The Keep Collection Manifesto
A Very Dense Primer on Our Problems With The Fashion Industry & What We’re Doing About Them
As a lover of clothes raised by career educators in the sea of law, politics, and journalism that is Washington, DC, I developed a "seriousness" complex pretty early on. I have a compulsive need to prove that my interest in fashion is something more than frivolous. After 23 years of distancing myself from any and all pursuits that could mark me a less focused, less intelligent, less moral person, I gave in and enrolled in a premiere fashion design program in Paris to redirect my education. I ended up dropping out, another thing a serious person doesn’t do, but not before making it a mission of sorts to find a slice of the fashion industry I could stand behind. The industry hasn’t always helped with my cause, but it has given me this list of conventions I'd like to update:
Each season, and oftentimes between seasons, designers come out with what are appropriately named "collections." They assemble 10-40 pieces of structurally, coloristically and volumetrically related clothing, and send them down the runway on models who are chosen and styled to fit the collection’s theme. Collections aim to be cohesive, and that is impressive, admirable and when well-executed, visually entrancing. During Fashion Week, collections from different houses follow each other, one after another, for a full month on end, and so they blur together, even for those of us who don’t have the privilege of attending any of the shows. This system is problematic because it undermines its own finest point: its constituents, those individual items of clothing born out of specific ideas. There is no time or space to notice the finishings on a garment when there is another one being paraded right after it on the runway (or e-store or catalogue). The effort that goes into each object is lost in an appealing and distracting excess.
A year ago, Refinery29 and Visionaire made a short video on the hours of craftsmanship that resulted in a single look at the Dior Spring/Summer 2015 Haute Couture show. The focal point was one of their many exquisite pleated, ribbon skirts made under Raf Simons' creative direction. I watched the video shortly after I’d returned to the States and dropped out of fashion school. First, it made my stomach flip and then it made me cry. The singular attention devoted to that one ensemble moved me more than the sum of Paris Fashion Week S/S 2015 and F/W 2015 combined. This shouldn’t surprise me or anyone else who knows that diffuse attention diminishes our appreciation of whatever it is we focus on. There is nothing wrong with options, and I recognize that from a business perspective having enough options to cater to varied tastes (but not too many to paralyze customers mid-shopping spree) is the smartest way to proceed, but as a maker of things and a lover of the things, I would prefer that my creations receive their due consideration, and I would prefer to evaluate and appreciate the creations of others with fresh eyes.
This Season’s Trends.
The collection and Fashion Week cycle is intricately tied to the tradition of seasons in fashion. Of course, clothes necessarily change with both time and weather. The creative impulse and body temperature demand it. That said, these changes, once born out of temperature, circumstance and innovation, are now manufactured to meet a demand required by the concept of “trendiness.” Fashion is a business that supports magazines, modeling agencies, zipper manufacturers, seamstresses and all of us who wear clothing (to name a few), and the business has evolved to pass between trends so as to generate holes in our wardrobe that need filling.
Let’s rewind to the trends of ten years ago: If everyone is wearing leggings (and if you do as you’re told and care about what everyone wears), and you don’t own any, you will need to go out and buy yourself some leggings. This is not news; this is supply and demand. It is, however, unfortunate because some of us (me!) love fashion as an art form and have a problem with commerce driving supposedly creative spheres, with ceding an aesthetic domain to an artificial demand. Trends are necessary to induce commercial activity, and commercial activity is necessary to propagate a fashion cycle that moves at a break-neck pace to keep ahead of the current mass-market trends. This cycle happens faster than most of our needs and tastes can evolve, and faster than most creatives would prefer to develop and hone their ideas. The cycle of the seasons is its own force that controls and manipulates both creator and consumer.
Clothing is discussed nearly exclusively using the language of trends for the season, new looks or some variation on the theme, and this language depersonalizes the relationship we have with our clothes and reduces clothing as both a necessity and an essential mode of self-expression. I don’t much listen to “wear this, not that” articles, but I don’t like the idea of my 14-year-old self being told what to put on her body, how to portray herself or who to be this month because of an arbitrary trend that was concocted by an enormous, mysterious system, less sinister than roving capitalism and perhaps more threatening because of its multivalent, indistinguishable source.
The Mood Board.
When I was studying fashion, we called what’s commonly referred to as a “mood board” our “personal universe.” We were instructed to snap pictures of stylish people on the streets, clip photos from magazines and record what it was we identified as inspirational about the image in a journal. We then turned this journal in for a grade. We were encouraged to perform creative research that amounted to googling ten skirts and pasting them into a Powerpoint, or writing a timeline of blouse styles from 1900-2010.
