As far as I can see, people have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning of history. I can only conclude that this tells us more about people than it does about the earth’s longevity.
Currently, we seem to be in a particularly acute period of collective angst with commentators bemoaning the adverse impacts of Covid 19 and social media on our society and on the next generation.
Luckily, I am more optimistic about both phenomena. Covid 19 is a dreadful virus which has brought suffering and misery to many people, both those infected and those forced to lock down at home for extended periods. Many people have lost their jobs as airlines, hotels, restaurants and bars have been forced to shed workers. The fashion industry has also been badly affected. Fashion week shows and other client events have been cancelled; shopping has become a marathon of queuing, masking, and sterilising; customers are not buying; while key suppliers and the brands’ own workshops are locked down.
However, coronavirus has had some positive impacts. It has forced the deeply conservative fashion industry to re-evaluate many parts of itsbusiness model. There has been a shift towards online activity with buyers reviewing collections via Zoom, customers being given digital access to shows, and the shows themselves being filmed in virtual reality. It remains to be seen how many of these innovations will out-live the end of Covid 19, but for the first time in many years, the fashion industry is looking at new ways of doing business, potentially replacing an operating model which has been unchanged for fifty years.
Will this mean the end of fashion shows? As somebody who has walked the runway and sat in the front row, I doubt it. How can even the slickest of virtual reality hope to convey the organised chaos of backstage at a major fashion show, a heady mixture of the excitement of a midnight feast at a girl’s boarding school combined with the boredom of a three hour wait at the New York Department of Motor Vehicles? The spider girls arrive one-byone or in droves depending upon their previous show, delivered on the back of a motorbike by some fashion Deliveroo. They wander in, dressed as if they had to take the dog out at three in the morning. They look pale but they always look pale. Perhaps it’s the nightlife catching up with them or maybe their great height means that they spend most of the day oxygen-deprived. Their pallor is academic. By the time they have to face the runway lights and the flashguns, they’ll be wearing more makeup than an American presidential candidate. The makeup artists and hairdressers wait patiently. Since nobody ordered scaffolding, nothing can start till the models sit. Then the work of transforming a washed-out, hungover giant into a beautiful walking coat hanger begins. For the girls, it’s just another day at the office. When the makeup is on, it’s time for a selfie and a cute video with the hairdresser. Outside, it’s a different story.
Outside the audience is arriving. The international guests are dressed to kill in their new outfits, the price of their admission to this party of all parties. Swathed in warpaint, courtesy of the makeup artist the fashion house so thoughtfully provided, even their own husbands wouldn’t recognise them as they pose for selfies on the catwalk. The more aggressive try to swap seats, sparring with the attendants, and swapping insults with seat’s rightful owner. The local guests turn up late dressed in jeans and a jacket, too cool for school and too smart to spend money on outfits for shows. The influencers, emissaries from a parallel universe, arrive from the previous show and head to the front row, keen to enjoy their new role as fashion’s royalty, oblivious to the fact that the social media revolution which put them in power may one day be swept away by another cultural shift, leaving them as no more than a curious footnote in fashion history. How can you possibly capture such drama in virtual reality? And the show hasn’t even started yet.
For nothing is constant but change. Now, it seems that a number of Silicon Valley technologists who became very rich working for Google, Facebook, and others, have had a sudden change of heart and come to believe, rather like the famous Dr Frankenstein, that they have created a monster. Of course, there are some negative aspects to social media but there are also some extraordinary benefits. For the first time in history, a teenager with a great idea can attract a global following in a way that simply wasn’t possible before social media. Yes, social media does not paint the world as it is but as it would like you to believe it is. This is not surprising as it is an advertising-funded model and advertising has always been about manipulation, even in the days when it was restricted to television, magazines, and billboards. Just as the current older generation grew up sceptical of the advertisers’ straplines, today’s youth have long ago worked out that nobody has legs that long or smiles that perfect without some generous post-production magic.
Consequently, I don’t worry about Instagram users renting clothes or green-screening bags onto their photos because firstly, I think most people see through it, and secondly, I wouldn’t know how to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. There are, though, areas of social media which I do think need to be policed more effectively, most notably the implicit and explicit promotion of cosmetic surgery, fillers and Botox to young women. Such promoters target vulnerable women by exploiting their lack of selfconfidence and selling them an impossible dream. I don’t blame social media for this – it is simply an enabling technology – and I suspect it would still be happening even if social media never existed. The real challenge is to help young women realise that that they do not need cosmetic surgery, that they should be comfortable in their own skins, and confident in their abilities. The march of technology has allowed younger people to be more exposed to the world than ever before. It has given them a level of sophistication at an earlier age than any previous generation. What it hasn’t done – and what social media cannot do – is provide the human contact and inter-actions which lead to emotional maturity. There is no point in being the most attractive hologram on Instagram if nobody ever asks you for a date.