The Road To Excess Leads To The Palace Of Wisdom, Or Does It?

Something is rotting away in the court of fashion and luxury and we need to stem the disease; to stop the endless feeding frenzy of production that we are trapped in 12 seasons a year.

These two sentences kicked off my speech at the 2018 Condé Nast International Luxury Conference in Lisbon last week, where I spoke in front of hundreds of executives and high-powered individuals within the luxury fashion industry and urged them to start talking about it; to debate, discuss, and dare to ask the questions that make us truly rethink what luxury even means in this world today.

But the conversation should not just end in that room. In fact, it can't. Before heading to Lisbon, I reached out to our growing community to gather the thoughts of the countless designers who are ready to push the envelope and shift the industry for the better.

Standing in front of that room last week, I firmly placed a stake in the ground and implored everyone there to join me in this revolution—one I call Authentic Radicalism. Changing the world is no longer just an option, it is now an obligation. We now have no choice. At the very least, we have to try. 

If we are to truly reshape our industry, we have to be incredibly transparent and aware of what the issues are and where they exist. No matter if you are a designer, model, buyer, or fashion fan—we all have to be made aware and discuss the issues that make our industry rot from the inside out. 

Eugene Rabkin of StyleZeitgeist Magazine defined fashion as a "creative industry with an implicit understanding that its brands have a certain duty to creativity in maintaining artistic standards, even if that means a slightly smaller profit." Let that sink in, because today couldn't feel more far off. Now, it seems both the value of design and appreciation of the craft may have been overtaken by greed.

Has hype triumphed over true design? Are Instagram mavens, who have no training or ability, taking the place of passionate and creative artisans? If this is so, are we witnessing the product of the mediocre and unskilled?  Have the clothes themselves become irrelevant?

With these questions in mind, I posed an even larger set of existential queries to the crowd sitting before me: who we are? We love our planet, right? We want to pass it on to future generations, right? The answer is most definitely yes. But our fashion supply chain says otherwise.

Microfibers from our clothing are poisoning the oceans. 73 million children under the age of ten are working as child labourers, too many of them working in the fashion industries. Carbon emissions are rising, and in the way our industry operates, natural resources are in jeopardy. Shocking, right?

Fashion, we are told, is the mirror held up to society. But what do we see in this reflection? Let’s be honest. We see a society that values profits over the environment. Surely, it boils down to three fundamental themes: slowing down consumption, respecting people and the environment, and acknowledging human needs.

As William Blake rightly questioned, do we have to drive over the bones of the dead, on a road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom? It’s wrong to violate human rights. Yet we are violating the planet of its resources, condemning all future people to struggle and misery. We have to take responsibility for this and for building an industry that created that lack of responsibility.

Amidst leaders in the industry, who have the power to shape and guide what fashion does, I urged everyone to truly rethink who the role models in luxury are. The icons and the It-Girls of the moment hold power because we give it to them. I say, let the fashion gods fall, and instead, let’s praise those worth praising.

The shift to digital is a major contributor to the celebration of the empty and momentary. There is absolutely no pride in making young kids wait hours in lines for luxury gear, we should be the responsible adults empowering them to make informed choices. 

Are we fighting a new dark age, filled with vapid mediocrity, where craft, talent, a moral code and integrity have somehow become eroded and replaced by the ready-made, disposable and cynical? Without art, nature, a code of honour, or a love of craftsmanship, excellence, and soul we atrophy and degenerate as a species.

Let’s start celebrating the artists, let luxury celebrate culture and talent.

Our industry is far from immune from the dysfunctionality of the larger landscape it functions within; the latest anti-semitic comments, accusations towards famed photographers for sexual misconduct, and homophobic language from industry insiders are not fashion faux pas, they’re serious occurrences that require a radical shift in thinking.

I challenged every single person in that room in Lisbon to take responsibility as well; to join and say that we are no longer turning a blind eye, that we are not only interested in the bottom line. I even pointed straight at Condé Nast, who released a Code of Conduct in response to these scandals. 

But as a brand owner, ultimately, those in power need to take some responsibility for hiring these people. Luxury industry insiders accuse fast-fashion retailers for shifting the blame to contractors in 3rd world countries when it comes to child labour and unsafe working conditions. From now on, we will not allow those within the industry to shift the blame when it comes to protecting up and coming talent—be it designers, models, or fans.

If our industry stops caring for its young, its extinction is not only imminent but well deserved.

Much of this madness in our industry comes from the way in which we shift towards social media for power and purpose. There is a problem with social media, especially when an entire industry clings on to the lowest hanging fruit in terms of digital innovation. When the luxury industry funds 'virtual hearts' instead of real soul, we send a message to future generations that looking pretty is the same thing as creating beauty, and building a 'lifestyle brand' is the same thing as having a life. That’s just not true.

Technology in luxury should be ground-breaking, not destroying the self-esteem of young and talented creatives.

Speaking in front of a group of leaders, I brought up the value and place of a leader. We all have a choice each and every day to become a leader. We need industry leaders to do what they're supposed to do—lead by example, not by profit or hype. 

The scandals around the likes of Weinstein and Testino have initiated an unparalleled movement for supporting and protecting the rights of women and minorities. These are signs of movement, and it is impossible now to ignore. 

Clearly, we need a new narrative. We need to go back to a system based on ideals. Based on truth and beauty and craft. Luxury today is an industry that is seeking answers. But we will not find them in short-termism, we will only find them by thinking about future generations, and by re-discovering our value system.

I asked the room in Lisbon and I ask you all, too: what will you do to reshape our industry?