis could offer a time for reflection. With the addiction to soulless searching for meaning in the store isles broken, consumers would be forced to introspection or even painful withdrawal. There is hope that, without the habitual rituals of shopping, consumers will seek validation beyond the racks of the clothing stores. Preachers of sustainability sense a time of reckoning. But I am not so sure. Missing my coffee at the window seat facing the streetscape, I guess I am still stuck in a process of mourning. Even with an empty seat at the front, the show is just not the same. There is not much competition for the street style Tony award this fall.
The big fast fashion stores in Times Square are a testament to the place of fashion within the entertainment industry. And eerily empty today, they may reveal one of the big changes across retail in general: shopping for fashion is no longer the popcorn and soda for the theatre of the streets. As we went to see a show, we got ourselves a bag of candy, and on the way also a bag of clothes. But now, watching a movie on the screen at home, I may miss my M&Ms, but not really my H&Ms.
Covid has affected the fashion industry on so many levels: dropped fashion weeks and collections, cancelled and unpaid orders, closed stores, and masses of unemployed and destitute workers. Surely it is time for the industry to rethink how it operates, with its thin margins and dubious supply chains and business practices. There is surely a need to rethink, and fashion education is a good place to start. But as teachers at fashion schools, where are we to start and how deep are we willing to go in the quest for change?
Educators are a bit untrained. Thinking fashion beyond consumerism is not a common trope at fashion schools. The dominance of the ready-to-wear paradigm over the half century has been so successful for the industry there have been few incentives to question the status quo. Except for patching up the current model with living wages and less pollution, the industry has made consumers feel they live in fashion utopia. On-trend, cheap and accessible styles for the masses; what else can consumers wish for?
The Covid crisis in fashion may also bring about some new thoughts about the purpose of fashion and dressing: what are we to save from fashion in the decline of consumerism? If we stretch it further, could we use the situation to think more sharply what would we save from the field of fashion in the atrophy of shopping utopia? How do we dress after the fall of fashion-as-we-know-it?
Think of it like this: the houses of fashion are on fire — what will you rescue from the flames? Some essential things are necessary for survival, but in the long run, it is the emotional stuff that is irreplaceable. Fall fashion must be about what we may miss from our old life.
The current Covid-crisis is just the warm-up. You can pick what scenario you see along the road. Just extrapolate a little from what is currently happening. It can be just a minor change, a decentering of fashion, where it is no longer a central part of the entertainment industries. It can be a collapse of global supply-chains, mixed with protection of domestic industries and closing borders, which radically increases prices. However, it gets more interesting when you increase the intensity. Think toxic environment, mass extinction, de-industrialization, population decline, environmental degradation, financial collapse, mass unemployment, civil wars, perhaps even failed space civilizations and zombie apocalypse. It is not hard imagining, as it’s all in the movies, so just pick your favorite: Alphaville, Bladerunner, Hunger Games, Children of Men, Stalker, what have you. Pick a mixed bag and get some extra popcorn for the show.
From this scenario of the future, it is time to look back at fashion in the business-as-usual state which just passed. Ask yourself: is there something you miss? What experiences do you feel nostalgic for, that were part of that special sweetness of abundance? What was it with the luxury of dressing up for demarcation and desire that made you arrive early at the shows, just to seep in the looks of others? Where did it matter? With whom did it matter? What did it make you feel? What did it do to you? What were the pleasures? Was there a purpose?
Now, think of how to reproduce these emotions in your new dystopian setting. Is there any room to experience fashion after the fall of consumerism? Where will the excitement of fashion be displayed in the fallout? How are people dressing the part in your post-apocalyptic communes? Are the experiences of fashion organized in some way? Will the fashion weeks resemble travelling circuses? How will we dress during our shifts in the peri-urban farms? What will we have under the hazmat suits we wear to work? How will it feel dressing up in digital identity holograms?
Fashion in the fall is an exercise, not necessarily a destination. Asking what we would like to conserve from our shopping habits may help guide us towards a more sustainable future, beyond asceticism and mere survival. Perhaps, in the end, there is something worth in fashion to bring along to the future, whatever it may hold.
There will surely be new seasons after fall fashion. Even so, let’s take the moment to imagine more visionary experiences of fashion before we restore a system that was already overheating.