Fashion is not life entire.
But as a pastime, an idea, a job and a love, fashion and retail sit at or near the center of so many important trends and transformative moments that it can serve as proxy for many things much larger than the business of making and selling apparel.
From the global sustainability push to senior prom, fashion is there at the core of it all, offering a kind of kaleidoscopic lens on who we are, who we want to be and where we’re all headed.
The shorthand take is that fashion — along with society — is trying to get better.
It’s a frustrating process with fits and starts. The hot button topics — from workers’ rights to race and in between — are all worthy of a dissertation of their own (and no doubt there are graduate students somewhere digging deep into how the industry is, or ought to be, changing right now).
But even a quick look at everything on fashion’s plate shows just how much change the industry is facing.
As insiders gather — in person — for another season of pandemic-era runway shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris and the world logs in from afar to see the latest looks, WWD explores just how the industry sits front and center (or at least the second or third row back) for the big trends shaping the world today.
One-in-four American jobs are supported by the retail sector, according to the National Retail Federation.
That works out to 52 million jobs and $3.9 trillion in GDP. Thirty-two million people are on the sector’s own payrolls and the balance is in support functions, such as the supply chain.
Staff at Walmart, Target and many other retailers were deemed essential workers, staying on the job during the worst of the coronavirus lockdowns — putting store associates in cultural crossfire over mask mandates and at risk of getting COVID-19 themselves.
But retail workers were also on the front lines of the push to raise minimum wage, to bolster unions and worker rights globally, especially after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,130 garment workers in 2013, shining a spotlight on the still dangerous real-world business of making apparel.
The business of making and selling apparel globally — sending billions of dollars and boatloads of goods across international borders — has put fashion into the center of politics, like it or not.
Apparel producers were among the hardest hit in former President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, paying higher duties and playing political football as Washington and Beijing postured.
President Joe Biden has kept the tariffs high as he picks up the dance with China.
While economists tend to shudder at the practice of using taxes at the border to push for political advantage, duties are one of the few tools political leaders have to pressure other countries.
Fashion is also used as a more overt tool to send political messages, even if those messages get garbled sometimes, from former First Lady Melania Trump’s “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket to Carrie Symonds’ spotlight on fashion rental as the wife of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The industry itself is also increasingly coming under the scrutiny of regulators.
For years, fashion seemed to get something of a pass on the environment, flying below the radar as the oil and auto industries took the heat for global warming.
Those days are gone now and fashion is front and center in the environmental conversation — from sustainability to shipping. The industry is changing its perspective and being pushed to go further.
The latest nudge — really more of a shove — is working its way through the New York State legislature in the form of the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. If approved, the Fashion Act would compel companies with more than $100 million in global revenues to map 50 percent of their supply chain and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and more.
Fashion accounts for an estimated 4 percent to 8.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
France is already a step ahead with a new anti-waste and circular economy law that prohibits the destruction of new, unsold nonfood, requires signage revealing the environmental impact of products and more.
When the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police pushed the Black Lives Matter movement to the fore, like much of the rest of society, fashion was forced to acknowledge the continuing problem of systemic racism.
There is still a big difference between acknowledging a problem and effectively addressing it, however. And fashion still has work to do to improve its representation across all levels of the business.
Race is an ongoing part of the conversation in fashion, where brands are aiming to cast more diverse models and companies are starting to disclose the demographics of their workforces on the principle that what is measured can be improved.
Fashion is not perfection — and never will be — but at the white-hot center of culture, it will always be pushed to be better, perhaps justifiably.
If fashion has long been comfortable with sex, it’s been slower to dive into gender and, until recently, has been structured along very traditional binary lines with men’s departments and women’s departments and not too much space between.
But as those lines start to break down across the culture, fashion is now chiming in on the conversation.
Myriad designers worldwide now create gender-fluid collections. And even Victoria’s Secret, still working to rehab its image, recently linked up with TikTok beauty queen Emira D’Spain, who said she was “honored to be the first Black trans girl working with” the brand.
Fashion has been criticized in some quarters for a kind of rainbow capitalism that has it marketing to the LGBTQ community during Pride Month and then moving on until the next year.
That is certainly true of some brands, but there are many more companies moving toward greater inclusivity — or at least talking up the topic, and therefore acknowledging its importance.
As technology has taken over the world, it’s been Google and Facebook and the rest leading the way.
But for all the wonder — and horror — of the digital connections big tech has built, it’s useful to remember that those are connections between people. And people speak with fashion.
That’s why there’s been a kind of dance between Seventh Avenue and Silicon Valley, with the tech types trying to link with fashion to forge stronger connections with their “users” and designers seeing that same group of people as “consumers.”
So Google cofounder Sergey Brin teamed with Diane von Furstenberg to introduce the ill-fated Glass by Google on the runway, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos rubbed elbows at the Met Gala, Instagram helped create the influencer ecosystem and style is taking root early in the metaverse thanks to the likes of Balenciaga, Ralph Lauren and more.
Fashion’s own influence was apparent from the beginning. When Jennifer Lopez wore her plunging green Versace dress to the 2000 Grammy Awards, Google’s word-heavy search engine was not up to the task.
Eric Schmidt, former Google chief executive officer, said years later that the dress “was the most popular search query we had ever seen, but we had no surefire way of getting users exactly what they wanted: J.Lo wearing that dress. Google Image Search was born.”
When Google was flooded with queries to see J.Lo’s Grammy jungle-print look, it learned what fashion has always known — sex sells.
And while fashion is the most visible projection of self out to the world, displaying a range of attributes — from buttoned-up competence to wild-child crazy — it can also communicate much more intimately.
While the industry has been careful to present a much more representative range of body types and skin tones, largely led by Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty, many brands are still in the business of packaging and framing sex in the interest of sales.
The above are seven ways fashion is at the core of it all. One could list many more. What’s clear is that, while not the only driver, fashion helps the world turn — and it still has a long way to go to make sure it isn’t veering off course.
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