We are on the precipice of massive change. The climate crisis, technological advances, and new social networks project a nebulous future. Who will we be in this uncertainty and, more importantly, what will we wear?
Welcome to the year 2042. The Earth is now controlled by robots of superior intelligence, and we all wear monochromatic black with beyond gorgeous leather trench coats. No... we are confused, this is the plot of the Matrix saga. Let's try again: we live in a dystopia where we are all born in a factory that determines our social class, as well as what color we are allowed to wear. It's sounding way too similar to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, we must have gone it wrong again. Well, the third time is the charm: we will live on a planet ravaged by food shortages and descend from the rational to the barbaric, all while wearing a menacing combination of leather and metal. Even if it is a reference to Mad Max, we cannot help but see this possibility as the most plausible of all. Our mistake is surely to keep looking to the fiction of the past to dictate to us what we will look like in the future, or even more importantly, what Fashion we will wear in the future. Let's leave books and movies and instead listen to the voices of the experts in the fashion world who are in charge of predicting the evolution of the industry. Will we ever wear metallic clothing while driving floating cars? According to Carla Buzasi, director of WGSN, one of the world's largest trend forecasting firms, the chances of that happening are slim. "Unless of course, Elon Musk gets his way and half the world's population is living on Mars," Buzasi jokes between laughs. The odds that we'll get to dress up like the Jetsons are equivalent to Musk's megalomaniacal plans coming to fruition. In Buzasi's opinion, even if humanity deepens its familiarity with the vast universe, we are unlikely to start dressing like astronauts. Quite the contrary, as the world we know changes, our desire to wear the clothes of the past will only increase. This assumption is based on one of the most universal laws of humanity: the nostalgia factor. "In periods of uncertainty, we as humans cling to things that give us a sense of comfort, often relating to our childhood." We look to the past for warmth in the face of a bleak world. This is how we understand the return of trends like Y2K, as a reference to a "safe" time for today's adults, more innocent times, before social networks, cell phones or pandemics became part of anyone’s vocabulary.
As we move on, and as new words enter our lexicon, this reflection will not dissipate, it will only become accentuated. Of course, this does not mean that the aesthetics of Fashion will not advance. Carla Buzasi clarifies, "the references we make to the decades of the past don't arrive crystal clear, every time they come back 'in Vogue' they have a new essence." These "new" trends from the past only mean that a new generation can now reinvent the aesthetic cycles of the past: even in nostalgia there is room for modernity. According to the CEO of WGSN, this phenomenon is not something that will only manifest itself in the future, it has been a constant in the past, it simply went unnoticed by the majority. "The fashion of the 90s was a reference to the 60s and 70s, just reformulated under the aesthetic sensibilities of the time." It is this phenomenon that we can expect from the trends of the future, one that makes available aesthetics that are as familiar as they are innovative.
The morphology of a trend cannot be reduced only to its aesthetics, in fact, according to the British specialist, the change in the coming years will be more noticeable not in fashion itself, but in the way trends disseminate. The world of the future "will be one where trends will dissipate in an accelerated way", inseparable from the digital world that progressively invades our daily lives. "We have the world in the palm of our hands, in our wrists even, the whole world, this will change the life cycle of a trend," says Carla Buzasi. What is foreseen is the progressive democratization of trends: in the recent past, trends were accessible only to the top of the industry hierarchy, which then slowly communicated them to the general population; in the future, trends will exist simultaneously for everyone. This phenomenon is what Buzasi calls the "true democratization of information," where "consumers can find out and have an opinion about something as soon as it happens." Gone are the days when one relied on media outlets to know what was "the" trend, now one just has to watch the live stream that (almost) every brand makes available of their runway shows. As we move into the future, the dialogue between the public and brands will only grow. Transparency will be one of the determining factors in the Fashion industry: "Information will disseminate faster and faster between the brand and the buyer." This evolution is interpreted by the trend forecasting expert as a positive thing. "As a designer, you want to know people's opinions, whether they like the product you've created." For the WGSN CEO, the most exciting thing about this new paradigm is the "opportunity for the rise of the voices of the future." For Buzasi, Fashion will be much more egalitarian than it has been: "In the not-too-distant past, it took an absurd amount of money to create a brand, now you can communicate a specific aesthetic and sell directly to the consumer." This change is catalyzed by the buyer who, inspired by the spread of information on social media, is disenchanted with "big brands." The desire for the new will be replaced by the craving for the unique. This phenomenon is titled by Carla Buzasi as "democrasized," meaning that "consumers are moving away from the notion of normal and instead adopting personalized and inclusive designs." This shift is not only based on the ambition to obtain exclusive pieces but on the growing standards of the fashion audience. In the words of Carla Buzasi, "in the future we won't want something that fits everyone, we want clothes and accessories that work for our bodies, lifestyles, and daily lives." This transformation, already noticeable nowadays, is complementary to the inclusion and diversity movement that is beginning to permeate the industry, one of the phenomena that, according to the expert, will not disappear in the next twenty years. "The world is a diverse place, and fashion has an opportunity to catalyze change in a way that no other industry has," Buzasi explains. "The issues of diversity and inclusion are extremely relevant topics, and even if I hope we reach a point where we don't need to address them in creative environments, there is still a lot of work to be done before we see the light at the end of that particular tunnel."
