Opinion: Fashion Industry’s Creative Expression is Impeded by a Broken Ecosystem

The realities of the fashion industry’s creative expression and the realisation of a designer’s true potential is far from ideal.

Jul 05, 2024 | By Larissa Fay Wong
Photo: Financial Times

An ecosystem is a complex system of interacting organisms that interconnect to restore environmental balance. That being said, if one component of of the ecosystem does not fulfil its role, it disturbs the culmination of all the system’s moving parts and changes it altogether. When put into the perspective of the fashion industry, designers’ creative expression and ideas are the key to maintaining the prominence of fashion as we know it today.

Why is it so important? It could be argued that fashion is just clothing, however, it goes much deeper than what meets the eye. The outfits we wear are in fact, conscious decisions we make everyday to express our personality and present ourselves in a particular manner. This is where we see the significance of creativity in the fashion world; it provides innovation, new ideas, and approaches that allow one to express an individual’s unique identity — all a result of a designer’s work.

Fresh off Haute Couture Fall 2024 Week, some of the most show-stopping and extravagant designs gracing the runways have been seen. While they are visually stunning, extremism and luxury do not equate to creativity. Thus, little newness in the fashion industry is observed today. Even with Haute Couture pieces, designers look back at a House’s archives to pay homage to an establishment with such a rich history. While this has its advantages, the frequency at which the industry has come across designs which can be described as “never seen before” or “revolutionary” has declined, especially in the 2020s.

This is due to impeding factors like financial restraints, enduring house codes, and a designers’ desire to progress in a prominent fashion house. These challenging setbacks in an ultra-competitive industry are a cog in the fashion machine’s wheel that disrupts the ecosystem’s balance and impedes creative expression.

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Financial Restraints

Photo: Ph5

For a young designer’s work to be recognised in the world of fashion, they must strike a balance between business insight and creativity. For a design to make its way into the closets of consumers, numerous processes need to be carried out after product design — including purchasing fabrics, manufacturing, packaging and exporting, amongst many others. All of which require sufficient financial resources. Although the process of developing a design to reach the hands of consumers is a challenging feat, it, unfortunately, does not promise success or revenue that may allow them to break even.

The factors that contribute to a designer’s significance in the industry are dictated by brand awareness and brand identity — factors that allow them reach an expanded audience of potential consumers. Hence, young designers hold runway shows to get their name on the map and to establish their brands. Runway shows have always been a hallmark of success for a small independent brand and an influential catalyst for growth in the industry. By using runway shows as an outlet, brand identity can be reinforced and brand awareness can be broadened by inviting key players in the industry — who aid in publicising and marketing a brand through press coverage on publications and social media. Given that these shows are curated and styled meticulously to adhere to the aesthetics and portray a designer’s narrative, this also aids in marketing the collection to a more targeted audience in hopes of stimulating sales.

Photo: Avavav

Developing and financing a runway show typically comes with a cost of at least six figures to pay for fundamental departments of a show — including venue, models, hair and makeup, amongst numerous other facets of a high-profile event. The financial implications are too significant for a small business that is already strapped for cash, in addition to marketing and manufacturing costs. It is also worth noting that for UK-based designers, Brexit has made it exponentially more challenging for them to cope with financial difficulties due to elevated costs of manufacturing and exporting within Europe. Prominent fashion houses also use runway shows as marketing tools, making use of advantages like recognisable names, famous supermodels and extravagant venues to garner media attention. Thus, due to financial restraints, young designers cannot stage a show to garner as much public attention as renowned fashion houses, leading them to be overshadowed. This results in their designs not being recognised due to insufficient finances and time to nurture creativity.

