Image: MAN S/S19 at London Fashion Week Men's by Zoe Lower c/o British Fashion Council
Last week brought the news that not one but two of American Vogue’s longtime fashion editors, Tonne Goodman and Phyllis Posnick, had left the publication after close to three decades. With the impending atrophy of the global print industry, it made sense to some that Vogue is downsizing, but to others, the shift is more reminiscent of one that happened two years ago in London, when Alexandra Schulman (and her entire staff) was suddenly replaced as Editor in Chief of British Vogue by the young, fresh face of Edward Enninful. As the fashion industry grapples with conversations about #metoo and diversity, many of the so-called ‘old guard’ are now fighting for their jobs. Younger voices and new graduates show a refreshing desire to rewrite the industry’s discriminatory history, but is it assumptive to bet on young people to subvert the status quo? Is the challenge of reversing an industry built on profit and hierarchy too great a burden?
In 2018, fashion students are having very different conversations than they were even ten years ago. Leading institutions like Ryerson University in Canada now offer students courses about fashion and society, discussing the ethics of popular consumption and industry production methods, or how dress intersects with race and culture. At this year’s Central Saint Martins graduate show, students were encouraged to create work that “opened up to the outside world: reacting to, commenting on, reframing and redrawing the multiple forces to which they have been exposed.” Instead of activist designers being a one-off in fashion, having a political voice is slowly being encouraged, and students are galvanising their passions and experiences to bring a more unique and meaningful point of view to the fashion industry.
Questions regarding cultural appropriation, gender binarism, and sustainability may often start in the classroom, but they are answered by the real life work that youth then go on to contribute to the industry itself. Charles Jeffrey, whose brand Loverboy is an unapologetic celebration of queer culture, has caught the eye of just about every major editor and stockist you can name, despite being just 27 years old. Designer Bethany Williams has also earned a profile with her commitment to social and environmental issues, evidenced by her collaboration with Tesco and Vauxhall Food Bank to create a 100% recyclable collection focused on alleviating hunger in the UK. Social consciousness no longer exists at the fringes of the fashion industry, but at its heart, as young people increasingly see fashion as a conduit for critical commentary on the world around them, something that mainstream fashion has often failed to do for much of history.
These activist messages don’t just appeal to those within the industry looking to create hype, but to young consumers as well. Generation Z, or those born after 1998, have a well-documented commitment to social welfare and inclusion – moreso than any previous generation. In our piece on Gen-Z shopping habits from 2016, we discussed young people’s penchant for labels that don’t just “talk the talk,” but “walk the walk” as well. Consumers today, especially young ones, are incredibly savvy and see behind marketer’s BS, favouring brands with an actionable commitment to social justice, not just heavy-handed messaging.
Since Gen-Z is also the generation most accepting of the fluidity of gender identity, they are drawn to brands that don’t put gender in its traditionally male/female box. This penchant for openness and diversity means that they can force the hands of brands that they feel are behind the times – consider the radical overhaul of American Eagle last year, and how they have now bolstered sales alongside new campaigns that feature Instagram activists, models with disabilities, and even young coders and entrepreneurs. It is evident that young people can move the needle not only through creative input, but because fashion is ultimately profit-driven, through their buying power.
The difficulty is, however, that power within the fashion industry is by and large still concentrated among a small group of rich, white, elite individuals who have held the same jobs for close to half-of-a-century. Under their traditional models, most students and graduates still have to cut their teeth as unpaid interns or personal assistants, running errands and surviving on 99-cent noodles for years to pad their CVs. As fashion becomes a more desirable career path (thanks, Instagram and YouTube), these positions are more competitive and the stress of “making it” under desperate circumstances can actually create more suppression of new ideas than freethinking innovation. It also means that when there are “hundreds of girls dying for your job,” you might feel less inclined to complain about mistreatment or exploitation for fear of losing your place. A bad introduction to fashion can turn off the brightest lights and create resentment, bitterness, or jadedness, where there was once optimism and promise.
While some young wizkids are on the fast track to success before they even graduate, most are looking towards an industry that is oversaturated and at times, cutthroat. Developing a thick skin is important for any line of work, however, if surviving shitty low-level jobs is considered a right of passage, those who make it can feel as though they have earned the right to treat their ‘inferiors’ the same way. When survival is the name of the game, conforming to hierarchy and normal codes of conduct usually feels like the most viable move.
Will millennial and Gen-Z creatives ultimately accept the fashion industry’s status quo, or will they rewrite it? Promising changes to consumer facing initiatives – such as a massive increase in casting models of colour, plus-size models, trans models, and differently-abled models, or sustainable initiatives such as luxury brands ending their use of fur – point to a certain level of responsibility that brands are willing to rise to if it helps their public image and more importantly, their bottom line. Although young people might not yet be running the fashion industry in the way that they want to, we have taught those in charge that being ethical is also profitable; fashion’s old guard must now learn to adapt or be left behind.