I Asked a Bunch of Industry People: What’s the Point of Fashion?

I have had a very dramatic question on my mind since Amelia and I set foot in Paris together last February for the fall 2017 shows. We sat at a cafe drinking cappuccino at tables that were far too small for our laptops but which we managed to use for work anyway. She was working on a review that would publish when New York woke up four hours later, and I was doing math — adding the cost of our plane tickets to our hotel room to the number of nights we would be in Paris to the food we would most likely consume and the pair of shoes or jacket or sunglasses I would probably end up buying because there is something about Paris that burns a hole through your pocket if you so much as attempt frugality.

I was also thinking about who reads our reviews, who cares that we cover shows — that with flowery prose we try to make sense of the fashion trends that lay ahead, to unlock the Da Vinci code that is a designer’s most intimate thoughts. Do the readers care? Do they need more than a photo on Instagram to get what they crave: a brief (but often wondrous) look at what’s new? Would they prefer to see glimpses of real life instead? (I know I would!)

So I asked myself: What are we doing here? How did we get here? Is this what fashion is about? Are we acting true to our ethos or simply following along on a track that has been bound toward derailment for years? And then I endeavored to answer this question: What’s the point of fashion? Does fashion week have anything to do with it? Have we conflated the two?

I have always metabolized fashion as my own form of escapism — a temporary tattoo that lets me speak with wild conviction but then take it back whenever I want. Fashion is so much more than just clothing for the people who feel they can let it in; it can become the greatest sum of her parts, a megaphone for articulation where words simply will not work. It can be a drug-free boost that makes a terrible day seem slightly better, a reminder through the depths of desperation that even if nothing else is going as I’ve planned, I’m armed. As Diana Vreeland famously said: “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.”

Below, 12 editors, writers, designers, shop owners, stylists and consultants share their opinions on my burning question: What’s the point of fashion? (Feel free to share your response, too!)

“Fashion, to me, represents life. When I wear something that makes me feel more…creative, more interesting, stronger, complicated — that’s when I feel the most alive, the most engaged with the world. Changing my wardrobe is the quickest route to feeling like everything is new again, that anything is possible. So the purpose of fashion is to make you feel alive and present. I hate it when people get too philosophical about fashion, but this really is the truth!”

Amy Smilovic, founder and designer of Tibi

“The purpose of fashion can be as simple as: You need clothing to maneuver in the world. Forget fashion as trend, think fashion and clothing as necessity. You need a pair of pants, a shirt, shoes to go on that interview, to the grocery store, your cousin’s wedding. It’s how we present ourselves to live.”

Rajni Jacques, fashion director, Teen Vogue and Allure

“I know practically, fashion is art, it’s commerce, it’s function, it’s expression. But I also can’t mistake the simple gut reaction I have when I see something I love, that really knocks me out. It’s like out of the blue, finding something special that you’ve lost. You know that feeling: ‘Oh geezus, THERE it is!’ And then, somehow you find a way to make it your own, and once it is [your own], you’re just a little bit more yourself than you were before you found it? That’s fashion to me. Collecting beautiful little pieces of yourself over time.”

Christene Barberich, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Refinery29

“A form of expression without the use of words. To me, it’s very personal, real and raw; it’s a way of syncing the internal with the external. Or maybe at times it’s just securing a feeling you want to nurture. It’s never about the people around me. To me, that’s like ordering from a menu for someone else — only you know what you want to eat…if you order someone the burger and think, Oh they will LOVE this, you never know, they could show up and say, ‘I became vegan about two hours ago.'”

Claire Distenfeld, owner of Fivestory

“Joy. That is the purpose of fashion for me. The joy of wearing something that makes you feel powerful or beautiful or in control. The joy of seeing a fashion show so beautiful that it turns you into a wide-eyed eight-year-old. The joy of buying something you dream about, or giving that to someone else. The joy of the new. It’s not about feeling less than — less cool, less rich, less skinny (as I know fashion can so often do). It’s about what makes you feel better.”

Laura Brown, editor-in-chief of InStyle

“There are many forms fashion take, from what I wear to drop my daughter off at school, to what I wear to fashion week. The brands that I gravitate toward all share a similar philosophy of quality, integrity and individuality. What and who you wear and how and when you wear it are all part of that personal expression. While being mindful of not over-consuming and not wanting to simply buy all the time, I try to be thoughtful with any purchase of ‘fashion’ to be sure that it can have a long life in my wardrobe and on me. The purpose of fashion, for me, is many things. It’s work, it’s protection, it helps me communicate who I am.”

Ramya Giangola, fashion consultant

“The purpose of fashion is to negate our persistent fear of death. Decorating ourselves in particular things helps to craft an identity, which creates the illusion of permanency. If we buy things and we define the way we look, it makes our existence feel more real and everlasting. The end! (But hopefully not.)”

Lauren Sherman, New York editor of Business of Fashion

“Fashion celebrates women. Women aren’t the only ones who get to wear fashion, of course, but women drive this business on the consumer side and in media, sales, PR, styling and design. Every morning I walk through doors with a powerful woman’s name on them. Most editors I work with are women, with other women at the top of their mastheads. This will appear on a website masterminded and run by women! My first job was at Oscar de la Renta, and he used to say that his clothes were love letters to the people who wore them. At the heart, I think that’s what fashion should always be about: the celebration of a person’s beauty and strength, on and off the runway.”

Gabby Katz, account director at Karla Otto

“The point of fashion is to protect you. But that can mean different things. Most basically, fashion exists to cover you; the ‘protection’ can change depending on who you are and where you are. Fashion can be used to boost confidence (protect you from feeling shitty about yourself), to protect you from being an outsider (you bought a fleeting trend). At various times in my life, I’ve dressed specifically to protect myself from appearing approachable because I was feeling shy.”

Ruthie Friedlander, site director, InStyle

“If you’re outside of fashion’s congregation (if you just don’t care, or if it in no way crosses your radar), the point of fashion as an abstract or an ideal or something conceptual, I hope, is to at least spark a thought. ANY thought. A throwback, an idea, a reckoning, a consideration of a moment in time, pop-related or otherwise, that resonates. There are things that can be pondered and traced through fashion. And I think that’s the real point: to give you pause and make you consider, for a second, something broader.”

Nick Remsen, freelance fashion writer

“Fashion is about storytelling through clothing; it’s about the stories behind them and the ones you create around them. It’s a cultural influence, backstory or intellectual touchpoint that you can trace back to what you’re wearing. We use it to escape the mundane, to embrace and celebrate tradition. It’s about a sense of history and pride and it embodies a greater sense of purpose than just a garment tossed on to cover bodies.”

Shiona Turini, freelance stylist and consultant

“Fashion ties us to moments of our existence. It adds to the elements of our emotional and physical sensories by being a literal fabric and thread in our lives. I’ll never forget the feeling of saving enough money to buy a green Benetton rugby shirt, or this yellow dress with brown pom-poms that I had when I was four. Think about how emotionally tied you can become to a wardrobe in a film — to me, that is the point of fashion: to help connect and mark time.”

Karla Welch, celebrity stylist

Photo by Simon Chetrit.

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

More from Archive