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Material Girl 2.0: A Fashion Love Story

Material Girl 2.0: A Fashion Love Story

by Ana Wang

January 05, 2015

I once saw the quote “Choose your love. Love your choice” on Pinterest - I later found out the words were spoken by a religious leader on the topic of marriage. Still, wise is wise. I think they are sage words to live by, but caught in between post-graduation recession and the Millennial sickness dubbed the quarter-life crisis, I wondered: from where do we draw that first hint of curiosity that leads from one thing to another until one day, we want to scream, “It sure didn’t seem like a choice!” because your choice turns out, maybe wasn’t such a good one - financially, physically, emotionally. Like: when you look at the annual average salaries of people working in fashion and think things look pretty good for your prospective future - not great, but hey, this is creative, fun work we’re talking about - until you skim the comments and it appears that most people don’t think the wage you thought was normal is even livable - and then you realize you don’t even make as much as the lowest rung, and the city you live in is even evidently more expensive than New York City. Then there’s the time you go to a fancy dinner party (with non fashion folk, of course - the “fashion” people in Vancouver don’t seem to do fancy dinner parties); someone asks the dreaded “What do you do?” and you mutter something like “marketing, erm, e-commerce, and some design” - because what you learned in fashion school is so specific to fashion that you had to adapt quickly and learn a mishmash of everything just to get an entry-level job doing anything. They’ll put on their polite-getting-to-know-you-face-and-voice until you mention fashion. Then, all of a sudden it’s as if you’ve become a cartoon character, and they proceed to put on an unusually high-pitched voice (if they’re female) or ask if you have any single female friends (if they’re male).

I wish I could say that as a child my mother would take me to watch couture shows where I, entranced by the glitter and glam, would plant the seed in my own head to make the same awe-inspiring beauty one day, or that I’m the studious, responsible heiress to a fashion conglomerate, who has been studying since I knew how to read so that I may someday take over the family business.         

I wish that there was some sort of reason, that I hadn’t become by default a shallow and frivolous caricature of a person due solely to whim - but it was just one of those things. Those beautiful, inexplicable things where one thing leads to another and before you know it, you’re left wondering what happened to the rest of your life, when before you was only possibility and choice and now there is only one, all-encompassing thing from which all future possibility is now tied to. For me, that was fashion, and it may have not mattered so much to anyone else except all my life all I’ve tried to do is prove my seriousness and fashion, to most people, is anything but.

Truthfully, my obsession with fashion started when my mom with the big 80s perm, shoulder pads and a fashion sense that composes completely of pants, colourful sweaters and orthopaedic shoes, sat me down in front of Fashion Television in our home on the outskirts of Vancouver (so close I might as well have been a kid of the surburbs) - it was the only television I was interested in (my parents worried that I was reading too much - I was literally going through entire public libraries), while my siblings watched things actually created for kids like Teletubbies, Ninja Turtles and Pokemon (okay, okay - so I did go through a bit of an anime phase). 

You had me at hello, I imagine myself saying to “fashion”. It’s not hard to fall in love at age five - the Amazonian women who glided down the runway wearing gowns that I had only imagined princesses would wear, the glimpses of people and cities that I had never been to or even known of. It was all so glittery, transformative, escapist, utter wonderment to a child. Not that I had anything to escape from, but in the same way that I obsessed over Harry Potter, I was obsessed with dress-up. And when I held my Barbie doll, I didn’t grasp things about her body as adults would - I saw only her capability to become anything through a change of clothes. And yet today, without the wide-eyed naivety of childhood, I’m still in love with it: this year alone, I fell in love with the thick, good hand of the fabric on my Everlane tshirts, the long cashmere wool trench made from surplus fabrics from Reformation that makes me feel like a true (kick-ass) grown up when I wear it, and the navy silk bustier from the company I backed on Kickstarter that looks so perfect with a pair of wide leg pants.

I knew that my love for fashion didn’t make any sort of logical sense, that I was blinded by its beauty.

Except it wasn’t beautiful, always. Even to me.

On April 24, 2013, when an eight-story garment factory in the capital of Bangladesh collapsed with over 3500 workers inside, 1134 people were killed. Entire rivers in China are dyed in all shades of the rainbow by toxic chemicals that match whatever is the colour of the season. 10.5 million tons of clothing is dumped into landfills every year in America alone. And what about the ongoing child labour issues, fashion’s size and race discrimination, excessive Photoshopping, its perpetuation of body image issues, and a generally distasteful habit of making more than people could ever want or need, just because it can. If before Rana Plaza, fashion’s impact was simply back-of-mind unsettling, post-Rana Plaza, it was unavoidably and painfully somber.

Fashion perhaps has earned its reputation, and I by association had too.

In media and film, whenever a backstory is needed to establish a character as selfish, spoiled, girlish or shallow, chances are her backstory includes fashion. Fully aware of the stereotype that befalls fashion folk, I longed to get away so that I wouldn’t miss my chance on the road to success and contribution. In fashion school, after the initial excitement and novelty of finally being able to make the things I wanted to wear, I wondered: is there any point in creating even more waste? Had the innocent enough plan of following my heart based on a childhood curiosity and fascination led me astray? And there I was, thinking I was smart for following my passion earlier rather than later.

So in 2008, halfway done my degree in fashion design, I had a fantasy - an Elle Woods type fantasy where I thought long and hard about trading in fashion to pursue computer science so that I’d get taken more seriously by default. Though for me, it wasn’t my boyfriend who I wanted to impress. It was society. 

Was I shallow for appreciating a luxury? Were they right? What made someone shallow? How could I be shallow? Could I be shallow and deep? Could I appreciate beauty and intelligence? Could fashion be both? If it wasn’t, could it evolve? Can something be both inherently material and meaningful?

