From fashion journalism to ethical journalism: fashion’s future legitimacy

Opening keynote by Wolfgang Blau for the academic conference ‘La mode come modèle. Mode et éthique’ by Sorbonne Université, Paris, Faculté des Lettres, Grande École de Journalisme du CELSA. April 15th 2021 (version française)

Good morning. Thank you, Professor Perrier, for the introduction and for the invitation to be here with you today.

As Valerie mentioned, I have worked in journalism and media since I was a university student, starting as a radio news presenter for Germany’s national broadcaster ARD when I was in my early twenties.

Interesting careers often contain some big transitions along the way. Of all the transitions in my professional life so far, the biggest transition for me was not when I moved from Germany to Silicon Valley as a Reporter or to London to join the executive team of The Guardian. No, the biggest transition in my media career was my excursion from news journalism over to the fashion journalism of Vogue and Conde Nast for these last five years. This meant working with fashion journalists in Asia, Africa, Australia, South and North America as well as Europe.

In hindsight, I was wonderfully naive when I decided to accept the kind invitation from Conde Nast to join them, initially as their Chief Digital Officer for all of Europe, Asia and South America.

I thought I was making a simple exchange there: I assumed that by leaving the Guardian and the world of general news journalism, I would be giving up a world of profound societal and political influence and that, in exchange, I would mostly get the rare chance to learn about the very different publishing and journalism environments in Asia that interested me.

I felt that China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea had become more innovative and in so many ways more important for the future of digital journalism than Silicon Valley or New York and I simply wanted to be there and work with our teams there.

Imagine my surprise then once I began to realise just how far the influence of fashion and fashion journalism can reach into society, politics, technology and culture and when I noticed how, on many occasions, Vogue’s resonance around the world was far larger than anything I had seen in the big news organisations I worked with before.

And once my boss at the time, the wonderful Jonathan Newhouse — a former newspaper reporter and editor himself — had given me responsibility for the Vogue editions in Europe, Asia and South America, I started reading about fashion as much as I could, from the classics of Roland Barthes to Frances Corner’s ‘Why Fashion Matters’, all the way to books on fashion’s environmental footprint, such as ‘Fashionopolis’ by the great Dana Thomas.

Today, after having left Conde Nast last October and having joined Oxford University as a Visiting Research Fellow, I would describe the context of fashion as follows:

There are four basic human needs. These four needs are independent of the times we live in, they were true when our ancestors still sought shelter in caves and they will still be true in the distant future, even if some of us should live on space stations or other planets for longer periods one day: Humans will always need tools, shelter, food and clothes of some kind in order to survive.

Of course, I am well aware that there are various schools of thought in fashion theory to remind us that not all clothes are fashion or, going further, that not all fashion manifests itself only in clothes.

To me, fashion is about the choices humans of any kind make in dressing themselves, whether that is for utilitarian, social, aesthetic, environmental or spiritual reasons or for any combination thereof.

And so, even the mesmerizing wonders of haute couture — while they rarely represent what humans wear — are still part of that wider system that satisfies our eternal and very basic human need for clothes.

This is why Karl Lagerfeld — the great pop philosopher of fashion — was right when he said: ‘There is no more fashion, there is just clothes’. I can equally identify, though, with fashion icon Anna dello Russo when she comes from the aesthetic and sensual side of that argument and says: ‘Fashion is everywhere. Flowers are fashion, the sky is fashion, my garden is fashion’.

By her logic, one could flip Lagerfeld’s statement on its head then and say: ‘there is no more clothes, there is just fashion’.

I observed this — only apparently culturally-rooted — inescapability of fashion when I noticed how Greta Thunberg (whom I greatly respect) says she would never buy new clothes, as there is always someone she could borrow or otherwise get some used clothes from. While she says that and does that, there are now people who sympathetically observe Greta Thunberg’s choices of clothes, including the yellow raincoat she often wears, and who perceive those choices as a style statement by Greta or, you could argue, a fashion statement in itself.

Once you do a simple search for ‘Greta T-Shirt’ on Google, Amazon, Depop or Etsy, you realise also that while Greta may have no interest in fashion, fashion certainly has a huge interest in Greta. This manifests itself in thousands of clothes with her face or some of her famous quotes printed or embroidered on them.

