Would Fashion begin to sell cultural experiences instead of stuff?

November 3, 2020

Why do you choose to wear a garment? Do you wear clothes just to cover your nakedness or to experience/feel something deeper?  

Defining Fashion is a complex and endless topic of discussion. For some, it can be considered a form of art, for others, a profit-driven creative industry, and for others it is an expression of the culture of our time. Who is right? Personally, I think the three definitions are accurate. 

However, the focal point I want to stress here is the fact that fashion always manufactures and conveys meaning, in other words, it produces tangible (wearable) signifiers in which cultural values and societal desires are generally embedded. 

In November, The Business of Fashion published an article by Aaron Chamberland in which he claimed a solution to make Fashion more sustainable. The Fashion Industry is trying to improve its manufacturing processes in order to reduce waste and introduce more environmentally friendly processes, yet continuing to produce physical goods. But, Chamberland wonders: can this problem really be solved if we keep applying the same thinking that caused the problem in the first place? For him, the answer is no, and so he proposes an anew solution: “sell signifiers, not stuff”.

What does he mean by that?

Historically clothes have been a medium of expression, communicating certain messages and helping people find a community where they could belong to. The role of fashion brands (especially in this age of fast-paced content production-consumption) is not just designing garments, but creating unique universes where culture, feelings, values and creativity are blended and so people can connect and dream through them. We can, thus, state that brands convey meaningful messages and garments are the result of transforming this meaning into something tangible that can be consumed, and, hence, make us feel like we are fulfilling our desires or accomplishing a “good life”. But, can we really fulfill these needs by buying ‘stuff’? 

Therefore, the next point that Chamberland raises is: what does really matter to us in life? He claims that if we reflect on what a ‘good life’ is, we tend to desire personal growth, friendship, belonging, self-discovery, understanding, helping others… to make us feel accomplished. However, none of these desires are material goods, and neither are the reasons why people buy fashion. Rather, what people seek in fashion is intangible: building an image and a reputation, associating to a certain lifestyle, becoming part of a community… 

So, then, could fashion companies manufacture less tangible stuff (bags, shoes, garments) and sell more intangible stuff (experiences, community)? Chamberland asks. This refreshing approach to what fashion is and what fashion should become, led me to question the kind of experiences that could be produced by designers and fashion practitioners as well as the relationship between fashion and culture.

Culture is another complex term to define. Considering culture as a range of multi-disciplinary experiences that can be accessed and enjoyed by people (for instance: movies, museums, writings and poetry, photography, music…) helps us underline the current relationship between fashion and culture. Or, in other words, comprehending the role that fashion plays in producing and spreading cultural outcomes (signifying intangible experiences) 

In November, Gucci launched GucciFest. A collection of short aesthetic movies, created by Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director, along with Gus Van Sant. Seven, somehow interconnected, stories focusing on the complex beauty of being a human, featuring cultural leaders such as Paul B Preciado, Arlo Parks or Jeremy O’Harris who raise issues such as gender-identity, the self, our sense of purpose, art’s meaning… and starred by Silvia Calderoni. These short films are the perfect embodiment of the brand’s visual universe; not just through the clothing, but also through the ambience. A cultural entertainment free and digitally accessible to everyone. 

Another example could be Fondazione Prada. Miuccia Prada, at the helm of the creativity of prominent Italian brands, Prada and Miu Miu, is particularly renowned for her strong interest in art and culture. Since 1993, she has co-chaired Fondazione Prada, a Milan-based institution dedicated to contemporary art and ideas, a space in constant dialogue with other artists (through projects, exhibitions, shows, cinema) and producing new ideas; for instance, “Human Brains”, launched in November, is multidisciplinary 2-years long project devoted to neuroscience; which, through a program of exhibitions, debates and publishing activities, aims to generate an innovative dialogue between science and art. A quintessential Prada space.

As these two examples, there are many others where fashion companies have transformed their values and aesthetic DNA into cultural (intangible) experiences and outcomes that can bring people together as well as fulfilling their desires: Jacquemus’ photography books, Loewe’s craft prizes, Louis Vuitton Foundation’s exhibitions, among others. What Chamberland refers to as manufacturing intangible signifiers. 

However, despite fashion brands’ ability to produce experiences that can be as significant as the goods that they manufacture and even more accessible, could fashion’s approach be fully reassessed and changed? Or as Chamberland had put it, could fashion brands start ‘selling intangible signifiers’ in the form of experiences instead of ‘stuff’?

Written for @Smithsmagazine