Guardians of Creativity
Why the fashion industry needs guardians of creativity to envision and organise an alternative approach to fashion.
Creativity is suffering from speed fatigue.
Creativity is invaluable to humans as a species, to society and the fashion industry. Yet creativity is often undervalued in the fashion industry because it's difficult to quantify or measure return on investment. It’s no revelation that speed trumps creativity in fast fashion business models, resulting in the copying of designer fashion. What’s unusual is designer fashion houses - that have built their brand value around the strength of their creative design - beginning to resemble the fast fashion business model.
While originality is scarce, and creativity is often the result of remixing what already exists in novel ways, designer fashion houses who are meant to be creative incubators are also resorting to copying designs to maintain this faster production pace. In his presentation Slow Down! We Are Creative! Timo Rissanen, Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons School of Design, discusses why creativity and speed are not well suited bedfellows, that creativity requires time:
“Real creativity in fashion design is an intellectual effort first and foremost, and it requires rigorous practice and time. It also requires time for reflection and contemplation.”
I would add that creativity or originality also arises from a spaciousness and a state of flow where there is no thought. Flow arises from being present in the moment, with minimal external pressures or stressors. This requires time. Yet, creativity is slowly being squeezed out of many fashion business models by speed as Orsola de Castro, Co-founder of Fashion Revolution, explains in her article Time:
"[Time] has now been almost eradicated from the fashion language, in one carefully orchestrated statement. From fast to faster."
I’ve spoken with fashion industry professionals (particularly fast fashion) that share how they're fatigued from the increasing speed and pressures of the fashion industry. Some have even quit their roles or entire careers in order to create the spaciousness which nurtures this outflowing of creativity that they long to reconnect with, that initially led them to pursue a career in creative design.
This pressure is also seeing the most coveted creative designers leaving prestigious designer fashion houses explains de Castro: “Raf Simons cited speed and lack of time for the creative process as one of his main reasons for leaving Dior, and Alber Elbaz echoed that sentiment when leaving Lanvin.” Having no other option to leave your role or entire career in fashion is unfortunate, but as Sarah Mower, the British Fashion Council’s Ambassador for Emerging Talent, explains in her article The Fashion Industry Needs to Slow Down, Step Back, and Think About What's Relevant, it can be more dire than this:
“The pressure on designers to fuel the ideas that fly out of this mad corporate machine leads to exhaustion, burnout, addiction, even death. Even when someone runs as fast as they possibly can, and is praised to the skies for it, like Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, they can still be given the chop when their sales figures apparently dissatisfy owners. I'm sure it happens all the time further down the line in design teams.”
Who is the fashion industry serving?
I believe that the values of the fashion industry within the system of capitalism now grossly undermine our human needs. Rissanen shares in his article how American environmentalist Edward Abbey stated, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” and that American economist Herman Daly calls our economic thinking ‘growthism’, noting how our obsession with infinite growth is akin to a religion; that limitless growth is a fallacy given that we exist within a larger, finite system, which is planet Earth.
Where does this perpetual economic and material growth stem from? Is it the result of a fearful, scarcity mentality and illusion that our individual needs haven’t been met and that we don’t have enough? In reality there are many that don’t have enough, who are still trying to meet these basic human needs for survival, such as food, water, shelter, healthcare and so on. But those who have met their basic needs, that have enough, are acting as though they still need to accumulate more to survive - more growth, more money, more possessions, more food, more experiences. Mower describes how this has played out in the fashion industry and how it closely resembles the economic crash in the banking sector:
“A whole constellation of designers once earned enough to live like kings and emperors with multiple houses, yachts and chauffeur driven cars….As if somehow everything will go right if only we do MORE.”
“The way the [fashion] industry machine looks and feels to me now is like the banking world before the crash: that is, when the big players were overtaken by an inward looking insanity, basing their actions on competing with each other on the same basis, doing exactly the same as everyone else.”
As a self-organising species, perhaps humans have used growth to dominate or become ‘the fittest that survived’. When will we realise that we can stop striving for more? That we have more than enough, even to share with those that actually do really need it. What exactly are we striving for? Happiness and fulfilment? It’s easy to believe in the ideology that this behaviour will lead to contentment. Yet research shows that once we meet our basic external needs for survival, contentment cannot be ‘found’ in external things, but is a choice, aided through focusing on intrinsic values such as health, wellbeing, community and so on. This survival mechanism is actually working to our detriment and threatens creativity in the fashion industry and our survival as a species.
In saying this, I am aware that this neoliberal perspective assumes the current conditions of the fashion industry are dictated by individuals and their desires. If we as individuals were to realise that our behaviour is insane, could we actually change this capitalist and fashion system? An alternative argument is that as individuals we are working within a self-organising capitalist system that is beyond the control of any one individual. Our behaviour is ultimately constrained by the capitalist system which is dictated by the agreed concept of money, which assumes that if we obtain something now it will be more valuable in the future. The concept of money only makes sense if the economy grows. From this perspective, increased speed and decreased time for the creative process are symptoms of capitalism.