Screenshot of Google image search results for the keyword ‘Greta Thunberg, T-Shirt’.
Google image search: “Greta Thunberg, T-Shirt”

Before having played a global role in fashion publishing myself, I would probably have explained this fashion phenomenon around Greta as an indicator of fashion’s somewhat vicious and inescapable ability to co-opt even its fiercest critics. Today, I see this with more nuance. Our human inability to completely ignore how someone dresses is not only cultural but probably also instinctual and tied to those four basic human needs of ours that ensure our very survival: tools, shelter, food, clothes.

We may just have forgotten how vital, how close to our instinctual reflexes our need for clothes is because — I assume — most of us here in this group simply have never experienced not having any.

For the last few months and after having left Condé Nast, I have been studying the climate crisis full-time in a fellowship at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. I am especially interested in the role that journalism plays and could play in this accelerating crisis.

Most of the time now, I am looking at the climate crisis as a question of emissions and polluters, of policy and taxation and as a question of consumer behaviours and media narratives.

And, as with any topic, the longer I study this crisis, the more multi-faceted, the more overwhelming and unstructured it can appear at times.

In my quest then to find something like a ‘mental grid’ through which to structure this crisis and order my thoughts, I find it most helpful to frame the climate crisis as a question that needs to be as basic and instructive as possible.

That question then is: Humanity has had and always will have four basic needs: Tools, Shelter, Food, Clothes. How can we re-think, re-evaluate, re-engineer and — as this also involves culture and spirituality — how can we re-dream the ways in which we satisfy these four basic needs so that we don’t. keep destroying the ability of us humans and of all other species to live on this planet?

It will be from answering this question that fashion will either find new legitimacy or slowly lose it: the question of how to completely re-think fashion, re-evaluate it normatively, re-engineer it materially and re-dream it spiritually and aesthetically

The old fashion system is going to break as we are becoming more aware of the crisis our natural world is in. Yes, there will always be wealthy people who will buy anything. But as any fashion label executive will tell you, for fashion and luxury to thrive, you need much more than only a set of wealthy buyers, you also need a much wider culture and middle class in which fashion and their brands can resonate. As more people are beginning to realise now that we are running out of time in fighting the climate crisis, the fashion industry will still have no shortage of people who could afford to buy luxury fashion, including in China, but fashion is still at risk of losing the societal respect and resonance this industry needs in order to appeal to its wealthy buyers and in order attract and retain the creative talent it depends on to produce fashion.

I often wonder if the fashion industry itself has fully understood how fundamental that shift and its crisis of legitimacy already are

Over the last five hundred years, fashion had different reasons to exist and to philosophically legitimise itself. The more feudalistic and class-conscious an era was, for instance, the more it relied on fashion as an indicator and delineator of classes.

The more we then emphasized the importance of the individual, as a result of the age of enlightenment, the more we relied on fashion not only as an indicator of social status but, at least equally, as a means of communicating our individualisation. Today, this can mean that a set of used clothes, bought on an app like Depop for very little money, can result in a much greater gain of status, attention, social currency and individual satisfaction than a set of newly purchased high-luxury clothes for tens of thousands of Euros if the latter didn’t also convey a sense of authentic individuality. This is just one example of a fundamental shift of fashion’s social function and legitimation.

The next shift of fashion’s legitimacy will be anchored in the question of whether fashion manages to become a part of the solution or remains a part of the problem of environmental destruction. Personally, I believe that at least parts of the fashion industry — and with it, fashion communication and fashion journalism — can succeed in making this transition. Some of the most encouraging conversations I have had these last years were with executives in the fashion industry, most especially at the Kering group, who are already in this process of re-thinking fashion materially and are redesigning their entire supply chain, including the cattle farms they depend on for their leather product.

I am not an academic. I look at the world as an operator, a manager, a journalist and as someone who loves fashion. I look at what is possible and at the resources that I can work with. I look at you as a resource in humanity’s fight for survival. Humans will always need clothes. Humans will always want to express something through clothes. The only thing that changes through the ages is what it is that we want to express, whether that is status, belonging, appreciation, individualisation or, soon, our realisation that we are part of a bigger ecosystem that is at risk.

