The Four Basic
By Frédéric Godart
Fashion is a fascinating and humbling topic. It is a purveyor of exceptional and ever-changing beauty, of extravagant and rejoicing creativity, but it also appears, to many, as a fathomless mystery, as a random process that defies comprehension. Is it the exclusive turf of genius designers? Do we mere mortals even need to understand fashion? Certainly it is worth a try, as fashion belongs to everyone, tells the story of the human condition, and defines the context in which we live.
But fashion is also a business and the lack of rigid what-to-wear “rules” makes it a challenging business. Today, examples of the pressing business questions du jour are: Is menswear going to overtake women’s wear? Should fashion brands embrace the Internet or stay true to their traditional brick-and-mortar approach? Are Chinese fashion brands going to take over the world? Tomorrow there will be other pressing questions. Stepping back and taking time to reflect on principles—the sociological, historical, and philosophical aspects of fashion—is a way to avoid getting lost in the ever-changing flow of questions du jour, whatever their importance or relevance are for day-to-day business.
What Is Fashion?
Until very recently, it was widely accepted that fashion was born during the European Renaissance in the fourteenth century, specifically in the Italian City States (Florence, Venice…) and in Burgundy.1 However, recent research has shown that fashion is likely to have appeared in several civilizations at the same time, very early in history. In the first century, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder was one of the first ones to notice fashion-like changes in the use of golden rings around the Mediterranean.2 In medieval Japan, telling someone he or she was imamekashi, up to date, or in fashion, was a great compliment.3 In this sense, fashion has always existed.
In my book Unveiling Fashion: Business, Culture, and Identity in the Most Glamorous Industry, published by Palgrave Macmillan,4 I define six principles that underlie the fashion industry today. All of these principles have emerged historically, and have changed in their manifestations. Each could change further, or even disappear. And new principles might emerge.
The Affirmation Principle
At the core, fashion is a way for an individual to affirm him- or herself. But very importantly, this affirmation principle is not an individual process. It is a collective process. Fashion is a way to belong to a group. Think about subcultures such as the punks5 or the goths.6 Both use fashion as a way to affirm their group identity to the world.
The affirmation principle goes against, and in a way reconciles, two widely held views of fashion; the first one is that true fashion is about individuals expressing their own style—think about dandyism—and the second one is that fashion is a “steamroller,” so to speak, crushing the individual. Fashion is more complicated than that. It is somewhere between the individual and society and helps people integrate and communicate.
Historically, in Europe, it was the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy that brought fashion to the forefront and gave it a new social importance.7 The bourgeoisie wanted to express through luxury clothing and accessories its newfound power acquired through commerce, but the aristocracy tried to hold onto its own power by promoting “sumptuary laws” restricting and defining what could be worn in public by different social classes.
This identity-based understanding of fashion, and the role played by the bourgeoisie in its emergence, can for example help understand the features of men’s fashion today. The early nineteenth century witnessed what has been called the “great masculine renunciation”: men began wearing dark and understated clothing in order to show their attachment to work and their disdain of extravagant fashion that was associated with the aristocracy.8 Men’s fashion will rise again when changes in the workplace have taken place. Its recent growth in the fashion industry (as various designers begin to add men’s lines to their portfolios) is a sign of these changes, and could in turn accelerate the reorganization of life in the workplace and beyond.
The Convergence Principle
One of the most mysterious features of fashion is that, every six months or so, it converges around a limited set of trends. Another feature of these trends is that they are global, in the sense that the “fashion system,” to borrow a concept from French philosopher Roland Barthes,9 is fully interconnected. In other words, what happens in Paris fashion circles also happens in New York, London, and Beijing. Fashion is a type of change that lifts people and cultures beyond their own roots. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw in fashion the utmost illustration of modernity; by being in fashion we become truly global, move beyond our national traditions, for better or worse.10
This convergence principle appeared during the early eighteenth century at the Court of French “Sun King” Louis XIV. The King, who wanted to control the French aristocrats in order to avert sedition and civil war, gathered them in Versailles, and the fact of having all the elite of the most powerful European kingdom of the time in one place facilitated the emergence of trends that would later diffuse to the rest of Europe.