If it is the future that is being addressed, even if only for the next twenty years, there is a 1.6 million square kilometers wide elephant in the room. An extremely relevant factor, not only to understand the future of Fashion but of humanity itself. We speak of course of the climate crisis, the acceleration of which partially rests on the Fashion industry’s shoulders. According to the United Nations Environment Program, the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of global carbon dioxide production, as well as for one-fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced annually worldwide. Given these numbers, it becomes apparent that a drastic change (for the better, it must be stressed) must occur as soon as possible in the fashion industry. Once again we turn to the experts who have dedicated their careers to the industry: Carla Buzasi calls herself an optimist on the matter, indicating that, through her close contact with some of the giants in the industry, change can already be seen. "I honestly think there is a way to produce affordable clothing responsibly." Acknowledging the difficulty of the road ahead, the WGSN director warns, "It's not easy to ensure sustainability while mass producing at a low price, it requires brands, organizations, and the consumer to be conscious in their decision-making process." If Buzasi's opinion is hopeful, Kate Fletcher’s, professor at the Royal Danish Academy, is certainly more severe. In an interview with Vogue Portugal, the expert on sustainability in Fashion summarizes the future (if we don't change our consumption patterns) in one word: "catastrophe." Even though Fletcher is adamant in her opinion about the future, she does not do so lightly. The academic is one of the authors of a plan that points out ways to solve the Fashion problem, entitled Earth Logic. Through seven steps, Kate Fletcher, along with Mathilda Tham, outlines how the industry should change over the next twenty years. The main focus point should be the recalibration of Fashion's purpose, which at the moment is economic growth, implying "constant growth targets in annual sales," as Fletcher points out. This logic "has giant ecological impacts and works on the fantasy that we live on a planet that has no limits whatsoever." Fantasy is the key word for how we consume fashion in the present and describes exactly how we should change in the near future. What Earth Logic defines is "the set of goals for the industry whose starting point will always be that we face the reality of the finite resources and limits of planet Earth." If economic growth is no longer the goal, how will we calibrate the way we produce? For this question, too, the British academic presents a solution: "Ecological stability, fair wages, the prosperity of local communities, sustainable living conditions, and the health of the planet."
The transformation proposed by Fletcher implies the involvement of everyone that contributes to the industry, from giant conglomerates to the consumer, from regulatory bodies to small brands. Whereas Carla titled mass production as challenging to reconcile with the concept of sustainability, Fletcher describes the same as a definite impossibility. "The scale of the industry is its most pressing problem, to tackle it we need to reduce the volume of clothing that is produced and consumed," reports the British expert. But, as usual, change will not be (even if it should be) immediate. New laws and regulations, as well as the initiatives of the brands themselves, reveal the signs of the pending metamorphosis. "Brands have already started to dip their feet in these notions, even if sometimes it's just the substitution of materials in certain garments, these adjustments can build the necessary confidence and lead to the progress needed," recalls Fletcher. Although it is the consumer who will feel this change most acutely, it is emphasized that they too will have to be the catalyst for change. As the expert informs us, "change from the top is not the only way we have to govern our individual behaviors daily, we are responsible for what we consume." For the buyer, the easiest way to start implementing these changes is to "consume less." This is the crux of what we can expect in the decades ahead: the transformation of how we understand the garments we wear - the paradigm will have to shift from constant consumption to a thoughtful one, reinforced by sustainable garment production.
