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Searching for the New Luxury?

State of Fashion:

Searching for the New Luxury


In the last few years, it has often been said that the current fashion system is outdated, still operating by a twentieth-century model that celebrates the individualism of the ‘star designer’. In I-D, Sarah Mower[1] recently stated that for the last twenty years, fashion has been at a cocktail party and has completely lost any connection with the public and daily life. On the one hand, designers and big brands experience the enormous pressure to produce new collections at an ever higher pace, leaving less room for reflection, contemplation, and innovation. On the other hand, there is the continuous race to produce at even lower costs and implement more rapid life cycles, resulting in disastrous consequences for society and the environment.

New Imaginations and Reshaping Aesthetics

There is a definite need for fashion to become relevant and resilient again, and to take itself seriously—not only by producing clothes in a circular and socially responsible way, but also by using its power to envisage a better world. Fashion as a discipline should build on its strengths and use its groundbreaking and seductive power to redefine what beauty, luxury, and seduction entail in the twenty-first century. The younger generation of fashion designers in particular is operating from a new and engaged vision. Aware of social and environmental issues and the failures of the current fashion system, they are fundamentally rethinking and redefining the fashion system by implementing new values and new imaginations using an embodied practice as an activistic tool.

Sustainable pioneer Stella McCartney recently launched a campaign by Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen—on show at State of Fashion[2]—which forms the cornerstone of a new visual identity and concept imagined for Stella McCartney’s work in sustainability.[3] The film conveys the symbiotic nature of humans, nature, and animals, and explores the idea that to fully protect and care for ourselves, we must also nurture the world we live in, as we are one and the same. The words of Maria Barnas’s poem ‘To Nurture, To Nature’—conceived specially for the project—are recited over the film. Sassen’s work spans art and fashion, demonstrating ideas about abstraction and objects in relation to their often incongruous surroundings. Through Sassen’s abstract visual language, Stella McCartney finds a new and exciting way to engage in the conversa­tion surrounding sustainability perfectly illustrates this cutting-edge sense and imagination.

The classical luxurious dream of fashion—the world of Hollywood glamour, the elegance of La Parisienne and the fashion magazine—are outdated and urgently need to be replaced by a different visual language that underlines and expresses the values of the Millenial generation, who constitute 30% of the current work population worldwide. Their lifestyle—using a bicycle instead of owning a car, preferring a ‘shared economy’ over property and possession, and being environmentally aware—makes them conscious consumers. Besides, they work remotely, re-defining the traditional functions of a home, an office, and a café and making the current boundaries between public and private disappear.[4] These completely fresh lifestyles and values are definitely transforming the representation and visual language of the fashion system, which has for a long time been recycling the same retro-trends over and over again. What’s more, the straitjacket of young, slim, white, and rich, ideal men and women is about to be replaced by a more open and inclusive aesthetic which celebrates nature, abstract environments, and new ideals of gender and people.

Newcomers with a non-western background especially are purposefully breaking the conventional values and notions of the dominant Western fashion history and its intertwinement with movements such as conceptualism, modernism, or postmodernism. In doing so, they do not so much express the tradition from which they come[5] as the path they take between that tradition and the various contexts they traverse. They do this by performing acts of transition.[6] In particular, brands such as 11.11/eleven eleven and Button Masala (both from India), Rafael Kouto (Switzerland), and Osklen (Brazil) are able to create attractive, different imaginations by shaping new and more responsible, socially connected worlds without referencing conventional, ephemeral, and glamourous Western fashion history. For them, imagination represents, in terms of Appadurai, an organized field of social practice, a form of work—in the sense of both labour and culturally organized practice.[7]