The implications of this principle are very important for producers and customers. For producers, that is to say fashion houses and designers, it is important not to be “off-fashion,” and to keep an eye on the upcoming trends. Uncertainty and ambiguity, which are so high in fashion, require institutions and organizations to help designers create and consumers buy. Fashion fairs such as Première Vision, forecasting bureaus such as WGSN, magazines such as Vogue, WWD, or Journal du Textile, all help the industry coordinate. The rise of the Internet is challenging the well-oiled structure of the fashion industry with its chain of intermediaries helping producers select what to create and customers what to buy. But so far, not much has changed. Fairs still exist as places for fashion socialization, forecasting bureaus have migrated online, and blogs replace or complement magazines. Convergence is still insured.
As the affirmation principle, fashion’s autonomy is about finding the right balance between the creative impulse of the industry and its commercial survival.
The Autonomy Principle
Fashion has not always been autonomous. For a long time, it depended on the whims of the upper classes. Oddly enough, things began to change in the eighteenth century with French queen Marie-Antoinette. The Austrian-born Marie-Antoinette had a hard time being taken seriously by the French aristocrats at court in Versailles. But she was politically savvy, and used fashion as a way to increase her power by promoting her own modiste, Rose Bertin, and making sure getting access to Bertin would be difficult. Bertin’s nickname, “the Minister of Fashion,” is an apt illustration of her power.11 An unintended and positive consequence for the industry was that Bertin, and all the designers who followed her, gained some creative autonomy from their clients, and promoted fashion to a form of art.
Hence, the autonomy principle also shows that fashion has become a source of genuine aesthetic creativity, albeit bounded by a commercial imperative. As the affirmation principle, fashion’s autonomy is about finding the right balance between the creative impulse of the industry and its commercial survival. Too much art is costly; haute couture creations today are largely produced as marketing tools. But too much commerce could lower the motivation of professionals and the appeal of the industry to customers. While it is always tricky to make broad judgment about “national” approaches to fashion, Belgian designers such as Martin Margiela or Raf Simons have managed to find the right balance between creativity and art, being hailed from both sides of the industry.
The Personalization Principle
Today, fashion designers have collectively reached a high level of personal fame, to the extent that both Karl Lagerfeld, the German-born designer of French house Chanel and Italian house Fendi, and Jean-Paul Gaultier, the French designer known for the house which bears his name and for having been Hermès’ enfant terrible for a while, have given their likenesses to Coca-Cola products (bottles and cans) sold all over the world. But this cult of personality centering on the designer has not always been a characterizing feature of fashion; even Rose Bertin derived her power from the French queen.
It was an Englishman who moved to Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century—Charles Frederick Worth—who is to be credited with raising the profile of fashion designers to the level of writers or painters. Worth invented or institutionalized many practices that seem today intrinsic to fashion, such as the fashion show or the fashion modeling profession (his wife and muse was one of the first, if not the first, fashion model). The personalization principle is also very visible in the way the creative team behind famous designers is often ignored. Certainly, the designer gives the inspiration and the main vision, but alone he or she cannot be successful or drive business practices.
The Symbolization Principle
When people think about fashion, they also think about brands and the lifestyle they imply. One could argue that fashion is one of the industries in which brands are most relevant. After all, fashion, like luxury, is mostly made up of our dreams.
The symbolization principle means, first and foremost, that brands, as meaning-laden constructions, are autonomous from both their creators and the organizations that sustain them. For example, the House of Dior today is different from the brand that was created by Christian Dior. It has been reinterpreted countless times by its successive creative directors, for example John Galliano, and today Raf Simons. But it also means that fashion itself is a system of meanings.
Given the rising importance of China in multiple arenas (the global economy, the international political system…) one expects Chinese brands to emerge rapidly to match Western brands. But why is it that countries such as Japan and Germany, despite their economic and political power, and despite some clear success stories such as Jil Sander and Comme des Garçons, have never reached the level of Italy or France as far as “fashion power” is concerned? It is because capturing the dream and creating a desirable image is not simply a matter of political or economic might. It is a matter of symbols. Italian and French brands build on a long tradition of glamour, on the image of Milan and Paris. Chinese brands will need to find their own path in the intricate mazes of the fashion dream.
