People are often perplexed when they learn I have an interest in fashion. No one has successfully accused me of being a snappy dresser or understanding trends, but it does happen to be one of those areas with rich and dynamic intersections of other fields - specifically the arts, social sciences, and technology. It also happens to be an enormous worldwide industry and one that is likely to undergo enormous change in the next decade or two. Observing and trying to understand a developing revolution is, for me, time well spent. If Apple has Apple TV as a hobby, this is sort of my hobby at this point..
About two weeks ago I visited Fashion Week in New York mostly to observe and listen. I set up a few interview sessions, spent a bit on snacks and coffee and went into learning mode. After thinking about the experience for awhile, I wrote a brief note to capture what seemed significant. The note went out to a few people and two encouraged me to expand it in a blog. To save time I’ll do the next best thing. Here is the letter followed by some other comments that may be of greater interest to this group. (for those who have read it, I changed a few bits)
I have an interest in the social mechanisms of fashion, the changes being driven by a shift in communication modalities and emerging changes in manufacturing and distribution. Fashion Week in NY is a good place to observe and ask questions. I have a close friend who happens to be a well known model - this is her fifth year, She has her own perspective and helps getting contact with interesting people. This year talking to some small designers as well as the street fashion people and some fashion bloggers.
I went in on three days and the two of us talked to about 20 young women, a few other models and some people associated with one name and three small labels. It turns out that a top model is attracts a lot of attention among the young street fashion types. There were four discussions in a cafe with five or six of them at a time running an hour or so each. I bought the coffee and a few pastries (the beer and pizza technique and the cheapest way I know to conduct this sort of interview). The labels were by separate introduction. It is good to know fashion royalty.
The industry has a very convoluted structure that defines a series of "looks" for a season and has rather strictly defined roles and information sources (last year I sat down and came up with a diagram showing the flow of information, material and money at a high level - ugh). This traditionally comes out of an interplay between the designer and influential magazine editors. Prototypes are show to buyers who must sort out what will work in their stores about six months down the road. Orders are placed and a rather clunky mass production web starts into action. Recently the time from prototype buy decision to delivery to the shelf has been dramatically tightened - down to a few weeks. A few retailers (Zara, H&M,etc) have achieved a more or less constant flow of new fashion that is less coupled to the traditional model.
Fashion distinguishes itself from apparel by being all about an out of band communication - one that tends to be more important for women than men (and nearly non-existent in people like me). Its social nature means someone usually goes to a store and puts together the basis for combinations of pieces using what is available as a their pallet. There is a lot of reference to what other people are doing and this is shifting away from the magazines -- quickly in fact. Fashion sites and blogs, at this point, have probably replaced physical magazines as a core sources of ideas. The magazines all seem to have their sites, but the street fashion people and their followers aren't paying much attention. There seems to be an explosion of interest in street fashion over the past few years.
Bringing up the subject of Pinterest brought a lot of conversation and debate. It is clear there is a love/hate relation with it … mostly love from the sample I spoke with. It seems to be a natural extension of the pinboarding activities common among teenage girls - only it is now distributed to a larger group. It involves this same out of band communication - or at least part of its vocabulary and I suspect it can be considered basic. It certainly isn't optimized and one suspects more specialized versions will either emerge organically and/or be supported by Pinterest. It is not the sort of thing I can imagine Google or Facebook - or Apple or Amazon for that matter - pulling off well. I can imagine some of them getting involved as partners.
In the twenty and early thirty year old group Facebook is still a necessity - but something that can be frustrating and isn't the sort of thing people find cool anymore. Time is still being spent there, but some of the apparel makers I spoke to suggested FB has almost no value to their business. They all have presences, but none of them can show the time and money they have put into it has been rewarded. Pinterest, on the other hand, is already making a change and driving business. It is much more closely linked to the model of how some people communicate what "the look" will be - at least among their group.
"The look" is something very important that needs a lot of consideration. It used to be dictated, but now there is a lot of communication from people who wear clothing. There are still constraints as the pallet of available clothing is limited, but that is changing as mass customization emerges. The industry has always been plagued by misjudging what the look and in recent years there have been more mistakes than the sour economy might suggest among the major players. It is probably part of the growing disconnect between magazines and the consumer as the later group patches into different sources of active and passive communication.
The structure of the industry is cumbersome and reminds me of the talent/production/distribution mechanism of the music industry fifteen years ago. To the labels the end customer is really the store buyer - not the consumer. Similar to the cellphone manufacturers - where most see the mobile service providers as their primary customer, and the four ecosystems - where Google and Facebook have different primary customers than the end user. In the examples of the music and fashion industries this creates opportunity.
There was an awareness of mass customization. Most see the real benefit as better sizing, but freedom of personalization is also a benefit. This is interesting as the size variation of the groups I was with is much less than the general female population (they were all young and mostly thin) where the need for better sizing is much stronger. I brought up Threadless vs a few others as examples of image customization and a few of the shoe companies. In general the Threadless model was preferred - very interesting as it is also constrained.
Many other questions come to mind, but time was limited and I was mostly injecting questions along with my model friend (who is absolutely great at this) and observing.
