Oh such romantic beauty! As a parade of pastel-shaded figures slip onto the catwalk at London Fashion Week, we witness the very silhouette of modernity. Cara, Jourdan, Edie et al smolder nonchalantly as an abundance of falling petals cascade from above, adorning their perfectly tousled hair. An English Rose personified, the array of lilac and lace to offset enviable dewy complexions. Such emotive spectacle is transcendent, it works like poetry whispering us sweet nothings. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and all that.
So it’s hard to comprehend that these images have been instantly captured, locked and indiscriminately transmitted throughout the globe. As fashion plays victim to a technological revolution, even the sheer beauty of Burberry’s visionary masterpiece faces threat from insidious technological forces. It’s no secret fashion has become infinitely obsessed with all things technological. With the advent of Instagram, blogospheres and runway-to-reality, Fashion Week has grown from an elite industry event to global showcase. Many have been quick to laud this stratospheric rise and further embrace technology as a means of connecting with consumers worldwide. In acknowledging these limitless economic and marketing opportunities, we’ll explore its negative impact and reveal the irreversible, unspoken damage. Finally questioning, can this once exclusive industry remain untainted at the public hands?
It was over a decade ago when Natalie Massenet, fashion entrepreneur and founder of net-a-porter, dared to dream. One “click” and a silky black-ribboned package later, a retail revolution ensues. Expectant purchasers watched in awe as her collision singularly united the worlds of fashion and technology. But very few realised how that single pair of Manolos, in their ever-burgeoning basket, would transform the very face of fashion… forever. For the first time shoppers could access a virtual store of designer labels, fulfilling all their sartorial needs. Massenet, the so- called doyenne of digital luxury, described the challenges she faced in bringing designer goods to an online market. Many couldn’t grasp the idea of purchasing expensive items of clothing without be able touch and try on, she laments “there was a lot of desperate hand-wringing, tears and pleading with brands… they’d listen and they’d nod and then afterwards they’d say: ‘Just tell me one more thing: where is your store?'” In spite of these initial qualms, a combination of exemplary customer service and retail innovation led to the company’s £50m sale in 2010. From this defining moment to the latest news that Burberry chief-exec, Angela Ahrendts, had been headhunted by Apple, fashion has become inextricably linked to technology.
Recently Burberry’s creative director, Christopher Bailey, acknowledged “digital communications is an integral part of our culture at Burberry, so in the end it touches everybody”. I hear you aesthetes out there disputing whether high fashion is really something that should “touch everybody”? Whilst public events such as Fashion’s Night Out and London Fashion Week’s live broadcast to underground commuters seemingly bring invaluable brand awareness, in reality they are devaluing an industry reliant on its aspirational status. In the long run, this diminishing lack of exclusivity could have detrimental effects on a company’s profit.
The negative impact of Fashion Week’s extreme exposure has already set in, with a mass of unwanted consequences threatening the very foundations of the industry. Fashion publications such as Vogue are facing a period of extreme adjustment as the technological era challenges the authority and originality of their voice. We have seen a new breed of reporter, the bloggers, who have an instantaneous outlet for fashion musings. Most refreshing has been their ability to provide an honest critique, a rare thing in this industry. Additionally, the inception of runway-to-reality that enables consumers to purchase items directly from the catwalk, has redefined the role of the fashion editor. When many publications are reliant on hefty lead times, only allowing them to report the new collections three months down the line, it seems their position in dictating trends has become threatened. Attempts to embrace the technological wave have led to increasing numbers of electronic versions of magazines and an awareness of social media within their glossy pages.
Live streaming catwalk shows not only threatens the publishing industry but also the singular creativity of the designs themselves. Counterfeits and plagiarism have always proved a contentious issue, but the problems have been radically intensified by these much publicised unveilings. High street labels, namely Zara and H&M, have adopted a quick response model allowing them to manufacture quality knock-offs and have them ready for sale in double quick time. Eventually the process could result in loss of sales for designers and diminishing distinctions between high and low end fashions. This idea of blurred boundaries can be seen on a cultural level, as technology gives greater unity between the fashion capitals we are left with an assimilation of sartorial aesthetics.
The ethical issue of photographic manipulation is perhaps the most worrying use of technology in fashion. Government opposition to such techniques has recently increased, resulting in rolling out a national campaign to raise awareness amongst teenagers.
Let’s face it, technology provides a panoply of exciting applications, it is the future. The word fashion itself implies modernity, a perpetual progression in trends. But we must consider ways in which we can protect the foundations of an industry so heavily dependent on its exclusivity. So can this thing of beauty really be a joy forever?
Published in Oxford University’s Industry Magazine December 2013