The Complicated Relationship Between Fashion and The Truth
The Oxford English Dictionary's word of 2016 is 'post-truth.' This is an adjective they define as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.'
In a year of huge political upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic social media and emotion-driven content have proved to be a monumental force in society, and with that, the world has become more interested in strong messages than hard fact.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the world of fashion, where clever campaigns and strategic Instagram posts can be more effective in driving sales than the actual, tangible quality of a product. And what does the truth really mean for luxury goods anyway, an industry whose very foundations are built upon beauty, ideals and aspiration? Is there even any room for the truth when you are selling high-end products that require the purchaser to buy into a beautiful dream?
In many ways the industry has never needed the truth as much as it needs it now. As luxury fashion continues to hurtle towards an unknown future, furiously stoking the fire of uninhibited over-consumption whilst simultaneously ignoring, at large, the very real ramifications of said consumption, it’s only a matter of time before businesses have to face up to the truth of the unsustainable practices their brands are built upon. Whether it be the geo-tagging of garments to show where and how they were made, or increased demand from consumers to know the origin of their clothes, at some point in the not too distant future they will have to start dealing in reality. Because as a new wave of consumers become less concerned with ownership and more interested in experiences, how else is a luxury brand going to compete for their money?
Luxury and ‘Authentic Experiences'
At NJAL’s inaugural Authentic Radicalism event in London earlier this year one panelist, Martin Raymond from Future Laboratories, commented on the need to look to the past in order to make better plans for the future. “It’s good to look forward” he said, “but I think the best way to make the future happen is to look at the past and to borrow from that.” Orsola Castro of Fashion Revolution echoed these sentiments. “What rings true right now is a return to the handmade. Human values, human signatures. Imperfection. The true luxury of a genuine product."
A genuine product. Less than half a century ago, before mass production and globalisation a genuine product meant quality; quality of material, quality of design, quality even of purchase experience. Now, with the consumer being so far removed from the creation a of that product, how can a brand emulate an authentic, luxurious transaction when their customer buys online? It’s a problem no large business has really managed to solve and earlier this year LVMH chief financial-officer Jean-Jacques Guiony highlighted the problem with selling online when he told investors that the company would never do business with Amazon. “We believe the business of Amazon does not fit with LVMH full stop and it does not fit with our brands” he told investors.
Social Media, ‘Influencers’ and The Truth
For LVMH, the online experience of Amazon is not an adequately luxurious one. Far from it, many may argue. But in other 2d online platforms, luxury fashion is thriving. Take Instagram for example, where ‘likes’ have more monetary value to an Instagrammer than a gifted item of clothing. £50,000 and they will post a picture of a brand's product (but only if this is a ‘genuine partnership’ and an ‘authentic brand collaboration’ to borrow from popular marketing jargon). Does the picture have more value than the product itself? In light of the ‘post-truth’ era we live in, the simple answer is yes.
So for young emerging designers it’s hardly surprising that putting resource into a clean, curated Instagram feed can seem more important than investing time in perfecting their craft. And as we all know, a beautiful Instagram is nothing more than a magazine editorial - it’s not real life, and it’s not the truth. But then its time to wonder, what are you actually selling - a great product, or a great dream? As NJAL designer Jesse Kamm put it at Authentic Radicalism: Los Angeles, "if you make something of value, you don’t need to put as much money into your press and show room, and it’s driven by truth."
But then, you will argue, traditional media has never been about the truth either. Emotion, high drama and blatant misrepresentation of fact are under the spotlight now in the Daily Mail era of communication, but only because people have a platform to share their disbelief and uproar at over-dramatised button-pushing content. And in a world ranked by algorithms, who really decides the difference between the ‘real’ news and the fake news anyway? It's definitely not black and white.
And it’s not just media companies being loose with the truth. There’s the aforementioned Instagrammers, choosing one shot of 300 taken by a photographer next to *that* pink Paul Smith Wall, to post after an hour in hair and make up (#WokeUpLikeThis, obviously). Is that the truth? And you don’t have to be an influential fashion blogger to partake in this of course, it’s something we all do - showing the edited, filtered and improved version of our lives.
Another overused but unassuming word that’s as problematic as the word ‘truth’ is the word ‘real.’ And Alexandra Schulman found this out the hard way earlier this year when she published Vogue’s ‘Real Women’ issue; a edition of the the 100 year old magazine featuring a plethora of middle class white women. Suddenly no one even knew what ‘real’ meant anymore. Was that Vogue’s idea of real? Was that fashion’s idea of real? Either way: the distinct lack of diversity was a very real problem.
And if post truth is the word of the year for the Oxford Dictionary, then diversity is surely the word of the year for fashion. The only time designer du jour Demna Gvasalia made headlines for the wrong reasons in 2016 was thanks to the entirely white casting of his Vetements show. And then at the other end of the spectrum lies another problem - the high street fashion brands trying to embrace the truth of ‘real’ women by casting a diverse array of people to help them sell their clothes.
While a majority of media outlets fell overthemselves to congratulate the high street brand on their forward thinking campaign, Gemma Clarke wrote a poignant piece on Global Hobo titled ‘Don’t Fall For the New H&M Campaign’, highlighting the brands many misdemeanours. One of her points read: “earlier this year, a report compiled by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found that the fashion giant [H&M] was routinely exploiting its supply staff. Based on 251 interviews with garment workers, the report alleged that employees from 11 out of 12 Cambodian supplier factories claimed they had witnessed or experienced employment termination during pregnancy.” It’s all well and good that H&M is spreading a positive message to the western world. But the women fired from working in factories because they were pregnant probably did not feel quite as enthusiastic about the corporation's approach to women.
Whether we are talking about diversity, real people, or the post-truth society we live in, one thing's for sure; fashion brands hoping to sustain a consumer base in a world increasingly driven by experience and values need to tell the truth about their products. And not just about what they’re made of, but when, how, and by who. That is what truth means for fashion. And when talking to younger, more demanding consumers, the ‘post-truth’ — or anything but the whole truth — simply will not cut it.