Of perception, reality and superficiality
“What do you guys do in your office all day anyway? Talk about shoes and handbags?”
A relative trying to be playful asks me this at our Christmas family reunion. It’s clearly a joke; he asks me the same question each year. And each year, he thinks it’s funny. This time, I laugh only because today I do not wish to go through the motions and have to prove time and again that the industry I work in and love is a legitimate one. Whether jokingly or matter-of-factly, much continues to be said about fashion: frivolous, easy and glamorous. As for the people in it: snobby, self-absorbed and vapid.
These stereotypes, I understand, exist for a reason. Growing up, the mainstream representations of people in the industry were oftentimes associated with celebrity or, strictly speaking, fashion design. When it came to the former, they were the likes of Rachel Zoe, the Olsen twins, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie circa The Simple Life.
Rachel Zoe, mainstream fashion person #1, was one of the first stylists to take celebrity fashion beyond the red carpet. Noticing that the new trend for publications was to feature celebrities in their down time, Zoe decided to dress her Hollywood clients for their day-to-day activities, too. She turned paparazzi moments into opportunities to showcase looks from brands and designers in an under-the-radar type of marketing. Pretty ingenious for a “snobby, self-absorbed and vapid” fashion girl. Out of this, the celebrity street style craze was born—so was the perception that celebrities were glamorous 24/7 and had seemingly endless, constantly refreshed closets.
By the time Zoe’s reality show The Rachel Zoe Project premiered, she had already established herself as one of America’s celebrity power stylists. The occasional appearance of her star-studded clientele emphasized the very Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous aspect of fashion and here, Zoe was the glamazon of a valley girl (err, woman) who, at this point in her career, appeared to be more about providing the direction in her business, bonding with her clients, fawning over expensive clothes and jewelry and traveling the world to attend fashion shows. “For me, life is a red carpet,” says Zoe in the pilot episode. “Welcome to my life.” Even I understand how that comes off a little deluded. The nitty-gritty of the styling executions in the world of Zoe was left to her fashion associates, Brad Goreski and Taylor Jacobson. And since the show wasn’t called The Rachel Zoe, Brad Goreski and Taylor Jacobson Project, the unglamorous legwork of the two, which depicts the true reality of the industry, hardly made it to the episodes.
As for mainstream designers, there were the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Versace just to name a few. In the Philippines, we’re talking the Inno’s, the Rajo’s and the Josie Natori’s. As the facet of the industry the general public was most familiar with, the traditional understanding was: pursuing fashion equals pursuing fashion design…or, in the words of my then-misinformed father in response to my decision to veer away from a Business Management track: “Ha? Gusto mo maging mananahi?! [What? You want to become a seamstress?!] Why would you want to do that? What about your future?”
I could neither fault my old man nor get mad at him for this line of thinking (he was paying for my education after all and had a rightful say in my academic career). Back story: my folks are traditional—but thankfully accepting—intellectuals who both practice medicine, while my siblings are well on their way to becoming doctors, too. This means growing up with four left-brain dominant family members whose careers today are built on logic, analysis and objectivity. It’s all beautifully tied together by a profound purpose: to better people’s lives, if not save them. As the only one in the family set on a creative field, being right-brain dominant and all, going against the grain was not an act of rebellion, but simply my way of trusting my gut and putting in the work to turn a creative inclination into a professional career. Visual storytelling by way of fashion, I knew, was my calling. Little did I know though that this would be the beginning of a push-and-pull of minds that would expose me to a grave but very real misunderstanding: some still think that people in fashion are stupid or shallow; there are still plenty of people out there who project their beliefs, whether or not willingly, that being a person in fashion is a little like a cop-out.
The limited resources at the time and a one-sided telling after another of how the fashion industry worked (and who ran it) told my parents that different wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, true, but it didn’t automatically make it good. The portrayals of people in fashion on television, in movies and in glossy magazines certainly didn’t help the cause either. And so, they expressed their support up to a point; for a while, they also readied themselves for the possibility that the passion in starry-eyed, head-in-the-clouds me would burn up and then burn out. In which case, I would then pursue a “real” career: behind a desk, working a nine-to-five and dealing with numbers on a spreadsheet.
This is the kind of smart deemed acceptable by society: by-the-book, deals with paperwork, no-nonsense, loves numbers, task-oriented and systematic. If anything, these are unspoken prerequisites for someone to be taken seriously…or considered to have substance.
Meanwhile, back to fashion, it’s all kaartehan. This one word seems to sum up people in fashion for those who enjoy critizing the industry. Kaartehan also requires little to no brain cells. Conversely, here we have the perceived prerequisite for someone to be able to make it in fashion: look good. The unjust understanding is that if you focus—let alone build a career—on embellishing the outside, you must not have the time, then, to invest in anything that enriches the inside. Another is that if you have nothing to show for what’s in your head, you will overcompensate with what’s on your body. But the truth is that these things are not mutually exclusive. You can be a visual being and a thinking being all at once. You can be a creative and an intellectual. You can have it all if you want it all. Besides, there’s a disconnect here: How did fashion, run by these same stupid and shallow people, wind up becoming a trillion-dollar industry? (Ah, there we have it. A glistening, jewel-encrusted loophole.)
So why do some people still think that fashion people are stupid or shallow? They like irony, I reckon. A woman may read about people in fashion and exclaim: “Good lord, how dumb and self-absorbed,” and stand front of her closet for 30 minutes the next day with no idea what to wear to a job interview; she could only hope she stands out from the pool of applicants who are intellectuals like her. In the same manner, a man who proudly pokes fun at people in fashion might be the same one who scrambles for style advice because he was called sloppy and undateable.
Everyone is technically a fashion person—we only differ in degree, role and taste. And if a person should decide to make a career out of fashion, his or her intelligence should not have to be invalidated. As far as my personal experience goes, I’ve learned that outsider’s opinion doesn’t have to be more than just that: an opinion. It definitely doesn’t have to be your truth. That’s whether it’s fashion we’re talking about or something else entirely.
Art Alexandra Lara