By Sarah Micho
Fashion is made for and by the people. Whether we live in suburbs, villages, or large metropolitan cities, the clothes we wear on our bodies hold weight in representing who we are, our belief systems and our cultures. The psychology behind our daily fashion choices informs our sense of self deeply influenced by the societies we live in. Historically, fashion has risen to prominence in the major city capitals of the world. City centres generate capital which by extension fuels the industry but not everyone has equal access to the city. Due to this, fashion has been used to observe, judge and monitor others through clothing and aesthetics. This tool that humans have long used to express ourselves is both social and political in a world where bodies of different races, abilities and ages are not treated equally. Given the current state of the fashion industry, it’s time to reconsider how these gatekeepers of trends can move beyond the metropolis centre to reflect the diversity of communities we come from, no matter where we are in the world.
Today, fashion is defined, designed and built around the four major fashion capitals of the world – New York, Paris, London and Milan. Every year, runway collections from Haute Couture to Ready-To-Wear are showcased to exclusive audiences through the latest runway shows. In the digital age, these designs are then amplified and viewed by millions worldwide, distributed across social media channels, magazines and movies. Runway designers communicate their definitions of beauty to the modern world by deciding what is and isn’t seen on the runway. They hold authority over us and how we dress, forming the basis of who we desire to be, how we want to be seen and treated by others. Although, this is the current model, fashion can stretch outside the confines of metropolitan fashion cycles and do what it does best – evolve.
Fashion should empower, inspire and reflect the world around us. With the rise of social media connecting communities who have felt unwelcome amidst the glaring fashion lights of the city – subcultures are carving their way into mainstream belonging. With the rise of TikTok, style aesthetics like ‘cottagecore’ and ‘normcore’ have been popularised, bringing in a renaissance of fashion previously deemed ‘uncool’. Taglines from artists like Megan Thee Stallion, who coined #hotgirlsummer, have morphed into hashtags like #hotgirlwalk with over 465 million views on Tiktok where people are reclaiming what it means to be a ‘hot girl’. These trends are speaking to something innate – a desire to belong and reconnect to definitions of beauty that feel more authentic and accessible.
In recent years, motivated by a need to create a sustainable fashion cycle, thrifting has been rebranded and second-hand retail platforms like Depop and Vinted are letting people swap clothing with like-minded fashion peers. This shift towards sustainability has slowly made its way into traditional fashion with established, mid-level and emerging fashion designers following suit from Stella McCartney to Marine Serre and Jacquemus. Stella McCartney, who has spent her decades-long career championing sustainable fashion, has remained dedicated to climate-conscious practices with her fashion collections. With Marine Serre, her brand is powered by upcycling, the practice of using recyclable fabrics and threads to create new items. Jacquemus exchanged the sleek floors of the fashion runway in cities like New York or Paris for natural sandy beach locales, showcasing his Spring/Summer 2022 collection in O’ahu, Hawai’i in March. Each designer is offering an alternative direction to fast, trend-based fashion that relies on mass producing clothing and abuses in the supply chain. They are leading the way using their respective creative visions to democratise fashion production, development and presentation.
Fashion is about being on the pulse of something – culture, people, the way we feel about the world and our place in it. Decentralising fashion from a phenomenon solely validated in fashion capitals challenges the gatekeeping nature of the industry that is no longer being accepted as chic du jour. Consumers, fashion enthusiasts and general society are pushing back against the financial gatekeeping and lack of diversity in the mainstream fashion industry. This past summer, viral Twitter threads have put a spotlight on consumers turning towards fast fashion brands like Shein and Zaful because traditional fashion brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and others have alienated consumers who aren’t from upper social classes. Moreover, major fashion labels have been tirelessly critiqued over the years for their exclusion – lacking diversity in their clothing sizes, fashion models, disabled inclusivity and more. The argument remains that everyday people turn to brands like Shein, River Island and Fashion Nova because runway designers and major retailers have never seen disabled, plus-size and lower-income people as desirable consumer targets. The message is clear – we don’t want you in, therefore we won’t make clothes for you – a modus operandi that has underpinned the industry as both a clear and embedded subliminal label.
Part of bringing fashion back to the people is changing the narrative that posits the only way into stylish dressing is via wealth and upward mobility. While those aspects of fashion have formed the bedrock of the industry, it doesn’t have to continue to create the roots for the future of fashion. Ideas take shape because we believe in them and moving fashion beyond something that happens in urban centres and into the lives and homes of people in suburbs and smaller sized populations circles back to the power of representation. The people represented in positions of power from politicians to celebrities in the media reflect who is seen as valuable and worthy of care and access to resources. Many people from marginalised communities are still fighting for the right to be seen and treated with respect and dignity. Intentional representation in fashion looks like representing plus size models, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities alongside putting those people in power behind the scenes. In everyday life, representation can look like supporting local fashion businesses, advocating for transparent supply chains and keeping brands accountable to equitable hiring practices. We can start to upend the system by amplifying voices and perspectives that have been pushed underground. Ultimately, it’s about reclaiming space, time and self-worth because as it’s been said before representation matters – when we see others who look like us being validated, seen and heard – a snowball effect is created.
In the wise words of Virgil Abloh – “to see is to attach form” – likewise, the branding of fashion is equal parts emotional and communal because we can all take part in building systems that serve everyone. When we shift what we attach value to, we’re able to disrupt oppressive systems and create communities based on exchanging power rather than congregating it into pockets of society. Democratising fashion is about bringing the art of dressing back to the people by inviting everyone into a world that isn’t defined by elitist and exclusionary practices. It’s about world-building that extends well beyond runway catwalks – a world that begins at home.