Combining Chinese and English backgrounds, award-winning fashion designers VIN + OMI perfectly illustrate the new hybrid and activist designer exploring these acts of transition. They see their company not as a fashion brand but as an ideology.The illustrious duo from London rose to fame with their innovative super luxury materials made from recycled plastic. Whilst dressing Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, and Blondie, they primarily focus on the development of a range of sustainable textiles that are unique to the market that they use in their collections. Until now, they have produced and patented 12 unique fabrics. The origins of each fabric has a social programme built around it. For example, areas of river or ocean in need of clean up from plastic waste are identified, and VIN + OMI initiate a clean up project to collect the plastic which is then turned into rPET fabric. A percentage of the textile produced is then turned into fashion clothing or accessories and the proceeds are donated back to the clean up project or community. Imagination is no longer employed only as a materialised fantasy, as a form of escapism, or as a reflection of another world­—instead, it is underpinned by a political agenda.

Inspired by new technology, the visionary work of Iris van Herpen, Yuima Nakazato, and Threeasfour also performs these acts of transitions by exploring wonderful, novel worlds with poetic images, innovative imaginations, groundbreaking experiences, and brand new products. They are able to create attractive and original imaginations shaping new worlds and innovative products without referencing the conventional glamorous fashion trends.

New Business Models

There are many more levels to changing the multi-faceted fashion system. Digitalization, for example, has linked the world in terms of communications, but the world has also become even more ‘horizontal’ in the field of production. Uber and Airbnb are two of the best-known examples of a ‘sharing economy’ in which an online platform enables a direct relationship between consumer and supplier, making intermediaries redundant (though their consequences are by no means only positive). In the fashion chain, where retail is already under considerable pressure, this kind of platform offers many advantages. Maven Women, for example, is an online clothing company that designs, manufactures, and releases new products with the help of a worldwide community of members. Members co-design and crowdfund the designs into existence within a matter of weeks. This new system helps the fashion system transform from a push market (40% is not sold) into a made to measure market—saving up to 30% of the costs.[8] Business models like these are going make the fashion chain far more sustainable, since clothes will be made strictly according to demand and on a much more locally produced basis.[9] Moreover, every step in the production process—from the drawing board to the end product—will soon be linked digitally to machines and people. 3D scanning allows collections to be made exactly to size and produced locally where the order was made, which encourages new assembly methods.[10] All these technologies are slowly radically transforming the fashion system, which is still operating according to a twentieth-century industrial model. Biannual collections, big investments, and a compulsory catwalk show will no longer be conditions for a successful fashion business. The growing interest in sustainability and circular thinking will certainly help the development of a wide range of new business models, such as lease concepts, upcycling, and a circular approach underpinned by new digital manufacturing possibilities.[11]

The Product and the Maker in the Spotlight

Another advantage of a more direct and transparent relationship between consumer and product is the decline of the power of brands as artificial dream sellers. The Internet has made it possible to make all the layers within the production chain visible. Honest By, created by award-winning designer Bruno Pieters in 2010, was, for example, the very first to adopt a 100% transparency policy sharing the entire cost breakdown of its products. In order to enable the customers to make the most informed choices, Honest By provides a platform in which shows design processes and shares information related to supplier and production processes.[12] This allows consumers to consume more consciously and sustainably, and, in addition, it creates a more horizontal relationship between consumers and producers, bringing professionals and craftsmanship into focus.

NGOs such as the Fashion Ethical Initiative and Fashion4Freedom bring worldwide craftsmanship and heritage into focus by using economic justice and human dignity as part of the conversation on fashion about fashion:

At the heart of what we do is a shifting the paradigm from AID vs TRADE to a model of AID+TRADE built with design-think proving the results to be more sustainable, more meaningful, and economically driven. This is certainly a heavy subject more so than the subject of fashion or culture itself; but fashion can sustain culture and culture can be easily helped or destroyed by economic progress. (Fashion4Freedom)[13]

For example, Fashion4Freedom acquired precious metal mined from old technology—including discarded phones,computers, and tablets(fifty million tonnes of electronic waste is produced yearly)—to create the Data min’d collection with local craftsmans in Vietnam. The Koi fish was chosen as a visualization of the struggle to swim through a massive invasion of human ‘stuff’ scattered in the environment. This is yet another example revealing a shift from the ‘star designer’ to the value of the garment itself and the crafts and professionals behind it.