I'd hate to be in the fashion magazine business
Separately my friend notes, and I saw a few examples, of how the catwalk itself is changing. Tech is mixing in as part of the art, but also video is important. All of the important shows were streamed and most had expert commentary and/or community commentary - almost like a sporting event. Some of the labels produced separate video spots that allowed a much closer look at the piece and there was experimentation with letting the model have a personality. Probably due to the economy there were more beginning B-list models being used … the sort who will probably not walk next season. The whole notion of what a model does seems to be changing a bit, although high fashion runway models are still pretty much unchanged from those 10 years ago. I'm told catalog modeling has seen a much larger shift as online catalogs become more important - things to say on the modeling piece, but I'll stop here…
A few additional observations:
° iPads, iPhones and MacBook Airs were everywhere. The great majority of those I spoke to had Apple kit and 100% had smartphones. I asked a few questions and the fact this group has bought into the Apple platform is key. Their music is from iTunes, apps are *extremely* important, and the Air is the only laptop they consider. Granted this group is obsessed with style and fashion, but there is certainly no movement to Android. I was frankly amazed by the acceptance of the Apple platform.
° Most of them owned iPads. It is seen as being hired for a different task than the iPhone or the Air, but the fact that these products link up and synchronize through the cloud mostly seamlessly was important. The cafes I used had net and there were people, mostly women, watching the walks in being streamed live from the runways across the street. There was a lot of social commentary going on face to face (ear to ear?) as well as in chat windows and text messages. Twitter seemed to be an important space for commentary. Facebook seemed absent.
° People couldn’t stream to their phones or iPads. An iPad linked to WiFi might seem to be the ideal viewing platform, but it was impossible as Flash was used. They complained about the failure, but didn’t blame Apple. The blame goes to whoever was doing the streaming. There were also complaints about poor cellular service in the area - again it was not seen as Apple’s responsibility. Flash on tablets and phones really is a non-starter at this point.
° Space doesn’t permit me to write the pages I learned about street fashion, which may be a central piece of the developing future as magazines lose influence and the process of fashion becomes even more social. Material, money, and information flows are all in the process of changing.
° The backstage use of iPads surprised me. I don’t think I’ve seen that density outside an Apple Store. There appear to be several important custom apps as well as regular commercial apps. One young designer joked that they are moving to the paperless atelier... Steve Jobs would not approve that I saw a few people frantically sketching with a conductive stylus for last second visual notes to be communicated to others. There was also a great deal of photographic annotation.
And a recipe or two!
After a few people saw this post, two wrote and asked where are the recipes? OK - here is a fun one with a bit of science. But first a word on measurements.
Most of my recipes have approximate measurements. When cooking with fresh ingredients it is often necessary to adjust for the freshness and taste of the ingredients as well as your own tastes. I'll try to supply weight and volume measurements, but encourage you to move to just weight for anything that isn't a liquid at the very least when amounts are important - some types of cooking and most types of baking. Get an electronic kitchen scale that can tare - it will change your life in the kitchen. Good enough ones aren't expensive. I use the EatSmart Precision Pro- about $25.
Now on to the food!
Maillard Reaction Squash in a Pressure Cooker
The Maillard reaction is this wonderful event that takes place between an amino acid, a reducing sugar and some heat. Without going into details a complex mixture of molecules forms that are involve in the flavors and smells of many foods. The browning of meats, the browning on toast, french fries, fried onions, roasted coffee, the browned sections of cakes and cookies. In short it has a fundamental importance in baking and cooking.
Most of these reactions begin at around 300°F, although some start much lower - perhaps 250°F. It would be nice to cook with the reaction, but in a boiling or immersed environment. The trick is to use a pressure cooker. Most will go to 15psi - pushing the interior boiling temperature to something past the threashold for some of the reaction. Physics just works - increase the pressure of the gas over water and the boiling point increases.
It would be wonderful to get that great taste on something like squash in a pressure cooker. It turns out a bit of experimentation shows the way. Some of the experiments didn't work, but were edible none the less. Adding a bit of baking soda increased the reaction just enough to make everything work (alkali environments generally encourage the reaction - we're sitting on the fence at 15psi and need to be pushed just a bit)
This one works:-)
1. Melt butter in a pressure cooker. Stir in squash, lemon grass, salt and baking soda. Cover tightly with pressure cooker lid and cook at a gauge pressure of 1 bar (15 p.s.i.) for 20 minutes. Begin the timing after the pressure has been reached.
2. Depressurize the cooker according to the pressure cooker's manual.
3. Remove lemon grass. Blend the squash to a smooth purée. Add honey to taste.
Pressure cookers, if you haven't tried one, rule. I use a Kuhn Rikon1 and love it - spendy, but you probably won't find a better pressure cooker. A core component of the kitchen and safe.
And a somewhat unhealthy, but delicious bonus. This is especially good on a chilly night and guests love it.
Baked Hot Chocolate
° 85g (6 tbl) unsalted butter cut up. excellent grade butter only
° 4 large eggs
° 50g white sugar (1/4cup)
° whipped cream to taste
- Preheat an oven to 350° F
- find four oven proof coffee mugs or similar sized ramekins and put them on a pan
- melt butter and chocolate in a double boiler and whisk until smoothly melted and mixed. Remove from heat and set aside
- Stir eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl over simmering water until warm to the touch.
- Beat egg mixture with a beater until light and fluffy - 3 to 5 minutes. Gently fold the egg mixture into the chocolate
- Spoon batter into cups and add enough hot water in the pan to come up halfway on the cups
- Bake until top of mixture looses its glossy look. About 15 or 20 minutes.
- Remove and let cool to a bit above room temperature on the outside. Put on whipped cream and serve
1 A review of the pressure cooker I use. It was about $200 and worth every penny.