The fashion industry will need the most support from fashion communication experts, fashion historians and fashion policy experts such as you in these three areas:

Fashion is full of inherent contradictions and systemic conflicts and I think this is exactly what makes fashion so vibrant, so attractive and so easy to attack.

Metaphorically speaking, the fashion industry sits directly on top of at least four tectonic fault lines that make the ground move right underneath this industry and that keep re-adjusting themselves in sometimes violent earthquakes:

The first such fault line is fashion’s enormous environmental footprint I already mentioned. And the word ‘footprint’ is a euphemism. Trail of pollution would be more precise.

Just these two figures for context, which have been verified by Vanessa Friedman, the fashion editor of the New York Times, in 2018:

Nearly three-fifths — or 60 percent — of all clothing still end up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.

More than 8 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries.

And this additional figure from the latest fashion report of the Biomimicry Institute: At least 60% of textiles are currently made by using fossil fuel-based synthetic fibres.

Screenshot: New York Times, Dec. 18 2018.

Especially polyester doesn’t decompose again but is only broken down by UV light over time into useless and toxic microfibers which then accumulate in the environment. These microfibers are now appearing not only in our oceans but also in the atmosphere and the air we breathe. The mechanics of this first fault-line are quite simple then: As our broader culture is becoming more aware of the climate crisis, it won’t be able to ignore especially cultural brands that cause that much damage. And for activists and environmentalists, cultural brands such as the major fashion houses are ideal targets: An environmental story about a fashion house that can be illustrated with interesting photography or even celebrities is more likely to resonate than a story about, let’s say, the global cement industry. In this aspect, fashion’s cultural dominance and visual omnipresence are also its Achilles’ heel.

The second faultline is the fashion industry’s great dependency on the Chinese market and on Chinese professional shoppers and tourists in Europe while China itself is re-setting its relationship and balance of power with the US and Europe. Many political conflicts between China and the US or EU directly ramify and sometimes ricochet immediately into the fashion business or start as debates over fashion’s supply chains and the human rights issues they raise.

The third faultline is the long-overdue societal conversation about how men and our societies as a whole treat women. When this conversation finally received more attention under the umbrella name ‘me-too’, it immediately led to discussions about the fashion industry’s own history of abuse and its role in conveying and defining hurtful gender stereotypes.

The fourth tectonic faultline that regularly shakes the fashion industry is the global conversation about diversity and — again — the role that fashion plays in celebrating and nurturing or in limiting diversity.

I cannot think of any other industry, certainly not the film or the music industry, that is equally exposed and involved with all four of these questions and with humanity’s urgent search for new and better answers to them: The climate crisis, China’s changing relationship with the rest of the world, the lacking equality of rights for women and men, the lack of diversity in every sector of our societies.

I often wondered if fashion has always been this influential and simultaneously this much at risk of losing its legitimacy, at least since the rise of early Hollywood and the film industry which had raised modern fashion’s global influence, or if this is a rather recent development.

Some of you will know much better how to answer this than I do, but it seems fairly obvious that — beyond just the rise of globalisation and the growth of Chinese tourism into Europe — two main factors have contributed to fashion’s outsized economic growth and cultural influence these last few years: one is the rise of visual social media, such as Instagram and WeChat, the other is the changing role of brands in general.

The rise of visual social media has not only created new types of celebrities but has also increased the frequency with which we see pictures of any public figure as well as of our colleagues and friends of which many are expressing a greater awareness than before of what they wear and how often they feel they can wear the same piece of garment in a photo.

The rise of brands is probably a more potent driver of fashion’s growth in cultural influence than even social media is. Much has been written about the role of brands as anchors of identity when so many other old and trusted anchors of identity, meaning and belonging are declining together with their once-ubiquitous iconographies: churches, old-established political parties, labour unions and many nation-states.

The idea that we would ever not just look at the iconographies and symbols of these older institutions to reassure and locate ourselves but that we would dress our bodies with them would have been unimaginable as long as you weren’t a priest or a nun or a soldier. And yet, the void these institutions have left behind seems so big that enough of us feel compelled now to dress in garments whose only visible differentiator often is neither their material nor silhouette, but only the oversized brand logo on them.

