Band of Insiders

On the Secret of Success

‘A Machine for Living: Untitled,’ is a 1999 photograph from Dan Holdsworth’s series of a shopping complex in suburban Kent. Courtesy of the Tate Collection.

IN SEPTEMBER 2015, A New York Times article traced the rapid demise of the erstwhile popular fashion label Band of Outsiders, despite its having become ‘a darling of store buyers, fashion editors and Hollywood cool kids like Michelle Williams, Greta Gerwig and Jason Schwartzman.’ The reporter quotes fashion executive Nina Garduno: ‘Look, fashion wants to kill you… Fashion wants you to die so it can have a new birth. It’s vicious. It’s relentless.’1

Garduno’s comments capture a basic, essential fact about fashion: it is a perpetual process of elimination as well as discovery. Since fashion by definition is a rate of change, variations in its content ultimately express nothing other than this cadence. Things that can’t go out of fashion cannot ever be fashionable, and ephemerality is the terms of success for any particular style. A particular fashion succeeds only when its eventual failure can be readily imagined, when the next iteration that will stem from it and invalidate it is already discernible.

Success in fashion is a matter of impelling a fashion cycle; it is a matter of sustaining change in and of itself. Creativity in fashion depends on figuring out how to assure change, if not accelerate it. Capturing an audience or a market with a particular design or idea is ultimately less important to the industry than making an audience reliably distractible, reliably discontent. Failed fashion prompts permanent attachments.

The inevitable failures of various designs and firms constitute the health of the fashion business overall; the financial failure of a particular company like Band of Outsiders testifies to the success of fashion more broadly as an economic force, demonstrating the industry’s overriding willingness to sacrifice individual designs and firms on the altar of innovation. Garduno’s description of fashion mirrors economist Joseph Schumpeter’s claim that ‘the process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.’2 Echoing Marx and Engels’ declaration in the Communist Manifesto that ‘constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones,’3 Schumpeter argued that capitalism, itself also a vicious and relentless force, ‘is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary.’4New ways of making profit come at the expense of established old ways, without necessarily producing any material improvement for consumers or society, only change.

If fashion ‘wants to kill’ its practitioners, that’s because it epitomises capitalist innovation at its bare essence, consisting of the sort of change that is only for the sake of the system’s survival. Fashion is what is left when all pretence to consumer utility or social improvement is stripped away. The sacrifice of perfectly useful goods to the ever-shifting demands of fashion is a kind of corrective purge, an obliteration of what the philosopher and writer Georges Bataille called ‘the accursed share,’ clearing the field so that capitalism’s competitive mechanisms and requirements for endless growth can continue to function.5

Fashion, then, systematises this necessary destruction and wastefulness and allows us to experience it as pleasurable, generative. It enchants the experience of capitalism’s disruptive forces, turning them into a celebratory rolling potlatch. Within fashion, the impersonal, economically driven upheaval appears bounded and controlled, directed by individuals’ desires for novelty and creative self-display. Such desires require a vibrant fashion industry to even be conceived, however; their inducement provokes expanded possibilities for anxiety about and satisfaction in one’s identity. As fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson points out, ‘although many individuals experience fashion as a form of bondage, as a punitive, compulsory way of falsely expressing an individuality that by its very gesture (in copying others) cancels itself out, the final twist to the contradiction that is fashion is that it often does successfully express the individual.’6

The fashion industry is premised on the ability to make money by managing the volatility of fashion cycles, and thereby assuaging its consumers’ incipient fears and desires regarding novelty and self-expression. It must methodically manufacture and evacuate ‘value’ from its products. Since the nineteenth century, this has typically been a matter of the industry’s releasing new goods on a seasonal schedule and guiding those with money to spend it in concert. This creates the illusion of what sociologist Herbert Blumer calls ‘collective taste,’ which in his view has the power to coordinate the behaviour of society into a recognisable Zeitgeist: ‘By establishing suitable models which carry the stamp of propriety and compel adherence, fashion narrowly limits the range of variability and so fosters uniformity and order, even though it be passing uniformity and order.’7

To sustain this appearance of order, industry experts manage the flow of fashion innovation by certifying only certain styles at certain times and disseminating this information through the media channels it sanctions. While some styles emerge from consumer innovations, the imprimatur of the system is necessary to convert them from local or subcultural idiosyncrasies into fashion proper – into a recognisable ‘collective taste’ ready for broader dissemination. The industry’s ability to certify fashionability – to create a cogent and persuasive field in which consumers can feel as though they are operating independently yet safely – depends on access control. Mechanisms of controlling the value of a design sometimes involve qualitative measures of cut, fabric, stitching and so on, but more often than not branding is pivotal. Branding is a reification of the cultural capital the fashion industry relies on in lieu of an explicit system of valuation.

