Why Fashion Matters
I remember the moment I became interested in fashion very clearly. Before said moment, my previous Christmas wish lists had consisted of microscopes and computer games. I was an aspiring scientist, who would mock fashion models whenever they showed up on the 7 pm news I watched religiously.
The moment it all changed took place in Mexico City with my old middle school friend Jessica. She was gorgeous and stylish and poised and refined and everything my tomboy, disheveled self was not. She had a collection of Juicy Couture tracksuits, gold-plated heart necklaces and an impressive array of girly, preppy Abercrombie sweaters; mind you, it was 2006.
Being exposed to these new, shiny things changed me. Before Jessica, I never had access to these sparkly contraptions, mainly because of geography (these brands hadn’t reached Latin America) but also because no one in my family had been particularly fashion-driven.
These events all happened in 5th grade. Fast-forward to now, I study at Parsons School of Design, devote most of my time reading, thinking, watching and consuming fashion. But this love and some would say obsession with fashion was not passed down to me, it is not a family legacy in the slightest. Every single member of my family are academics, economists, intellectuals that are more prone to mock fashion than follow it. As a result, eyebrows are raised, eyes are secretly rolled and questions are asked whenever I speak of my aspirations in the industry.
“Why is fashion important?” is a question that no one has asked directly but that I know is the sub-text of every conversation I have with my family regarding my future. If you asked me for my personal response, the answer to that question lays entirely on the fact that a piece of gold-plated, cheesy Juicy Couture jewelry changed my entire identity. This for me is the ultimate evidence that fashion is important and does matter, not because Juice Couture cheap jewelry is specially awe-inspiring or a piece of life-changing design but because of what it represents. Through one small item, fashion transformed my psyche, my aspirations, and it created the person I was about to become. But I know, not everyone has these transformative, quasi-religious experiences with fashion. Otherwise, lips wouldn’t be pursed, and laughs wouldn’t be boasted whenever one defends fashion from its frivolous reputation.
So why should my brilliantly academic, politically-involved father with a knack for Jorge Luis Borges' first editions care about Fashion? Why should anyone who doesn’t understand why an Alexander McQueen plastic vinyl skirt with its hips slashed open cost thousands of dollars, care about this world?
“I spent a fucking fortune in these clothes; you don’t want people saying “oh nice clothes!” you want some sort of reaction at the end of it”. Genius and deeply troubled designer, Alexander McQueen, said after one of his famous and theatrical shows. His irreverent spirit aside, McQueen in that sentence captures what fashion designers work all day and all night for. Fashion is not about being thin and looking beautiful in "ridiculous" garments, it is about inciting a reaction, it is about saying something whether it be about your identity or the society surrounding said identity.
Even when fashion is not political, even when designers do not put on elaborate, theatrical and shocking shows alá McQueen, it can still inspire change: individual change in the minds of the people who will wear these clothes or the knock-off versions of them. There is a certain sense of being well-dressed that gives a feeling of powerful self-assurance, a tranquility that even religion is impotent to bestow. And yes, feeling heavenly in clothes is important (queue eye rolls) but for those who are not convinced, here are some stats:
- Over 4 million people are employed in the industry.
- Over $20 billion in revenue is generated annually in the US alone.
- The industry in a global scale has reached almost $2,560 trillion dollars in 2010, and $20 million are funneled into the NYC economy during Fashion Week, twice a year.
These are the reasons why fashion matters in a straightforward sense, it generates jobs and incomes. However, what I am trying to do here is to explain fashion’s more romantic imperativeness. I am trying to defend fashion from the frequent accusations of it being vapid and immoral. It is easy to see why these assumptions are made, it's an industry driven by surface decoration of fabric, of accessories and of your own self. But beyond fancy silks and embellished patterns, what these garments are able to express is everything but vapid, it's visceral.
Fashion has been an important part, if not the protagonist of every subculture. Punk wouldn’t have happened without its corresponding uniform, neither would have the Club Kids or the Hippies or the Goths or the Riot Grrrl. Musicians from Michael Jackson to Queen live immortalized in our memories partially thanks to their specific look. Movies from La Dolce Vita to Wall Street to Annie Hall, would be insipid without the individualistic way each of the characters dressed. Fashion has a way to speak the unspeakable. It is perhaps the most accessible way to make a statement; it's simply up to us to be as engaged with outside issues or as blissfully ignorant as we like.
What fashion can give us is the power to morph our identity, to reinvent, to change, which is marvelous and hard to argue. But what most like to criticize, mock and what has been fashion’s Achilles heel in recent history is the contradictions of the industry. The fashion world lives in limbo between its value of technology and craft, between timelessness and trends, between the bespoke and the mass-markets, between sales and creativity, between consumption and sustainability. The contradictions that the industry houses
are endless, but why do contradictions have to be a flaw? One of my favorite authors, George Saunders, says, “In art, and maybe just in general, the idea is to be able to be really comfortable with contradictory ideas.”
Contradictions are imminent everywhere you look, the argument that fashion is wrong because it can’t make its mind up is invalid because why should it?
Amidst its intricacies and contradictions, fashion offers us something much richer than coherence. It inspires a sense of importance when you feel like a nobody. It offers you a chance to study and revisit and discover references from all across the cultural spectrum. The urge to "make sense" seems futile when fashion gives you the option to celebrate your own idiosyncratic contradictions through your shoes or coats. But having said all of this, clothes are clothes at the end of the day.
The industry sometimes takes itself too seriously; it overvalues itself and the moment it does, is when the assumptions of frivolity and materialism happen. Fashion has been the victim of mockery because it is an industry that has the power to posses people in such a way- that they forget the outside world. But even if you cry at fashion shows because the beauty is intolerable or you rather spend your
money on magazines than food (both have happened to me, I know it’s crazy) it's important to step out of the bubble.
Fashion is not going cure cancer or AIDS; thus, it should make insiders laugh at themselves a little more often, loosen up and take off their sunglasses when inside. Alexander Wang is not going to lower unemployment with his sportswear, so if we stop defending the industry like it's going to save the world, perhaps outsiders will warm up to its importance.