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The Business of Aesthetic Value: A Literary Romanticist’s Take on Fashion Month
FSW approaches the purpose and narrative of fashion through the lens of Romanticism as a roundup of Spring-Summer 2024 Fashion Month.
The perceived aesthetic value of a brand’s collections and its ability to tell effective stories across platforms greatly impact business outcomes.
The idea of marketability or sellability is a combination of aesthetic value and wearability combined with the costs of bringing a product to market.
Brands need to operationalize the model of the designer-as-artist in a strategic, goal-oriented way that aligns with corporate vision in order to own and empower their own brand messaging and be authentic with consumers.
“The air of fashion, which many young people are so eager to attain, always strikes me like the studied attitudes of some modern prints, copied with tasteless servility after the antique; the soul is left out, and none of the parts are tied together by what may properly be termed character.” - Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The end of Fashion Month should be a natural time for reflection if only the fashion calendar were not so unrelenting.
So much of the narrative surrounding fashion collections this time around has been one of disappointment about the decision-making of a large swath of designers who favored safe, middle-of-the-road marketability over creative expressiveness. The long-awaited debuts of Sabato de Sarno at Gucci and Peter Do at Helmut Lang as well as perennial favorites like Prada failed to impress. This left several critics wondering what happened to all the big ideas in fashion or if creativity had gone out the window because of a dearth of female fashion designers, especially after the retirement of Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen.
Rounding up a month of literally hundreds of fashion shows across four countries and two continents is at best challenging. Trend forecasters and their AI tools have a bevy of collection inspiration from which to choose to help brands “predict” and, in turn, develop and market products to fuel and feed the next big trends for Spring-Summer 2024. But, it feels rare to consider level-setting takeaways from Fashion Month in the context of what stories or ideas the designers were trying to convey, and whether these ideas realized themselves into clothing that people will want to buy and wear.
How does the visionary or creative side of fashion and its emotional appeal connect with the practical realities of fashion as a business, driven by hard-line monetary goals to sell products to consumers? In short, why do the aesthetics of fashion matter?
A lot of answers to these questions can be found in thinking about fashion through the lens of literary Romanticism as a way of understanding our now-embedded perspectives on the aesthetic value or status of luxury fashion and how these views shape our feelings about brands, designers, and the art of fashion itself.
Romanticism, Luxury, and Aesthetic Value
Romanticism with a capital “R”, also known as the Romantic era, refers to an artistic movement that spanned the late 18th to 19th centuries in Europe and America. While some scholars cite the publication of William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) as the beginning, Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment and its scientific rationalization of nature and marked a new form of humanism.
As a movement, Romanticism emphasized emotion and the human imagination over reason and science (a divide that gothic horror often pitted as the foundational struggle of human nature). The Romantic era also uplifted individualism and the role of the artist, and glorified nature and the past in an often idealized, pantheistic ethos. Writers of the era included Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley in England and Augustus and Friedrich Schlegel and Goethe in Europe as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson in America.
In Romanticism, intense emotion was thought to be an authentic source of aesthetic experience. Individual creative expression and an idealized view of beauty mattered more than the rational, scientific assessment of reality and the natural world. Poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley believed in the transformative power of art like poetry to affect the human imagination, bypassing reason, and, in turn, bringing about profound cultural change through appealing to our most fundamental human instincts for harmony. Shelley, in an essay called A Defence of Poetry, called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” looking to an idealized version of the radical politics of the revolutions in America and France as models of a more democratic future.
Romanticism impacts the fashion and luxury industries in deep and interesting ways, particularly in its elevation of aesthetic value and emotive experience into a type of cultural currency. Similarly, the surge of the noble poet as cult celebrity through flashy figures like Lord Byron directly fed into an idealization of beauty, luxury lifestyle, and personal adornment or style as individual expression.
When it comes to the business of fashion, luxury puts a price tag on perceived aesthetic value, placing its products in a elevated position due to their unique combination of artistic vision, quality materials, craftsmanship, and brand heritage or story. Arguably, luxury should have more of an emotional impact on the consumer than other types of fashion. More critically, the perceived aesthetic value of a brand’s collections and its ability to tell effective stories across platforms greatly impact business outcomes.
This view of luxury fashion puts pressure on ready-to-wear runway collections to convey a core aesthetic principle or desireability at the same time as a business value or marketability. The idea of marketability or sellability is a combination of aesthetic value and wearability combined with the costs of bringing a product to market.
Romanticism’s lasting impact on fashion is evident in current perspectives on the centrality of the cult designer or celebrity creative director and the elevated status of haute couture as the pinnacle of artistic expressionism. While the romantic poets themselves were celebrities to an extent at the time, they would have scoffed at fashion and luxury’s superficiality, particularly its prioritization of the star power of celebrity and influencer attendees, its overvaunted circus of brand marketing, and its prioritization of the pecuniary value of products over the actual beauty and artistic value of the art itself.
Romanticism and the Business of Fashion and Luxury
To go more broadly, analyzing the business and art of fashion and luxury through the lens of Romanticism produces some interesting concepts.
The business of fashion and luxury in truth is a business of brand aesthetics that is in a constant tension with the ideal of the designer as artist. Heritage brands with a creative director at the helm who has a strong personal vision may find themselves in an awkward position when it comes to conveying their brand story and messaging. Brands need to operationalize the model of the designer-as-artist in a strategic, goal-oriented way that aligns with corporate vision in order to own and empower their own brand messaging and be authentic with consumers.
Collection storytelling works best when it is a kind of pantheistic science that blends a multitude of creative influences together into a cohesive mythology all its own expressed through clothing. Couture is perhaps the most obvious output of this type of Romantic expressionism with ready-to-wear offering more practical, of-the-moment contexts for wearable art that are open to individual interpretation.
Romanticism directly led to the democratization of art and the birth of the critic as a valued observer on art. For fashion, these two individual lenses can be difficult to resolve. For instance, if a ready-to-wear collection feels “safe” or “boring,” it is both a reflection of the current state of a brand but also the mood or mindset of the critical observer.
Finally, the aesthetics of wearability, which is a combination of the idea that personal style is perfectible but also that looking “good” is a verifiable aesthetic value, has its roots in the Romantic idealism of beauty. While Romantic era writers like Mary Shelley rebuked fashion as the whims of the hollow youth, in truth our modern obsession with fashion—or at the very least the concept of personal style—stem from an elevation of beauty over reason and a valuation of individual expression through clothing over sheer function.
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