Is fashion dead? The discussion continues; A lecturers response

Friday, 27 March 2015
OPINIONTrendwatcher Lidewij Edelkoort recently presented her prognoses for fall and winter 2016-17 in Paris. She did not, however, limit herself to menswear and active wear. She gave an anti-fashion presentation and accompanying manifest in which she declared the death of fashion and the garment  to be ‘the new black’ to a reportedly outraged audience. It is unclear for those who did not attend the pricey trend presentations what exactly was written in Edelkoort’s manifest; manifests are usually nailed to doors or, in these times, at least published online. However, this is not the case with Edelkoort’s manifest. We will have to make do with a report by Hervé Dewintre of FashionUnited’s French website, which has also been translated into English and Dutch. Or, for over 300 euros, you can attend her next presentation. We give you manifest as product.

What exactly has died?

First of all, the declaration of the death of fashion. Fine art was declared dead when photography took off. History has been declared dead, as have philosophy, individualism, capitalism, and now fashion. The first question we must ask, history teaches us, is what precisely death entails. In other words, what is Edelkoort’s definition of fashion? She does not offer a definition, but focuses on what is wrong with the current fashion system. Besides the press, which no longer masters the right terminology for various materials and sycophantically celebrates celebrities who never wear the same thing twice, Edelkoorts directs her wrath at the fashion institutes and fashion marketing.

According to Edelkoort, fashion institutes train students to become designing individualists (‘little Karls’). Above all, they pay too much attention to the the ‘circus’ surrounding fashion: the fashion shows, the catalogues, communication and photography. Edelkoort believes that all this is at the expense of time that would be better spent learning about materials and textile and ‘the way in which fibres react’. She therefore argues in favour of ‘a new study programme that leads to better understanding of the mechanisms related to the materials of the season’ (Dewintre on FashionUnited).

What exactly Edelkoort means by this remains unclear and can also be blamed on the fact that her manifest is not accessible to the public. Nevertheless, it is important to examine her remarks regarding ‘the fashion institutes’ within a critical context. If not simply because Edelkoort is not a lecturer, but also because she makes a living formulating trends - among which this declaration of death - which makes her part of the very circus she criticises.

What takes place at fashion institutes nowadays?

At the Amsterdam Fashion Institute (Amfi), we indeed encourage our young design students to develop their own signature and vision. That is highly necessary if we wish to discover new visions of what fashion can do in the future. Take the graduation collections by Jazz Kuipers and Yvonne Kwok, for instance. These students are not and never will be little Karls, but work through an intensive study programme in which they most certainly learn to translate knowledge about textiles and materials, the history of fashion and culture and traditional techniques to the present. And although they learn that it is important to present their work to the public, this is definitely not their main task.

Because those within Amfi understand that the fashion system is complex and that it takes many individuals to achieve something, the Branding students are educated to translate the visions of the designer. This takes place in the first year by getting students to examine various basic garments. In specialised fields like ‘Brands and Identity’, where students create brand identities for small or early-stage designers from Amsterdam. Or in the ‘Fashion and Visual Culture’ programme, where students create film and photography based on the collecties of designers which visually translate the intentions of the collection and offer these to the public. Furthermore, new concepts for communication are developed in the ‘Editorial Branding’ programme, in which the students look for innovative ways to bring designers and fashion lovers in contact with each other. This also takes place on the brand level in the specialisation ‘Brands and Innovation’. This year students from the latter programme introduced the concept ‘Untangle’, which is about connection and division within fashion. Something Edelkoort commends, but which the students also value and adhere to.

Then there is the matter of knowledge of fibres, industry and materials. At Amfi, a third group of students - the Fashion Managers - focuses on this. There are numerous testing possibilities in various laboratories which, in accordance with current development, also offer the possibility to make 3-D scans and digital patterns. There are excursions to factories in Turkey, an exchange programme with China in which students even learn the Chinese terminology for materials and focus on sustainability. Furthermore, students know more about different types of denim, production and pollutants than most buyers.

The reprehensible practices of fast fashion

Designers are not trained to do everything alone, but to focus on that which they can specifically offer fashion lovers - which Edelkoort claims to be - in the future. As well they should if fashion is to keep developing, to acknowledge its problems and possibilities and to not only offer that which is demanded but also that which is of unexpected value. Where Edelkoort does have a point is in the fact that the way fashion chains like H&M, Zara, Forever21 and Primark treat fashion is reprehensible and are better of ‘dead’ for those who stand for innovation, vision, production conditions, environment and creativity.

However, this has very little to do with the institutes, and everything to do with the way the market works. Students are actually made fully aware of the deplorable state of affairs and are encouraged to make a difference. A former Branding student is co-founder of the garment library in Amsterdam: exchanging clothes in an organised fashion has been highlighted in various thoroughly well worked-out graduate projects, and passion for the expressive potential of fashion is at the heart of many, if not all, projects.

Edelkoort’s generalisation of all fashion teachings and her so-called knowledge of what takes place at these institutions is suspect. Her opinions do not correspond with the reality and undermine the actual, critical and innovative knowledge and craftsmanship that exist within these programmes. Furthermore, she paints a superficial picture of what fashion is or can be - which is, unfortunately, often the case. In this she also undermines herself, unless she declares the death of this superficial image. Fine, but then she should be clear about what she means and she should not make ill thought-out and unfounded statements about eduction.

What are Edelkoort’s intentions?

Could it be that her ‘trend watching genes’ feel that something needs to change in the way fast fashion operates and threatens the creativity, the experimentation, the environment and the people who produce their clothes? Fine, we cannot say this enough, with major designers like Vivienne Westwood and Yamamoto saying as much years ago. Could it also be that Edelkoort wants to reap the benefits of this insight? Possibly, but at least be honest about it and do not claim that the institutions, teachers and hardworking students are the big problem. Engagement through pamphlets/manifests that are only accessible at a price is not engagement.

The question is whether the way the current fast fashion system operates will change any time soon. It is obvious that it should. And if Edelkoort can contribute to this in any way, then power to her. But then she needs to think hard about who she holds accountable,and not only offer her manifest against payment, confront the situation and further specify what exactly dead fashion is in her opinion. Or what it should be. Because with the recent openings of Primark and Forever21, along with the twelve existing H&M stores in Amsterdam, the cheap, pollutant, inexpressive and unethical branch of fashion is unfortunately still very much alive.

Rebecca Louise Breuer is a lecturer on cultural philosophy and visual culture at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. She is also currently working on the completion of her PhD in fashion and philosophy. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Amsterdam Fashion Institute or of FashionUnited.

The image accompanying this article is a still from the short film ‘Collector of Curiosities’, which was inspired by the designs of Lisi Herrebrugh and was made by students of the 2014-2015 Fashion and Visual Culture programme. The short film is available for viewing below.

AMFI presents: Collector of Curiosities from AMFI Fashion & Visual Culture on Vimeo.