Being called unoriginal has fast become one of the biggest insults of the moment, almost akin to being 'fake.' But why the obsession with originality? Why does it sting us so much to be told we are not 100% unique in everything we do, say, wear, think etc.? The world has been around a long time and with it there have been a lot of people doing, saying, wearing and thinking things, so the probability of someone being remotely similar to someone else on this planet is pretty high, and the same goes for fashion.
With the rise of social media, high street duplicates, trends changing at the speed of light, revivals of decades gone by, and designers ripping each other off, the last few years has sparked a hot debate about the fashion industry – is originality still possible?
Looking at history, each era has its own style emblematic of the period. For example, the 1700s were all about the empire line, 1800s was corsets, 1920s was all about androgyny, flappers and the first women's trousers, the 1960s was all about the mini skirts and mod, 1970s was flares, 1980s had power suits and shoulder pads – need I go on? My point here is, all of these eras have their distinctive fashions.
Now think back over the past 17 years and consider what the fashions for the 2000s are. I struggle with this, beyond low rise pants, sequins, and foam platform flip flops for the early years of the millennium (see The Princess Diaries to know what I’m going on about), but the 2010s? This has been the decade of throwing it back to the past. Since 2010 we have seen the 90s, 80s, 70s, and 60s all become big trends on the catwalk and it has left many asking whether this means there is no new fashion left to distinguish our era.
Part of what we can ask however, is what originality in fashion and in the arts even means - for one, is reinvention not originality, in a sense? Is taking a trend, past or present, and making it modern or putting your own twist on it, akin to innovation to a certain degree?
If the fashion industry was only allowed to produce completely fresh, new ideas that had never been seen before, I can guarantee it would be exhausted in no time. You’d have designers quitting left right and centre because sometimes there aren’t completely new ideas to be had, at least not within the scope of what real people can actually buy and wear. And anyway, if you think about it, phenomenons like the mini skirt weren’t entirely original either, since it's a two-thirds-shorter version of a longer skirt... that’s reinvention.
The real problem where originality is concerned is intellectual property. It’s safe to say that the high street is rarely original. The high street has become the place where one goes to buy designer looks for less. The high street doesn’t put the time in to design unique collections because it doesn’t have to; creating high end looks for less will attract thousands who cannot afford the real Gucci or Celine. It’s this saturation that clouds people’s judgement because the whole high street starts to look the same, since they are drawing from the same source material on the runways. Soon, it feels like every store is selling you the same thing and you start to find it hard to find something original.
If high street brands worked the same way as designer labels, I’m sure that we would see more variety in the stores, but I doubt they ever will. They have to churn out new pieces and collections every 6-8 weeks, so care and attention to design isn’t a luxury that they get to have. If designers struggle to come up with fresh ideas 2-6 times a year, the high street multiplies that pressure tenfold.
The issue of copying however, also trickles up the line in to the high end world. At the most recent NYFW, we saw Alexander Wang drag Philip Plein for copying his show's staging and some of his designs, almost to the letter. If a designer is struggling for ideas so much that they feel the need to copy, than maybe it is time to take a step back from the high pressure demands of the job - keeping up with fashion is no easy feat.
At the end of the day, originality is subjective. What one might see as an original idea, someone else might not. Some people might think the rise in streetwear tribes and the explosion of Supreme, Palace, and Vetements is original to our decade and one of the defining fashion moments of the 2010s, while some might think of it as plain and uninspiring.
Personally, I don’t consider my own style to be unoriginal, but I wouldn’t say I’m that ground-breaking either. Instead of getting caught up in this fuss over such a subjective concept, we should instead just tell every designer one of our favourite mottos: “you do you hun.”