In the age of advanced digital technology, perhaps it is fair to question whether human toil remains the essential component of beauty and craft. Digital fashion is subversive in that it could potentially rewrite the ontology of the fashion system itself.
The meaning of luxury has collapsed not only to outsiders but from within as well. In order to tap into aspirational desires for designer items, executives pushed sales and diffusion lines in the aughts, flooding the market with discounts and monograms in the 2000s. There is now something effortlessly authentic about knock-offs, whereas ironic marked-up collaborations feel overly engineered, cynical, and easily lost in today’s never-ending stream of online clout chasing. When I see Gucci’s Disney t-shirts, I can almost smell the sweat of marketing executives, chartered accountants and IP lawyers gathered in a boardroom.
Fashion was an area of play and analysis throughout Joan Didion’s career as a writer. In the relationship between character and style she made an effort to draw, the subject of fashion gains depth. To her, character meant the inner world of a person, their values, hopes, and dreams, and she viewed the people she wrote about, fictional, real, or herself, through this lens.
Humanistic Luxury brands justify their higher luxury margins by the value they bring to artisan communities by engaging them in an ‘ethical production’ and the value consumers create for the broader society. While these brands charge an accelerated fee for their goods compared to their traditional counterparts, this elevated price manifests under the guise of ‘improvement,’ rather than social division.
What Adil was saying is that everyone wants an office-based job. His comment made me think about the contemporary office as a moralising space but instead of tangible outputs, the day-to-day is often made of superfluous tasks. I scribbled ‘bullshit’ in my notes and thought about David Graeber’s argument that the majority of contemporary work serves no utility, and about my own ‘bullshit job’ that had inadvertently pushed me to make sense of repair.
In lifestyle and fashion magazines, celebrity profiles tend to unfold as stories about successful overcoming of difficulties. Magazines present fame and success as results of a struggle – they appear to be fought for, and, therefore, earned. Thus, in its profile of Bella Hadid Vogue US dwells on the difficult aspects of the model’s life – indeed, she might be one of the world’s highest-paid models, living in a luxurious apartment, but she also cries every day.
Fashion is a polysemic category. When it comes to thinking about it critically, there’s one aspect I particularly like: the way in which fashion is also connected to a more philosophical dimension – referring to a form of temporality; to the search for newness, the ‘irrational’ appetite for novelty; the idolatry of commodities; a speedy pursuit of replacement and therefore, an assimilated rationale based on transitoriness and ephemerality. This particular Euro American narrative of fashion has dictated that ‘the centre’ of ‘real’ fashion derives from European modernity; and that such a ‘centre’ would further land in four great cities that ended up making the global circuit of runways. In this narrative, widely accepted and dispersed, the rest, in other words, everything that stands outside of such a location is considered the periphery. This story has, however, begun to break down. The subject deserves a more hybrid narrative.
‘Freedom’ is a word that is shamelessly overused in fashion media and fashion marketing. The term is a staple of fashion campaigns – which a brief look at ads of the past couple of years can confirm. Freedom is promised to you, the reader and consumer, as long as you buy a freedom-inducing item.
It makes complete sense that the ties and pulleys of this trend conjure to mind a construction site, while the cuts, tears and slices are reminiscent of the surgeon’s table. Faceless e-commerce imagery, outfit shots, nudes, digital filters and editing have all worked to establish a visual lexicon of bodies presented in vignettes and fragments.
Mine is a tricky position; I might be living with disability, but I am not a disabled person. I face the challenges only indirectly. The disabled one is my son, and no matter how close I am to him, I cannot feel the things he feels. I grew up in a world where disability didn’t seem to exist; it wasn’t in the media, and especially not in fashion media, and, at least in Italy, disabled people lived a rather secluded life – there was hardly anything around for them. When disability hit me with the force of a premature birth and an emergency C-section, I was forced first of all to dismantle my own stereotypes and taboos. But giving birth to a disabled child doesn’t automatically free you from your background of bias and ignorance: it’s even harder if you’ve spent half your life between glossy magazines and catwalks, where curvy is already big news, let alone cerebral palsy.
Relevance is certainly a status given by the system, sometimes rather arbitrarily, but it also gives worth to one’s efforts. If you are not relevant, your work might be thrown into the void, which basically means in the bin, and that would be extremely depressing. Being relevant is closely dependent on fitting into the system, one way or another. As for me, I’d like – actually, I need – my opinions to count for the bigwigs and the very same designers I at times harshly criticise. I want to count for the anonymous reader, too, but that’s a different thing altogether. If I’m ignored by those in the know, the very same persons I try not to be too friendly with, I feel like I’m not part of the inner circle, and a destructive sense of insignificance starts to consume me. The goings, here, get pretty existential, for some rather superficial reasons probably. I hide it all quite carefully behind a very composed, I-don’t-really-care demeanour, but the truth is I crumble inside.
What lesson are we to take from this evidence of profiteering from human servitude in the foundational years of Brooks Brothers? This is a question that other American institutions are being asked recently. Perhaps due to their nature as loci of inquiry and self-reflection, many universities have been on the forefront of exploring their connections to slavery and atoning for the ways in which they profited from the labour and sale of enslaved peoples. Brooks Brothers, and other for-profit entities, have not.