The other day I drove by Verizon's headquarters in Basking Ridge, NJ. Before AT&T was sold to SBC, it was the palatial AT&T headquarters complex. Several of us spent time there working with upper management in the business units as well as a few above that level. In theory we were helping them understand the Internet and what it might mean, but we saw how that turned out.
One of the members of my human computer interface department was an anthropologist. I was a bit puzzled by the Basking Ridge dress standard, so she offered a bit of fashion guidance to sort out the power structure. AT&T had 15 management salary grades and eight effective levels. Dress standards were enforced by a common convention. If someone was wearing a fitted Brooks Brothers suit you knew he (and it was almost always a he) was a E band executive or perhaps someone aspiring to that level. It would be presumptuous for a D band to dress that well. The BU chiefs and top corporate people were usually dressed a level above that - it was my introduction to noticing bespoke tailoring.
Bonnie, our anthropologiest, noted all of this was "tribal". The high level people were physically separate. These were the people who used the helicopters and corporate jets. Their lair was carpetland - the carpeting was so thick it was borderline difficult to walk across.
Subject matter experts from the Labs could get away with more casual clothing. Directors usually wore suits, but not particularly impressive cuts. Department heads and below could be very casual and many of us dressed that way to differentiate ourselves.1
Over time I've come to see fashion as expression a person makes about themselves. It can be personal, creative and even artistic, but it also is an interaction with the culture we are embedded in. As culture is dynamic, fashion can be ephemeral. As a personal statement it can be timeless.
Fashion has traditionally been created by designers, selected by buyers and promoted through advertising. My Danish friend Jheri notes how boring most American fashion is. Many of us, particularly the young, feel a necessity to be part of a current trend and are very susceptible to advertising and store displays. We want to be individuals, but there seems to be a need to be part of a group.
Fast fashion is a direction the low end of the industry is taking. Mostly a change to distribution that relies on very cheap third world labor and a hyped up promotion channel. Clothing is no longer designed to be durable, but rather close to the moment. It tends to follow a very uniform pattern. It is still boring, but the clock cycle has been increased.
Signs of change are emerging. Designers often relied on the muse of the street, but now street fashion is being communicated to everyone directly through blogs, Pinterest and a few other social mechanisms. The quality of design varies, but the number of people participating is growing and it is having an impact on design. Importantly a curious artifact of American copyright law is that most fashion is immune .. we may have to think of a world where high end designers collaborate with people from the street.
Johanna Blakley's (she is with the Norman Lear Center) TEDx talk is worth watching
Jheri and I have spent some time investigating possible trajectories for made to measure clothing - she has an interesting guest post here. The bottom line is, at least for women, most off the shelf clothing has fit issues. This can be addressed with money and/or technology and changes in technology combined with new distribution mechanisms may be very disruptive to a rather enormous industry. Things get even more interesting when you consider customization and shared intellectual property from the street.
When you are studying something this complex it helps to look into something similar but different... I like to say that studying the weather on Jupiter and Saturn is a great way to gain insights into the Earth's weather.
Last Summer I because aware of some amazing looking wax print fabric displayed in the Fashion Institute of Technology's collection. These are associated with West Africa with the best examples being from one of the more important companies in the area - Vlisco.
I had no idea what a wax print was so it was time to investigate. It turns out the Dutchman Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen sorted out how to product Indonesian batik fabric in the mid 1800s. Batik is a cloth that is patterned with a dye resistant wax technique and it had a reputation for beauty and price at the time. Batik, modifying the technique for something much like a printing press, figured out he could manufacture it in Holland and export it to Indonesia at a profit. Unfortunately the quality wasn't up to snuff and Vlissingen found himself with a ship full of surplus cloth and more coming from his factory.2 He tried selling it in West Africa and it took hold. Over the years it became popular, improving in quality adopting traditional African patterns. Over time the catalog of patterns became huge. They were the story of the people and, with revolution and independence, Vlisco wax print fabrics had become a central part of West and Central African culture.
Now it gets very interesting.
West African women treasure Vlicso fabric. Good clothing for the rich and emerging middle class is frequently made with using it. Labor is inexpensive and often has high quality - higher quality than most Western pieces. Even small villages have a woman or two doing tailoring work. Everything is made to measure. Vlisco doesn't make finished pieces - they sponsor fashion shows and regularly put out pattens, but this is promotion. A woman buys the fabric, finds a tailor and uses an existing pattern, an of her's or the tailor's, or some combination. The pieces fit perfectly and have the style the owner wants telling her story.3
We may find ourselves going down a similar path, but there is an important cultural issue. It turns out most people in West Africa identify with a tribe. The identification has a big impact on their lives and one does not have to signal through clothing what they belong to. It gives a great deal of freedom compared to what we see in the West. A woman can show much more creativity that what is our social norm. I'm wondering if the growing importance of street fashion and its global nature (a good deal of The Sartorialist blog is external to NYC) with trigger a greater degree of expression in the West as made to measure and its customization - a mass customization becomes possible.
Culture - from the tribally reinforced conformity of carpetland to the freedom of West Africa - perhaps there are lessons that help us puzzle out some of the emerging threads in this story.
1 I used to take my slide rule for quick calculations. These were back of the envelope estimates used in sessions that investigated ideas quickly. My director told me to stop bringing it as it was intimidating the executives.
2 There are several variations to the story - this is the most frequently quoted. The companies production was in Holland for about a hundred years and then some shifted to Africa. The finest cloth was, and is still, produced in Holland and is highly prized. About ten years ago a British company bought Vlisco and is currently expanding.
3 I note that Western conventions are rapidly mixing with the culture and poorly fitting and cheap clothing from South Asia is becoming much more common among young women. Some of this is tailored, but the quality is often the effort isn't justified. Africa may be drifting to where were are now. Their terrible transportation infrastructure is acting as a moderator.
This is not authentic, but is in the spirit of a Cameroonian peanut and sweet potato soup. As with all soups the measurements aren't terribly important, but be sure to do the seasoning to your own taste.
Cameroon Inspired Sweet Potato and Peanut Soup
° 2/3 cup of roasted peanuts (not dry roasted)
° 2 tsp oil
° 2 large onion chopped (about 2 cups?)
° about 800g vegetable broth (most in west africa would use a chicken broth)
° 2 large sweet potatoes cut in inchish cubes (maybe 6 cups total)
° 1 tbl cumin
° 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
° salt to taste (not much if your peanuts were salty)
° 2 large cans (mine were about a pound) cans of garbanzo beans drained
° process peanuts in a food processor for a few minutes until smooth
° heat the oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until lightly browned.
° add all other ingredients and bring to a boil
° reduce heat and simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes until the sweet potato is tender.