To change Fashion, We Need to Transcend the Predominant System

New packaging, same content: If we are really entering a new era, we need a new way of thinking and doing fashion


Fashion representations in scenarios, characters, and relationships are marked by segregation and exclusion. The movie The Devil Wears Prada chanced upon all the stereotypes and archetypes built over a century on the concept of fashion as we know it, in the contemporary world. In 2016, the film turned 10 years old. Some questions about how much the characters presented and represented are representative in real life were suspended in my mind.

Do these characters represent real people, or are they necessary exaggerations of the entertainment world? Since fashion lives on the image, how much do real people in this industry rely on characters to build their personal expression? Ten years later — a decade, a period that marks a transition of generations — how much has the mental model we have about the fashion professional evolved? Does the construction of this imaginary benefit or harm the market, as it is time to rethink fashion? Still, there is a great difficulty transcending the prevailing systems and models.

If we are really entering a new era, a new way of thinking and doing is needed.

Questioning the mental model responsible for portraying the status quo of fashion representations is necessary, if not urgent, at this time of examining the fashion industry as a whole. It is time to reflect not only on who made my clothes or the transparency of the production chains, but also to take flight in the collective and imaginary subconscious of fashion, inquiring into the images we consume and assume as true.

While humans consume products, the brain consumes images (Antonio Damásio). Audiovisual is direct, unfiltered communication for a mind thirsty to assemble imagery puzzles. The cinema, television, and, currently, the multi-screens, which carry videos and photos of all time and themes, dialogue directly with what many call the human soul or essence. In this context of effective and excessive communication, audiovisual content can be said to play a significant part in the formation of the human being as a social being. It is capable of constructing personas or stereotypes that will be assimilated and even confused with real people. What is real in this context?

We have entered an era where consumerism is the agenda and focus of various manifestations. Fashion, as a significant consumer articulator, faces a crisis of identity and purpose (André Carvalhal). At the same time, apparel seeks a new sense of being and a possible way to manufacture products. The uneasiness caused by overconsumption in recent decades has triggered a flood of studies, questions, and discourses in favor of the planet’s sustainability and human sentiment.

The conscious line from Swedish retailer H&M: Sustainability as a new subject, image as an old concept.

Humanization, sustainability, sharing, collaboration, economics, effective communication, empathy, collective, and purpose are the most used words in these discourses. But, without judgment, we need to complement this contemporary manifestation with a look at the neurobiological processes in shaping images that determine behaviors.

The fashion industry plays a fundamental part in the Brazilian and world economy (Abit), and it is common to recognize fashion in fashion shows and magazine editorials. As well as forgetting that sneakers and other shoes, handbags of different raw materials, glasses, buckles, and other foundry articles, together with the beauty industry (cosmetics and plastic surgery), form the FASHION INDUSTRY.

Not to mention some essential links in the chain, such as textile and dye processing companies, which are far from the glamorous spotlight and are a fundamental part of the current fashion system (Roland Barthes). Fashion is not only made of clothes but of a set of elements that constitute an image: shapes, colors, patterns, textures, fragrances, materials, sounds, people, and a story. These are all fashion as a concept.

It is this unannounced show we call fashion, and the elements are carefully orchestrated and rehearsed; of futile and innocent, there is nothing. What comes under the spotlight on the catwalks and screens is the result of thorough and intentionally crafted productions. Stylists, producers, and fashion professionals in different market activities build images, directly or indirectly. An event conveys an atmosphere; a showcase portrays a message, a song, a music video, a costume, a look — they all communicate concepts quickly recorded, consciously or unconsciously, to anyone who has any contact with these images.

From childhood, we receive countless information-shaped images that contribute to the formation of our cognitive repertoire. Throughout life, we form our belief and value system based on experiences: what our parents say, what we see them doing, what we see and hear at school and in the world. Audiovisual is part of these sources and, as a source of image and sound, acts directly on our cognitive system. No filters. The images access our brain and make connections to what already exists in that file, or open new folders creating new links.

The character Miranda Priestly, an influential editor of a fashion magazine, played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, symbolizes the understanding of how fashion personalities should act and be.

