Why do we dress the way we do? The concept of fashion explored using the luxury denim chain, Diesel, for case study illustration
What, exactly, is fashion? What makes us express ourselves through what we wear and how we wear it; and are we alone in projecting ourselves outwardly so or do we share that in common with nature?
They pioneered faded blue denims when the trend was new and yet to catch on. Then they turned it into a luxury line and are a leading brand name in that increasingly hip segment. At the turn of the millenium, BusinessWeek described Diesel as “one of the greatest marketing success stories in the fashion world”. At the time, they were a 24-year old Italian design house with more than half a billion dollars in sales, and an estimated average annual revenue growth of 32 percent. Diesel, BusinessWeek affirmed, has broken just about every rule in the luxury-goods handbook – and succeeded wildly.
This tract is not about Diesel, though, or faded jeans. But it takes off from them. It seeks to know why fashion is, well, fashion. Not all fashion houses are as successful as Diesel. Their triumph has come because of the successful integration of the delicate mix of design, production and marketing elements. But, above all, they succeed because their products have the appeal. So, delving into the deeper side of the matter, what, exactly, is fashion? Why do we tend to objects that effectively kit us out in a manner we know a good many others will be sporting? In other words, what makes us susceptible to particular fads or even mere brand names?
“We abhor not so much the fact of not being trendy, but being trendy in exactly the same way as others”
Enter Rafael Alvira, a professor of philosophy at one of Europe’s leading universities. Fashion, he offers, is an innate inclination we all have to follow trends, to look like other people do, and still at the same time stand out and be different, adding on an individualising touch. Put another way, fashion is that scheme whereby the individual plays out in the universal: the person carries on in a manner that stands her out while integrating her into a larger world of fellow adherents. “We abhor not so much the fact of not being trendy, but being trendy in exactly the same way as others,” says Alvira.
The articulation ties in with the leitmotif of Renzo Rosso, the at the time 47-year old head of the Diesel house. His aim is to connect with individuals who can appreciate his point of view. And so he keeps volume sales moderate and maintains firm control over outlets. “I want to mask that we are a multinational. Individuality is the appeal of the brand.” And there’s the catch. Fashion, even though a “uniform” thing (that is, people effectively don the same garb, a “uniform”), has the individual tint to it. You might be decked out in the same label as everyone else, but the way you carry yours matters, to you, foremost.
Yet, all this is only the beginning. Explore the issue further and you might be astounded to hear that fashion isn’t only a human affair. Probe Alvira and you learn that it is actually a nature thing: it plays out across all animal and vegetative life. All right, that sounds like a hard sell, but hear Alvira out.
Fashion, he holds, not only straddles all living beings but also must of necessity play out in a concrete time and space context. It shows in the uniformity among, say, tropical plants which look alike and are verdant and beautiful (the fashion in them). But relocate these, instead, to the middle of a Stockholm square and what once was beautiful would become grotesquely anachronistic and incongruous. He goes on to illustrate the point further. But we need not here. We could instead focus on his comparative elucidation. Nature (that is, animals, plants, with the exception of man) by itself seeks and finds its proper spatial and time context - vegetation and other life will sprout where the environment is conducive; some plants and animals will go extinct - but humans, in contrast, create the context of time and space. In other words, other beings adapt themselves to the environment otherwise they disappear, whereas the human being adapts the environment to himself.
The very mode of expression of nature is its fashion. Man is the only being that creates his own fashion: in his art forms, and in the more common sense of the term, his clothes, shoes, hairstyle, gestures, way of speaking… So, every fashion (or trend, if you like) is a symbol and sign. A language, a mode of communication, a way of being seen and heard. It falls in place when you note the etymology of the word: fashion comes from the Latin facere, which means to make, to do.
“Every fashion (or trend, if you like) is a symbol and sign. A language, a mode of communication, a way of being seen and heard.”
Okay. Now step back a moment to the point of fashion being expressed in a specific time and space context and it becomes clearer why the city (urban dwelling, as distinct from the rural) is the setting where fashion generates and thrives. As explained, fashion is a language: somebody is saying something to somebody, or some people, else. And the city is the concentration of people par excellence. It offers the widest reach and variety of dialogue and interaction. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is the space, par excellence, for fashion.
The point shows up well in Diesel’s case. Even though the Fashion house is located in a rural Italian setting, its team of designers is a multicultural set who “scour the globe for inspiration, collecting bag loads of toys, vintage clothing, books and music,” reported BusinessWeek.
Alvira, as usual, stretches the point to show that the [physical] city, more than influencing our fashion, is a reflection of it. But we may let him alone there and concede the point without belabouring ourselves with his proof.
Instead, we might dwell longer on the more captivating side of fashion as language. Alvira: “We wish to transmit to our family, colleagues, contemporaries, what we are and what we want to say. The first thing we express is our belonging to a social group.” Hence the reality of the “uniform”. Nobody is exempt from this, he observes. “The rejection of the uniform [dress style, hairdo, language, etc] is itself a uniform, as in the punk style, for example. Bank executives and businessmen embarking on endless plane trips, for example, are dressed uniformly, even if they aren’t wearing uniforms. They dress in a manner that gives them away as belonging to a group.”
“We wish to transmit to our family, colleagues, contemporaries, what we are and what we want to say. The first thing we express is our belonging to a social group.”
Which leads us, inevitably, to the purpose of fashion. “The observance of fashion is in itself far from being a mark of frivolity or superficiality.” And he explains why. “The uniform side to fashion and the complementary individual touch both represent, primarily, an attitude of consideration for the other person. The uniformity is an offer of equality, and the individualisation is a mark of relevance, a sign of distinction. To be fashionable is a dignifying thing. And to be dignified means to be something specific, to have a place in society, which is achieved when one communicates with others (“equality”, “uniform”) and in doing so, differentiates oneself (“individual touch”) from the others. If there were no differentiating (more accurately, distinguishing, making distinctive) of myself, I would have nothing to contribute in the dialogue. And if my differentiation were so intense as to become separation instead, there could be no dialogue.” Only empty self-affirmation.
It makes sense now why there is something off-putting about people who might be dressed in expensive designer labels but who instead of exuding cool elegance, reek of money and vulgarity instead. They’re sporting loud, attention-seeking, garb, no matter whether it be just the clothes, or a house, car, and mannerisms as well. The fashion isn’t fashion anymore. It isn’t class. It isn’t cool. It’s just empty garishness.
Alvira maintains that fashion must refrain from becoming subordinated to money or show or the vulgarity proffered by some fashion creators. A tough prospect, he admits, but nonetheless one that is inevitable to preserve and reinforce human dignity. “The art of turning out elegant, that is, of choosing something noble to express, and choosing it in a way appropriate to the context [of time and place], is also the art of living… Being fashionable is a deep encapsulation of the immense transcendental beauty of the human being.” Quite a mouthful, but not uncharacteristic of philosophers. Diesel’s creative director, Wilbert Das, told BusinessWeek that they didn’t relocate to Milan or go to fashion parties because “there’s something too fake about it.” In the end it all says that being truly fashionable is to be unjarringly elegant, in an apparently unassertive yet effectively evident poise.∎