Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 74, jan 2009

Re-shaping the flows of fashion

Oven the last decade or so we have met an increasing discussion about the de-materialization of design. The design discourse, and lately the environmental movement, wants us to move from products to services. From cars to mobility, from de-skilling to re-skilling and from designing services to design experiences. Ironically this happens as we are swamped in cheap products and an ever-increasing number of technical gadgets. Fashion wants to be ecological and produces an increasing number of additional “ecological” garments for the market.

The radicals who want to reduce the general flux of goods are met by arguments that the “economy must keep on flowing” – or doomsday awaits us all. Yet all we know about fashion is that it somehow flows through our lives, it is perhaps the most immaterial design we surround us with. If we were to look closer to the mechanisms of fashion we could perhaps get some insight into how fashion relates to these flows. This could perhaps help us understand how we can approach fashion from an “ontology of flows”.

Fashion is not an everlasting distinction but its very essence is in its ephermerality. In this way fashion is a modern phenomenon connected directly to the zeitgeist of progress and social change. In the social mobility of modernity we need the constant new to ride on it to reach further, upwards, inwards, outwards. Fashion is in this sense also directly connected to the now and its immediate direction into the future. Fashion is the sharp edge of the arrow of time, breaking into the future. As we see the new we see the future, just an arms length away. Or a fortune away.

To make the distinction clearer we can say that clothing and fashion resides in two different modes of time; clothing in the Hellenic time concept of chronos, the duration, while fashion resides in kairos, the propitious moment or opportunity. Clothing can be, just like suffering, be chronic and everlasting, but never fashion. From this perspective of kairos, fashion is indeed like passion, a sudden burst of energy, a firing of ephemeral intensity. When fashion hits us it is a shock, a look that stuns, a blinding flash of beauty. In the darkness of everyday the radiating lights of the catwalk promises the lustrous social visibility. This resonates delicately with how sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes fashion, as it is always “the latest fashion, the latest difference.”

fashion intensity

Fashion is like a current like an energetic power. A wave of intensity running through the channel of life. When confronted with new fashion we can find ourselves, almost unconsciously and often unwillingly, electrified by the brilliance of its very newness. This burst of intensity is how a new fashion “hits” us, how we are temporarily “blinded” by its luminosity, and how “immune” to it most of us are to it after the last epidemic craze has passed.

This continuous stream of intensity is fashion; a phenomenon in a constant dynamic flow of becoming that never stands still or is subordinated to permanent substance. It is difference in its purest ephemeral form, the velocity of flux, energy that rushes through a system that is far removed from equilibrium. This is what makes fashion resonate beautifully with the popular “ontology of becoming” of popular philosophers like Deleuze as fashion is never a stable form but always becoming new. This focus on the processes of becoming can be connected to fashion’s central distinction of constant change, as in fashion “everything flows”. If fashion has a being, it is a being of becoming, of energetic change into something new. If fashion constitutes an eternal return, a cyclic movement of retro-styles, it does not signal the return of the Identical, but a return of the same process which becomes. It is the eternal return of the processes of becoming, of producing intensities of difference, even if they materially resemble historic expressions.

To approach fashion from an ontology of flows and intensities resonate with ecologist David W Orr’s notion of design as “the shaping of flows of energy and matter for human purposes". For Orr designs are never finished, they are instead continuous processes interacting in dynamic systems. Fashion design should be dealing with fashion as intensities, as energies, as flow of matter-energy, and how we, in roles as both designer and consumer, can find new ways of interacting with these flows. For fashion design this would mean to tinker with the processes of becoming and with the intensities of difference, not mainly create new material collections.

fashion flows

Today we live in an era of “McFashion”, where we are all bulimic consumers of fast-food fashion, devouring more cheap difference than we can digest. But we should not despair or take the first easy exit to drop out of the system; instead our surplus from this economy could be the raw material for something new. This might be the start for experimental steps in fashion, not seen for many years. The substance from our McFashion superabundance can be used to create other forms of fashion energy.

Fashion is an energy that has to be spent anyhow, an immediate intensity that needs to be exhausted and wasted, a flow of difference that needs to be consumed, a metabolism in an ecologic system that sustains itself by levelling difference, then designers could be much freer to experiment with “burning”, tuning or bending fashion energy in various new ways. And this could be done independently from fashion’s material base or its hierarchical and pacifying “fashion system”.

An immediate example could be how a clothes swap, or a Swap-O-Rama-Rama event uses the material waste of the McFashion system, to recycle this by wasting the energy of the workshop participants, but by mimicking the settings of “real” fashion. At the Swap-O-Rama-Rama participants meet to produce new garments out of old in a collective spirit, forming their own fashion studio for a night, with make-up-artists, DJs, catwalk and flashing lights. Fashion parties, nightclubs and street style events like the Sahane in Istanbul, could be the basis for a new form of fashion ecology and metabolism, where the flows of low-level fashion are put in the centre and not the physical collections and the centralising forces of fashion are avoided. We can also see this in the events like those of New York-based fashion collective House of Diehl with their “Style Wars” events, where night club visitors style models live at stage with recycled goods to the ovations of the interacting club crowd.

House of Diehl - Style Wars

With an ontology of flows the experience of fashion, of producing and wasting distinction and intensity is the task of design, but doing this can be done with participatory methods and using re-cycled materials. The aim is not to produce the new clothes or the new difference but reconnecting the flows, bending the currents, influence the processes of becoming, showing how fashion exists in superabundance and not in scarcity. Fashion is an intensity and a “flow of energy and matter” that can be tuned for serving more people. This means that the task of design can also be to liberate fashion from the dictations from a system based on meagre symbolic expressions and insufficient artistic tactics.

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