We're in the midst of London Fashion Week, and consequently we're more inundated than ever with updates from the world of fashion. It's got me thinking about the role of fashion in modern culture. As Carrie Bradshaw might say - "Is fashion the new music?"
Music for so long was the dominant cultural art form. It came to symbolise youth, rebellion, and identity. Everyone had a musical tribe if you wanted to be someone. Mums and dads exasperated at the screeching singers on the TV that 'couldn't sing', whilst teenagers & young adults from 60's mods, 70's punks, and 90's acid house heads knowingly gloried in a culture that defined them.
Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records, the home to Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays and owner of The Hacienda used to say that every 11 years we'd get a new form of musical cultural revolution. From rock n roll, to punk then acid house this seemed like a truism. Then everything either sped up or fell apart, depending on which way you look at it, for Tony's delightfully observed insight.
The 90's did seem to be the beginning of the end for music's exclusive hold of youth identity. Computer gaming over the course of the decade, started to replace music as the main activity of anyone under 25. Brit Pop replaced acid house and we entered into the last music tribal war - between indie heads & dance kids. Muzik magazine, the dance bible unwittingly declared a truce when they picked The Verve's Urban Hymns as one of their album's of the year.
So, where was fashion in all of this cultural soup? It was always there, but mainly as a sub-set of music. The Kappa tracksuit, the parka, bondage trousers, the smiley t-shirt. We all instantly recognise these fashion statements for the music tribes to which they belong. High fashion, couture, was a different matter. Elite, expensive and with little or no relationship to popular culture. So what happened?
It might be too simplistic an answer, but the internet did change everything. The biggest single cultural revolution in our lifetime. Importantly, it has fundamentally changed the music industry. The golden age of music is over. It's difficult to look past the industry's failure to recognise the huge opportunity the internet represented, and music's current position as a troubled child, unsure of what to do now it's all grown up.
The internet is driven by content that can be shared, liked, pinned, tweeted... and it has a voracious appetite for these cultural assets.
The three dominant types of digital content - video, pictures, & MP3's might well hold the secret. These shareable bites of culture, have very different roles in the business value chain for fashion and music. The more pictures of celebrities wearing a new top, or video clips from the catwalk we see, the more demand is created for the physical product in the shops. Whilst, sadly for music these digital snippets are the tease, the desire, and the satisfaction all wrapped up in one handy little wrapper, that creates little to no commercial value for the artist.
Importantly, this explosion of digital consumption (along with dramatically falling prices based on cheap labour from Asia) has gone a long way to democratising fashion. Bringing the catwalk of Milan, and the red carpet of Hollywood much closer to our daily lives. To the extent that it's now mainstream news when Burberry launch a new shop, or Karl Lagerfeld debuts a new range.
The fashion industry has not been slow to capitalise on this change either. With chains like Zara recognising the need for 'new' that the internet creates, by throwing the old seasonal business model out the window, & embracing constant change with new product lines on an almost weekly basis. To the likes of ASOS seeing the opportunity that celebrity and digital media represented for a fashion retailer!
Which brings us full circle. You could argue that fashion is clearly the dominant cultural art form. Musicians are desperate for some of its gold dust, whether it's Azelia Banks on the cover of Vogue or Paul Weller and Liam Gallagher starting their own clothes line. Fashion has a wide ranging cultural impact, from setting media agendas, to being the must have ticket to the catwalk show.
Yet, music is the most consumed culture on-line, with billions of YouTube views every month. So, does this cultural dominance simply reflect a commercial advantage?
And whilst fashion undoubtedly has a place in our lives & hearts that was unimaginable 10 years ago, has it really replaced music? For whilst music struggles to find its business model in this internet age, its hold on our hearts is undiminished, and every great fashion video needs a great tune!
Follow Jon Lee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lostartjon