Worth in progress – how to restore the value of fashion?

Fast fashion has diminished the value of clothing, leading to increased consumption. The fashion industry is at a turning point, requiring a reevaluation of the worth of garments, says José Teunissen, Director of the Amsterdam Fashion Institute.

The industrialization of the 20th century democratized fashion consumption, liberating consumers from societal class divisions. Through clothing, consumers could shed their backgrounds and establish a lasting or temporary identity, free from the burdens of their upbringing. 

– Freedom has been a hallmark of fashion. However, the relentless pursuit of novelty and constant renewal has become unsustainable, and the fashion system is broken in this regard.

Clothing is now produced and consumed at an ever-accelerating pace. While trends once changed seasonally, new collections from fast fashion brands hit the market weekly or even more frequently

Acquiring clothing used to require effort.

What happened? We’ve moved far from handmade bespoke garments in just a few decades. 

Acquiring clothing used to require effort. Consumers had to select fabrics and tailors, agree on designs, and attend fittings. This process fostered a shared narrative between the garment, its maker, and its wearer. 

Today, purchasing has become so convenient that the origins of clothing have become blurred, which, according to Teunissen, has diminished the appreciation for clothing. 

– We no longer know the story behind our clothes or the effort that went into making them. 

Does the future bring made-to-order and individuality? 

Teunissen believes that bespoke clothing from yesteryears is making a comeback, albeit in a new form. 

Digitalization, which has partly enabled the current fast fashion machinery, allows clothing to be made based on individual, digitally gathered measurements. The physical garment is assembled in micro-factories close to the consumer. 

Consumers then have a better opportunity to influence the fit of their attire and select their preferred patterns and fabrics. 

– I believe that when consumers are involved in the garment production process, their appreciation for the clothing increases. We’re returning to the past, when clothing was produced in collaboration between the designer and the customer, allowing the customer to influence the end result. 

The prevalence of on-demand garment production is also in the fashion industry’s interest, as it reduces surplus production, resulting in direct savings for manufacturers. 

A peculiar aspect of contemporary fashion, according to Teunissen, is that despite abundant offerings, our clothing has become more uniform. Cultural traits have nearly disappeared in the global fashion machinery, and traditional manufacturing methods that could be more sustainable than current methods are no longer seen in production. 

The colour palette has become more subdued, and t-shirts and jeans form the foundation of our wardrobes. 

Clothing has always been an essential part of identity-building, and now we dress as if in a uniform.

– I find it very strange. Clothing has always been an essential part of identity-building, and now we dress as if in a uniform, laments Teunissen. 

Perhaps dressing is no longer a central form of self-expression. On the other hand, Teunissen ponders that if garments had more individual traits, they might feel more personal. 

– I believe we would appreciate our clothes more if their origins were more visible and if they took a more assertive stance, as they did in the hippie and punk movements of the 1960s and 1970s. 

Changing values 

In Teunissen’s world, individuality and gender fluidity thrive in the corridors of art schools and fashion institutes. 

Today, fashion sustainability and responsibility are thoroughly considered in designer education. 

– Ethics and responsibility are on the rise, especially among younger generations. The pursuit of novelty no longer entices them, and many seek inspiration from the old while creating new by recycling. 

Experimental materials are characteristic of the new generation of fashion. Grandma’s old tablecloths may find new life as evening gowns or cassette tapes transform into new fabrics. New is now created responsibly from the old, conserving natural resources. 

Increased awareness also prompts reflection on how garments are made, enhancing appreciation for the garment maker and craftsmanship. 

– Fashion is primarily a Western phenomenon, but the products are manufactured far from us. Currently, there are worrying aspects of colonialism in the fashion system. We have no idea who stitched our clothes, whether they receive fair compensation for their work, and what the environmental impact of production is. 

Teunissen is convinced that increased knowledge will eventually lead to change. 

– We may be transitioning into a post-fashion era. In this era, the constant creation of novelty no longer feels right. The designer’s role is changing, as ultimately, it’s about the product and product design, not always about a new colour or style. In the future, the designer must consider the end-user of the garment more carefully. 

Change can happen quickly 

According to Teunissen, we are at a crossroads in fashion. Signs of change are already apparent. 

Some consumers opt for clothing rental or shared ownership instead of ownership. Clothing is now also available as a service; in this case, ownership of the garment doesn’t transfer to the consumer, only its usage rights. When the garment reaches the end of its lifespan, the materials are returned to the manufacturer for recycling. 

With changing values, following trends becomes less critical. Clothing increasingly reflects one’s own style and values durability. As the quality and value of clothing rise, repairing and restyling them becomes profitable. 

– As an industry, we must consider what and why we do things and what value we produce. 

Ultimately, change can happen quickly. Just as with oat milk and vegan food, Teunissen draws a comparison. 


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