It might seem paradoxical to argue that national fashion cultures have benefited from global fashion given the major disruptions to traditional business models within the fashion industry. Significant changes include the decline of manufacturing in many fashion cities, nations, and areas; the disappearance of many established national/local designers, brands, and retailers nationally and globally; a massive increase in the number of fashion design, fashion communication, and fashion merchandising tertiary programs and graduates; an increasing rate of turnover of new, emerging fashion designers, labels, and brands; and steadily growing links with other creative industries, cultural clusters, and design-related enterprises. With such major changes, how is this affecting national and local fashion industries? Central to understanding and responding to this new environment is the need to re-vision fashion as a cultural and symbolic value-adding component integral to post-industrial restructuring, and re-positioning it as a much broader and more significant role than as an industry that makes and sells apparel.
While national fashion may often not be a profitable or viable industry, de-centered and not-so-global fashion cultures “have had a marked influence on national images and place-branding strategies” as a symbolic industry. Rather than focusing on the classic fashion capitals of Paris, London, New York, and Milan, fashion commentators need to shift their focus to second tier—or what have been called “not-so-global” and “polycentric” cities, nations and places—and conceptualize them as dispersed nodes with new and distinctive potential as fashion cultures and alternative fashion industries.
The fashion industry has attracted the epithet of constituting a wicked problem due to the contradictory and multiple forces that shape its complex and diverse characteristics. The rise of fast fashion has added another level of complexity as global fashion brands have come to dominate the fashion industry and offer universal availability that has radically shifted and shaped consumption habits. But as the fast fashion industry reached maturation, what are the implications for fashion in the future? Do the negative aspects and effects of global fashion outweigh the positives? Is the advent of digital marketing, consumption, and taste formation increasing or decreasing individual consumer choice and reinforcing fashion trends or creating alternative fashion systems?
A particular feature of the contemporary fashion system is the multiplication of cities and places that market themselves as fashion capitals and are increasingly challenging the status of first-tier fashion capitals as second-, third-, and even fourth-tier entrants crowd the field of fashion capitals. Contenders include Tokyo, Berlin, Madrid, Dubai, and Shanghai although many other cities compete for the fashion city tag as the center of fashion shifts away from Western Europe and North America to Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, and Middle East/Africa. New and emerging fashion capitals include Beijing, Mumbai, Singapore, Moscow, Stockholm, Reykjavik, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Abu Dhabi, Dakar, and Beirut. These and many other cities are staging fashion weeks which are attracting attention away from the iconic fashion capitals in a bid to establish their reputation as fashion forward, ultra modern and as offering enviable cosmopolitan lifestyles. These “peripheral” fashion cities are increasingly seen as developing alternative and edgy fashion sensibilities.
At the same time, there are a growing number of commentaries lamenting “the end of fashion” and the scourge of fast fashion. Amid the gloom, the number of careers in fashion-related communications, styling, commentary, retailing, and so on is expanding as expenditure on apparel continues to grow, fashion outlets migrate to new sites and cultural precincts, e-tailing and omni-tailing continue to transform marketing and selling, and the number of new entrants to the industry continues to grow. Supporters of the fashion industry argue that these trends show that fashion is alive and well as the most significant of cultural industries and visible symbol of the vitality of place. In this scenario, there is enormous potential for fashion to stand for and transform city life globally. To this end, fashion cities and fashion weeks have been described as a “travelling discourse that mobilises people and organizations in different countries.” However, there is a tension between the fragility of local fashion industries and the vibrancy of fashion and allied creative and design cultures.
Paradoxically, despite the domination of global fashion trends and undermining of local holistic (that is, from design to manufacturing) fashion industries, increasing numbers of cities and regions are defining themselves through their fashion cultures. “Not-so-global” fashion cities have been called “islands of identity,” reflecting their peripheral status that has enabled cities like Cork in Ireland to project an identity of difference through fashion distinctiveness. Here the driver is the adaptation and appropriation of international styles which are “interpreted and re-interpreted in a local context” rather than merely copying with minor modifications called “knock-offs.” As a result, there has been the growth of selling identity through fashion, as, for example, has happened in the case of Italian-designed, made and marketed fashion that is branded as embodying the spirit of Italy or what Alice Dallabona calls “Italianicity.” Italian fashion shares a tradition for both couture, as well as more accessible and cheaper lines, and popular brands that are fused in the label of Italianicity. The positive resonances of the “made in Italy” label includes the success of the town of Prato which is synonymous with manufacturing fast fashion that is made in Italy by Chinese migrant workers.
