Reflections on Design Culture Salon 11: How do fashion cycles and design culture interact?

Reflections on Design culture salon 12: How do fashion cycles and design culture interact?

Panel L-R, Marloes ten Bhomer, Cher Potter, Lisa White, Joanne Entwistle, Chris Breward.

Panel L-R, Marloes ten Bhomer, Cher Potter, Lisa White, Joanne Entwistle, Chris Breward.

For those working in the field of design culture, the term ‘trend’ carries an awful lot of baggage. Specifically, for those interested in sustainability, the term and its associates (‘fast fashion’ and ‘fashion cycle’) are regularly deployed as ‘dirty words’ in design discourse. Design researchers can also be guilty of discussing these concepts as if they are distinct and separate to the study of design culture. It is something happening ‘over there’ in fashion studies. So, how have these barriers come to exist between the study of fashion and design culture? What can we learn, as design researchers, from the theories and ideas generated through the study of fashion cycles? This salon aimed to ask some reflexive and self-critical questions about the apparent division between design and fashion research and seek a more productive conversation between the two.

Fashion historian Professor Chris Breward, Principal of Edinburgh College of Art, offered an interesting route into this conversation by introducing one of the most fundamental questions that binds together the study of design culture and fashion cycles: time. Specifically, he suggested that fashion theory has something to offer design culture here, in its discussion of fashion as an embodiment of time and space. To illustrate this point, he quoted a wonderful passage from the diary of an American woman returning from China to New York in 1947, published in Fred Davis’ important text, Fashion Culture and Identity:

At every airport where we stopped on the way back from China I started watching the women coming the other way. At Calcutta the first long skirt and unpadded shoulders looked like something out of a masquerade party. At the American installations in Frankfurt (also in Vienna) a lot of the newer arrivals were converted and were catching everyone’s attention. At the airport in Shannon I had a long wait; I got into a conversation with a lady en route to Europe. She was from San Francisco, and told me that there they hadn’t been completely won over; just as many were wearing the long skirts as not. But as she flew East, she found that just about everybody in New York had gone in for the new styles and she was happy she wasn’t staying or her wardrobe would have been dated. By the time I took the train from New York for home, my short skirts felt conspicuous and my shoulders seemed awfully wide! Two weeks now and I am letting down my hems, trying to figure out which of all my China-made clothes can be salvaged, and going on a buying spree!

  • Langs (1961:470), quoted in Fred Davis, Fashion, Culture and Identity, (1992), p.151.

This narrative presents fashion, literally and physically, in motion.  This experience is at odds with our experience of fashion culture today, Breward suggested. The fashion cycle is now intensely regularized by a wider constituent of agents, encompassing the media, fashion forecasters, futurologists and fashion bloggers. We’re in the odd position, he suggested, of being in a ‘fluxive moment’, which can be paradoxically characterized by power shifts in how trends are understood and also a ‘weird homogeneity’. The street styles of New York, Paris and Berlin look disconcertingly similar. The challenge for the evening was therefore to think about how these ideas, which have emerged from thinking about fashion, can move out across other design disciplines. How can we think of a linkage between different forms of design that share these challenges and possibilities?

Cher Potter, Research Fellow at London College of Fashion and V&A, was the first to respond to this question. Cher initially reflected on her own position at the Museum as an indicator of recent attempts  to address such challenges and possibilities. She was initially appointed as a resident forecaster at the V&A, an interesting role to adopt within an institution traditionally concerned with narratives of preservation and historicisation. New dialogues about the relationship between fashion, design and time are therefore already in motion, it seems. Cher reflected on her work in Creative Direction at WGSN, where she works to present macro trend forecasts informed by research into art, philosophy, design, architecture and fashion. These so-called cycles are longer and more conservative than we might think, she argued. Consequently, the term ‘cycle’ might not be a helpful one. As an alternative, she described the geological theory of change proposed by Stewart Brand, which suggests different frequencies of change across nature, culture, governance, infrastructure, commerce and fashion. Within these sediments of change, fashion is presented as highly responsive and the most dynamic layer. The data-driven nature of fashion forecasting, which also takes place in real-time could also be better analogised as a ‘feedback loop’, she suggested.

Lisa White, Content Director of the website HomeBuildLife, also at WGSN, was next to speak. Interestingly, Lisa discussed the correlation and convergence between ways of thinking about fashion and design as a natural phenomenon, within her sector. Visible and physical manifestations of the cross-fertilisation between the two can be clearly identified in interior design, she suggested. For example, she has noticed a correlation between bed spreads and fashion clothing- which have begun to adhere to the same aesthetic. In addition, the concept of ‘fast fashion’ or ‘rapid response’ has a strong presence in patterns of design consumption too. While furniture design might observe longer term trends, interior accessories such as pillows and cushions are considered more short-term and fashion focused. Lisa’s response highlighted the cultures of taste that are implicated within the fashion cycle.

