As an Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion I am developing my knowledge of and interest in academic fashion discourses. Fashion discourse is extremely varied and fashion theorists borrow from many other theoretical areas, many of which I am familiar with from my own work in cultural studies and visual theory. My great weakness is my engagement with the discourses of fashion business, perhaps because it often seems at great odds with the kinds of critical discourses and practices my own work is embedded in. I recognise this as a weakness, particularly when I am responsible for the learning of students who religiously follow the latest collections at the various fashion weeks, know about new designers and curate and commodify their fashion selves on Instagram. Helpfully the Business of Fashion Digest enables me to have a little knowledge about the machinations of the global fashion system as well as providing fuel for critical debate. In today’s digest alongside the usual information about the profitability of Burberry and Hermès and an interview with someone who says there are no more subcultures there is a section dedicated to the future of the fashion store.
According to B. Joseph Pine II (2016) in the experience economy stores need to deliver “memorable events that engage each individual in an inherently personal way”. He argues that in the digital economy consumers are driven by price, therefore only online and hypermarket style ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ retail can survive. If stores cannot compete on price then they must deliver experiences. Pine also writes about ‘omnichannel’ approaches to marketing and retail, 3D printing and augmented reality being the future of fashion retailing. Similarly, Kate Abnett (2016) writes, “Shopping in stores must either be as cheap and convenient as buying from Amazon, or entertaining — offering memorable experiences that can’t be replicated online.” Abnett and Pine explain how omnichannel marketing and retail are also a challenge to brands. Competing for attention and visibility in consumers’ crowded digital lives isn’t easy
Whilst this isn’t news (these discussions have been around for some time within and without academia) what is significant about this, and other mainstream fashion discourse in general is its focus on luxury and high-end brands and retailing when discussing the ‘store of the future’. Mainstream fashion discourses are obsessed with luxury brands that most cannot afford and therefore never buy. Similarly mainstream discourse around fashion cities, even new ones, also focuses on high-end retail (see for example Leach, 2015) that have very little to do with the ordinary streets of metropolitan areas, even if they fall within a ‘fashion capital’. The kind of fashion retail and consumption I am exploring in my project is ignored by mainstream, business-oriented fashion discourse. It is not ‘street’ fashion and it is unlikely to ‘bubble-up’ into the consciousness of designers and fashion image-makers or on to the runway. It is also not a marketed attempt at an authentic ‘real’ fashion. That is not to say it is non-fashion or anti-fashion. The garments sold in Wood Green independent fashion stores are subject to many of the same design, manufacturing and exporting processes as others (more on this in another post). The designers and/or manufacturers still respond to or speculate on consumer desire. Customers care about their appearances and carefully select garments using complex criteria.
My video project The Brand Nobody Knows will be shown at the 8th Art of Management and Organization Conference at the IEDC Bled School of Management in September this year. The theme of the conference is the Intangible and the strand in which I am presenting the film is called Fashion Futures. How are these themes expressed in the work and how have they informed it?
I posit that Wood Green High Road, as one of London’s super-diverse metropolitan centres, represents the last iteration of the British high street as we have known it. This has been marked by the recent closure of mid-level fashion brands (M&S, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Topshop) and the rise of the independent budget fashion store and multiple occupancy stores or ‘mutualisms’ (one store containing multiple independent retailers). Independent retailers struggle to survive but they do so by adaptation, reflexivity and cross-cultural cooperation. This is a high street that is serviced by and caters to a super-diverse population of a lower social economic class. Perhaps Wood Green High Road in the incarnation presented in my project is a pre-ruin, the end of days for an urban poor priced out by mega-rents and the high cost of living. Alternatively, perhaps it is a portent of a further stratified fashion and retail sector to come? Luxury brands will continue to inhabit our minds through ever more clever and personalized marketing, mid-level brands will continue to flee lower-end high streets, offer shopping ‘experiences’ and invest in flagship stores or stores that function as e-commerce showrooms. Wood Green and streets like it will become zones for un-hip pop-ups, quickly fitted out stores selling inexpensive products and garments where branding is an afterthought, experience something that just happens and where external communications are limited to external store signage. With no web-presence, brand story or advertising campaigns consumers must act on their own creativity, create their own stories and invest products with their own images.
Brands constitute the ultimate in intangibility whereby consumers buy into the stories, images and affects that have been carefully constructed by marketers rather than the products themselves. The symbolic and exchange values of a luxury branded product often outweigh its use value. Perhaps the kind of retail and consumption practices and environments presented by stores in Wood Green can repair the link between object and its use value. Perhaps they have the potential to resist dominant fashion ideologies, the commodification of self and the continuing intrusions of brands into one’s consciousness.
List of Works Cited
Abnett, K. (2016) ‘The store of the future’ in Business of Fashion, [online] Available at https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/voices/discussions/what-will-the-store-of-the-future-look-like/the-store-of-the-future (Accessed 14 July 2016)
Leach, A. (2015) ‘The 15 most important cities in fashion right now’ in Highsnobiety [online] available at http://www.highsnobiety.com/2015/08/24/fashion-capital-list/ (Accessed 14 July 2016)
Pine II, B.J. (2016) ‘Stage experiences or go extinct’ in Business of Fashion, [online] Available at https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/voices/discussions/what-will-the-store-of-the-future-look-like/op-ed-stage-experiences-or-go-extinct (Accessed 14 July 2016)