... and what does culture have to do with "the look"?
And can we learn anything from the music business?
In the mid 90s a few of us published an internal Bell Labs memo that predicted the demise of the recording industry. It was written out of frustration with our dealings with major music companies. They had been visiting the Labs, and later AT&T Research, on the technical direction music might take in a networked world along with trying to sort out partnerships and business deals. But mostly they were focused on how they could fit the new evolving technologies into their model of discovery, production, distribution and promotion. They were about to be blindsided and didn't realize it.
They believed people would only buy the best audio quality - in fact they had been experiencing an enormous increase in sales for about a decade as people converted their home music libraries to "higher quality" CDs. As it became clear that it would become easy for anyone to rip a clear text CD and move it over a network at almost not cost, they resorted to Ptolemaic thinking creating an unnatural complex vision of the future. Their vision of their own future depended on the business equivalent of epicycles. In their eyes complete control of the ecosystem with robust digital rights management backed by legal threats would protect and dramatically grow a very profitable business model. Working with them caused a schism in my lab as some came to believe the strict DRM model and others felt we were witnessing an unstoppable cultural change that could easily route around a new set of poorly reasoned barriers.
In the end culture damaged their business allowing the emergence of a new model that broke some of their control. The experience taught me not to bet against culture and pay more attention to the intersection of culture and technology. Technology by itself is fun, but working only with it is too isolating and can damage your ability to predict plausible futures.
About the same time I became involved with fashion as a hobby and found myself helping out with an emerging black women's fashion magazine. When you're spending time in an alternate universe you tend to learn much more than you originally imagined. I thought I would be honing my art, but in the eighteen month the magazine lasted I found myself asking questions. How does fashion work?, who decided it?, where does a "look" come from?, what is the difference between the commercial and editorial world?, why are most of the models impossibly thin and white and why do some have such unusual appearances?, and so on.. The business stuck me as an extremely inefficient and hyper-conservative world, but I assumed this may be an artifact of my lack of knowledge - after all - the apparel market dwarfs the entertainment world.
As my fashion magazine art editor life ended along came a project for the Army that studied how to make uniforms fit soldiers and, with that, a new set of questions that pointed out more inefficiencies.
In the past year or so I've been re-examining all of this approaching the problem culturally and trying to imagine some alternate paths of how design is created, becomes physical, is marketed and the underlying logistics. There are several interesting possibilities, but most of them don't square with the current way the apparel business seems to work. A few companies are using somewhat different business models ranging from Apple Store-like experiences to a variety of techniques that provide greater customization in design and fit. A few are trying listen carefully to culture.
For those of you interested in the cultural questions - and I think they are far and away the most important questions to be asking at this point - a new book by Ashley Mears has recently been published. Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model examines why models look the way they do, how and why they and the clients they serve are branded, sexism and racism in fashion, the cultural and economic differences between the commercial and editorial worlds, and the deep cultural component of the markets.
Dr. Mears is a sociologist who worked as a fashion model for awhile. She spent some of her student years doing field work modeling for two major agencies and conducting extensive interviews with a large number of people in that part of the industry. The concentration is on on culture, image making and branding - areas where there hasn't been much in the way of solid research. A recommended read - the style is a bit repetitive, but it is accessible and there is enough material and thinking that anyone interested in culture and fashion should read it. Her discussion on why body type is important, the embarrassing level of racism (quick - look at the website of your favorite brand and see if the percentage of non-white models matches the makeup of your country) in the industry, and the cultural economics of fashion are particularly illuminating.
One has to wonder how the business is likely to change. It is ignoring street fashion and new information paths that are forming along with new businesses that have the potential of routing around the current manufacturing, distribution and marketing structures.
Music and fashion are vastly different, but I have the sense fashion is as inefficient, conservative, hubric and tone deaf to culture as the music industry was. Odd as both are clearly parts of culture.
This is mostly a hobby activity at this point and the question list is expanding at a faster rate than I'm finding answers. Unlike the music industry, isn't at all clear how quickly changes will come and which parts of the industry will change first, but I expect major innovation as well as some interesting carnage.