By contrast, Scandinavian fashion (primarily represented by the fashion cultures of Denmark, Norway and Sweden) has experienced a shift from design nations (hooked on modernist aesthetics and social progress) to fashion nations (projecting dynamic and shifting national identities to an international audience). Yet, a deeper examination of Swedish fashion indicates that the idea of place-making a brand as Swedish depends on mythologies of Swedishness that can be leveraged in different ways that appeal to different markets, namely, provincial (Resteröds Trikȁ, Sandqvist), pseudo international (Lexington, Hampton Republic), national (Eton, Tiger of Sweden, Hasbeens) or cosmopolitan (H&M, Acne, Nudie Jeans). While Swedishness might seem cool to international markets, Swedes seek coolness elsewhere, for example, the brand Lexington Clothing Co. promotes an American New England profile. National identity in fashion brands is, then, based on circulating mythologies about place, heritage, tradition, and nationalist stereotypes. Even the largest Norwegian brand on the international market, Moods of Norway, is another example of a marketing paradox. Promoting itself as a naïve label based on iconic and humorous images of Norwegian-ness, it is aimed at an international market that is undifferentiated beyond constituting “happy clothes for happy people.” Its signature is a bright pink tractor that symbolizes the rural traditions of Norway and is a simple yet unmistakable logo on its smart casual diverse range of clothes. After a decade of success and growth, the company got into trouble by too fast global expansion and exposés of lack of supply chain transparency. These examples show that branding national identity is a diverse and contradictory project especially amid international awareness of issues of corporate social responsibility.
Whereas “Scandi” fashion is often seen internationally as a unified and coherent fashion embodiment of regional characteristics, the fashion cultures of Belgium and Holland are regarded as different. Belgian fashion, typified by the “Antwerp 6” who trained at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, is touted as developing fashion as part of its re-invention as a culture city with cultural industries along with regional (Flemish) promotional identity compared with Dutch inspiration, as Lise Skov (2011) observed. Across the board, fashion designers draw on a wide range of visual and tactile sources of inspiration as well as references to the local characteristics and symbolism. Local inspirations include popular cultural motifs (such as folk culture or national culture), cultural heritage and crafts, local places and landmarks, and key events in history. However, they are keen to avoid “cultural stereotypes by making sure their version of the local [is] not obvious” but rather “an eclectic mix ‘n’ match” that implies cosmopolitan cultural sophistication. Exploring sources of fashion inspiration, Alice Payne (2016) found that Australian fast fashion designers are primarily influenced by international trends with 75 percent citing the following sources: online sources (trend sites, blogs, key designers, etc.); travel experiences especially overseas and to exotic places; and the trends and fads of well-known celebrities. Local cultural inspirations such as their target consumers, magazines, and new products found at markets, popular music, art and aesthetic trends, vintage fashion, and successful designs of previous collections accounted for a minority of inspirations. This suggests that, even when local brands are competing with fast fashion incursions into their market share, they are following global trends (found on sites like WGSN, Instagram, and influencer posts), rather than maximizing “local” inspirations and distinctiveness.
The challenge facing local and national designers, labels, and industries is how best to maximize their distinctiveness in the increasingly global marketplace. In this section, five strategies are proposed.
One of the identified failures of local fashion is the assumption that once product is made, buyers will come, yet the crucial challenge for local fashion retail models is creating and nurturing a client base that knows a brand, is attracted to it and its values, and identifies with the brand as fitting with a consumer’s image and lifestyle. This is often referred to as the designer’s muse, target consumer, ideal customer, or “our girl,” and detailed profiles of this consumer can be developed. However, it is still necessary to engage and persuade the target consumer to buy products and hopefully become a regular fan and consumer that becomes part of the brand “family.” Louise Crewe, Nicky Gregson, and Kate Brooks discuss the importance of creating a group of “like-minded” followers who share an aesthetic and a knowledge and language of fashion that appreciate the look and are regular shoppers. Equally, such retailers “position themselves and talk about themselves as part of a creative scene-setting milieu, which is understood to constitute the alternative-as-imagined.” These fashion retailers interact with other retailers, designers, creatives, and club regulars engaging regularly in cultural and collaborative activities. This “knowing, elite, distinctive cognoscenti” also requires setting themselves against or outside the mainstream of “unknowing and undifferentiated” consumers who are regarded as “inappropriate” even when they buy product. Equally important is retail location as shopping malls, high streets, and outlet centers are dominated by major players, forcing independent, niche, and small retailers to seek out alternative locations and markets that are “more discerning, style-conscious and image-centred” thus boosting the impression of an alternative creative community. Many niche fashion labels prioritize stocking by independent retailers and focusing on the specificities and differences of local markets by offering a clearly identified point of difference and matching it to target consumer groups. Above all, it is important not to copy fast fashion trends but find a counterpoint to mainstream fashion.