Part of the utility of a system of cultural capital, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains in Distinction, rests in cultural capital’s obscured origins.8 Fashion depends on a level of mystification to derive its value; if it could be deduced directly from social conditions or some other set of principles, it would become predictable and thus disqualified from providing the jolt of change that fashion exists to supply. Instead, fashion experts draw on their immersion in the milieus from which fashion emerges – on their unreplicable habitus, Bourdieu’s term for ‘the internalised form of class condition and of the conditionings it entails’ – to make confident and compelling pronouncements on eminently replicable styles as though they were self-evident.9 Tastemakers draw on an authority that they can never articulate as generalisable principles but only as immediate and concrete judgments. This authority is compelling to the extent that it comes across as intuitive and indubitable, a natural product of an unteachable fashion instinct. Consumers are free to believe that they too possess or have developed this instinct, even though it is conditioned by the industry and cannot exist independent of it. That is one of the benefits the industry affords; it facilitates fashion competence in consumers that they can enjoy directly as a form of mastery, even when it differs little from obedience in practice.

The lack of a clear logic for fashion judgments allows such judgments to be modified or reversed as necessary, while protecting the status of those who make them. Part of the surprise of seeing a line like Band of Outsiders suddenly disappear is the apparent vaporisation of this ineffable cultural capital. But in fact the mismanagement of financial capital serves as an alibi for the inscrutable persistence of the underlying cultural capital. And no one appears to doubt that designer Scott Sternberg will re-emerge somewhere else in the industry. That’s not to say that specific fashion insiders are indispensable. Brands named for designers can concretise the cultural capital of those they are named for and render the people themselves expendable.10 Their names have become directly monetisable as investment properties, so their judgment becomes superfluous to the process. The brand is able to confer value and relevance by virtue of its prominence regardless of the identity of the tastemakers operating in its name.

Fast fashion too has made industry experts less relevant; instead the industry promulgates a less differentiated mass of goods embodying contradictory or confusing meanings. In order to stabilise these meanings for themselves, individuals have to spend money. Their choices consolidate the cultural capital dispersed among them in the sales data the companies are able to collect.

The nature of cultural capital makes the specific factors that drive fashion’s evolution necessarily vague. In seeming respect for that obfuscation, social scientists have argued that the evolution of fashion is basically arbitrary, motivated not by exogenous social forces but by intrinsic and impersonal mechanisms internal to the system itself. According to the 2004 paper ‘Random Drift and Culture Change,’ fashion cycles are a matter of ‘random copying,’ and fashion choices have no particular significance whatsoever.11 Here fashion is a language in which all the words mean nothing forever. As sociologist Stanley Lieberson maintains somewhat tautologically in A Matter of Taste, ‘some changes have no meaning other than that they are changes in fashion.’12

This offers a model of fashion that replaces aesthetic and historical development – the aspects that directly affect how individuals experience and understand their place in time – with seemingly value-neutral epidemiology. From this point of view, there are no good or bad fashions, no successes or failures in aesthetic or ethical terms that aren’t reducible to sheer fortune. Fashion is a self-sustaining process that can’t be stopped, and periods of fashion are only superficially different – it’s a matter of little concern to this perspective that some periods and cultures promote, say, androgynous garments while others promote female foot-binding.

This view also proposes that fashion is not complicit with any particular economic arrangement. Lieberson, for instance, balks at ascribing fashion’s otherwise meaningless series of changes to capitalism’s requirements for survival, calling it a ‘big mistake’ to assume that ‘organisations with an economic interest in getting us to change – designers, manufacturers, retailers, and advertisers’ are in fact responsible for making change happen. ‘Rather, they take advantage of the fact that a certain subset of the population wants something new simply because it is new, or because the old has become boring or merely commonplace.’13 In other words, Lieberson believes that the human demand for novelty drives fashion, and that capitalism (along with its metonym, fashion) has merely emerged, finally, after centuries of darkness and frustration, to accommodate that intrinsic human demand.