Read more: The Evolution of Fashion Designers to Creative Directors

Referential Work

Photo: Fashionista

Referential work is undoubtedly important in the fashion world, the Business of Fashion even asserts that the “study of history is imperative for a successful career in fashion”. Referential work inspired by archival looks is especially prevalent in prominent houses that possess enduring house codes and a rich history. Designers like Maria Grazia Chiuri, Miuccia Prada and Daniel Roseberry are frequenters of referential designs, reworking the creations inspired by archival collections to honour the house’s heritage or pay homage to an iconic figure in fashion. The renowned designers execute their referential work in meaningful ways to showcase their respect for an influential figure, given the endless pool of designers and collections to draw inspiration from. This is done by displaying tangible examples of how these figures have paved new paths for fashion.

However, we have been seeing less frequent creations that are totally unfamiliar and revolutionary to the industry. Take Christian Dior’s “Junon” dress for example, a dress that was originally created in 1949 and became famous for his innovative execution of intricate beading and embroidery that emulated the beauty and appearance of peacock feathers. This dress was later remade by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior ambassador Natalie Portman. Another notable example is Daniel Roseberry’s ode to the artistry and creativity of Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali through the lobster motif that made frequent appearances in his Spring 2024 show. While the creations are works of art, it is nothing new. Thus, designers’ love for drawing inspiration from fashion pioneers has impeded creativity and new contributions to the fashion world today.

Photo: Valentino

Conversely, there are designers that have breathed new life into houses and have taken a leap of faith in modernising the image of a house, like Daniel Lee for Bottega Veneta and Alessandro Michele’s new work for Valentino. These designers had reworked the distinct characteristics of a brand’s DNA and modernised it to appeal to a younger audience, by contributing their artistic flair. It could be argued that these are examples of the total creative freedom, given that these designers have reworked house staples.

While that is partly true, these are also instances in which we see the restricting nature of enduring house codes imparted on the creative expression of the designers. Fundamental factors like commercial success and the targeted consumer demographic have to be considered when creating new collections. Thus, designers must implement a brand’s most distinctive features and partly adhere to an established DNA to achieve these goals. That being said, due to the importance of brand identity and enduring house codes, these factors may limit the creative freedom and expression of a talented designer without an eponymous label.

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Shifting Focus

Raf Simons

When working for a prominent fashion house, success and power come as a package deal for a designer attached to the house. Given that these brands are well-established, is it reasonable to see why designers prioritise and shift their focus to work with an entity that has experienced quantifiable global success, prominence and power of a name. It is also especially compelling as these brands have reached elevated credibility to a point where its name that is instantly recognisable. Additionally, the industry immediately takes the talents working under big fashion houses more seriously as the association significantly elevates the position and perception of an individual.

Some of the designers we know and love today have chosen to close or depart from their own labels to focus on the vision they have with well-known fashion houses. We have seen this with Kris Van Assche’s closure of his own label, KRISVANASSCHE, to fulfil his desire to solely focus on his role at Dior Homme as creative director. Prada’s co-creative director Raf Simons with his namesake brand and Balenciaga’s Demna with Vetements, both of whom decided to leave their own labels to enable them to expand their horizons under a prominent fashion house.

Despite the massive success of these designers’ eponymous labels, shifting focus onto progressing with big fashion houses has in fact, elevated their status in the industry and relieved them of the stressors and challenges that comes with running their own atelier. Nevertheless, while being attached to prominent houses come with many perks, these designers opted to prioritise guaranteed growth at the cost of their total creative freedom. The reality of it is that adhering to well-known house codes and strong design aesthetics is essential to stay true to the essence and core values of a brand. Conversely, while these factors are beneficial for the houses, the unofficial criteria hinders the true creative expression of a designer.

With all these points considered, while the fashion industry’s ecosystem has impeded the creative expression of the world’s designers and hindered the true capabilities of the revolving door full of talented young designers, this is the harsh reality of the industry. At the end of the day, just like everyone else, designers need to make a living and establish a reputation. Thus, adhering to strong house codes and prioritising work with renowned houses is a reasonable journey to choose, to ensure career progression and elevated status in such a competitive industry.

To truly embrace the untapped talent and encourage the growth of young designers in their journey of self-expression and creative freedom, the industry must incorporate more support networks such as grants and mentorships to alleviate financial burdens and invest in fashion’s future.

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