Fashion, broadly speaking, encompasses everything from runway shows to the marketing around those products, and their translation into trends on the street. But the definition of fashion is changing, as the way it's being marketed to us evolves. Has fashion been reduced from the product to the packaging it's delivered in?
Dana Thomas addressed this question in her book Deluxe: How luxury lost it's luster, published in 2007. At the time we were witnessing the first signs of exclusivity becoming commoditization. Michiko Kakutani observes for the New York Times, "a business that once catered to the wealthy elite has gone mass-market and the effects that democratization has had on the way ordinary people shop today, as conspicuous consumption and wretched excess have spread around the world. Labels, once discreetly stitched into couture clothes, have become logos adorning everything from baseball hats to supersized gold chains."
In such a system, value is determined more from the context in which an item is framed than the quality of the product. If quality is no longer a pre-requisite for luxury, than what is left? Only how it makes us feel to buy, wear, and promote that product. Even if you are selling a product of exceptional quality, you have to cut through the noise of the competition. And so we tell stories, and those stories create value.
Since the release of Deluxe, the industry continues to change around us. One overarching trend is companies being launched by MBA grads with little experience in fashion, but an idea and the hustle to build it. These fashion-entrepreneurs are trained to look at the bottom line rather than the satisfaction of creative expression. The fashion industry is seeing a new wave of companies that focus more on one product, doing that one thing really well, and telling a story through the images and references surrounding that product, rather than telling a story through the clothes, like a traditional fashion designer strives to do.
The original tools of fashion design are emotion, texture, textiles, color, silhouette, and narrative. Those tools are now being used through 2-D expression rather than the 3-D garment. Visually, on platforms like Instagram, brands are packaging their content in quotes, found images, and impromptu editorial shots. Without focusing on the product, brands are able to connect a product emotionally to a customer base. And make it easily sharable. Negative Underwear is a great example of this brand building through Instagram, while fewer than half of their images actually feature the product, they’ve created a world for their customer to come and have fun, and share with their friends. And, or course, to shop.
Maybe this paring down of product offerings will grab enough market share to slow down the behemoth mass fashion brands. And in turn create a full circle from the luxury packaging of logos and conspicuous consumption, to a buy less buy better mentality. Or maybe we’re turning away from the most precious aspect of fashion, which is the role of the product as an outlet for creative expression. Whichever way you look at it, things do look really pretty in the packaging of Instagram.