I thought back to my grandma, who made her own clothes, had them custom tailored, or bought extremely selectively - she treasured everything she had. She was a painter with an artist’s eye - but she didn’t carry that appreciation for beauty in a way that seemed frivolous - shopping was not a sport, it was an exercise of sensibility and reverence. My grandmother and I are alike - but whereas I have to fight to be that person, it came second nature to her: she was born in a different era, one where people had fewer than 1/5 the clothes they have today.

I thought about history - how all social movements, all signs of change forward - could not have happened without fashion as both a visual and practical expression of society. In the earlier part of the 20th century, a group of women (and select men) started making clothes without corsets - long a fashion standard, a method towards beauty and a symbol of female oppression. Among those women was Coco Chanel, who is often credited with liberating the female form. The truth is, she wasn’t the only one doing away with them, just the most well-known. Today, Chelsea and Miley are making a case for freeing the nipple, which may just be the last frontier when it comes to clothing as oppression (or will we soon be campaigning for nudity as freedom of self expression?). There’s really not much else we can do when it comes to provocation and liberation - we’ve at this point, really done it all, seen it all, been shocked by it all.

In fashion, if there’s one thing that a lot of people think about, it can generally be summed up by the question of “What’s next?”. And the answer to all my questions, I discovered, lay in that one.

I eventually decided against spending my days coding, working on a computer (ironically, that’s what I spend most my time doing now) when I logically decided that it’s much more fun to over deliver on people’s expectations - beneath that I knew, I was still in love. And I wasn’t giving up. 

Fashion is this thing where nobody really knows where trends are made - they’ll say things like designers create trends, and then things like the streets create them. Then you have trend forecasters, bloggers, celebrities, and it’s obvious that nobody really creates anything because everyone is creating everything. What’s next is simply what’s next not out of dictation, but of co-creation. Trends aren’t made until they’re adapted. Trends aren’t adapted until there is desire attached - desire for a new silhouette, for a new colour, for a new philosophy of living, also known as a lifestyle. We must tire of trends before new trends can take their place. And we tire of trends when - to put it bluntly - we feel like it.

We create the world we live in, and we decide what fashion means.

One thing’s for sure: Trends never, ever last - both the macro and the micro, the movements and the fads, the big things and the small. Never, ever, ever - because humanity is fickle and we are always moving forward even when it feels like we’re moving back. We always choose to change things. 

If I didn’t really have a choice then, I know that I still have a choice now to choose what’s next for me. Likewise, our choice is to always be moving forward, as our collective whims dictate. Things will never stay the same.

I’ve come to know that curiosity never did kill the cat - it freed it, and even though there have been many ups and downs as there should be with any relationship, I’m proud to declare that these many years later, I am a material girl, still in love with fashion - just like Imran Amed, founder of Business of Fashion and former management consultant, who said “I do think that we need to spend less time focusing on building huge businesses, and more time focusing on building great, sustainable businesses”; just like the late Oscar de la Renta, who ultimately believed that luxury was not defined by price, taste or even quality - but in something very human: appreciation; just like Stella McCartney, who has been steadily increasing her use of sustainable and ethical practices each season, while retaining her long-time philosophy of making beautiful clothes that last and make people feel good.

Perhaps the 21st century version of this Material Girl isn’t the same one Madonna harked about in her 1984 classic - during an era where fashion and the ability to consume and buy was a symbol of independence and power for which women were flocking to in the masses for likely the first time in history. It’s not the material girl that is informing popular culture today: the Elle Woods, the Cher Horowitz, and the girl Isla Fisher plays from the Shopaholic novels who I can’t remember the name of - whereby fashion is portrayed as a flighty pursuit for people of little substance, or the embarrassing past history of someone who traded in stilettos and handbags for more serious things, like I once dreamed about doing (forget the stilettos though - just give me a pair of Nikes. Has anyone designed a really great, comfy stiletto yet? I’m looking.)

Now that we have pushed through so many of the things that we have once perhaps never even dreamed possible in less than a span of a hundred years, it is time for something more. A new kind of freedom. A new material girl. A new way to derive meaning and pleasure from the clothes we put on our backs.

Sometimes we forget how small we really are in the universe, how the things that fill up our entire lives are only tiny specks in humanity’s history. And we also gravely underestimate how much power we each have to make a profound difference with each choice we make.

What we know and perceive about materialism today is only an anomaly, a short blip in our collective history. Fashion has always been conscious - even now, consider that we are consciously choosing quantity over quality, disposability over all else. For a time, that blip was a very good thing - the novelty of our ability to create like never before, to dispose like never before, to consume like never before - was exactly what we needed then. Fast fashion was freedom. It was the guy with the motorbike and the leather jacket, who promises you to take you off into the sunset - which he does, but when you come down on the other side of the hill, you realize he really should belong in the summer fling category.

It’s time to seek new freedom through transparency, integrity and quality. It is time to move on, to say - thanks fast fashion, thanks overconsumption, thanks cult of consumerism, you’ve been swell, but time to let go. And come back to the truth, that fashion is and always has been about two things: who we are and who we want to be. 

And I think you and I can do so much better.

We have so much to give, so much to offer, so much that we can do together. There has never been a more collaborative, entrepreneurial spirit and for whomever has it in them to create something better, the world’s never been a bigger and more beautiful oyster.

I can’t wait to see what fashion holds for humanity in the future (or is it what humanity holds for fashion?), and as I understand it, it will be glittery still, for us wide-eyed dreamers to love and behold once again.

So I hold out my hand to my long time love, fashion, and say: You’re mine, babe, forever and always - let’s show them what we’re really made of. 

(Thanks, mom, for sitting me down in front of FT.)

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