How Do You Spell ‘fashion’?

When people, at a given place in a given time, show more or less similar trends in the way they think, act and behave, we explain it as being the ‘fashion’ of the time.

When someone dresses to be purposely noticeable in a sea of people, adopting styles that may be a divergence from mainstream culture, we describe him or her as being ‘stylish’ or ‘fashionable’. Fashion for such people is a device for differentiation.

When people of a particular age group, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or ideological affiliations dress alike to reinforce their own stereotype, they create an identity or subculture by means of fashion. Fashion here, becomes a signifier of meaning.

Consumers who rely upon big brands to faultlessly and regularly offer them ‘fashionable choices’ supported by fashion design expertise, manufacturing expertise and a wide distribution network, feel secure in the knowledge that they are ‘on trend’. Fashion for a consumer is about being ‘trendy’.

These examples show that people construct the meanings of fashion differently. They attach different values to dress.  Yet, the predominant impression of fashion is that it is essentially the ‘business of looking good’. Despite its ambiguity, this notion has cemented itself as an idea and then for those who have come to passionately believe in this idea, it has become an ideology. When something becomes an ideology, it includes and speaks to only those who support the ideology, and excludes those who don’t. It makes ‘experts’ out of people- those people who mysteriously seem to know more about what it means to ‘look good’ than any one of us lesser mortals do. This tends to put off a lot of people. Fashion, for as much as it is loved and followed, has an equal number of people who despise it, or are simply disinterested. They see it as vain, wasteful and not worthy of the time and resources one is expected to expend on it, just to fit in. Fashion, for many, lacks substance. It seems elusive; nothing more than the fanciful notions of those who are divorced from the simple sentiments and ground realities of common folk.

They are not entirely wrong.

Fashion for too long, has suffered from a paucity of discourse. For something that is so intrinsic to modern life, it’s surprising that it has been positioned as something extrinsic, spectacular, cryptic and out-of-reach, without a strong, assertive counterpoint. Who in particular, can claim to be the originator of the language of fashion? Who decides what’s in and what’s out and why should anyone care for what they think? The love for fashion is certainly not of one type only. People love their clothes for a variety of reasons ranging from associations of it with memory, or for sentimental reasons; for how it envelops their form or sculpts their silhouette, or for how they rely on a particular style of dress to entrench their persona. There are other ‘very human’ reasons: for the love of wearing ‘borrowed’ clothes, for the fact that a piece is cherished because it was ‘lovingly stolen’ from a sibling, for the reason that it’s easy to care for, or because it was inherited, or because it’s versatile and ‘friendly’ with all the other pieces in your wardrobe, or because it’s been part of your journey from one milestone to the next and survived…with you. Dress can also be political. Think of Gandhi and you know that dress can effectively register protest…democratically.

There are a number of ways people relate with clothes and demonstrate care for their appearance, or empower themselves through the language of fashion; and all of these are valid forms of fashion expression. Fashion need not always be spelt in the uppercase, with only one order of actions that define its meaning. Fashion can also be written and spelt in the lower case, drawing an order or sequence from a wide range of experiences relating to clothes. Disrupting this power of uppercase fashion should be at the core of fashion education. The act of disrupting allows for a more critical understanding of fashion and by extension, a more creative, authentic interpretation of it. Students should be nurtured, equipped and encouraged to question popular notions of fashion and redefine it. Inclusiveness of any sort- social, economic or cultural is merely superficial, if it does not begin by respelling that which has marked itself as the final word.



Image Source: Azzuro Due/ The City That Never Stops by Bill Cunningham

Design is Wisdom

In an interview, sometime near the end of his career, YSL had famously confessed that his one regret was that he had not invented blue jeans. His reason: “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal and simplicity. All that I hope for in my clothes.” His regret contains an important lesson for designers: that the true power of design- its reach, impact and appeal lies beyond the individual intelligence and capacity of the designer. It can only belong to the collective wisdom of a people, living in and through a particular point in time and in accordance with shared values. It’s important that designers come to critically understand that they can only propose ideas, but it’s the social, cultural, historical and economic forces that will eventually mold the idea in order to own it. It’s when an idea is owned by the people, that it becomes fashion.

Fashion is not what fashion designers create, fashion is what the people make. Intrinsic to the design process of fashion therefore, are movements (political, social and cultural), the ideas that they generate, their creative interpretation by fashion designers, the myths around them that are popularized by the media and the marketing strategies that package them as an ‘essential, must-have luxury’. Design is not easy. To add to its complicated make-up, is our own misconception of what design is.

Most of us think that design is restricted to the generation of ‘new’ ideas. What we must come to see, is that design is not just the process by which ideas are ‘made’, but it’s the process by which ideas are ‘made instrumental’. In other words, ideas by themselves are not enough. Ideas are hypothetical. They are assumptions, imaginations and speculations that need to be seen in the light of ‘knowledge’ or ‘what we already know’. And yet, that in itself is not a sufficient curation of an idea. Knowledge must be challenged by experience. The young must be challenged by the old, the eclectic by the common place and the conceptual by the pragmatic.

Design is not a process by which things are made extraordinary, it is on the contrary, the ways in which things are made ordinary and everyday. The design of fashion therefore, must look beyond the pretensions of artistic expression. It must, ever so often, let go of the desire for the ‘spectacular’ and the ‘original’ and instead look at ‘the made’ and ‘the worn’. In them, lies a treasure trove of attributes that have stood the test of time. Coming to see these attributes is the first step in making them ‘instrumental ideas’ and furthering them. These ideas can be effectively re-interpreted to remind people of a time gone by, or to challenge the state of the art or to prompt an attitude of bravado in uncertain times.

