A Manifesto for Building Alternative Fashion Networks

Text by Eugene Rabkin

Over the past eighteen months, I have witnessed an increasing amount of frustration with the fashion industry from an ever-growing number of fashion enthusiasts and professionals. If you look around, it’s not hard to see why. Prices for designer fashion are out of control, and what you get in return is increasingly poorly made goods whose primary value is the logo. The celebrity-influencer industrial complex is in full gear, and its vapidity is turned to the utmost degree. Social media has unleashed the latent forces of narcissism on an unprecedented scale, making fashion its beachhead. The mainstream fashion media sing praises of collections and creative directors who are mediocre at best. Against the drop of two wars and economic uncertainty, the spectacles of cruise shows in far-flung locations are the very picture of privilege untethered from any reality. Fashion has become embarrassing. How could you not feel frustrated?

“It has always been thus,” goes the shoulder-shrugging refrain. Except that it hasn’t. Yes, the fashion media has long been defanged, and any vestiges of criticism washed away in advertising revenue streams. Yes, for decades, fashion has been taken over by corporate interests. Yes, celebrities have always been the means through which clothes can be sold. Yes, fashion has never really been the subject to look towards in search of depth and meaning. Yes, we have always paid a premium for designer goods. And, yet, it has not felt this dispiriting in a long time. The question is not of kind but of degree.

The main battle that has been waged in fashion since the end of World War II has been that of wrestling it out of the hands of the bourgeoisie. The rise of ready-to-wear and the demise of couture, the ascendance of youth culture with its own sartorial codes that would stand outside of the diktats of Parisian luxury, the Swinging London of the 60s, punk of the 70s, post-punk, new wave, and goth music of the 80s, alternative and industrial sounds of the 90s, Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, the Antwerp Six, Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayn, Jun Takahashi, Takahiro Miyashita. All have contributed to making fashion exciting, intelligent, and culturally connected. All have raised their middle finger to the luxury establishment, created alternative fashion centres, engendered new fashion tribes, and have given people with cultural intelligence something to wear, turning fashion into something worth taking into serious consideration.

Then came the great reversal. It seems that since the turn of the 21st century, all of fashion’s cultural achievements have gradually eroded, turning the discipline back to its lowest form—conspicuous consumption and display of pecuniary status. There is nothing intelligent about today’s mainstream fashion. What drives this change is not easy to pin down. The various parts of the fashion ecosystem are all to blame to some degree: the corporate brands that pump out the subpar, lowest common denominator goods also defined as luxury, the servile magazines that endorse them, the consumers who keep buying them, and all of us who tolerate the status quo. Fashion enthusiasts and fashion professionals have been battling for so long with decreasing standards, so cowed by the strength of corporate fashion with its armies of marketers, PR watchdogs, and unlimited budgets, so used to being looked down upon by designers whom we have voluntarily anointed as creative geniuses, that we have forgotten that we can simply opt out of the whole thing if we so wish. To outsiders, we look ridiculous, and rightly so.

This essay is an invitation to opt-out. You don’t have to support the current fashion system. You don’t have to buy the goods. You don’t have to read another empty show review or another fawning profile of a creative director that was bought by advertising. You don’t have to wait for another fashion week with bated breath. If everybody knows that the boat is leaking and that the captain lied, what are we still hoping for?

This is not, however, an invitation to give up. Fashion enthusiasts are needed more than ever to counterbalance the emptiness of the mainstream fashion system. It’s time for us to build alternative networks. And when those networks grow big enough, the fashion system will have to deal with us and on our terms. What I am talking about is supporting independent designers and brands that make interesting clothes both in quality and in aesthetic proposition, supporting the independent fashion media, and supporting independent stores. This support does not always have to be solely of financial means; it can also be in spreading the word and sharing awareness. The more of us unite, the stronger we will be.

There are examples of alternative networks even today. For decades, the fashion establishment has turned its back on streetwear, deeming it uncouth and beneath it. What did streetwear do instead of chasing it? It built its own networks. It made itself cooler than fashion itself, until fashion capitulated. Louis Vuitton proposed to collaborate with Supreme, not the other way around.

And streetwear has done it largely without the tools available today to share information and educate one other. On some level, with the internet at our disposal, building alternative networks has never been easier. And the time is now. The signs of discontent I mentioned at the outset are being voiced more and more vociferously. I see people on social media increasingly reacting with disdain and indignation to the hogwash that’s being shoved down their throats by the fashion establishment. After all, no one likes their intelligence insulted.

Fashion has forgotten and erased the very people who have made it relevant in the first place. It believes it’s always been a cultural force generating excitement and money. This shortsightedness may very well be fashion’s downfall. Alexander McQueen and John Galliano made LVMH exciting for millions of people, not the other way around. Today, as we drown in commerciality over creativity, fashion risks losing its cultural strength.

The discontent we are feeling is just the tip of the iceberg. More and more people are opting out—just look at the number of kids buying vintage clothing. But this is not enough.
Our efforts must be deliberate and concerted. Building alternative fashion networks will take time and energy, but I guarantee you that our actions will be rewarded once we will be able to make fashion vibrant and exciting again.

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Text by Eugene Rabkin