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A Global Sense of Fashion

How do changes in the fashion world reflect globalization?

February 20, 2006

How do changes in the fashion world reflect globalization?

Fashion, in the sense of constantly changing taste in clothes, was originally a Western phenomenon, but it has always sought inspiration in other cultures, starting with the importing of silk from China and later cotton and cashmere from India.

At that time, everything was handled by Westerners, who processed it into a product to suit Western tastes.

Well-to-do women in the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries had colorful jackets made from chintz imported from India by the Dutch East India Company.

Shortly afterwards, Indian cotton was popular in court circles for waisted dress designs. When the fashion designer arrived in the 19th century, he became the one to translate these “exotic’ fabrics and items of clothing into fashion, subjecting the whole world to his taste.

The 1960s saw a renewed interest in “non-Western” clothing.

Parallel with the rise of pop music came the development of a youth culture that repudiated fashion being imposed from above and developed its own style by combining existing clothes, secondhand clothes and working men’s clothing like jeans and overalls became immensely popular.

Also gaining popularity were non-Western items of clothing, such as Indian dresses, Afghan coats, Palestinian shawls and Indian slippers.

This time, for the first time in the history of Western fashion, preferences had to do with the romance of the unalterable “authentic and original product.”

Just as macrobiotic food became popular in those days as an honest, non-capitalistic nutritional choice, so too importing authentic non-Western clothing was seen as a way of escaping from the oppressive Western fashion culture that imposed a new fashion norm every six months.

For the first time, fashion in those days was about correct “styling,” the right combination of existing pieces of clothing which one was supposed to wear without alteration.

At the same moment, there emerged the longing for the “authentic,” pre-industrial product that was still the result of traditional craftsmanship, which was in danger of disappearing because of the clothing industry.

But it was not until the 1990s that it became the motive and source of inspiration for both Western and non-Western designers.

Design and the designed garment once again became important in fashion in the early 1980s with Thierry Mogler and Claude Montana, but then something happened in Paris.

A small Japanese invasion appeared on the Parisian platform. Kenzo, Issey Miyake and Hanae Mon had already begun in the 1970s, but when Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto gave their first Paris show in 1981, it caused a revolution.

They became the first non-Western designers to be included in the official fashion world. How were the Japanese able to gain a foothold in Paris so quickly?

Japan was already an economic power with influence in the West in the area of electronics and cars. Both Comme des Garpons and Yamamoto had become successful in their own countries.

They had no need of the West as a market, but decided to gain a foothold for the sake of recognition. Instead of bringing Paris down, they confirmed its importance.

Not only were the boundaries of the fashion system thrown open in the 1980s — but Paris too, as a platform, turned its gaze outward in the hope of incorporating even more influence from non-Western cultures.

The goal was to break through the boundaries and values of Western fashion in another fruitful way.

Around ten years later, another non-Westerner made his mark on the Parisian fashion stage: Lamine Kouyate from Mali, who in 1992 introduced the label Xuly Bet.

Kouyate came to France to study architecture, but he finally chose the fashion trade. His designs were initially made from secondhand clothes that he bought in flea markets, unstitched and then sewed together again arbitrarily, preferably with the seams on the outside.

Nowadays there are a lot of idealistic companies working in this way, but back then it was revolutionary, mainly because he coupled it with bizarre presentations — disturbances in the Paris metro — and very much with the music world and the ethnic youth scene.

But, how far will we go in promoting and propagating our own local crafts in the future? Why has there been such a great need since the 1980s to anchor fashion in one’s own culture?

With the rise of lifestyle in the 1980s, even major companies and commercial brands have started to exploit their national identity.

Conspicuous are the American companies that convey an America feeling and succeed in narrating an authentic image of America that is different each time.

Ralph Lauren depicts America as a country with an aristocratic culture, a past that it has actually never known. Tommy Hilfiger sketches an image of a preppy and functional America, while Levi’s has long romanticized the colonial farming past.

Always the same America, yet totally different. So companies also feel they have to link their image to their background.

We can, at any rate, conclude that fashion as a concept is in need of redefinition. Fashion is no longer a Western, hierarchical system that defines what good taste is and how it can be imitated.

Fashion was already democratized in the 1960s. It was no longer the couturiers and the elite who decided what the latest fashion was, but youth culture and the street.

Now a similar turn seems to be in motion. It is no longer the West that prescribes fashion — it can arise anywhere on earth and find a place in the international fashion world.