Bricks and mortar remain important for local and national fashion retailers despite inroads by e-tailing especially by younger consumers; however, retailers are increasingly looking at multiple channels or omni-tailing to reach different sub-groups of consumers. As well as providing multiple channels of access and contact including websites, email, pop-up stores, apps, mobile and tablet connectivity, fashion retailers need to make use of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Siri. This requires considerable investment in deciding which techniques best suit the label and consumer as well as maintaining and upgrading systems and promotional strategies. The interaction between physical, direct, digital, and experiential ways of connecting with consumers is essential for today’s fashion retailer.
As well as social and cultural connections between others in the fashion/culture space, fashion retailers typically pay considerable attention to what competitors are up to in order to meet them head-on and second-guess their next moves. This industry intelligence is crucial to keeping abreast of trends and adjusting to shifts in the marketplace internally. At the local level, this means monitoring the activities of other fashion retailers within a locality, as well as trends across the nation or region (such as Los Angeles versus Miami; Sydney versus Melbourne; Milan versus Florence; Shanghai versus Beijing; or Mumbai versus Delhi).
Along with internal competition, fashion retailers need to monitor external competitors and trends between jurisdictions, such as Amsterdam versus Antwerp; Stockholm versus Copenhagen; Berlin versus Vienna; and Kuala Lumpur versus Singapore. Interestingly, in the case of Scandinavia, the fashion cultures of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland both compete and cooperate, balancing fierce national pride in, and ownership of, their designers and labels while, at the same time, promoting “Scandi” or “Nordic” fashion as a tangible and attractive fashion genre for global consumers and fashionistas.
In recent years, there has been major growth in collaborations between creatives in adjunct fields in terms of both individual designers and practitioners, as well as other cultural sectors, agencies, organizations, and spatial locations. To this end, fashion retailers have invested in developing design communities of interest, up-skilling in business and strategic planning and management; and fostering and nurturing a customer base through real-time links and interactions. These strategies may seem a long way from designing innovative apparel and product development but in many ways are more important for survival and success.
There are three main forms of distinctive local fashions: the reinvention of tradition (e.g., England, Italy, and Paris); disrupters to traditional fashion systems (e.g., Japan and Belgium); and cultural re-invention of “non” places through fashion (e.g., Ireland, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, and Reykjavik). Additionally, fashion is also being employed to re-brand regions as cultures such as the invention of “Asian” fashion as an imaginary entity or Hong Kong fashion as a distinctive genre. A related strategy has been the use of fashion as part of the promotion of the new cultural economy as a replacement for other industries, for example, New Zealand. In other places, fashion is a visible symbol of local conditions such as lifestyle, subculture, and climate where a tag like “subtropical” can come to identify the fashion of a place, such as Australia or Brazil.
Fashion is also entering the world of power and economic strength as a strategy to compete with and challenge the dominance of first-tier fashion centers reflecting the global shift of economic dominance from Europe and North America to Asia, South America, Africa, and the Pacific. This has been called the construction of “dressed power” in which “fashion is an attribute that nations no longer seem to be able to do without.”
In sum, there is an imperative to appreciate the important role of local fashion in the national and global context as micro-fashion cultures that underpin cultural identity and differentiation. This requires challenging the hierarchy of fashion city tiers by constructing a typology of not-so-global fashion tiers as parallel fashion segments with niche dynamics and strategies depending on macro-factors such as geographic location, industry capacity, and economic strength, as well as micro-factors such as characteristics of the consumer base, honing of appropriate retailing models, and understanding the “style DNA” of local fashion cultures. In so doing, fashion reflects and promotes diversity and difference through visible and tangible dress codes. In short, rather than global fashion obliterating local and national fashion, arguably it has created opportunities for cultural uniqueness. As quoted in relation to the emergence of distinctive regional fashions throughout Ireland:
You can’t give away black in Cork. It is a really different look there—everybody loves colour and black is for funerals. In Galway, they love dressing up and you really see it at the taxi ranks at the Galway races. There’s a great sense of style in Limerick and some great boutiques outside the city. That’s why the UK multiples get it wrong. Each of our regions has to be treated differently and that’s what gives us the edge.
Only when fashion engages with its backyard, be that local or regional, as well as seeking global exposure and export markets, will “polycentric” fashion really thrive. Fashion will never end but it will have other and diverse futures across cultures and places.