Perhaps we are headed towards the technological singularity, a world enslaved to platform capitalism whereby Google or China’s equivalent Baidu have the monopoly on the information economy. But as the new world struggles to be born, fashion consumerism is having a fleeting moment of democracy. Showing at AW17 Fashion Weeks, a few designers have broken free from the confines of fashion elitism.
The fashion world has always suffered from accusations of nepotism. While success stories continue to unfurl within the stratum of top arts universities, the internet has made a fairer playing field of the retail sector. The web both makes space for smaller empires to flourish and provides open-source education opportunities. Arguably, digital fashion has left the other creative industries (that’s you, Art World) lagging behind, chained up in dynastic ideals.
Ryan Lo, a London-based designer from Hong Kong, who "crafts his designs with an unconventional DIY approach having taught himself to knit from YouTube tutorials", is one of these nonconformists. Lo, who had to resit his final year at London College of Fashion and had his MA application at Central Saint Martins declined, operates outside of the academic setting that traditionally propels designers to fame. Embracing trade over institutional formalities, a specialty of entrepreneurial-savvy designers from Hong Kong, Lo took up with Fashion East(a not-for-profit initiative funded by Topshop). Lo’s digital footprint rejects the British design-graduate's need to announce accolades and to rebuff the commercial nature of fashion. The couturier divulges only that London was the city where he “discovered his loves and hates, and met amazing individuals.”
As consumer culture becomes increasingly visual, the falling away of language in advertising continues to make way for outsiders. Owing a large part of his success to the visual currency of social media, Lo explicitly rejects the hyperbole that has come to characterise fashion branding. There are four words on Lo’s website: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Vimeo.
Fashion advertising has evolved based on the assumption that our clothing represents solely our socio-demographic status, print advertising being largely restricted to geographical distribution. But this assumption has been challenged by the switch to digital, where our consumer tastes no longer mirror our economic status but our material allegiances. For example, I’ll probably buy a pair of Yeezy Runners, not because I am a black American man, but because I am a follower of Kardashian-West culture. I listen to Kanye’s music, my Facebook entourage shares Kanye memes, I’m obsessed with his wife and I am partial to Kylie Jenner’s lip kits. All I need to see is a photo of Kim Kardashian wearing Yeezys to confirm which new kicks will consolidate my social standing according to my aesthetic preferences. Both Kanye West and Ryan Lo are fashion world underdogs, and both know that in the current pseudo-democracy of social media, I am reflected in my transitory Instagram feed and not by a static advertorial.
Critics often denounce saturated fashion cycles as meaningless, but we should note that fashion consumption is redefining our social structures. In his book ‘The Language of Fashion”, Roland Barthes decrees that “clothes live in tight symbiosis with their historical context, much more so than language”. Are we, the blindly consumerist people, already onto the fact that there is much more to be gained from fashion once we do away with the shackles of marketing lingo? Fashion journalists who often complain of hidden adverts sullying their writing are no longer the mediators between product and consumer. Technology is now the middle man: you can just click on an Instagram image and buy a dress immediately. The media industry initially feared for jobs, but the necessary evil of advertorials might be less. Fashion editors might well see a demand for more transparent journalism as influencers and designers peddle products more efficiently themselves.
Perhaps I am guilty of techno-optimism and these shifts are just another show of populism rearing its ugly head, but I’ll harbour liberalist hope. For now, the fashion industry adopts a commercial existence much more independent of language and formal institutions. As digital messaging becomes further automated by programmatic marketing, though, we will be left at the total mercy of our iron algorithms. New gods of advertising are seizing power. As the mediascape mutates, there will be brief occasions for outsiders to take centre stage by defying the system. Democracy? Anarchy? Populism? The politics of Fashion Week have almost outshone the clothes this season.