The Imperialization Principle
The last principle of fashion is relatively new, and in many ways, it “completes” fashion by ensuring its reign. In its early days, remember, fashion was about aristocrats and bourgeois fighting for domination; it was about fashion designers vying for recognition as artists, and “griffes” that transformed plain fabrics into prized fashion items. But fashion organizations were for the most part small operations that were managed by small teams, and fashion itself was at the fringes of the arts and social life in general.
The imperialization principle changes everything. First, big fashion empires such as LVHM and PPR emerged at the end of the twentieth century. With their ever-growing portfolios of brands, these empires facilitated the spread of managerial practices to an industry usually dominated by the creative side. This enabled a dramatic growth of the industry, for example in emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China—the BRICS—and beyond, but also tipped the balance of power towards the commercial side. Second, fashion, as a social process, started expanding notably after World War Two, to new spheres of social life, from the automotive industry to high tech. This has major implications, and many industries now derive their inspirations from fashion—from the regular change of trends and the premium put on style.
And Now What?
All the principles that have been highlighted so far constitute underlying currents that define the fashion industry today. It is not enough to consider each of them in isolation. They need to be handled and understood together, as a system with tensions and trade-offs. For example, a major tension is between the personalization and symbolization principles. When a fashion designer is the creative director of a brand he or she did not create, who should prevail? The person, who brings the creative force to the designs, or the brand, which has an identity and a relationship with customers? Similarly, one could argue that the imperialization principle challenges the autonomy principle; what will happen to fashion’s creativity once it is completely commercialized?
Another important idea to consider is whether some principles could disappear. For example, the convergence principle is threatened by two major social forces; first, the rise of localism in some countries that try to promote a pre-modern way of considering dressing, for example exclusively driven by local traditions; second, the rise of post-modernism in some parts of the world (and especially the Internet) with a fragmentation of fashion where every single person would have his or her own style. Fashion’s convergence principle, which is modern at its heart, is threatened by pre- and post-modern forces. None of these forces is in itself good or bad, but they need to be seriously taken into account by whoever is interested in fashion.
While luxury and fashion might be illusions, they are illusions that make us happy…and richer, because they create jobs and make commerce prosperous.
The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that we should banish luxury and fashion from the Ideal City he was advocating because they are, in his view, beautiful but useless illusions that can lead to war—for example to acquire the gold and diamonds necessary for crafting luxury and fashionable goods.12 But others, later on, like the French philosopher Voltaire, told us that while luxury and fashion might be illusions, they are illusions that make us happy… and richer, because they create jobs and make commerce prosperous.13
The author would like to thank Shellie Karabell for her valuable suggestions and feedback that greatly improve this article.
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About the Author
Frédéric Godart is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, in Fontainebleau, France. An alumnus of Cambridge University’s Trinity College and Sciences Po Paris, he holds a PhD from Columbia University in New York. He also worked for McKinsey & Company in Brussels. At INSEAD, he teaches Power & Politics. His research focuses on professional mobility, business group structures, as well as social and semantic networks. He is the author of several books, notably Unveiling Fashion: Business, Culture, and Identity in the Most Glamorous Industry at Palgrave Macmillan. The book is also available in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
1. Davis, Fred. 1992. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago, Il.: University of Chicago Press.
2. Pliny the Elder. 1952. Natural History, Volume IX, Books 33-35. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library.
3. Steele, Valerie. 1998. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.
4. Godart, Frédéric. 2012. Unveiling Fashion: Business, Culture, and Identity in the Most Glamorous Industry. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.
5. Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.
6. Hodkinson, Paul. 2002. Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
7. Braudel, Fernand. 1973. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. New York: HarperCollins.
8. Flügel, J. C. 1930. The Psychology of Clothes. London: Hogarth Press.
9. Barthes, Roland. 1967. The Fashion System. New York: Hill and Wang. 1
0. Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2006. Human, All-Too-Human: Parts One and Two. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
11. Sapori, Michelle. 2003. Rose Bertin, ministre des modes de Marie-Antoinette. Paris: Institut Français de la Mode et Éd. du Regard.
12. Plato. 2007. The Republic. New York: Penguin Classics.
13. Voltaire. 2002. Le Mondain. Ferney-Voltaire: Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle.
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