When’s the last time you touched your clothes? I mean, really touched them.
Of course, you’re wearing them now. But when did you last take the time out to experience a seam, the texture of a knit, or the drape of a shirt? In fairness, these are loaded questions, with no real consideration of the many more important things you probably have going on in life. Melting in buttery contact with a $10,000 crocodile backpack is likely not high on your to-do list.
Nevertheless, it’s valid to examine what we’ve lost in recent years now that fashion’s focus has shifted from materiality (and its sidekick, temporality) to speed, flatness, and the immediacy of an impression. By a rough sketch, these are the characteristics of fashion’s current mode. And while we often consider fast fashion as a plague solely on the middle market, its looser ethics have seeped into the highest levels of fashion. The sportswear of recent seasons has been particularly complicit in this aesthetic project.
Alexander Wang, at both Balenciaga and his namesake label, has been one of the industry’s most significant supporters of this new expedited experience of fashion. While browsing his collection last spring, I got the sense that depth was being subverted; there were not multiple layers to be picked a part or understood. His ’90s-era “Parental Advisory” sweater conveyed the immediacy of fashion’s new M.O.–a flash of instantly recognizable–iconography, a quick onomatopoeic “bam!”
Also notable about the influence of fast fashion is the rise of modular, mixable clothes. Somewhere in the late 2000s, designers began to move away from the totality of a “look” and towards separates and individual pieces. Other emblematic items from the last few years have rooted this trend into the way we see and understand fashion. (One thinks of Riccardo Tisci’s year-after-year insistence on the sweatshirt, for example.) Perhaps the most memorable instance of this piecemeal ethos was the way Christophe Decarin’s military jackets at Balmain cast a shadow over the rest of his collections. The craze over pop accessories—the Balenciaga motorcycle bag, the Céline tote, the Prada espadrille-platform—is a parallel, related argument that pushes the part above the whole.
This season, however, there were shifts and experiments that opposed the swift look of today. Designers explored, if briefly, the unfolding of time and the experience of materials. The one that has stuck with me most profoundly was The Row’s Fall 2014 collection. There was an emphasis on materiality throughout, one loudly articulated by the first two looks of the presentation: dual cocoons of high-gauge cashmere that encased the body. These wrapped visions–which looked deceivingly whole but were actually cowl-neck sweaters and handkerchief skirts–signaled a new angle on fashion. It was a celebration of cashmere, an invitation to touch and experience. These are clothes that unfold temporally: gentle curving shapes, sloping hems, enticing folds. They are clothes that request us to discover them and decipher them across time. They are in direct opposition of fast fashion.
Influencing this writing is Paul Valéry, a French poet, who meditated on our experiential relationship to architecture. “Our pleasure [in experiencing architecture] comes from moving about it so that the building moves in turn,” he writes. Within the building, we experience the unfurling of its components: “the column turns, galleries glide; a thousand visions escape from the monument; a thousand harmonies.” This conception of our experience of architecture—and of any material creation, more broadly—emphasizes the importance of the object. It is a relationship we have with it: with homes, with cities, with the objects we wear. This is the lens that can help us to understand the value of recent experiments in fashion. Where, in Valéry’s case, we walk through a building to experience its unfolding, we touch to experience the unfolding of a garment.
As Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen did, Phoebe Philo also discovered time in the hyperspeed pace of life this past season, exemplifying the experiences Valéry wrote about. Something about her surreal, offset buttons made a demanding appeal to our gaze and our brain’s ability to unpack objects and shapes. The illogical composition was interesting and gave pause. Some of the collection’s strongest propositions were in the shimmering, marbled shaved furs, juxtaposed perfectly against the relative flatness of the wool they were set against.
There was no greater “unfolding,” however, than the Issey Miyake collection, in which models walked out on the runway and removed, from right disks, dresses made of pleated gauze that stretched like accordions. They provided an expression of the way objects reveal themselves and disclose their characteristics through time. They provided something to be watched and appreciated, time to be taken.
That current fashion is fast does not mean that it is ephemeral. Nor does it mean that it is contingent. It’s place is not owed to some grander, more grandiose fashion. The flatness and speed of our current mode is not to be bemoaned, because the surface provides arguably just as much to think about as depth. Our current moment has taken to the speed of current aesthetics because that speed fits our lives. There are also economic limits to contend with. If there’s anything that fast fashion has provided, it’s access. Money is time, and not everyone has time. The speed of it all allows the middle class shopper to obtain the same look as a socialite. And in the age of internet megastores, both likely spend the same time in the process of obtaining it.
Due largely to their complicity in luxury, the temporal and material experiments of the past season were limited, not to mention hard to get at and assume as day-to-day lifestyles. Nevertheless, they were significant attempts to slow down the acceleration of our experience of nice things. They reminded us what it means to have, wear, and touch something special– things that took the time to emphasize their very thingliness.
Photos courtesy of Style.com. GIF courtesy of Today’s Document.