Fashion speaks louder than words. Our relationship with clothing is a staple of our identity and an extension of our skin. Clothes mold the shape, texture and contour of our bodies. To that end, fashion represents fundamental human tensions — form vs. function; invention vs. tradition; nature vs. culture; rebellion vs. conformity.
Historically, fashion has communicated power, affluence, class, gender, culture, descent, and more. It has also appeared within our most popular stories. Shakespeare had an intimate understanding of fashion. In his dramas of power politics among Medieval and Renaissance kings, Shakespeare used clothing to signal the personality and social status of characters. America’s founding fathers used clothing to demonstrate their political unrest, a clear message geared towards feudal classes during the French Revolution.
While the clothes we wear have been overhauled since Shakespeare, today, the allure and emotional influence of fashion is as potent as ever. The evolution of fashion is driven by culture and communication. When these factors evolve, so does the language of fashion.
Vogue Driven Narrative/Centralization
In his book, Understanding Media, released in 1964, Marshall McLuhan observed: “The important thing in today’s world of fashion is to appear to be wearing a popular fabric.” McLuhan, universally regarded as the father of media communications and a prophet of the information age, argued that human conformity was the inevitable byproduct of print technologies such as books and newspapers.
McLuhan saw the power of media environments to radically transform society — the way we think, feel, and engage with one another. Illustrating the influence of media, he writes: “Societies have been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication… All media works over us completely… and leaves no part of us untouched, unaffected, and unaltered. The medium is the message.” In essence, the ways we communicate shape the way society functions, oftentimes without us realizing.
McLuhan predicted that “electric technologies” would transform the world into a global village. No more borders. The end of cultural barriers. Paradoxically, McLuhan argued that, the connectedness of the modern world would create more diversity, and abolish conformity. He predicted a more colorful assortment of creativity, personality, and clothing styles. To that end, the transformation of fashion is an inevitable byproduct of our connected world.
Historically, the fashion industry was centralized within a small number of intellectual hubs. Fashion Week, the industry’s biggest event, was largest in the “Big Four” global cities: London, Milan, Paris and New York. London was famous for traditional handicrafts, Milan set the standard for textiles and high-end production, Paris bred the best designers and boasted the best street style, and New York City’s media publications shaped and popularized American fashion trends.
But today, fashion has a diverse blend of influences, from the exclusive spectacles of Fashion Week to rural tribal dwellers with few resources beyond spare textile scraps, a boundless imagination, and a sparse internet connection, which they use to communicate with the world.
Vogue — the iconic American fashion magazine — released its magazine periodically, and thereby ensured the continual turnover of clothing styles. Vogue also financed up-and-coming designers through their fashion fund, and their stamp-of-approval came to be known as the fast-track to success. Vogue’s supremacy was reinforced by the centralized structure of mass media, through which millions of Americans developed shared awareness and identity. Even the magazine name, Vogue — defined as the prevailing fashion or style at a particular time — hinted at its monopoly over fashion trends.
In today’s internet era, Vogue no longer guarantees success. Modern brands are made on Instagram — not Vogue.
Modern Media And How It Changes Fashion
The fashion shifts brought on by the internet are complex, but they can be summarized: while the pre-internet world was limited by the constraints of physical space, the digital bits and bytes that underlie the internet have no such limitations. It follows that we’re moving from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance. Before the internet, economic power came from controlling supply, but on the internet, economic power flows to those who control demand and discovery. Distribution is free, participation is global, and communication is instant.
No longer do gatekeepers define the speed and flair of fashion. Influence, now, is decentralized, and as a result, fashion will cease to be governed by a central point of view. To that end, individual personalities will replace gatekeepers as the drivers of style and culture. Fashion will continue to become more fluid and fragmented as a result.
Clothing styles will diversify in this world of increased media fragmentation, and the explosion of subcultures that result from it. On the internet, we each occupy a unique intersection of personalized news feeds and social media streams; we live in a society of instant global communication, which, largely, transcends cultural barriers and national borders. We migrate between groups and identities in a more fluid manner. If Vogue was limited by the taste of a select assembly of editors, Instagram is infinite — limited only by human creativity and the number of smartphones with an internet connection.
As a result of this diversity, modern fashion is less about following the trends and more about crafting your own aesthetic. It’s less about fitting in, and more about standing out; less about wearing standard outfits, and more about customization and personality.