Of course, from a commercial perspective, nothing is more powerful and allows for greater profit margins and lucrative brand licensing partnerships than owning a brand that people will want to wrap around their bodies as their main statement of who they are today. It is tempting then to assume that this is just the fashion industry’s new normal, given that we are seeing this phenomenon around the world and that the aforementioned older anchors of belonging and identity show no signs of having a comeback anytime soon.

It seems more likely, though, that this unusual current dominance of the brand — including the ability of some luxury brand logos to be perceived as the main design feature of an otherwise often inferior piece of clothing — has already passed its zenith.

What comes after brands then or who is the most potent challenger of a cultural system of belonging and identities that currently so much depends on brands? Or — to stay within the notion of brands — what will be the next type of brands to challenge the current set of institutional brands and their mechanics?

When I ask fashion executives about this question, especially the younger ones tell me that the biggest challenge to brands will come from individual people, from influencers of a new type. An often-mentioned example then is the phenomenon of — again — Greta Thunberg.

If you look at the work not only of Greta but also of 15-year old climate youth movement leader Alexandra Villasenor in New York or 23-year old Luisa Neubauer from Germany as well as many other young leaders of climate youth movements around the world, you will mostly notice two things: they have the kind of access to top-politicians, to corporate leaders, to international news media and to international organisations such as the UN or the World Economic Forum that many national leaders of smaller nations, as well as corporate leaders, could only dream of.

You will also notice that while these young leaders are collaborating or negotiating with political parties, governments, multinational corporations and NGO’s, they don’t owe their rise to influence to any of them.

Most of them refuse to be managed like brands or to act like brands who are always conscious of the niche they want to play in — which is the antithesis of what most influencer agencies would advise their talents to do.

So, in going back to the four tectonic fault lines the fashion industry is sitting on — our keywords were ‘climate crisis, the rise of China, gender equality and diversity — I tried to convey two things to you today:

1. while the basic human need for clothes is eternal, fashion as an industry will have to find a new legitimacy and can succeed at that if it does not only try to be ‘less bad’ but aspires to be beneficial to the environment and especially to the global climate and our earth’s biodiversity.

2. The accelerating environmental challenges to humanity are so great that many of our societies have already made room culturally for the rise of teenagers to historically unprecedented global political influence. This phenomenon cannot be underestimated as an indicator that the ways in which societies under threat distribute power and allocate authority are already profoundly different from what most of us were used to.

In summary, I cannot think of any other industry — not the film business, not the music business, not the software industry — that is as exposed to and as involved with such a range of fundamental questions about the future of humanity as is the fashion industry and with it fashion journalism.

https://twitter.com/Funmilola/status/1402173749831639046

Fashion’s influence and importance are not only based on fashion’s unique blend of highest craftsmanship with art, design and commerce but even more so on the fashion industry’s simultaneous exposure to and its direct involvement with humanity’s four most pressing questions of survival: the climate crisis, China’s new changing relationship with the rest of the world, humanity’s pressing need for gender equality and humanity’s search for a culture of nurturing diversity.

You can either be overwhelmed by that or see this responsibility of fashion and the volatility that comes with it as an enormous source of creativity, power and influence — hopefully, to do good.

Thank you.

Further reading:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation: ‘Make fashion circular’

Biomimicry Institute: ‘The Nature of Fashion: moving fashion towards a regenerative system’

Vogue Business: reports, new ideas and analyses on fashion’s sustainability

Financial Times: ‘Sustainable fashion? There is no such thing’, by Lauren Indvik

New York Times: ‘The newest thing in fashion? Old clothes’, by Vanessa Friedman

New York Times: ‘Global Brands Find It Hard to Untangle Themselves From Xinjiang Cotton’, by Elizabeth Paton

Kering Group: one of the industry’s more advanced large-scale sustainability initiatives

Stella McCartney: a pioneer in fashion’s sustainability discussion

And this Financial Times interview with the CEO of fashion e-tailer Zalando was published a few days after I gave the speech above. Quote:

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Co-Founder Oxford Climate Journalism Network / Trustee Director, Internews Europe and Bonn Institute. Prior: Global Chief Operating Officer Condé Nast.

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Wolfgang Blau

Co-Founder Oxford Climate Journalism Network / Trustee Director, Internews Europe and Bonn Institute. Prior: Global Chief Operating Officer Condé Nast.