It seems far more likely that the human demand for novel commodities emerged with the conditions that made it possible to supply them. That is, fashion as we experience it is an epiphenomenon of capitalism and manifests its imperatives. Historian Fernand Braudel, in The Structures of Everyday Life, makes the widely cited claim that ‘one cannot really talk of fashion becoming all-powerful before about 1700.’14 It rose to prominence with the development of mass consumer markets and the erosion of feudal social hierarchies. ‘Fashionability’ marks out a conceptual space in which consumer demand can be infinitely expanded, creating the endless opportunity for profit in the instability and continual churning of needs. Fashion is a form of institutionalised insecurity. At the same time, fashion channels capitalism’s demand for novelty and turns it into a compensatory creativity, playfulness. As Elizabeth Wilson writes, ‘Capitalism maims, kills, appropriates, lays waste. It also creates great wealth and beauty, together with a yearning for lives and opportunities that remain just beyond our reach.’15

If fashion is a matter of capitalist expansion, then a successful fashion innovator is not one who comes up with popular designs in fields already subject to profitable change. In fact, designs must cease to be desirable on a fairly predictable schedule to suit fashion’s requirements; going out of style betokens not a weakness in a design but its culminating achievement. The best innovators instigate otherwise meaningless change in new areas of experience that hadn’t been subject to it before, giving ersatz expressiveness to goods that were once semiotically inert. The systemic subjection of more and more aspects of everyday life to the whims of fashion is the price of capitalist prosperity.

Critic Roland Barthes’ assessment of fashion’s fecundity in the foreword to his 1967 book The Fashion System seems more plausible than the accounts of Lieberson and other like-minded social scientists. Barthes does not regard what clothing communicates as an essentially irrelevant and dismissible variable; instead he asks, ‘Why does Fashion utter clothing so abundantly? Why does it interpose, between the object and its user, such a luxury of words (not to mention images), such a network of meaning? The reason is, of course an economic one. Calculating, industrial society is obliged to form consumers who don’t calculate; if clothing’s producers and consumers had the same consciousness, clothing would be bought (and produced) only at the very slow rate of its dilapidation.’16

This need for instigated obsolescence was recognised early in the history of capitalism: Braudel cites pioneering speculator Nicholas Barbon, who in 1690 wrote in A Discourse of Trade that ‘fashion or the alteration of dress, is a great promoter of trade, because it occasions the expense of clothes, before the old ones are worn out: it is the spirit and life of trade; it makes a circulation, and gives a value by turns, to all sorts of commodities; keeps the great body of trade in motion.’17

These statements suggest that fashion’s communicative richness is not generated by a pre-existing popular demand for a more elaborate means of personal expression but out of the economic need to make possible limitless consumer demand. Capitalism orients consumers away from practicality and toward expressiveness. As Barthes explains, ‘In order to blunt the buyer’s calculating consciousness, a veil must be drawn around the object – a veil of images, of reasons, of meanings.’18 Fashion allows consumers to communicate more thoroughly with clothes, insisting on user creativity to propel itself. When we seize on fashion’s creative potential, we veil ourselves in the logic of capital. We imagine our tastes and desires can grow and expand without limitation, and that we would die if we couldn’t continually want more.

The alchemy of fashion translates the upheaval necessary to sustain capitalism into something understood as socially desirable, something that can be assimilated by individuals as a matter of personal choice. As sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky argues in The Empire of Fashion, fashion allows the chaos of creative destruction to appear as expressive potential, in part because the industry limits the field and gives it coherent, easily apprehensible form. The language of fashion became, as Lipovetsky notes, ‘the first major mechanism for the consistent social production of personality’ – that is, our first reflexive sense of self, an identity not foisted upon us by birth and tradition but one for which we must hold ourselves personally responsible.19

Styles of dress once expressed a more static identity, but the increased potential for social mobility that capitalism brought threw those styles into increasing disarray. This prompted sociologists Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel in the early twentieth century to argue that status anxiety and the desire for distinction drove changes in fashion. As the lower classes adopted fashions of the higher classes, the higher classes would find something new to wear. By this logic, nothing truly fashionable could ever be universally popular. Successful fashion is that which permits class discrimination, not free communication. A style that is widely adopted is, by these terms, a failure.