These exercises were elementary, but educational in the way that exposure always is, and probably appropriate activities for an introductory fashion course. Was this initial guidance to finding our muse really only a beginning, it would be a useful and logical first step. Unfortunately, fashion is often as superficial as its maligned for being, and nowhere is this more evident than in the offensively shallow basis of so much of its “inspiration.” This is where appropriation starts - traditions get borrowed without out any substantial investigation or long term investment in said traditions or culture, visual and otherwise. Collaging does not count as research, the punk movement cannot be reduced to Billy Idol and his hair, and taking a picture of a person is only the first step to knowing and caring about them. The fashion world discouragingly rarely goes beyond these initial phases, and so tends to make clothes that are either entirely self-referential or that are born in a vacuum with plenty of pictures on the wall.
This hardly needs explanation: cheap clothing is made cheaply and quickly. Because on the whole we have such a distanced, depersonalized relationship with our things, it’s nearly impossibly for a non-industry person to have an accurate sense of the steps and time involved in clothing production. The short version is that it is a lengthy, collaborative process that requires a huge amount of resources (fiscal and material) and many sets of trained eyes and hands. To drive down the cost of clothing and still turn a profit, two corners are the first to be cut: people are overworked under offensive conditions without adequate compensation and the clothes are poorly made. The fabric pieces that get sewn together to create a garment are arranged to maximize the many meters of fabric rather than arranged along the straight grain as is standard practice to ensure durability, and so cheap clothes will lose their shape after 20 minutes of wear, or pill and come undone after some washes. I cannot do justice to the other consequence of entirely inhumane working conditions here, but many before me have, including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Guardian UK (x2). Inexpensive clothing has its obvious benefits, and is the only option for a majority of us, but they are benefits I try not to take advantage of when given a choice. This is mostly because of the unavoidable toll of cheap labor, but also because I can’t find the point in having expendable things.
"The Fashion World."
The fashion world has detractors in every camp, and I am one of them almost as much as I am not. The most tired objection is that fashion is all style and no substance, or to quote Gertrude Stein, that “there’s no there there.” I happen to think this is inherently untrue and that the existence of style is an indication of substance. Style is a method of communication; it’s all about substance as it’s an allusion to a point of view, a set of interests or a place in the world (i.e. something undeniably substantive).
Fashionistas (and aficionados like myself who object to the word fashionista) promote fashion to skeptics by citing its expressive merits. They (we!) are obviously correct, but don’t always do the best job of proving our point. I attribute this not to the fashion world’s vapidity or exclusivity or depravity, but its insularity. Educators, Novelists, Linguists, your HR Team, Politicians, Advertisers, Dancers, Musicians, Actors etc. are all in the same business of exploring and enhancing communication, so why is there so little overlap between the fashion world and the rest of the world when we’re all speaking to the same experience? That so few people appear to be interested in deconstructing fashion’s modes of communication is shocking to me. When an interest in fashion is not presented as incompatible with being a decent, thinking person, it’s nearly always demarcated as separate from the thinking part of said person’s life. In magazines, fashion articles are interspersed between articles of "merit,” discussed in list format, as a set of instructions or in pictures with no words at all. Breaking down impressions and teasing out what they mean is exactly the kind of pursuit that’s a gift to the thinking person. Fashion is an ideal subject, but it’s usually either discounted as the pursuit of mindless women or portrayed as a rarefied, impenetrable field for insiders.
These are all complex problems without simple solutions, and on a mass scale, I don’t know how to solve them. I do however have changes that I will be making with The Keep Collection.
I came up with The Keep Collection as a new model for myself because I love clothes too much and hold my criticisms too close to bear giving up on one or the other. Fortunately, compromise isn’t my solution. Instead, I present to you The Keep Collection, a clothing line and online journal that's as close to experimental art as it is a business endeavor, but is set up as a company so that it can become a self-sustaining place to make and talk about a range of beautiful things.
The Keep Collection will release apparel and art items one at a time and alongside an edition of our journal. Each edition will document the entire gestation process. We’ll source each item ethically, describe our costs and decision making processes with complete transparency, and regret that we will still have to price some people out. We’ll present each item amidst descriptions of the technical and logistical achievements that brought it to fruition, the inspiration phase, the object’s history. We’ll tell stories to build out a life for our items, and most importantly, we’ll delve into themes that our item touches upon in interviews, opinion pieces, memoir and poetry. We will quite literally turn standard practice inside out by presenting our entire process (inspiration through production) on par with our product.
I care about clothing because it’s a piece of the rest of what I care about. I want to talk about clothing as it relates to power, sexuality, violence, health, gender, attraction, class, race and beauty. I want to explore the world using fashion as a filter, and I want to create a community out of The Keep Collection’s customers and readership. I want to collaborate with this extended community in the creative process, and draw upon the lives and styles and customs of others for inspiration. In hopes of giving voice to aesthetic sensibilities, sets of priorities and experiences beyond my own, guest contributors and co-designers will be staples of The Keep Collection. Among the best parts is that by bringing out the lives of these items, I might build my defense of fashion into the clothes themselves.
That’s our very bright future, but for now, we're starting with a unisex, white t-shirt and using it to talk about identity. Look forward to The Identity Edition & our t-shirt launch, coming quite soon.