With the aim of approaching design from a broader perspective, this essay approximates fashion as a practice whose dynamics and effects transcend the material and aesthetic character of clothing. How is design practice understood in fashion? How does it affect the different spheres of society?
I. Fashion as design
Clothing, the ornament that also protects, a trick that stimulates the construction of identity, differentiating and at the same time homogenizing. It is the raw material of fashion, the branch of incredibly significant design, which has not been analyzed enough in comparison with architecture or industrial design. This is particularly strange for an element that is part of the everyday life of many societies; even in indigenous populations, clothing is equally important as part of their social rituals. One of the reasons is its more familiar facet, elitism, which for the discourses of academia and journalism has degraded the most interesting aspects of the aesthetic and creative manifestations of the discipline.
In the 40’s, the American architect and designer Bernard Rudofsky looked at this abyss with an exhibition named Are Clothes Modern? at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The aim of the exhibition was to explore design and not the designers, as well as the intersections between individual and collective relations through clothes in the context of the Second World War. More than six decades later, Paola Antonelli, curator of the Department of Architecture and Design, wrote in her blog that maybe that was the only moment when an institutionalized space had a serious approach to the discipline. Thus, in 2017 the opening of Items: Is Fashion Modern? was announced, an exhibition that will explore the present, the past and the future of 111 fashion pieces that have had an important impact on history. Like the Levi’s 501, the watch Casio and the Little black dress. In some cases, the item will be unfolded in a new prototype commissioned to different designers.
But since Rudofsky provocative question, Are clothes modern?, further inquiries have been made on the inner spheres of fashion, an industry that annually moves millions of bodies and dollars. Just this year, Chanel announced they will support a gallery at the Palais Galliera, in Paris. The gallery was originally built in the 18th century to show important names of the haut couture, as well as themes of the time, but now for the first time will have a permanent collection.
In Latin America the documented trail of fashion exhibitions is blurred. However we know that fashion, as always, has followed the impulses of its social, political and economic environment. In 2015, Mexican curator Ana Elena Mallet illustrated this in the exhibition The Art of Clothing and Fashion in Mexico. 1940-2015, presented at Centro Cultural Banamex in Mexico City.
Another question hovered above the costumes of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, the clothing of some indigenous communities, the shadows of Ramón Valdiosera or Henri de Chatillon, and also more contemporary pieces by Carla Fernández or Pineda Covalín: What do we talk about when we talk about Mexican fashion? Although the traces of the past are a way to reflect on it, much more remains to be explored in more recent and less "intentional" Mexican manifestations.
Perhaps, the identity is somewhere else, far from this map. The truth is that, lately, fashion has become more and more present in museums. Although its rhythm escapes our hands (and our wallets), its tensions with other disciplines are beginning to be recognized as mediums for interpretation.
II. Clothing in front of society
The designs that we wear design the societies we inhabit. Recently, Swedish brand H&M, known for its low costs, announced that it will have a unisex line called Denim United. It is a collection of 19 denim garments that will explore the traditional silhouettes of genres to present a panorama of inclusive options.
The project is not surprising, just over a year after Zara –European and world king pin of fast fashion– created its capsule collection Ungendered with a shared wardrobe between men and women. However, the big stores have not had a revelation by themselves. The new “neutral gender” products respond to latent social trends studied by marketers, which follow the direction of new interests emerging from the most recent impulses of social and political movements in the world.
It is also the case with the reactions to the threats against civil rights of the new administration of the United States. Many designers have openly responded to Donald Trump facing migrant vetoes or misogynistic comments, such as the Autumn-Winter 2017 collection of Ashish Gupta. On his runway the faces of the models were painted with what looked like wrestling masks. Furthermore, in one of the sweaters of the collection was printed the phrase “More Glitter, Less Twitter”, an allusion to Trump’s habit of doing politics through comments in social media.
On the other hand, in late January, the Mexican designer Carla Fernández showed a series of wearable banners at the Women’s March in Washington to represent the expressions of the people who where part of the contingent. The designs where made specifically for this event, but immediately attracted the eye of collectors and the Museum of Arts in Boston, which now owns two of these protest pieces.
Beyond denunciation, some of the Mexican fashion and design proposals walk towards alternative models of subsistence. In the midst of an impossible scenario in the country, artisans and emerging designers have set up at itinerant bazaars taking place, notably in Mexico City, with examples such as La Lonja Mx, Caravana Americana, Rooftop Sale, Tráfico Bazar or Bazar Local.
Some of the fashion and design proposals they exhibit, like the illustrations or the vintage garments of Taquicojocoque, MiTu shoes or Dulce Armenta swimwear, have a charm that retailers without a doubt would like to clone, although the quality may vary. The truth is that from the difficulty to enter commercial spaces of high distribution has emerged a party, a place that seeks buying and selling through tricks like music, alcohol, sometimes tattoos and seductive food that also has its own design concepts –like Alien Taco or Pizzatánicos–. This gives the user the value of the experience at the time of consumption, a resource that any brand aimed at the millennial public pursuit without much luck.
II. Fashion: a reflection of its time
For Hegel, no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit. To think about the zeitgeist in fashion is to be attentive to the crosses between clothing, technology, work, the media and many other spheres.
Let’s take the example of Van Herpen’s haute couture. Each piece is an example of cutting-edge technology, futuristic architecture and sometimes a post-apocalyptic reflection of the body. The Dutch designer is one of the most visionary creators in the industry because of her constant expansion of the boundaries of fashion design. Her work combines the most traditional tailoring techniques with the most unsuspected materials for the construction of the garments, infiltrating transdisciplinary methods to achieve this. Beyond haut couture, it is about a “new couture”, as she prefers to call the interstice from which she designs.
Currently, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosts an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons and one of most proactive names in fashion. Her experimentations with silhouettes are frankly revolutionary due to their construction based on the tensions between fashion and anti-fashion, design and anti-design, present and past, self and other, clothing and nudity. Let us recall her autumn-winter collection of 2004. The sleeve becomes a decorative element, cut and altered in different forms, with Victorian references that at the same time could be the fashion of a utopian future. Unconventional colors, shapes, rhythm and beauty; is this revolutionary design? Kawakubo answered this in an interview saying she never wanted to start a revolution.
In spite of the catalogues, press releases and quotes from their creators, the clothes speak for themselves. They also keep their silence and, above all, make you pay attention. From the most authorial garment to a piece of fabric woven by an indigenous woman on the sidewalk, design thinking operates at an instinctive level, always aligned with the whispers of the language its time.
 Coined by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, the zeitgeist is a concept that refers to the spirit that characterizes and defines an era.