The Limits of Globalizing Fashion
July 25, 2011 § 1 Comment
Last week, in a post titled “Fashion is a Melting Pot,” Italian Vogue Editor Franca Sozzani praised the increasingly globalized nature of fashion, alluding to the growing number of non-Western designers participating and gaining respect in the Western sphere. To her, these designers have amassed international attention by incorporating elements of traditional dress from their home countries into a “contemporary” aesthetic. She writes:
“New fashion designers from emerging countries are proposing a new fashion inspired by their country’s tradition, considered not as ethnic element any longer, but as part of a historical know-how, re-adjusted to contemporary silhouettes and therefore wearable in all cities of the world… It’s not the folklore that is exported, yet the culture, the local craftsmanship, the colors and the mood.” [sic]
There’s no doubt that more non-Western designers and designers with non-Western backgrounds are entering fashion. In the U.S., for example, some of the most celebrated emerging designers are either first or second-generation Asian Americans, like Alexander Wang (China), Doo-Ri Chung, (Korea), Thakoon Panichgul (Thailand), and Prabal Gurung (Nepal). For the past decade, Asian Americans have dominated the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) awards, highlighting the pivotal role they have had in shaping American fashion. Furthermore, outside the U.S., increasing numbers of non-Western designers are showing their collections at internationally recognized and media-heavy fashion weeks in Milan and Paris. South Korean brands Songzio and Juun J, for example, show their collections in Paris every year and General Idea, designed by Seoul-based Bumsuk Choi, shows in New York.
But amidst increasing numbers of non-Western designers in fashion, the caveat that limits how “global” fashion can become is the expectation that these designers cater to Western design tastes. When describing how fashion will continue to globalize, Sozzani wrote, “The new generations will keep getting here (New York, Paris, or Milan) from different countries and many of them are already studying in Italy, Great Britain, or America.” When talking about non-Western designers, Sozzani equates studying in Italy, Great Britain, or America as progress – steps toward success. While this may be true given the weight and the high caliber of designs schools in these countries, Sozzani elucidates a common practice among fashion people to place more value on studying and working in the West opposed to elsewhere.
The result of placing more value on the West pushes the globalization of fashion in many ways. For one, people wanting to succeed in international fashion feel pressured to study fashion abroad. At Parsons, arguably the most respected design school in the country, 32% of the undergraduate population comes from outside the U.S., mostly from China, India, Korea, Canada, and Mexico. In many cases, only very wealthy international students have the opportunity to study abroad in light of poor exchange rates, expensive airfare, and many colleges’ lack of financial aid for international students. These are very real financial limits for middle-to-lower class designers in the non-West. Furthermore, increased pressure for non-Western design students to study abroad devalues design education outside the Western world, removes talent from the local design scene, and prevents or slows the growth of fashion capitals outside the West.
Another result of constructing a Western-centric fashion industry is increased pressure on non-Western designers to abandon their own artistic autonomy and to replicate designs that already flourish in Western fashion. Last year, I attended Korean-based General Idea’s menswear show at New York Fashion Week. The first half of the collection was a parade of pieced shirts and newsboy looks that struck a striking resemblence to the work of Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, who has been showing his collections in Paris since the 80s. By contrast, the second half of the General Idea show had splotches of paint and large handwritten words scrawled across head-to-toe looks (including bags) á la Stephen Sprouse. The artistic reference was crass in light of Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Stephen Sprouse in 2008, which resulted in a line of classic Louis leather bags covered in bright, painted-effect “Louis Vuitton” text. But one has to wonder why a designer who often copies Western trends is one of the only Korean designers who shows at New York Fashion Week. One interpretation is that his aesthetic, though unoriginal, was in line with what the Western design world wants to see.
If fashion wants the globalization process to become more egalitarian, it needs to give more weight to non-Western designers and design schools in the international fashion market. One way to do this is by more actively and thoroughly covering fashion weeks that take place outside New York, Paris, London, and Milan. This would grant local talent more access to buyers, editors, and the general public, thereby increasing their potential growth and making the current, very costly trend of showing in Europe or the U.S. obsolete.
Non-Western designers with international clout also have a responsibility to increase the profile of their home countries. Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Junya Watanabe, for example, have been showing their collections in Paris for almost 3 decades with much critical and commercial success. They’ve become staples for major buyers and editors in the European fashion circuit. Suppose if these designers staged a collective revolt and showed in Tokyo instead of Paris every season. Editors and buyers would be forced to pay more attention to Tokyo as a fashion capital, thus allowing otehr Japanese designers more international exposure.
According to Sozzani, mixing a designer’s culture with that of others “must be true to one’s own history, otherwise, it is just an exercise in style, and ends up being too ethnical [sic] or too generic.” I agree, but what Sozzani doesn’t acknowledge is that in this “globalized” fashion industry, where non-Western designers work around Western expectations, non-Western designers must incorporate a large part of Western history into the telling of their own design stories. It is only this way that their histories will be heard.