In the status-driven model of fashion, fashion change is propelled by those it threatens and is fundamentally conservative. It posits that the innovative energy released by fashion is automatically contained within pre-existing hierarchies, dissipated in a fruitless chase for prestige. ‘It is peculiarly characteristic of fashion that it renders possible a social obedience, which at the same time is a form of individual differentiation,’ Simmel writes.20 One of fashion’s (and capitalism’s) great psychological coups is that it allows us to be creative conformists. Conformity itself appears creative.

But conformity need not be a matter of feudal servility toward the upper classes. By this ideology of fashion, the only significant motive is to climb an existing social ladder; it is incapable of expressing a wish for a different sort of society. The aristocratic elite’s passively inherited privilege is transmuted, by this fashion ideology, into something that is flatteringly dynamic. They appear to be innovators simply by being born. That may be reason enough to suspect this ideology, which may say less about fashion than it does about a certain nostalgia for a more overtly structured social hierarchy.

Lipovetsky, by contrast, emphasises the expressive over the emulative aspect of fashion. The incentives fashion supplies are not a matter of copying the rich but of being able to express a seemingly unique self. Rather than put a spirit of classdriven aspiration into broader play, fashion, he argues, democratises the latitude in personal expression and the taste for novelty that the rich have always enjoyed. According to Lipovetsky, ‘the fashion economy has engendered a social agent in its own image: the fashion person who has no deep attachments, a mobile individual with a fluctuating personality and tastes.’21

In other words, fashion systematically produces a person in a permanent state of identity crisis (or a permanent state of personal ‘growth’). Their ‘individuality’ becomes something dynamic and disposable, in need of continual reassertion in the terms the fashion industry supplies. The success of the industry rests precisely in convincing people to express themselves in its ever-fluctuating terms over and over again, saying nothing new or genuinely risky about themselves. This can be a relief for many, a haven of safety within a regime of perpetual change. This is not so different from Simmel’s view that ‘fashion furnishes an ideal field for individuals with dependent natures, whose self-consciousness, however, requires a certain amount of prominence, attention, and singularity.’22 Fashion’s primary achievement is muddling subservience with assertiveness, so that imitation of class-inflected role models can appear to fashion adopters to be an autonomous choice expressing their independence, or as a manifestation of their liberated curiosity and inherent demand for novelty.

The success of fashion then is contingent on a specific failure on the part of consumers to recognise their dependency on it. The most successful practitioners of fashion are able to secure allegiance that feels unearned, voluntary. The fashion cycle is propelled by this mystification, the need to make designers appear subservient to consumers even as they continue to lead them. Fashion allows people to feel creative without having to venture beyond an already rigidly structured field of possibility. But this is not a curtailment of consumer liberty. This structured form of personal expression likely affords us more creativity than we would experience without it.

This article was first published in Vestoj On Failure.

Rob Horning is an editor at The New Inquiry.

  1. S Kurutz, ‘Band of Outsiders: Fast Rise, Faster Fall,’ New York Times, September 3rd, 2015, D1 

  2. J Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, Harper Perennial, New York, 2008 [orig. 1942], p.83 

  3. K Marx and F Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848 

  4. J Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, Harper Perennial, New York, 2008 [orig. 1942], p.83 

  5. For a discussion of Bataille and fashion, see ‘The Conquest of Fashion,’ notes from an Auckland University of Technology workshop, 

  6. E Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, University of California Press, Oakland, 1987, p.12 

  7. H Blumer, ‘Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection,’ The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1969, pp.275–291 

  8. P Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984, pp.70–73 

  9. Ibid, p.101 

  10. For a recent example, see J D Stern, ‘How Simon Spurr, One of the World’s Top Designers Lost His Name,’ Esquire, August 27th, 2015 

  11. R A Bentley, M W Hahn and S J Shennan, ‘Random Drift and Culture Change,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, Vol. 271, 2004, pp.1443-1450 

  12. 12 S Lieberson, A Matter of Taste, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2000, p.31 

  13. Ibid, p.92 

  14. F Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, Harper & Row, New York, 1979, p.316 

  15. E Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, University of California Press, Oakland, 1987, p.14 

  16. R Barthes, The Fashion System, University of California Press, Oakland, 1990, p. xi  

  17. Cited in F Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, Harper & Row, New York, 1979, p. 324 

  18. G Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2002, p.29 

  19. Ibid, p.149 

  20. G Simmel, ‘Fashion,’ International Quarterly Vol. 10, 1904, p.142 

  21. G Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2002, p.149 

  22. G Simmel, ‘Fashion,’ International Quarterly Vol. 10, 1904, p.140