What does it mean to be fashionable? Does fashion consist of those tacky Supreme hoodies? A new Louis Vuitton collection? Thrifty jackets and jeans with questionable stains?
As a society, we are getting closer to understanding what really makes someone fashionable. The fashion industry is rooted in elitism and exclusion – it’s for the rich, white, skinny and able-bodied. As we move forward into a new era of high fashion, the industry should change to something for everyone and every body. The industry should strive to bring new ideas and perspectives from designers and models who can bring something fresh and new, but also embrace diversity as a standard moving forward to avoid tokenization and performative representation.
The fashion industry has been in the public consciousness for centuries and is now especially widespread. These days, fashion month is an event that’s broadcast, tweeted, and promoted around the world, and suddenly everyone has an opinion about Marc Jacobs’ Sky and how that gown really doesn’t conform to Schiaparelli’s house codes. I’m an avid high fashion consumer (visually. I’m a college student. Convince yourself of the idea that I own any of the clothes I’m talking about) and I think these interviews represent a positive in high fashion and haute couture specifically.
To understand any cultural movement, we need to see where we started. In the early 1860s, Charles Frederick Worth founded the first “haute couture” house., which in this case refers to any fashion company that meets an exhaustive set of requirements set by the legal governing body of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Worth began his career as a court dresser for the Empress of France and was known for his unique, one-of-a-kind designs, specially tailored for one person. Earning the title of the first haute couture house thanks to aggressive self-promotion in fashion magazines, we can see the incredibly problematic foundations of haute couture.
The value of haute couture comes from its exclusionary aspect — a piece of clothing is something for you and only you. The fact that other people can’t have it and never will is what drives the value. At its core, high fashion is a white industry. It’s regulated by the French, all four shows are in Europe or the US, and the creative directors are overwhelmingly white.
This concept of haute couture has evolved into an industry built around a very specific clientele: rich, thin, white women from Paris, London, New York and Milan. One only has to look The Dior collection in the late 1940s: bar jackets with slim waists and massive hips, A-line dresses with extremely exaggerated hourglass figures, and gowns covered in such extravagant embroidery and beading that they appeared to weigh more than the models walking the runway. It could be said that it is an artistic aspect of fashion, a game of proportion, but even more so, the extreme aesthetics of these clothes are an inspiration and a reflection of the customers’ tastes. The shapes and silhouettes popularized in these collections end up setting small waists. and rounded hips as both the standard and the highest form of fashion. The aesthetics of these garments also reflect the fact that the target market reflects the designers and their idea of beauty.
Fashion is an archive of culture, and we can see that the foundation of high fashion is built on exclusionary, Eurocentric standards.
One of the most notable BIPOC designers in recent memory was Ann Lowe, who designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953. Despite Lowe’s big-money clients and alleged rags to riches — from a dressmaker’s daughter to a fashion designer — she’s still a hallmark of the industry. exclusion. She never designed a house (despite Christian Dior’s love for her work) and was broke at the height of her career as wealthy clients used her blackness to bribe her for her designs. Excluding other creatives is how the industry can control the narrative of high fashion, what is fashionable and who can wear it.
Very first fashion week took place in 1943 during World War II. As French designers were unable to show their designs, American designers gathered in New York for a fashion show, starting the fashion month tradition. Today, fashion month is a knife-edge between an art exhibition and an over-the-top marketing strategy. In fact, it is both.
Fashion month is a marketing strategy because it presents clothes to potential clients and builds on the exclusionary aspect – it divides people into viewers and clients. Garments are bought by clients while spectators look on. Value to clients comes from the people who want but can’t have and those who are excluded from the industry for various reasons. This leads to the central message of the industry: You have to be rich to be fashionable. The people who have the money to buy it and the motivation are usually not BIPOC, which leads to a lack of diversity in both creation and consumption.
Diversity in high fashion is a conversation that’s happening right now, but that’s all it is, a conversation. in news from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Glamor talk about how fashion needs to diversify, how bringing people who are women, BIPOC and LGBTQ to the boards brings commercial success. When we see brands promise diversity in fashion, it can feel powerful. Currently, only one creative director of the “top 10” high fashion houses is a person of color: Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing.
When models like Adut Akech, Ashley Graham, Aaron Rose Philip or Alton Mason walk in the shows, it may seem like fashion is going in the right direction, but when I think about how haute couture shows are built on showing people , what they can’t Color models and models with different body types look like a far-fetched fantasy to appease the general public. In fact, the clientele of these houses is still incredibly white and wealthy – the average Chanel haute couture wedding dress comes from $100,000-$250,000. Creative directors and boards are also overwhelmingly white, and since they are the ones who ultimately lead and represent the brand, it doesn’t seem like real change is happening anywhere.