Designer fashion houses were founded by individuals who had the time and space for the creative process. Their business models changed when they accepted investors and shareholders, who wanted a return on their investment. It’s probably too late for the current publicly listed or investor owned designer fashion houses to once again value the creative process over speed and economic growth. From this perspective, it's possible that similar fashion business models will continue to grow - sped up by technology - until there is no economic, natural or human capital left to sustain them.
Is there a recipe for sanity within the fashion industry?
Economic growth now serves to undermine human and ecological flourishing. The system of fashion no longer serves people, our core needs or nurtures creativity. In fact, Business of Fashion Founder, Imran Amed suggests that there is no fashion industry if business incentives trump the creative process:
“...I'm worried about a growing disconnect between the creative people and the business people. Let's go back to basics. This is an industry that creates beautiful things. Without creativity, there is no business. We can't lose sight of the source material.”
So what’s the alternative? Rissanen suggests “what we need is a vision for something radically new, together with global action.” Mower suggests we need a different ambition for fashion professionals:
“Slowing down...stepping back and thinking about what's relevant...It now seems a better ambition to be able to pay the rent, live privately, not bend to the pressure to do too much, do what you do well, and stay in touch with reality. Seems like a recipe for sanity in a mad, mad world.”
The irony is that the majority of fashion industry will continue to increase in speed, and creative fashion professionals are likely to struggle finding the time to create alternative visions. With little time or spaciousness for creativity to emerge and public designer houses favouring speed and profit over creativity, I believe change will emerge through people working or reintegrating from the edge, rather than the core of the fashion industry system, as Mower also suggests:
“The only way it can change is by new people...coming in from the outside and stating the obvious: this is nonsense, it is not speaking to us, and what we want, and we're going to do it differently.”
We need guardians of creativity
Amongst all the madness of the fashion and capitalist system, it’s difficult to be present and maintain one’s sanity. It’s easy to prescribe to the ideology and illusion that more growth will fulfil us, but we soon learn that this temporary gratification doesn't last. Paradoxically, even if we do realise the futility of perpetual growth, the economic system of capitalism only works if it's growing. Will the system run its course and collapse? Or will there be an awakening or realisation amongst fashion industry creative professionals who will define a vision for an alternative approach to fashion?
“When Raf Simons resigned from Christian Dior, it was the first, very shocking example of a designer deciding that he was going to reject the pressure and walk away.” - Sarah Mower
It's the authors from the articles featured here and the departure of some of the most creative in the industry that leave me wondering whether we are witnessing both simultaneously. There is the systemic treadmill of incessant economic growth and consumption, and there is also an undercurrent of realisation amongst individuals, who are positioning themselves to create a different vision for the fashion industry. However, it’s important that this vision is not just a mere philosophy, but a practical, organised movement as Sam Gindin points out in Unmaking Global Capitalism:
“Confronting neoliberalism involves more than ethical counterarguments or an easy return to a more tolerable past. It means having a distinct alternative vision and developing the corresponding social power to challenge not just a philosophy, but the core structures of ‘really existing capitalism.’”
Time is required to create alternative visions.
I believe we need to organise our lives around the value of time. Those that have suffered from this speed fatigue and have organised their lives around time to reconnect with the values that better serve humanity are our 'guardians of creativity'. One way to increase time in our lives is to limit our spending on unnecessary consumption, so we need to earn and work less to make a living. Perhaps lifestyle trends like downshifting, collaborative consumption, curated wardrobes, minimalism, and zero-waste suggest that we're already organising our lives around time.
As 'guardians of creativity' we need to take responsibility for our lives and channel this responsibility into our work to reimagine and organise an alternative system and business models for the fashion industry. That is what I refer to when I advocate for creating, appreciating and relating to:
“Beautiful style that connects us to our humanity, the natural environment and each other.”
However, the term ‘responsibility’ can sometimes feels morally chastising. Rissanen references Werner Erhard, an American critical thinker, who described responsibility in a manner that inspired him and resonated with me, so I've included it below to see if it resonates with you. I believe we will continue to see ‘guardians of creativity’ emerge that embody responsibility as Erhard describes. Perhaps this includes you.
“Responsibility begins with the willingness to take the stand that one is cause in the matter of one’s life. It is a declaration not an assertion, that is, it is a context from which one chooses to live. Responsibility is not burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. In responsibility, there is no evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong. There is simply what’s so, and the stand you choose to take on what’s so. Being responsible starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from the view of life that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are. That is not the truth. It is a place to stand. No one can make you responsible, nor can you impose responsibility on another. It is a grace you give yourself – an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of life.”
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Share your thoughts
This is such a complex issue and I have only begun to scratch the surface. I've shared my reflections with you as an open conversation. What can you add? What's your experience? What's your vision for alternative fashion design and creative industries? Have you experienced speed and creativity fatigue?