Fashion, after all is a language. And like any other language, it is enriched by use and the wealth of meanings that a people bring to it. The design process of fashion must factor in this understanding. As designers, we are interpreters of feeling and expression. And although the glamour of new forms is enticing, if there exists a chasm between the prevailing feeling and the proposed form- the outcome is a failed design. Design is so much more than a search for differentiators, it is- on close scrutiny- a search for wisdom.


Image Source: mydailynews; the outsiders.


Ideas – Ideals = Bad Taste

Culture, metaphorically speaking, is the air we breathe. It determines my ‘state of mind’ and by extension the activities that issue forth from such a mind-state. It suggests the workings of a ‘total mind’ over and above the individual mind. Nicholas A Christakis, a researcher, sociologist and Professor of Social and Natural Sciences at Yale University, goes to the extent of calling it the first form of artificial intelligence. It indicates the ways in which we are programmed to behave by virtue of the values and ideals of the social networks within which we are embedded. Not only do we influence the behaviors of others, we are also influenced by them.

Yet, as the world we inhabit today is growing increasingly complex, causing us to grow our networks rapidly and exponentially, the strength of the networks is actually weakening. The wider our social network seems to grow, the weaker becomes the adhesive power of cultural ideals, which often get diluted by the infusion of new ideas. A strong common cultural ground is lost and we find ourselves floating perpetually in an endless space of ambiguity. We find ourselves drifting between diverse cultural groups. The culture of our families is different from the culture of the organizations we work for, whose culture may be different from the culture of the spiritual institutions we may be a part of, whose culture may be at complete variance from the culture of the ‘school group’, ‘the beer-lovers group’ or the ‘marathoners group’ I may have on my Whatsapp chats. Increased connectivity has led to a decreased sense of identity- a case of belonging everywhere and by virtue of that, belonging nowhere in particular. We’re becoming increasingly okay with difference, consuming freely of what we may have earlier denied ourselves and in the bargain, becoming more and more susceptible to unchecked influence. Standards of behavior have not only fallen, but also any mention of them, has come to be seen as being prudish and too ‘tradition-oriented’. We suspect that any reckoning of the standards of beauty and good taste will stand in the way of true and fearless experimentation and therefore our progress towards new ideas. Ideas have come to replace ideals. The (artificial) ideal-based intelligence of culture has been disrupted and taken over by the artificial, idea-based intelligence of big data and algorithm-based design. The unprecedented exposure that a rapidly growing media and highly addictive technology-driven social platforms have given us, have undeniably corrupted our minds, our senses and our tastes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of art and in the sensitive mind of the artist. The first amongst us to feel, see and sense, the artist cannot help but make visible all that lies hidden deep within our disturbed psyches. Scatological art, brutalized body images, the objectification of women, the unaesthetic and intentionally disturbing political statements, the heady mix of violence and glamour-today we’ve seen all there is to see and even more. This increasing abstraction of art, its disinterest in the cultivation of tastes and the resultant lack of a connection it has with the people at large- is evidence of the growing chasm between the heart and the mind. We’re increasingly feeling we have no one to talk to, no one interested in listening to us and no one to offer us a beautiful response to the confusions we feel. We are inundated with images, objects and stories but clueless about how we should make sense of it all. We’re consuming indiscriminately and it’s no secret, that whatever we consume, in turn consumes us. Normalized attitudes towards sexual violence and abuse, anxiety about the body, the absence of a clear sense of direction, a weak conscience and the absence of a moral compass- all of these are sicknesses of the postmodern human mind. The lack of organization in the total mind, is also the lack of an organizing principle in the individual mind.

Where art has resigned itself to simply being the expresser of angst, design has stepped in to address the needs of the public. Design is filling in a vacuum left behind by the disinterested and disengaged artist. However, with the world of art shrugging off its ‘privilege’ of creating and arbitrating taste- we have to that extent been deprived of good sense and good taste in design. Also, in a free democratic world, good taste and what constitutes it, is often decided by the lowest common denominator. It’s in response to this reality, that I feel fashion design students who see themselves as primarily ‘artists’- can either be a problem or contrastingly, be a valuable asset. Fashion designers who feel that they are artists, invariably imitate and effect the behavioral traits of the stereotypical artist- being disconnected and disinterested with the world, being very interested in highly conceptual ideas and considering it ‘prudish’ and ‘irrelevant’ to be concerned about good taste. What they often miss, is that fashion by definition, is the adoption of a clothing style by a group of people. Fashion is fashion only when there is a consensus about its ‘good taste’ or about its appropriateness.  It’s not just the ‘statement piece’ worn by one model on the runway or in a photo-shoot. However, as an ‘artistic fashion designer’, with a fundamental interest in the aesthetic presentation of the self, she can contribute meaningfully to any of the ‘fields’ or ‘social networks’ she finds herself in. She can understand herself to be a creator and curator of taste. Fashion has the power to be the cultural adhesive that can bind us together and make us reclaim our identity. It can make us connect, it can speak of common values and it can be a great arbitrator of taste. Through clothing we may communicate and share what we consider to be good, appropriate, ethical, meaningful, beautiful and true.

The need for aesthetic resolution is essential to human creative life. Without aesthetics, we are somehow not complete, not whole and not true. While a fashion design student in her search for authenticity, may begin with a love affair with art and its conceptual power, she must gradually move on and transition into the world where things are found, felt, needed and made. A real and lasting relationship with materials, processes, people, their hopes and dreams- is what will give her direction and purpose in a constantly shifting world. Not only must the designer express herself as an artist, she must also take on the mantle of augmenting the life around her with richer meaning.



Image source: Vetements, Fall 2016 collection