Diversity in fashion is something that is deeply needed for a variety of reasons and it needs to happen now. This means that people of all identities must be included on both sides of the exchange – both creation and consumption.
One of the most contentious issues in fashion is ‘slow fashion’ versus ‘fast fashion’. The concept of ethical clothing consumption is one that surrounds the industry, especially with the prevalence of social media, SHEIN downloads and the thrift renaissance. How we move forward in society and how we ethically consume slow fashion is driven by high fashion. With the prevailing “more is more” consumer ethic, the democratization of high fashion is a step forward towards a more sustainable form of fashion consumption. Haute couture is built on the idea of individual quality and tailoring and is a “quality over quantity” consumer ethic. Clients buy maybe one or two pieces a year, but these pieces are extremely well made and can be passed down from generation to generation. By finding a compromise between the two modes, consumers can shop for pieces that are made to last in smaller quantities and can hit the sweet spot between a SHEIN catch and a quarter million dollar wedding dress.
A key ingredient to bringing high fashion to the people and solving the problem of an exclusionary industry transitioning to inclusion is diversity. By bringing designers of color, different body types, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more into fashion, this industry can become an industry for everyone. Where the industry is right now is performative because different models and creatives feel like puppets. There is a gap between true creative control and representation for performance. To avoid feeling performative, we need to see new houses and independent designers get labeled haute couture houses and a more diverse clientele. People like to stare at Loewe Anthurium dress or Schiaparelli lung necklacebut being able to purchase these items is another matter entirely.
How does diversity democratize high fashion?
Economically, we can see an influx of brands led by people of color entering the market and giving exceptional fashion houses a run for their money. Designers like Thebe Magugu, Prabal Gurung and Guo Pei use their unique cultures and experiences to bring new perspectives to the fashion industry. When compared side-by-side with the latest Dior or Chanel collections, they feel new and innovative, while established houses rely on existing conventions and house codes (certain defining characteristics of the brand, from colors, materials and logos) when selling clothes. However, the real affordability comes from a diverse set of brands existing in the price range between fast fashion and haute couture.
In the spirit of brands like Reformation, where sustainability and quality are reflected in the price point, I see a proliferation of diverse and innovative haute couture brands expanding the markets of their ready-to-wear collections while still maintaining a haute couture and catering presence. extremely wealthy clientele. In the spirit of Miranda Priestly’s famous “vague speech” from “The Devil Wears Prada”, haute couture inspires other brands, both creatively and commercially, and by introducing more diverse perspectives at the helm of haute couture houses, it inspires other brands to create more sustainably and change their business practices.
While Chanel will never get rid of the tweed skirt and Yves Saint Laurent will never throw away kitty blouse, faced with competition from new designers will force them to innovate within the conventions of their house. New designers will also bring more customers to the industry, as young celebrities and socialites don’t want to look like they’re being dressed by a 60-year-old French woman.
Greater competition and cultural identification allows fashion to move into an inclusive mode where value is derived from the number of people who wear your clothes rather than the people who don’t. To realize this dream where people feel included and the consumer ethic shifts to quality over quantity, we need to include frameworks for color designers to succeed.
I honestly think it’s already happening. Social media has allowed designers to skyrocket in popularity and subvert traditional modes of existence in the haute couture space, and collaborations between established and new houses are also allowing new designers to enter an industry that has historically excluded them. (Magugu x Valentino is especially gorgeous). Consumers are also finally starting to realize that just because clothing is Supreme doesn’t mean it’s cute, and they’re going for real good design instead of intense brand loyalty.
We can use fashion as a cultural driver for a more sustainable and ethical form of consumption through the advocacy of diversity, as diversity forces competition and the evolution of fashion houses beyond traditional modes of consumption and onto new paths.
Because fashion is something so central to culture and self-expression, it has the ability to shape things far beyond best-dressed lists. We can use fashion as a cultural driver for a more sustainable and ethical form of consumption through the advocacy of diversity, as diversity forces competition and the evolution of fashion houses beyond traditional modes of consumption and onto new paths.
I believe that being subversive and constantly pushing the cutting edge of fashion will lead us to a world where fashion finally becomes something for everyone and everything.
Suryaansh Dongre thinks fashion still has a long way to go, but he hopes to get there before he dies – just after he has enough money to afford vintage Issey Miyake.