We first met Dr. Ben Wild back in January. On a chilly Thursday morning, the fashion historian packed a room in Shoreditch House with early risers who came to hear his talk, Heritage: A paradox and a potential, part of the monthly event series Rising Minds. His captivating presentation introduced us to the notion of neoteny, which refers to the persistence of juvenile traits in adult (older) members of a species. The guest lecturer at Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design and Sotheby’s Institute of Art also considered the appeal of Heritage for companies and consumers throughout luxury and how to create it in a contemporary context. Needless to say his talk left us wanting more. Today we speak with Dr. Ben Wild about the changing state of the fashion industry, key historical moments from the last 15 years and his newly published book.
Tell us about yourself and how you went into fashion history.
I have always been interested in history and how people dress, so I suppose there was a strong likelihood that I would look to make connections between the two areas in my career. I am more interested in the ‘why’ of people’s dress, so an academic route was always more appealing to me than something more practical, but I have been fortunate to work with fashion brands and entrepreneurs who want to share the history and heritage of their products and services with wider audiences. My research and lecturing enables me to reach people who are keen to understand how fashion’s past continues to exercise a strong influence over its present, and future.
What is your vision about the state of the fashion industry at the moment?
The fashion industry has grown at an incredible pace and rate in recent years and I think people – at all levels in the industry – are seeking to find integrity and creativity in what they are producing; I sense they are keen to move away from such an overt focus on commercialism, although this will always remain necessary. The departure of many creative directors, the criticism of some brand’s culturally insensitive marketing campaigns, the provocative styles that now routinely appear in the catwalk, suggest that, after a dizzy ride, the industry is now thinking more reflectively and critically about what its role and impact is and should be.
What are the main movements and events from the last 10-15 years that will go down in history and why?
Androgynous dress is not new, but in a decade characterised by the recycling of past vogues, the prevalence of gender-neutral clothing is the one trend that my students are most interested in and, understandably, affected by. Gender division in clothing has been an assumption of (Western) wardrobes since the Middle Ages (when fashion first became prevalent), so if androgynous dress endures, it will mark a major change in how people conceive of themselves when dressed.
How do you see technology impacting fashion in the future?
Technology is already having a significant impact on how our clothes are created – eg. 3d printing – and consumed – eg. more efficient distribution – but its impact on how our clothing is conceived is slight. This is chiefly because what we wear is governed by our social interactions (personal and professional) and technology has done little – yet – to fundamentally alter acceptable patterns of behaviour. If, in the future, technology significantly alters the way that people interact with each other, our wardrobes will alter accordingly. One hint at how technology could shape the way we dress is the rise of the genderless male in Japan, a trend recently reported by I-D magazine that is apparently influenced by Manga and the country’s gaming culture.
Do you think this (technological advancements in fashion) is just a fad or will it really revolutionise fashion as we know it?
The advent of wearable tech is probably the one area where we are seeing the potential for technological advancements to change people’s look, but as Apple’s watch and Google’s glasses show, we are at a very early stage and these product launches have had the feel of a fad. For me, the advent of the ‘smart watch’ is actually more remarkable for the apparent stimulus it has given to analogue and digital watch designs, which continue to thrive. For the foreseeable future, I think the main revolutions will come in the creation and consumption of clothing.
Let’s talk about luxury.. On one hand, we’ve got the majority of high-end brands scared of technological innovation and, on the other, the likes of Burberry who are pioneering in all things digital & tech. Why is that the case in your opinion?
Technological developments and greater global connectivity have democratised luxury: a majority of people are now able to access the products and services they desire on their terms, from computers and hand-held devices. In this context, elements of a luxury service are no longer privileges for a few people but the prerogatives of many. For a luxury brand to embrace digital and tech is therefore to risk diluting their identity and allure. Online, key elements of the luxury experience – customer service not least – can also be lost or compromised.
Burberry is, perhaps, slightly different as a luxury brand because it has experienced the problem of democratisation and dilution through the popularity and prevalence of its tartan print. For Burberry to be a pioneer in the field of digital and tech could therefore be seen a savvy solution to harness brand familiarity in an area where the rules of the luxury game can be defined by them.
You just published A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton. Can you tell us more about it?
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) was one of the most characterful and best-dressed people in twentieth-century Britain. As a photographer for Condé Nast, Britain’s royal family and the Allied war effort between 1939 and 1945, he gained international fame and respect. But, in focusing on Beaton’s view of the world, few have considered him and how he used his wardrobe to protect his character and proclaim his achievements. Through interviews with Beaton’s tailors, records of his clothing purchases, examples of his surviving clothing and unpublished photographs, my book aims to peer beneath Beaton’s carefully curated veneer and explore how his style evolved during his life and during one of the most interesting period’s in the development of men’s dress. The book also shows how elements of Beaton’s style, which championed vintage vogues, colour-blocking and layering, continue to inspire men today. It could also be said that Beaton was an early exponent of gender-bending dress.
What’s the one thing from fashion history that brands should pay attention to today?
Of late, there was been so much recycling from the 1980s and 1990s, which makes me feel rather old! Fashion has always looked to its past for inspiration, but the recent wardrobe trawls seem more indiscriminate. If trends are to endure – and be commercially successful – I think brands need to pay more attention, and be more sensitive, to the cultural meanings attached to clothing styles that they take their design cues from; there has been much criticism of brands whose attempts to praise different cultural or historic styles have ended up producing a pastiche or something stereotypical.
As someone who writes a lot about men’s fashion and style, can you share some key menswear style tips and trends.
I think men continue to value quality of materials and manufacture in the clothes they buy. There is a more individualistic and, perhaps, relaxed and confident aesthetic to men’s dress, but men’s dress is still governed by concerns for status, both in the workplace and outside; when I speak with men and adolescent males, what might be regarded as traditional notions of masculinity prevail and these underpin the myriad masculinities that are now written about, from the New Man to the Lumbersexual and everything in between. Men’s dress is discussed more and displayed more, but I think many men remain conservative, held back by the weight of history and social rules. One interesting consequence of all this is the increased interest in vintage vogues, which enables men to be creative and display some individuality whilst not appearing too avant-garde. So, small, but positive steps!