Consumers are more sophisticated in their buying decisions and the landscape of fashion is rapidly changing with new demands around ethics, sustainability, function and communication of clothing: the state of design is in flux. In conjunction with SEEK spring/summer 2015 show, Address – journal for fashion criticism brought together a roundtable discussion to unravel the topic in more detail. Simon Freund, owner and designer at Berlin based lifestyle brand Simon & Me; Friederike Von Wedel-Parlow, programme director for MA Sustainability in Fashion at Esmod; writer and critic Ana Finel Honigman as well as Jacob Brinck and Ania Bauer, the team behind Berlin based shop Baerck, all took part, bringing a diverse variety of perspectives to the dialogue. Address editor Johannes Reponen moderated the discussion.
Johannes Reponen: What does the word ‘design’ mean to you?
Ana Finel Honigman: Design indicates more of an intention, whereas a conceptual base and a series of concerns contribute to the look and the practical components of a product. Also this process is of paramount importance to me when I try to interpret and relate to the object. For me, the actual finished product itself is less important.
Friederike Von Wedel-Parlow: When we think about design, we have to shape it for the future by asking important questions like how the product will live, what are the products that we want be surrounded by and to give to other people. Designers have a big responsibility. I would define design as a holistic process where every single aspect has been thought through. This includes not just materials and processes, but also communication and business. We need to find a coherent way of shaping what we do and this process is going so much further now.
Ana Finel Honigman: When I think about design I also think of what was the problem the designer was looking to solve. Often designers will discuss the lack of invention or problem solving. They consider psychological, social and practical elements that might be missing and how to solve that problem by producing something that fills the void. I like to imagine what was not there, that needed that particular object coming to existence, when approaching design.
Simon Freund: For me the idea is the key. The whole process starts from the idea. But in order to make a good product, we need to consider things such as working conditions, the materials, the environment, how long will products last and especially what it is going to happen once the product’s lifespan has come to an end. Currently, I don’t think a lot of companies really think about the whole process. There was a great debate a few years ago about disposability and I still think not enough companies picked it up. Personally I want to put in effort to do the whole process the right way. I know who makes the product and where the material is coming from; I know how long it will last and how to recycle the product afterwards, so if you don’t like it anymore you can do something else with it. Simon & Me is a small brand but we have the capabilities to do it right. Therefore I feel so disappointed with the big brands, especially, because they are doing things totally wrong. They have good-looking, well-designed products, but they are missing the parts that have been previously pointed out, like sustainability.
Ania Bauer: You also have to consider the short period of time when things are sellable, which leads us to ask: what is the real value of the product? Fashion is changing so fast and this really short fashion cycle, that all the labels are following, somehow lowers the value of what fashion designers do. The industry dictates the cycle of fashion and as a store, we have to do sales, otherwise people don’t come to the shop. You do not have just the material and the production to add value to the product, but using the word value, it is understood also as to how long the item sits in the shop.
Jacob Brick: I think nowadays we understand design as styling and that is something different to me.
Johannes Reponen: It seems to me that the words fashion and clothing mean very different things.
Friederike Von Wedel-Parlow: Yes and you can also divide them into ‘fast fashion’ and ‘slow fashion’. Simon’s concept is about slow and the way he designs it is comparable to how someone designs furniture where you take much more time to produce products. There is a value added to the product, which I think you can feel. Therefore you can sell the product for longer because you can wear it or use it for longer. I think there is so much to learn from other businesses on how to make products differently. The fast selling cycles of fashion are holding back the industry at the moment and changing the system takes lot of time. Perhaps we can start to change parts of the collections and I know businesses that want the product back after it is worn out. Fast fashion is getting even faster and crazier in terms of how it is produced and on the other side there is this polar opposite movement where designers are thinking of how we could change fashion.
Johannes Reponen: Jacob and Ania, when you are buying around fairs like SEEK, what are you looking for and how are you trying to address these issues that we have discussed? Are you looking to find something that lasts longer or something that is more fashion lead?
Ania Bauer: Jacob always looks for labels that are not very big in the market. We are often surprised by the material they use and by the presentation they offer. However, we also supply some basic casualwear labels. For a business, it is a hard decision to stock just brands with a philosophy behind them, because this concept limits our possibility of choice. We need to go on and keep looking for things.
Jacob Brinck: It is not just about the labels. Customers also want to know more about the product now. We need to take care where the production is, what materials are used, where they are sourced. This is something that, as a small business, we can take care of ourselves. The customer who is looking for something special wants to have all the information.
Ania Bauer: In addition, you need to know everything about your competitors. The prices at our shop are a bit higher than other retailers, but our products are definitely worth it. Staying true to our philosophy gives us more responsibilities in the decision making process, starting from the people we work with. We know all our suppliers very well and we are in close contact with them, there is a constant exchange of information and they are very helpful. If you choose to do this job you do it because of the passion and certainly not because of the money. You must know what you want and where you want to go.
Johannes Reponen: Simon, your brand philosophy goes against what fashion is all about: seasonality, short lifespan etc. How do customers and buyers perceive your products?
Simon Freund: For the first time last January, we revealed our products to the buyers through a secret show. The reactions on one side were positive; they liked the products and they understood our concept. On the other hand, some retailers were skeptical about the small selection on offer; they didn’t think we could make it work. However, the buyers from those stores are coming back to us now. They finally understood the products we do. They now see that we are actually doing a good job with these five products, which, from the time of the first show, have increased to ten. It is difficult to explain to people that working in the way we do makes sense. It is probably harder and less rewarding for the buyers because they don’t have much choice, it is difficult to choose when there is just a small selection, but actually it is quite a nice challenge.
