MILAN, Italy — The day the world went online, it was a blast. Ditto when Johannes Gutenberg introduced Europe to the wonders of the printing press in the depths of the 15th century. A blast — or a big bang. In fashion, instant global connectivity and the liquidity of Internet culture introduced a kind of explosive digital virus into a realm that was once secluded, exclusive and excluding. Was it good? Was it bad? Definitely both.
In some ways, fashion and Internet culture are next of kin. Witness the urgency of endless renewal and frantic transmission; the disrespect for chronology, history and borders of any kind; the blatant courting of full-blown egotism; most of all, the tendency to flatten knowledge to the two-dimensional depthlessness of the image.
What fashion and digital do not share, however, is the same view on democracy. The hyper-connectivity of the Internet brings people and ideas together, fluidly and unstoppably. Fashion, on the other hand, is ultimately about differentiation and hierarchy. The industry generally celebrates the happy few — be they rich or cool. Those who aspire to their status are enticed into buying products — amulets of sorts — that allow them to pass the threshold of the temple. Or at least that’s the promise.
Some things never change. But the collision of fashion and digital has forced the industry to rewrite at least some of its rules. For a long time, fashion designers styled themselves as unapproachable deities, surrounded by tight courts of like-minded muses. Only the initiated could glimpse their sancta sanctorum and they certainly never disclosed the details — at least, not publicly — of their creative processes and sources of inspiration.
Oh, how times have changed. In this age of constant self-broadcasting at every step of the social ladder, notions of privacy, discretion and originality have been turned upside-down. Cliques and tribes still exist, of course. But they show off too, in order to exclude and fascinate even more. Today, everyone has a channel. Everything is available for visual consumption. Everything is public property.
The hyper-connected world tends towards total visibility, tearing the old, secretive fashion mentality to pieces. But fashion adapts to new environments, a bit like an alien, or the notion of language as a virus in William Burroughs’ book “The Ticket That Exploded.” Indeed, it’s probably fashion that’s the real contagion here — not digital culture.
In today’s fashion world, FLAMBOYANCY — in capitals, bien sûr — is the only way to attract attention, because subtlety is not digitally viable. The Internet has made collage the expressive method par excellence, replacing invention with reinvention, construction with mash-up. But in its sinful merging with connectivity, fashion, above all, has brought the depthlessness of visual style into every possible corner of contemporary culture. From politics to washing detergent, today it’s surface that counts.
But in the way that it widens perspectives, making the world available at a click for everybody, everywhere, increased connectivity undoubtedly has a sort of empowering effect on creativity. No matter who you are or where you are, you can dive into the global flux, becoming a part of the zeitgeist. Images, videos — it’s all there, available instantly for not-so-critical consumption and appropriation. The Internet has done away with chronology, logic, copyright: it’s more Dada than Dada, more Burroughs than Burroughs.
The creation of fashion today depends heavily on the Internet. In order to start a new collection, designers once took inspiration trips to exotic or off-the-beaten track places, or simply to a well-equipped library. Now, due to the bulk of work and the paucity of time, they do most of their visual research online, which is fast and effective, but comes with a few problems. The first is homogeneity, meaning search results are similar. All clicks lead to Rome. Also, replacing actual experiences with digital images means relying on second-hand material, which flattens the results, especially as many collections are not only born from online sources, but designed to look good on Instagram. You see it in the bold shapes, glaring colours and fashion’s general emphasis on looking fab more than feeling fab.
I was quite surprised on a recent visit to a boutique at how Gucci’s collections, for instance, are designed to resonate visually, but feel quite rough to the touch. The other problem with Internet-driven collections is that they erase subtlety by default. Minimalism is not particularly image-friendly. Whispers, so to speak, remain unheard online. But it’s whispers that, often, generate long-term waves of creativity.
Connectivity, for sure, has put fashion, or at least its ghost, everywhere. But the cost has been a flattening, along with the evaporation of magic and mystery. Now that designers document in the first person the triviality and the minutiae of their everyday lives, they have lost their aura of gurus and acquired the status of pop stars. Which makes them a little more human, but a lot less glamorous and dream-inducing.
As for those few designers who choose not to succumb to the world of total visibility, they are actually making the strongest of statements, risking the danger of disappearing completely from the radars of the world. But nowadays, talent is measured by followers counts. The appointment of sartorial badass-cum-design ingénue Justin O’Shea at the creative helm of Brioni is a case in point: perfectly understandable in today’s connected world, but depressing when considered with the perspective of history. The age of global connectivity, quite simply, spells the end of professionalism and the rise of the digitally-savvy amateur amidst a heavily marketing-driven panorama.
Which brings us to my bittersweet conclusion. Going offline, at this point, is not possible. Slowing down sounds a bit like utopia. But better balancing the virtual with the real could be a good way to fix things. Fashion is about the image, but it needs substance too — and now more than ever before, as the new world order currently taking shape seems to favour people who pose as agitators as they court the mainstream.
Substance is essentially about ideas, honesty and creative integrity. If used to spread these values and make them bloom, global connectivity could really help to drive a progressive revolution. Because it’s not about where things come from, but where you take them.