“Young people should not be afraid to kick up a fuss.” Wise words with which Raf Simons closed Fashion Talks 2019 and which perfectly summed up the spirit of the day.
On Thursday, 21 November, the third edition of Fashion Talks, a biennial conference that focuses on the fashion industry, was held in Antwerp’s recently-renovated Handelsbeurs (Stock Exchange). A highly symbolic place to discuss the future of the fashion industry as this is where Antwerp’s economic boom started many centuries ago. A building that was used for several purposes throughout the centuries and was recently restored to its former glory after the necessary crises. The parallel with the fashion world, an industry that is undergoing a major transformation, is easy to see. Themes such as identity, authenticity and sustainability were very present during the plenary on-stage panel discussions and during the various Talk With The Industry networking opportunities, as well as during the break-out talks that explored the potential and challenges of new retail concepts, influencer marketing, product design and digital luxury branding.
On-stage Professor Jonathan Holslag set the ball rolling with an introduction about the impact of the current geopolitical and economic developments on both the creative industry and society at large. The slowdown of economic growth, armed conflicts, the power switch to the East and the pressing climate issue all have consequences for our mental health, or so it seems. This growing unease is pushing people to adopt protectionist measures and a defeatist ‘every man for himself’ policy. Don’t, says Holslag, who believes in the potential of creativity to help society as a whole recover. He is convinced that businesses are a cornerstone of our society, making it stronger, just like the Stock Exchange did for Antwerp so many centuries ago. But above all, the fashion industry must continue to make beautiful things, educate people about them, reinvent itself and never lose the drive to keep moving forward. Kick up a fuss or continue to do so in other words, but how? A series of guest speakers explained how to go about this.
At Essentiel, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, this means focussing on identity more than ever, although this was not always the case in the past. Tom De Poortere and Inge Onsea, the creative minds behind the label, remembered how the company’s biggest crisis, just five years after its start-up, was largely caused by a lack of DNA: “If you don’t understand what you stand for and who you are, you will soon lose yourself in this world and end up making a bad product.” Since then, Essentiel’s iron-clad DNA has served as the guiding principle in everything the company does: from the brick & mortar stores (“we continue to believe in shops as important branding tools”) and the designs themselves (“we used to create a basic collection with a more fashion-forward icing on the cake here and there, but now we only make the cherry cake”) to online storytelling (“people want to know who is behind a brand: who is that brand and who makes it?”).
The message was very similar during the panel discussion on cultural credibility between Y/Project designer Glenn Martens, Platform13 founder Leila Fatal, MACHINE-A and SHOWstudios’ Stavros Karelis and Highsnobiety’s editor-at-large Christopher Morency. In an increasingly uncertain world, the public wants strong brands with which it can identify, i.e., labels that have this highly-coveted social credibility. Large chains only focus on this issue for a few seasons, whereas this is engrained in the DNA of streetwear brands. “In view of our great impact on society, it is more than ever our responsibility to initiate a discussion”, says Martens. The idea is to develop a new business model that helps customers to consume better rather than buying and producing more and more. Brands are becoming more important than the products alone and must create added value for society. By making space in their stores for new labels, for example, or by constantly challenging collab partners to push their boundaries (like Adidas does with Stella McCartney), by joining forces with development-focused NGOs or even with transparent communication about sustainability. “At the end of the day, you want your clothes to have started a conversation.”
Another urgent conversation is the one about sustainability, although it does not cover the reality of the situation. “The word sustainability means something different to all of us, there is neither one voice nor one message, it is not a black and white discussion”, according to Close The Loop founder Jasmien Wynants. The detrimental impact of the fashion industry on the climate is, however, blatantly clear. Together with local companies, Wynants is now exploring ways to improve things step by step, from the decisions that are made during the design process to innovative business models that reinvent the traditional models of consumer behaviour. She also discussed greenwashing, and the legitimate fear of evolving companies that they may be accused of it. The only good response in this case is honest communication and transparency. It is not just about who you are and what you produce, but also about finding out what you are already doing well and where there is room for improvement. And that’s how we come full circle, back to where we started with cultural credibility.
As already mentioned, Raf Simons, who is equally famous for his ground-breaking designs as his extreme sense of independence, gave the closing talk. He thinks that the designer’s job is first and foremost to create beauty and desire and to engage in a non-verbal dialogue based on his or her designs. Nowadays, he feels that the content of this dialogue is somehow lacking. Branding for the sake of branding, empty sales pitches and, above all, the tyranny of sales figures have led to ready-made, one-size-fits-all designs. Designers need the space to develop their creativity to the fullest, which is why he encourages the young generation to colour outside the lines: “Be yourself, don’t be afraid to challenge the system, because fashion loves change! There are not enough new ideas and there is a general lack of creative competition. Established values must be challenged: this forces us to fight and that is precisely what keeps the fashion industry alive.”
A message that Dirk Van Saene echoed. During the Belgian Fashion Awards, the designer was presented with an award along with Christian Wijnants (Designer of the Year), Pierre Debusschere (Professional of the Year) and Sofie D’Hoore and Chantal Spaas (Entrepreneur of the Year). He received the Jury Prize for his career and had only one tip for those who want to follow in his footsteps: “When I first started out, I was naive and a bit reckless, essentially just messing around, but look where it brought me. We need more of these naive souls, people who prefer to “do” fashion in their own way and who challenge the established order.” Some great advice that resonated with Antwerp-based Namacheko, the Emerging Talent of the Year. This men’s label is run by Dilan and Lezar Lurr, who were born in Iraq, raised in Sweden and now work in Antwerp. Two years ago their breakthrough came with a bridal wear-inspired collection, which combined their Kurdish and European heritage. They don’t seem naive, but they do ‘do’ fashion in their own, colourful way. And thus the Fashion Talks ended on a hopeful note, with the intention of kicking up a great fuss in the very near future.