In the moments before a fashion show begins, I regularly think of this cautionary anecdote from American designer Elizabeth Hawes, who laments the bygone practice of "want" slips – those pieces of paper with customer wish-list items that department store sales clerks used to send to their buying office for consideration: "'And when I asked the salesgirl for a coat without fur,' say one hundred thousand women, 'she just looked at me. 'Madame,' she said with raised eyebrows, 'coats without fur are not being worn this season.''"
"What could I do?" Hawes wryly observes. "The Duchess of Windsor was wearing a coat with fur that season and one hundred thousand women could do likewise or go without. The dictates of dear old Fashion come first."
Every time I wish that Hawes, who died in 1971 just as the industry was on the cusp of its ready-to-wear heyday, were still around so we could toast the end of totalitarian trends together. Trends: soooo last century.
For decades, the accepted wisdom on the life cycle of fashion trends came from costume curator and historian James Laver's Law, a timeline charting the obsolescence and recurrence of trends first described in his classic 1937 study Taste and Fashion. It's obsolete now, ironically never to recur again. Laver didn't account for the 21st century's accelerated pace of fashion communication – all communication for that matter – and its effect on consumer appetite and power. That chart, in spirit, first dwindled to annual, then seasonal in/out lists in the 1990s but those, too, are obsolete.
Hawes was more prescient than Laver but even she could not have predicted the internet and its democratic effects. In an unwitting rebuttal to Taste and Fashion, her entertaining 1938 memoir Fashion Is Spinach: How to Beat the Fashion Racket is a critique of the then-modern industry, and today, it is more relevant than ever. The recent surge of interest – Dover published a new edition of her book in July – is not least because Hawes' advocacy for the voice of the customer and denunciation of fad pronouncements delivered from on high (namely: Paris) was decades ahead of its time. But it took the internet (and its love child, social media) to achieve the trend-free style world Hawes advocated.
It isn't just that interest in so-called new fads dissolves in the time lag it takes for designer samples to go from the runway to the shop rail (though they do: six months is a long time in a world of constantly refreshing updates); it's that there are so many simultaneous fads that they add up to none. Brands and designers still push the looks and interpretations of the enduring three items – pants, dress, jackets – they want to sell each season, and make efforts to promote popularity through gifting, placement and advertising, but it's everyone else who's in charge. It's been a steady dispersal of influence, starting with the peer factor on social media that I have in the past called the Yelp of fashion.
Today's leading arbiters and influencers are those who are online. Everyone is some kind of enthusiast or insider. And that has truly enabled subcultures of interest, of style, to connect – an exchange of virtual, non-stop want slips. If it's not available in one shop it's at another, possibly across the continent or globe, and can be requested. And labels are listening to what one woman, or 100,000 women, want. In the latest edition of fashion-house musical chairs during Paris fashion week, for example, Demna Gvasalia was appointed to the top creative post at Balenciaga – the one vacated by better-known Alexander Wang after a scant three years. It can't have been lost on the Balenciaga brass that Gvasalia's Vêtements label has been the darling of style watchers for some time, with a groundswell of appreciation most visible on social media. The power to make or break is collective and global.
The original influencers were true insiders – the select few editors, retail buyers and, in the case of couture, top clients actually invited to see a salon or runway presentation for themselves and mingle with the designer. Everyone else was in the dark, waiting to be told what would be available and acceptable. That traditional fashion media model was one of authority and, frankly, one of absolute power that promoted and made reputations. They were able to announce the sea change and their audience would shop and adjust hemlines, or whole silhouettes, accordingly. It was a delicately negotiated dictatorship.
The us/them identity crisis of traditional fashion media who initially bristled at their expanding ranks including non-traditional digital and blogging voices (interlopers!) has in the last couple of years been put to rest. We sit shoulder to shoulder crammed into front rows because the industry functions not as a hierarchy but an ecosystem and fashion critics like me offer both snap judgments and join in the flurry of blurred Vines and snaps at runway shows, and no more control information than decisions about what we'll be wearing next season. Later, there will be sober second thought and, hopefully, meaningful cultural context, but first comes the more instant reaction and casual semiotics that the social medium and internet metabolism expect.
And trends? The latest denim lookbook from Madewell that's on my desk showcases not one but several very different styles of jeans equally, with something for everyone– pegged black punk skinnies, dramatic hippie flares, slouchy overalls and high-waisted menswear styles. They're not taking any chances. One hundred thousand women can't be wrong.