Up to the late 20th century, we’ve defined human identity by race, heritage, religion, social status, and nationality. On the internet, beginning with the street style blog, we define identity differently — through a vortex of different signals, such as taste, interests, and lifestyle.
Some modern brands have already responded. In our hyper-visual world, brands let consumers express complex beliefs and values instantaneously. Patagonia represents a love for the outdoors and Nike, a passion for fitness. In this new world, intimate bonds between brands and their customers are inevitable. Digitally native brands must sell more than just a product, but rather a way for customers to broadcast their values and identity — a way of life.
This has given rise to a new kind of brand, which I call “Naked Brands.”
Naked Brands: Fashion
Naked Brands™ are transparent. They are founded by personalities and celebrities, and prize ongoing communication with fans. Their brands are defined not by symbols, logos, or television advertisements, but by the authenticity of their personalities.
As I wrote in the seminal Naked Brands article:
Naked brands attract obsessive superfans. In the modern age, fans don’t just want to support their favorite brands; they want to establish emotional connections with them. Their fandom is not consumptive, but rather performative, active, and social. Subcultures of intense fandom are centered on a set of activities — pilgrimages, rituals, socializing, and evangelizing.
This almost religious phenomenon has existed since the classical music days of Mozart and Liszt, but since social media provides intimate, immediate access to stars, and since those stars are famous not because their anxieties, struggles, and triumphs are unimaginable, but rather because in many ways, they feel as if they could be our own, influencers’ relationships with their fans have a deepness to them that is almost unimaginable for celebrities and fans of a bygone era.
Designer Virgil Abloh, the founder of Off-White, a popular streetwear brand with a cult-like following, epitomizes this Naked Brands phenomenon.This new streetwear category has inspired cultish fandom through its unique blend of art, sports, and subcultures, and only recently has it become high fashion. Abloh is a designer, influencer, and a brand — all in one package. He launched Off-White in 2013, at the age of 33, and in 2015, he was the only American finalist for the prestigious LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.
Abloh sees Off-White as the modern evolution of streetwear. Inspired by earlier iterations and the internet’s remix culture, Off White’s designs incorporate irony, satire, iconic imagery, and vintage typography. The brand is synonymous with the themes that Virgil represents: creativity, globalization and diversity.
Virgil’s lifestyle is as fashionable as his clothing. In a recent interview, he described himself as the “physical form of the internet.” Globetrotting between mega cities, he builds hype through Instagram, and connects with fans along the way. Virgil doesn’t call any single place home. Rather, he’s a self-proclaimed global citizen.
He describes himself as “creatively schizophrenic.” His designs blend a multitude of influences: hip-hop, architecture, engineering, skateboarding, and Air Jordan sneakers. He calls Off-White the first social media native luxury brand, and he encourages fans to text the brand (1–855–633–9483). In the spirit of Naked Brands, Virgil communicates with fans on a daily basis.
Virgil’s transparency inspires almost religious worship from fans, who feel as if they have an intimate connection with him. Putting on an Off-White garment is, in effect, like wearing a piece of Virgil Abloh — summoning his energy, harnessing his creativity, and transcending oneself.
By chronicling his artistic ethos on Instagram, and offering fans a behind-the-scenes peek at what it takes to build a brand, Virgil’s success feels at once achievable, and yet aspirational. As a result, his fans are emotionally and financially invested in his pursuits, as if they’re leading the charge themselves.
Naked Brands 101.
No longer can fashion brands guarantee success by spending millions on advertisements and leasing premium mall space. Nor is it enough to create content and call it a day. Rather, the most successful brands have their own belief system, a distinctive vocabulary, and a cult following to boot. Some, even make us feel closer to God. That, though, is best achieved by an iconic founder with an uplifting story and an unmistakable point of view, like Abloh.
On social media, people don’t follow brands. They follow people. And in the future, there won’t be a difference.
Writing at a time of mass media, mass centralization, and mass conformity, Marshall McLuhan argued that above all else, fashionable people wore clothes that were popular — en vogue. But beginning in the 1970s, capitalism began to reinvent itself. Media diversified and companies encouraged people to express themselves differently.
Today, in this age of hyper-individualism, people want to curate their own image. Social media doubles as a canvas for people to express themselves and craft their own eclectic style. Through brands, we speak the language of fashion. Clothing, is a conversation, style is a vocabulary, and brands are a dialect.
To that end, transparent, mission-driven fashion enterprises that are guided by visionary founders — Naked Brands — will continue to explode in influence and popularity.
Cover image source: Wikimedia Commons