Innovation is Dying in Fashion

Fashion designers are a fascinating bunch. A majority actually go to school to cultivate their creativity. They dream of having their names on labels of thousand-dollar clothing. They fantasize about the adulation and fame they'll achieve on the catwalk. And then they enter the real-world - corporate America - where the only use for their talents is in copying other, recognized designers for the benefit of retailers' billion-dollar private label businesses.

Private label is a fascinating business. Federated Department stores (owners of Macy's and Bloomingdales) alone makes over $2.3 billion on them (out of $15 billion total sales). The point isn't to sell aspiration to middle America, it's to just sell them something. And contrary to the dreams of many fashion designer aspirants, most of the country really doesn't care for hoity-toity looks for the mere fact that they can't afford it. (You can thank the media for distorting reality once again.)

Retailers don't buy fashion, they buy apparel. Apparel is a textile business, a commodity business, thanks to the hyper efficiency of low-cost labor in other parts of the world. Fashion is art; subjective at least, infinitely duplicated at worst. The outcome is then thousands of "fashion designers" who only live to copy what the average person is already wearing, then reproducing it with low-cost textile manufacturing (in China, of course), reselling it in different colors to retailers, so retailers can then resell us back the same things we wore last year, at new, higher prices.

The process is a consultant's process. It is innovative. Regrettably, what it ultimately does is destroy another form of creativity. How does a fashion designer overcome this cycle? Like many creative people, you believe that going off on your own, with your own labels, looks, and business is the key. You are not mistaken.

Unfortunately, you went to school to learn to design, not run a business. You make a go at it, hoping someone will want to pay you for your fashion, but you're creative, so naturally, you don't know how to network, sell your "look", nor have the "inspiration" to try. Your thoughts are, "how can people be so blind to my brilliance?" Your subsequent impulse is to reach out to anyone you know with even an inkling of business savvy.

Unfortunately, most business people you know are party promoters or parents (but you don't listen to your parents anyway, so promoters it is). Party promoters inevitably inspire you, but steer you in every wrong direction until you finally realize that you've got to start at the bottom, working odd jobs, or even working in corporate America. Somewhere along the line, you rationalize that if you could just get a job at a big label - DKNY, Ralph Lauren, or even some new urban brand, like Sean Jean - you'll be alright.

Unfortunately (again), assuming you could even get an interview, the wages they pay just can't subsidize your own label. Hunger drives you in two directions: accept the job in corporate America or go with the urge to do your own thing. (Your gut is right, go with the latter). Contrary to popular belief, you don't actually learn anything about going off on your own by working at a label. You'll be too busy interpreting direction from brain-dead idiots, too pre-occupied with office politics, or too lulled into submission by the countless "industry functions" all your friends beg you to invite them to. Thinking you can "handle it", the choice you end up making is to pursue knowledge in corporate America.

Unfortunately (yet again), you can't continue receiving third-world wages in a first-world economy and that's when you realize that the only ones capable of paying you anything more than what you're making are faceless companies that rip off other designers for the private label programs of large department store clients. You get a "private-label" design job with the intention of quitting in a year, but after two years, you're too dependent on the fixed weekly income (like a crack-head), but worse still, you've forgotten how to be creative. The last 8 years of your life you've spent trying to achieve your dream of becoming a professional fashion designer have come true, but you're unfulfilled because you no longer have the "inspiration" for the work. Your only remaining "skill sets" are working on Illustrator and shopping, and you can't shop without money. (How long will it take Adobe to sell you out, too, and come up with a "corporate" Illustrator that runs on its own after scanning a few Vogue pages?) Thus, you continue your corporate slavery and the only way to continue living your life is by reaching out to old friends, who are also "stuck", to find solace at the sound of a bottle of Corona being opened at some crappy Irish bar.

What's around you amounts to the death of innovation in your industry. Countless of spent designers that forgot their place; that failed to realize the difference between textiles and fashion and how to make their mark. When they go home tonight, they'll hate their jobs, their lives, and their futures, and wake up the next morning proclaiming that they'll quit that day, but never do. In that cycle, they'll never realize that the first step to returning creativity to their life and industry is doing something they'd never think of doing - changing something that is impossible to change, but must be changed in order to move forward - they'll go to work and stay there.

Write to Al Berrios at editor@alberrios.com

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