Our brain is a pattern-seeking machine, even where they don’t exist (Daniel Kanehman). We seek patterns to ensure our comfort zone, and that means wasting less energy, as well as survival in an instinctive and animal sense. What sets us apart from other animals is the capacity for complex thinking; that is, we can transcend our instinct and create new routes. However, imagery preconceptions can prevent us from genuinely treading new paths.

Sustainable fashion, purposeful brands, the future of fashion, and diversity are hot topics in contemporary society and fashion agenda priorities. Still, we keep repeating mental models that cannot truly change the course of things.

Fashion as a superficial concept has always been knowledge of the initiates, talent of the chosen, and almost a power restricted to the Olympus of Fashion. Fashion as craft and work, however, is subject for fingers pointed to slave labor, exclusion, unrealistic images that delude and cause disease, a polluting industry, and exploiting our natural resources. Amid this paradox is life, real life — neither Olympian gods nor enemies of mother nature. Fashion is us, humans seeking forms of personal and collective expression, consciously, or unconsciously. Two centuries of image building and shaping this imaginary preconception have led us to a specific understanding of what fashion is and how we have to BE, to be part of it.

A decade after the validation of these images through the movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” Netflix — a very efficient contemporary platform for the dissemination of imagery concepts between generations Y and X — brought, in series form based on the original book, the story by Sophia Amoruso, or Girlboss, responsible for creating Nasty Gal, an American fashion e-commerce that started as an online thrift store and became a millionaire business. Sophia came to life on the screen thanks to actress Britt Robertson as a contemporary version of Miranda Priestly. In place of the magazine, we have an e-commerce, in place of a high executive, we have the entrepreneur, and in place of the big luxury brands, we have the vintage finds. The representations have changed; the concept remains.

It is not my intention to provide answers but to raise some questions about how much we are transcending traditional models and how much we are just putting the same content into new packaging. Sustainable fashion, purposeful brands, the future of fashion, and diversity are hot topics in contemporary society and fashion agenda priorities. Still, we keep repeating mental models that cannot truly change the course of things.

We continue to make collections, campaigns, photographing models — the profession’s very name proposes a standard, whether it is plus size, elder, fashion, commercial — people who meet labeled image criteria. We keep placing merchandise on sale, making collaborative actions on “special” dates, reproducing the model of fashion shows and fashion weeks, etc.. Having understood the business needs of any brand, initiative, or project, and the fact that our brains work with the references it already has, the point is that if we are beginning a new era, we need a new way of thinking and doing.

Sophia Amoruso, Girlboss, played by Britt Robertson in the series that reproduces all the stereotypes of fashion characters.

It is the thinking that makes the human being (Antonio Damásio) and all that we create as expressions. However, the ways in which we present it to the world are the result of how we make neural connections. It is our brain materializing our essence and our own BEING. So what I believe and propose here is a transformation in thinking that affects our actions. It is an invitation to expand the mind beyond what has already been given, beyond what is known, safe and comfortable, outside the catwalk.

To change the mindset is to question the fact that we keep making collections, campaigns, photographing models, placing merchandise on sale, reproducing the model of fashion shows, and weeks. Photo by on Unsplash

Possibly the forms don’t seem at all comfortable to you, but if we demand a little more from our brain, we will realize that we can do more. We can raise the bar of fashion discussion to the images that shaped our beliefs and values and shape the world as we know it today. Images that made many young women sick, physically, and emotionally. Images that created hostile, segregating, and simply cruel environments. By deconstructing them all, we will find people with their stories, who put on a mask to survive. No wonder the dark glasses are so successful in our midst.

Fashion has a lot of urgent questions, and I don’t know if we will handle them all in the next decade. What we can do is to put reflection and provocation on the agenda. And with every action, question and force ourselves to make new connections and try other ways of doing them. Put an end to absolutism and certainties that are nothing more than a story that we were told and assumed as our own. Every story has several versions, and we can create our own. I believe the new age of fashion is made from the expansion of thought and the conscious realization of human expression.

Written by Nathalia Anjos
Translation by Carolina Costa

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