To say that we are going to completely change the way we consume would be dangerous, distancing us from the reason why we do it: the emotional reaction associated with buying something new. But what if we could continue to satisfy that need without requiring physical products, and their earthy costs, replacing them with virtual goods? No, we're not talking about science fiction, or rather, we could be, but in this case, it's just a palpable future: digital fashion. If you haven’t heard of the concept, it is exactly what it sounds like, clothing that is made to be perceivable only in the virtual environment. The area, which is in a phase of accelerated development is, as Kate Fletcher notes, "an opportunity for hope." For Matthew Drinkwater, digital fashion expert, and director of the Fashion Innovation Agency, this is an opportunity for the industry to find the "miraculous way to allow the shopper to continue to consume, without impacting the physical world." But, as both British academics warn, this is not an easy solution, it is only a chance to be explored. "We can use digital fashion as a tool to start calibrating consumer attention," reports Drinkwater. Beyond its practical possibilities when it comes to saving humanity from its woeful climate doom, digital Fashion is the realization of a true dream straight out of any 1980s science fiction (images of the shiny suits from Tron flood our minds). As the creative technology expert summarizes, "within the virtual world, all the limitations that the physical world entails become completely irrelevant." Lava pants, T-shirts composed of waterfalls, shoes that talk: the possibilities are endless. The enthusiasm with which we report these possibilities can be misleading: this technology will not develop over the next twenty years, it already exists. Matthew Drinkwater reports via a Zoom call (how appropriate for a discussion of the possibilities of the digital world), "The technology already exists, now there's just work being done on bringing this experience to the masses." We can expect this technology to integrate into our lives within the next fifteen years. This "lead time" is entirely dependent on the distribution of the equipment that will allow us to enter these curious worlds. Augmented reality technology, glasses, and even contact lenses will all allow us to merge the worlds of the real and the virtual. "This hardware will allow digital Fashion to become widespread to the masses and become as ubiquitous in our lives as Instagram filters have become," prophesies Drinkwater. As this technology spreads, so will the population's investment, giving rise to new creative voices and multiplying the already exciting possibilities of Fashion's transition to the virtual. We do not venture to suggest that digital fashion will in any way replace physical fashion, but based on Matthew Drinkwater's testimony, we can say with confidence: the two aspects of fashion will complement each other. This dialogue can already be witnessed, think of the partnership between Burberry and Minecraft, the popular online game, which transposed scarves of the British brand to the virtual world. Or Loewe's spring/summer 2023 collection, where pixelated clothing invaded the Parisian runway. These two examples are what the British researcher calls the "observable influence" that physical, so-called traditional, products suffer from digital experiences, creating a kind of symbiosis between the two. Drinkwater also theorizes how these two realities can coexist in one item: "There will be instances where what will appear as a simple piece in real life, will have digital components to it, that, when viewed through a virtual reality, reveal themselves"
In the face of such a radical change, the landscape of Fashion will inevitably alter, unlike the past, and the present to some extent, where the production of this type of Fashion does not require any of the implications that its physical version ensues. "With the emergence of this technology, all that is needed is an Internet connection and a laptop computer, and the path to a professional future can be secured in this industry," reports the British expert. What is materializing is a true democratization of Fashion, to a level never seen before. The lack of professionals with the necessary skills to deal with the technology that is the basis of digital fashion stimulates what Drinkwater calls "a group of consumers eager to start interacting with this technology in an immersive way”. The expert goes further, stating that "even without the so-called legitimate academic foundation, anyone can go down this path, all it takes is the desire to learn and a simple Youtube tutorial." Even though Matthew Drinkwater predicts a change in the industry's power hierarchy, he still makes it clear that the luxury brands that dominate the market today are not going anywhere in the next few years, they will just have to adapt to the digital realm. If the manufacturing and quality that are associated with luxury fashion seem displaced in the digital universe, the researcher explains: we have to reconsider our notions of digital graphics. "We are still in a formative stage of the digital Fashion industry, we still can't understand the artistry required to build visual effects of true quality," predicts Drinkwater. He elaborates, "Soon we will understand and respect the quality of manufacturing required to build quality digital pieces." The change in the luxury industry is, to the most attentive, already perceptible. Carla Buzasi informed us of this slow transformation: "If in the past luxury was about innovative design, today it is no longer about the product, but increasingly about all the components that surround the luxury experience." Matthew Drinkwater names the brands of the past, previously interested in selling clothes or accessories, as "cultural entities." In his words, "Fashion has always been about storytelling, about selling a story to the consumer, but in a technological future it will be about story living, allowing the consumer to live the experiences that brands create." The possibilities presented by the immersion of humanity in much escapes the Fashion industry, they represent a new chance to be in spaces where literally anything is possible. The creation of an accessible and inclusive world, the endless possibilities for self-expression, and the easing of disparities between different classes: digital reality is, in a way, a new beginning for humanity. Just as it always has been, Fashion will be the perfect vehicle for understanding the forthcoming changes. Simultaneously art and industry, it is a cultural reflection, a personal representation, and, above all, a social barometer. Much in Fashion will change in the 20 years ahead, but its role in human society and culture will remain unchanged as we venture into the unknown.
Translated from the original on The 20th anniversary issue, published November 2022.
Full story and credits in the print version.