Fashion Design for a Better World

It is also important to open up the scope of fashion by regarding the discipline not only as a field of production or as a market but also using its design capability to fully shape socio-cultural contributions. For too long, innovations in fashion have been led primarily by functional and economic driving forces, whereby the last business innovation—fast fashion—has made fashion the second most polluting industry and detached it from its socio-cultural role of criticism, condemnation, protest, and progressivism that it had in the twentieth century.[14] By embracing a more collaborative, cooperative, and project-based approach, fashion can actively contribute to building social communities and better lives.

Since the Fashion industry is operating worldwide, its scope and reach offer the industry the opportunity to take responsibility and make a significant difference. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Zegna have already shown how fashion is able to contribute directly to a better world—not only by producing in a socially responsible manner but also by applying its influence to directly create better living environments and communities. Vivienne Westwood is one of the Ethical Fashion Initiative’s first partners. As part of the initiative, she developed her ‘Handmade with Love’ collection that was produced in the Kibera slum in Nairobi using recycled canvas, reused roadside banners, unused leather offcuts, and recycled brass.[15] Instead of training the community in the traditional Western craft skills needed for bag making, she explored and built on the traditional craft skills of this community, respecting the cultural heritage of country where she produces, which is unique.

For his accessories, Oskar Metsavaht, founder of the Brazilian luxury label Osklen (1989), uses the skin of the Pirarucu from the Amazon, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. The hides are usually thrown away as trash, but Metsavaht started working with farmers to safely grow the fish, protect the Amazon, and support the local population.[16]

New Interdisciplinary Approaches

In order to solve our current extremely complicated environmental issues and find solutions for a more resilient, fair, and hospitable life for the world population, we need all disciplines—science, social science, and design—to work together in building a far more resilient, inclusive, and fair future. Fashion needs to play its part by shifting its priorities from a focus on fashion as something that is primarily ephemeral towards a much more resilient product development that contributes to big societal change and reflects new values.

The merger of technical science and fashion is a prerequisite for creating a more sustainable future. Material experiments can lead to new opportunities, shapes, and functions for fashion, challenging the status quo. New materials made from algae, fruit residue, and other celluloses may still seem futuristic, but Orange Fiber and AlgaeFibre,[17] for example, show how new scientific technologies are already leading to new design applications.

It is also essential to redefine the parameters of fashion and its scope. With ‘FOOTWEAR BEYOND THE FOOT: Extensions of Being’ (2017), Katherine Walsh, for example, redefines the parameters of footwear while encompassing designs that attach to a lower limb—regardless of that limb’s characteristics—and explores what kind of effect such designs have on psychological well-being. The collection, which includes products for amputated lower-limbs and the non-amputated foot, aims to create both new images of the human body and more empathetic relationships with it. [18] Research into practices of the prosthetics industry and into experiences some amputees face after amputation led to a focus on designs that encourage interactions relating to clinical research findings, interview responses, or medical techniques. The project advances our well-being by promoting emotional intelligence and showcases the potential for design to support a person beyond their physicality. Instead of focusing on the next trend and next ephemeral glamorous dream, the future fashion designer needs to take a much more inclusive and personal approach that engages with real people and their struggles in life. Finally, these innovations make us question the skills the designer of the future might need. Do we need to re-think our fashion education system? Will the next ‘star-designer’ be a couturier, a scientist, a psychologist, a philosopher, or a smart hybrid?


For more than a century, fashion was very much about the new, where the new meant that it was in tune with and demonstrated the zeitgeist. But now, the fashion system has sped up the fashion cycle. There is an overload of new products, which has not only resulted in enormous overproduction and waste but has also leds to trends becoming meaningless.