Our next speaker, Marloes ten Bhomer, took us away from the world of trend forecasting and spoke from her perspective as a shoe designer. Marloes originally trained as a product designer and opened her response by posing an intriguing question: ‘what is the relevance of the trench coat in the time of drone wars?’ This question wonderfully introduced the incoherence and anachronism which exists in the form of ‘classic’ fashion objects, such as the trench coat or the brogue. These objects are interesting, from both a fashion and design perspective, because they take a fundamentally familiar and stubbornly resistant cultural form.  What do the manifestations and circulation of these classic objects tell us about the rationale of fashion cycles in our society? They  highlight some of the inherent contradictions (and conservatism) in the concept of the ‘natural’ fashion cycle. The recurrence of fashion is constituted here not as an agent of change, but a ‘tightly wound machine’. This can be limiting and potentially devaluing, from a design perspective, she argued.

Joanne Entwistle, Senior Lecturer at Kings College, London, the final respondent for the evening, situated the discussion in the academy of fashion and design research. She introduced the significance of the body and the gendered body to account for some of the friction between design and fashion research cultures. This returned the conversation to Chris’ opening articulation of the importance of ‘embodiment’. There is an ambiguity about the body, she argued, which has inhibited and restricted possibilities for critique. The image and construct of the body thus steers fashion research in a different direction to design discourse. The ‘classic’ fashion object, like the little black dress, has played an important role in rooting fashion within the museum and has given it a shared status with design. Yet, lingering feelings of inferiority remain within fashion and in relation to design, she argued.

In the absence of any immediate questions from the audience (these salon attendees were a little more reticent than usual), Chris probed further on some of the emergent themes. Rather than focusing on the seemingly ‘natural’ links between fashion and design suggested by the first two speakers, this focused on the inhibitive factors that appear to be obstructing the flow between the two. The speakers returned to the idea of fashion as a sensorial experience, intrinsically linked to concepts of identity formation and individuality. There is also something tacit about the process of fashion forecasting which again links us to the body- the idea of a ‘gut feeling, ‘the eye for’, Joanne observed. Nevertheless, the lens of ‘lifestyle’, a popular term among cultural historians in the 1980s, can productively pose links between the idea of individual taste and wider cultural values. Perhaps this was a moment when the aims of fashion and design research were aligned.

Cher reflected upon some of the challenges of instigating new models for thinking and using fashion within the university today. She spoke from her experience of establishing the Fashion Futures course at London College of Fashion. The very essence of this course is about expanding the notion of the range of ‘futures’ with which fashion can engage. Nevertheless, the emancipatory potential of such ideas can always be tempered by the constraints of the employment market.

A member of the audience challenged the idea of the ‘fashion classic’, positioning this as a major point of divergence with design, suggesting that fashion has an ‘in-built obsolescence’. The idea of fashion as constantly in motion continues to be seductive. Another questioned the forms of capital that are generated through forecasting and the extent to which this is slavishly tied to economic rationale. The formulation of this question sparked a debate among the audience and the panel about the representation of fashion as constantly in ‘collusion with capitalism’. Why should fashion, more than design, be so insistently denounced and tainted in this way? One attendee suggested that fashion will always be treated as distinct from design precisely because of the apologetic way in which it circulates in our culture. However, it was also suggested that this might be something to protect and value. Fashion ‘doesn’t want to be respectable’, she argued, ‘it is transgressive’.

This Design Culture Salon set out to identify the commonalities that might regularize the relationship between the study of fashion and design culture, but by the end of the conversation, I wondered if this might be an elusive goal.  There are good reasons for thinking about the relationship between fashion and design culture- particularly in relation to the ‘function’ (or dis-function) of fashion objects within a wider cultural system. Nevertheless, it was interesting to note that the evening’s discussion took us to places of introspection- the body, feelings and forms of tacit knowledge- which have rarely featured in previous Salon conversations. Perhaps there is, as one salon attendee put it, something special to be cherished about fashion discourse on its own terms.

Leah Armstrong, Research Officer, University of Brighton / Victoria and Albert Museum

The next Design Culture Salon is on Friday 12 December and asks, ‘Is innovation overrated and what is the role of design here?’ It is now fully booked so please email me at L.Armstrong@vam.ac.uk to join the guest list.

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