Ania Bauer: I think it is about the concept. You [Simon Freund] have chosen yours and the same goes for us. It is not just a specific object that affects the collection, it is the concept that matters. It is not the product per se, but how well the product we chose fits with the brand philosophy, how well it creates a story that makes sense within the whole collection.
Simon Freund: Customers like stories and I think that selling stories works well for stores; but then again it is very important that the product really matches the story. All brands are trying to embrace stories but I think that customers are so clever at the moment and they do not believe in some of the stories anymore. Now, with the Internet, customers can be very informed about everything. They understand, for example, that big names don’t produce things necessarily in the right way. Therefore, the story is important but more importantly, it has to be true.
Ana Finel Honigman: That is factually, but also psychologically, true. You really can tell if the designer is producing something because of psychological needs and then it can be related to the people who purchase it. They feel empathy and affinity: they feel individually represented by the product.
Friederike Von Wedel-Parlow: If you do your product with passion, the story comes naturally and you don’t need to invent a marketing story to enhance it because it is already in there, in the product.
Ana Finel Honigman: To add to the issue of stories and importance of stories, those are really harmed by the speed of the fashion cycles. There is a general issue, in contemporary society that there is such a youth focus in our creative areas that people digest the initial story of the heritage of the brand and lose sight of the core story. Therefore brands think that they have to upgrade, update and change the substance of who they are and the garments that they are making. Every season the designer will come out with a new narrative that it is attempting to attract the attention of people like me. I write almost entirely for Style.com during the fashion week and there is so much pressure for everyone to come out with completely new stories.
Johannes Reponen: Ania and Jacob, you talked a little bit about the relationship between stores, fashion and storytelling, could you elaborate on the links between these?
Ania Bauer: As with a shop interior, you need to think about how you show the clothes. You don’t just place the racks in the middle of the room, you need to think at 360 degrees, it is part of our job and we have lot of experience in this area. Mixing interiors with fashion is really important in a store because it has to match with the company’s concept, and at the same time, boost sales. We have a store ourselves where we make little installations; we stock a product range and give other designers an opportunity to present their labels in our store. Therefore we know how vital it is to pick the right furniture to match the clothing and the overall idea: from colours to topics and themes. It is rewarding to see the final outcome and the vibe that your work transmits.
Johannes Reponen: Simon, your product range includes clothes and objects such as a compass and stepladders. Is there any difference in the way you approach design, depending on the object?
Simon Freund: I have a very strict design process. As I said earlier it is always about the idea. Before I do anything it has to be in my head and it needs to be a solid idea and then I try to make it come to life. After that it’s about the right production, the right materials. All my products go through exactly the same process, no matter what. Right now we are showing a ladder and it went through exactly the same process as the T-shirt that we are showing; same for the process of the compass and so on. It is a thing that I find interesting for the critics as well, because we are very true to our core message and we want to show it through a variety of products. It is so true what Ana mentioned, how fashion designers need to do crazy stuff to get attention instead of being what they are.
Johannes Reponen: Where to you think fashion is heading then?
Jacob Brinck: I think customers have always been knowledgeable in terms of quality. However, lot of designers decided to go with the shorter cycle because there is market for it and that’s the other thing. When you have customers believing in your philosophy, then you can do things differently. You can impose yourself on the market and stay true with your beliefs and then you will see if the rest of the market, and also the big players, will understand and follow what you do.
Ana Finel Honigman: I am thinking about the future a lot and I really think that fashion and the designers are very sensitive to social and economical changes. Social issues influence design trends, consumer trends and fashion trends, way more than any innovation or aesthetic development does. Those are really the issues that determine what people will buy. Although ethical consumerism is such a wonderful thing, and we should behave in that way, there is just a long history of people becoming more conscious and then loosing their consciousness, like loosing their plot and returning to the fast consumerism path. When people have high levels of disposable money, everyone feels pressured to look for the latest things on the market. They are not thinking anymore of the ethical part as the greediness and ego of fashion makes them prefer to shop sociopathically instead of in a conscious way, and that will always be the case.
Friederike Von Wedel-Parlow: I think very positively about the future and I hope we are going to change the system towards sustainability; and making sure that in the fashion system, there is no child labour involved in the production and there is no harm to the environment. I think changing the cyclical direction of the product and sharing all these alternative systems that are starting to come out, will be the future. However, I believe that the main change has to come from the people. They really have to learn to read the labels and understand what quality is, which is something that got lost, especially when using cheap materials. I think that the young generation has lost touch with quality. They do not know anymore what good quality materials feel like because they are used to shopping in H&M. We should also find a concept where we can teach the youngster what real quality feels like in order for them to make the right decisions.
Ania Bauer: It is about giving people knowledge. They have to understand and not just blindly follow all these trends for the sake of cool. It is really important that people are proud of shopping sustainably. However, firstly as a retailer I think you have to believe in the product you sell and as long as you stick with your convictions you will always find the right customer who appreciates it and recognizes the difference.
Simon Freund: I still think that most of the power lies with the consumers. I wish for the future that more people would think about what they buy and how they consume. My brand is trying to approach design in a conscious and ethical way but we are also trying to set an example. I want to show to other brands how it should be done. I think that if the consumer starts buying from the brands that are approaching design in the right way, then things will be very bright for the future.
This discussion took place on the 8th July 2014 during SEEK spring summer 2015 and it has been edited and condensed by Daniela Amolini.