Therefore, we will have to move towards a new meaningful fashion system in which the product is no longer outdated as soon as it has been launched on a catwalk, but rather that it gains more value during its lifecycle. As such, the value of new (as the repetition of the same but different)[19] has to be replaced by the value of innovation[20], materialised in digitally innovative products, the value of ethics shown in transparent and traceable products, and the value of authenticity embodied in, according to Bourriaud, “cultural embedded stories not so much expressing the tradition from which they come, as the path they take between that tradition and the various contexts they traverse, by performing acts of transition.”[21] By reflecting on these challenges and new values of the current timeperiod, fashion as a cultural phenomenon will start to become relevant and meaningful again.


[1] back-and-think-about-whats-relevant
[5] Teunissen, Jose, “On the globalisation of Fashion” in: Brand, Jan, Teunissen, Jose’ Global Fashion, Local Tradition’ in: Global Fashion Local Tradition. Warnsveld Terra, 2005. Pp 8-23. Teunissen, Jose, “Fashion Odyssey. The Search for new values and practices in Fashion” in: Brand, Jan and Teunissen, Jose (eds) A Fashion Odyssey. Arnhem 2011:157-177), Fukai, Akiko, “Japan and Fashion”, in : Brand, Jan and Teunissen Jose (ed) The Power of Fashion, Arnhem 2006:288-314).
[6] Bourriaud, Nicolas The Radicant,New York 2009, pp. 51-51.
[7] Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large, Minneapolis 1996, p.3-5.
[8] p. 128.
[9] Teunissen, van Zijverden. Fashion Data, HNI Rotterdam, 2015. /maschavanzijverden/docs/fashiondata_hetnieuweinstituut_teun.
[10] Achim Berg, et al., Digitization: The Next Stop for the Apparel-Sourcing Caravan, McKinsey, 2017.
[11] A New Textile Economy, Dr. Sven Hermann, Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2017.
[14] Éloi Laurent, Our Economic Myths. Paris, Les liens qui liberent. 2016
[16], pp. 102-09.
[17], pp. 178.
[19] Barthes, Roland, Systeme de la Mode. Parijs, 1967. Pp 282-287.
[20] ‘Innovation’ often refers to an invention; however, I am using the term ‘innovation’ to refer to a set of practical implementations and new imaginations reflecting novel values that have a meaningful impact on society and on the fashion system market.
[21] (Bourriaud, 2009 51-51).

José Teunissen

José Teunissen is Professor of Fashion Theory and Dean of the School of Design and Technology at London College of Fashion, UAL. She is the curator of State of Fashion: Searching for the New Luxury (2018).

Teunissen is currently a board member of the Dutch Creative Industries Council and Chair of the network CLICK/Next Fashion, the Dutch Government innovation network for the creative industries in the Netherlands. In 2015, she established the Centre of Expertise Future Makers at ArtEZ, which is dedicated to new production processes in fashion and design. She holds a Visiting Professorship in Fashion Theory and Research at ArtEZ and works as an independent fashion curator.

Teunissen has previously worked as a professor, a journalist for several Dutch newspapers and Dutch broadcast television, and was a curator in Fashion and Costume at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht (1998-2006).

In 2002 at ArtEZ, Teunissen was one of the first professors in the Netherlands to conduct research and develop theory in the field of fashion. She took various hot items from the fashion industry, including the effects of globalization, sustainability, and technology, and used them as the basis for research projects, publications, and exhibitions in association with ArtEZ Press, which earned her an excellent international reputation.

Teunissen has co-edited many books including Fashion and Imagination (2009), The Art of Fashion (2009), Couture Graphique (2013), Fashion Odyssey (2013), The Future of Fashion is Now (2014), and Everything but Clothes (2015). She has also realized many exhibitions, including The Art of Fashion (2009), Couture Graphique (2013), The Future of Fashion is Now (2014), and Everything but Clothes (2015).