There may be an age-old adage that the consumer is always right, but fashion has long seemed impervious to it. Not so for 2017, apparently, fashion is changing: On the catwalks, a see-now, buy-now phenomenon has launched and VR (Virtual Reality) technology is being employed; on Instagram, users are now able to shop directly on the platform, and retailers are scrambling to adapt as a result. Leading department stores are altering the curation of their products, new tech start-ups are working to bridge the gap between the online shopper and the in-store experience, and customisation is now synonymous with luxury, as brands forgo label iconography in favour of personalisation. These new movements have come to the fore in 2016, and are set to establish new ways of experiencing fashion in 2017. Connecting these disparate strands is the consumer, who is playing a more pivotal role within the industry than ever before.
This is a trend that came with the advent of social media, as individuals took ownership of their own tastes and inclinations. While traditional print media has struggled to adapt, fashion brands have embraced their audience directly. This was most prominent during the SS17 catwalks, where the likes of Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger and Tom Ford adopted new methods. In addition, VR was employed by Moschino to optimise audience reach and experience, while new tech brands such as GoInStore have launched an initiative to connect online shoppers with assistants — bringing online shopping to a whole new level.
Arguably these changes would not have happened — at least at not such an accelerated pace — were it not for Instagram, and the direct access it gives consumers to brands they love. In light of this, it seems surprising that the Facebook-owned platform has taken such a long time to monopolise on an obvious revenue stream: allowing users to shop directly from the platform by clicking on the tags in images. Launched with select partners such as Kate Spade, J. Crew, Warby Parker and Macy’s in early November, the initiative follows on from Instagram’s new dynamic ads and carousel features launched earlier in the year. For anyone that has ever jabbed at a product round-up in Vogue, expect this new addition to prove a game-changer for an industry hell-bent on maximising revenue.
This turn towards consumers has also become the locus of brand strategy at a product level. As a report by Deloitte explains, “[consumers] have become both critics and creators, demanding a more personalised service and expecting to be able to shape the products they consume.” Bespoke design was always a little marker of class — as Rolls Royce’s 44,000 different types of paint can attest — but now luxury brands are lining up to let the consumer create their own product. Founder of Italia Independent sunglasses spoke of new elastics that will take personalisation eyewear to the next level: “Here you can decide for yourself without the brand imposing it on you; without having a store imposing it on you; without having a magazine imposing it on you – it’s for me, and it’s my choice as a consumer.”
So it seems that the people are getting their power back, but does this spell sartorial fireworks for 2017, or the demise of creativity?
Given the current declining world order, it’s easy to feel trepidatious about a movement in which the people, unchecked, dictate to the experts, and rightly so: the industry has already witnessed casualties in this department.
When designers have to react to market demand rather than enjoying a creative space to shape it, the results have been disastrous. As Jean-Paul Gaultier told Business of Fashion: “Too many clothes kills clothes. [Through the] merchandizing, commercialization and marketing that the frenetic ready-to-wear industries demand. … People can dress well for not too much money.” Other notable casualties of these changes include Raf Simons, Alber Elbaz and ex-Creative Director of Gucci, Frida Giannini.
The wider human cost has also become apparent, with a Guardian report revealing Indian factories used by major retailers such as Walmart and Gap are still woefully deficient in terms of health and safety: 62% still lack viable fire exits, 62% do not have a properly functioning fire alarm system, and 47% have major, uncorrected structural problems. Here, prioritising the consumer has wider ramifications — surely a warning sign for labels looking to sate customers appetite ad nauseam.
However, to bemoan a bygone era of ‘experts’ — the magazine editors, stylists, designers — who have been replaced or rendered equal to those who celebrate and build brands around personal style and consumer demand risks overlooking the emerging counter culture. Indeed, reflecting on Trump’s election, trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort noted, “There’s this whole urgency, I believe, to truly change form. It has been too basic for too long, and we need to have a new incentive. Theatrical clothes are going to be important.”
Historically, in times of crisis, fashion has proved to be a vehicle for rebellion, and designers at major labels have often used the medium to express discontent and harness the liberal mood in collections. Vivienne Westwood, Diane Von Furstenburg and Alexander McQueen are obvious examples.
After the election of Donald Trump, fashion designer Sophie Theallet became the first C.F.D.A. member to publicly state that she would not dress Melania Trump: “I am well aware it is not wise to get involved in politics” she wrote in an Open Letter on Twitter. “As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady. […] I encourage my fellow designers to do the same.” Alas it seems that so far, few designers have followed suit.
Major high street giants such as H&M have announced their plans to become 100% circular: “We cannot influence what people choose to spend their money on and we need to be profitable to drive fashion sustainability. Circularity is a key solution to the negative impact of consumption,” Catarina Midby, H&M’s UK sustainability manager told the BBC. In spite of these commitments, it remains to be seen whether a major group such as H&M will continue to pursue a policy if it comes at the cost of their audience.
And so to the matter at hand — will, after all this, the consumer finally get what they want? Without creative innovators, fashion becomes referential. A meta-medium, a palimpsest and eventually, perhaps, obsolete. 2017 could certainly drive the industry further in this direction, where fear and introspection lead consumers to demand what they know, seeking further nostalgia rather than revolution. Whether this will make consumers happy, however, remains to be seen.