Is 2019 fashion's worst year? These are the lessons we should learn from the previous turns of the decade

Just a little fashion nerdery

Text: Ryan Sng

Image: Instagram

In 2019, the public's love of fashion is increasingly tempered by frustration and anxiety over its status as polluting and exploitative industry; as a trade in which theft of ideas from minorities and independent creatives is more visible, yet more rampant than ever (hello, Diet Prada!); and as a glamorous world in which sustainability, diversity, and freedom of expression are vocally championed, but still too rarely seen in practice.

Pretty dresses — Dior Haute Couture's degradé-effect ballgown foremost among recent examples — aside, fashion's got issues, and we should start taking them way more seriously.

It got me thinking...

Is fashion at the turn of the decade always this gloomy? History is a messy tangle of events, but compartmentalising it into neat, 10-year chunks is our best hope of making sense of it all. Consequently, the 2010s' impending close can't help but feel momentous and full of uncertainty.

Dior Haute Couture fall/winter 2019

I looked to fashion at the '9s of preceding decades (2009, 1999, you get the idea) hoping for answers to the future, and found plenty of cause for both disheartenment and optimism. One could simply bombard you with every significant event from those years, but it suffices to say that every turn of the decade has marked a transition of power, either in cultural or economic terms.

If I were a rich girl...

2009 and 1929, for example, both witnessed catastrophic downturns in the global economy. Many of us have heard about the flameout of the glittering, Roaring Twenties in the face of the Great Depression. In fashion terms, this meant that floaty volumes and extravagant embellishment were out, and streamlined, fuss-free shapes were in. Similarly in '09, crazy, rich glamour of the sort depicted in Sex & The CityThe Devil Wears Prada, and Ugly Betty began to fade, making way for normcore and athleisure. Phoebe Philo's Céline debut in October of that year sent shockwaves through fashion the fashion industry for its restrained practicality.

These shifts from fashion that focused on the leisure classes — ain't nobody teetering on Manolo heels during a commute on public transport — to clothes that served the working people mirrored society's slow tilt from elitism towards populism. Case in point: right-wing politicians are gaining power all over the globe in 2019, while World War II dawned in 1939, led by fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, plus a hyper-nationalistic Japan.

Such uncertain times also effect redrawings of the fashion influence map. Europe's inaccessibility during WWII finally gave American fashion the advantage it needed to emerge from the continent's long shadow. These days, trade wars and fraught international relations are driving clothing companies to frantically shift their production bases in search of the cheapest labour; retailers, meanwhile, endlessly speculate about the next "big, untapped market" to target and adapt to.

Sometimes, it's not been world leaders pulling the strings, but industrialists instead. 1999, on first inspection, seemed pretty tranquil. Everything was comme il faut with designers like Tom Ford, John Galliano, and Miuccia Prada ably holding down the fashion fort. But behind-the-scenes, a bloody, operatic corporate battle was being waged for control of the Gucci Group between LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and François Pinault, father of Kering's current chairman François-Henri Pinault. The conglomeration of major brands throughout the '90s and 2000s indicated how hugely profitable and centralised (and by extension, cutthroat) fashion had become as a business.

According to a recent op-ed by Achim Berg and Karsten Lafrenz published in The Business of Fashion, "companies in the top 20 percent [now account] for almost all the fashion industry’s economic profit over the past decade, and polarisation is accelerating." Money and who wields it has a direct (if hard to decipher) impact on the look of fashion at any given time. If history is any indication, the purse strings are tugged at vigorously every 10-odd years or so. In 2019, this struggle may manifest chiefly as competition between luxury conglomerates and fast fashion giants, for the disposable income of an audience for whom traditional distinctions between market levels matter less and less.

That dissolution of old boundaries between designer and mass market fashion accelerated in 1989, not coincidentally the same year that Anna Wintour executed her turnaround of the then-stagnant American Vogue. Wintour's first cover for the magazine (in November 1998) notoriously paired a Christian Lacroix Haute Couture jacket with a pair of Guess blue jeans, and that high-low mixing instantly made the style bible accessible — and relevant — again.

So, have the economic austerity, global power struggles, and ruthless business interests common to previous decades conspired to make 2019 fashion's worst year? Yes and no. On one hand, there's a good reason for the increasingly common complaint that "everything looks same-y" now. The wide reach of social media has made trends measurable and propagate explosively in a way that was previously unthinkable — and trend-chasing is more appealing than ever to fashion houses of all price points as a result. Fortunately, it's also why we're increasingly aware of fashion's carbon footprint and historically unfair treatment of garment workers; whistle-blowing journalism and pressure from the public are harder to avoid thanks to technology.

Fashion in 2019 is a David and Goliath tale, with individual consumers playing David, and behemoth fashion companies playing Goliath. The consciences (and wallets) of consumers are our slingshots; we can push for change by spending our money on brands that align with our ethical and sustainable values, and by calling out corporate fashion's wrongdoings when we see them.

Cash, fortunately, isn't the only currency in fashion. As any millennial worth their salt can tell you, representation matters — and so do its gatekeepers.

Behind the velvet rope

Fashion always loves an underdog. Or at least, it loves borrowing from their style.

Around 1979, those scrappy underdogs took the form of designers such as punk godmother Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo, who were quietly preparing for their ascent to the world of high-fashion. All three would have their breakout seasons in 1981, Westwood with her Pirate collection, and the latter two with their Paris debuts.

Collectively, they rocked the fashion scene with their rejection of conventional glamour and luxury, and their early, deconstructionist vision still informs maverick designers to an extent that borders on cliché. Shock and absurdity remain powerful fashion tools in 2019, with proponents like Jeremy Scott, Demna Gvasalia, and Virgil Abloh regularly — and some would say, necessarily — forcing us to re-evaluate definitions of meaningful design, good taste, and conspicuous consumption.

Vivienne Westwood fall/winter 1981

Decades prior, the Summer of Love and anti-establishment hippie culture blossomed into the Woodstock music festival. Once again, the continuing popularity of hippie style (which went by the label 'boho' during its 2000s revival) has as much to do with bell-bottoms and DIY flower crowns as it did with the movement's sense that something was rotten in mainstream culture. 1959, too, saw an interrogation of society's prevailing tastes. Yves Saint Laurent's disastrous exit from Dior — after his landmark appointment to the house's top job at the age of 21 — and the designer's subsequent pivot towards ready-to-wear and alternative styles under his own label marked the beginning of the '60s Youthquake, where youth and disruption, instead of old money and social pedigree, became king.

2019 is experiencing similar representational shifts; a growing movement is forgoing conventional fashion in favour of slow fashion and vintage or secondhand garments, while minority creators and influencers are bypassing traditional (and traditionally exclusionary) fashion media to build their own business empires. These reactionary movements are, as ever, motivated by the conviction that 'the system' is broken and not worth engaging with. But does that mean that fashion has truly, irretrievably gone to the dogs? Perhaps so, or maybe these rejections are tough-love ultimatums to a fashion world that genuinely needs reform — most of all in the areas of sustainability and diversity — in order to be its best self.

So I asked myself, "What's the point of it all?"

As 2020 approaches, fashion's role in society is as difficult to pin down as ever. As at previous turns of the decade, everything is changing, and old assumptions aren't quite sticking the way that they used to. 2019 is far from fashion's worst year, although we do find ourselves at a turning point. Much as the world did in 1949 and 1919, when it was still reeling from the violence and division of the two World Wars; some would argue that the violence and division the world has witnessed in this past decade have been the most tumultuous since.

In those earlier years, the zeitgeist was pulsating with fear of the unknown and openness to change in equal measure. It's no surprise that their eventual fashion fruit, the Golden Age of Couture and the Roaring Twenties (have you received your annual invite to a Great Gatsby-themed wedding yet?), remain potent in the public imagination; they echoed both the sobriety of the recent past and optimism for the future. Those dual qualities are needed more than ever in fashion and culture in 2019. Who will bring it to us? Only time will tell...

Read previous Fashion Nerdery entries here.