You Used to be Cool

Guest post by Lucianne Tonti


It was 26 years ago that Corinne Day put Kate Moss on the cover of Face magazine – bright eyed and elf-like, the shoot would launch Moss’s career and set up the grunge movement that defined the ‘90s. It was a time synonymous with bare skin and bold silhouettes, clean lines and textured fabrics.

It was a time when photographers like Day rebelled against the glossiness of high fashion and sought to express something real. Stylists would trawl charity stores looking for vintage finds that could be twisted and customised to better tell a story.

It was a time when anyone that loved fashion embraced newness and self-expression by altering and tailoring things themselves. There was individuality on the streets, when fabric was expensive and clothes cost what they should. They were an investment of money or energy or time, and it showed.

Globalisation and the shift towards freer trade laws in the late ‘90s and early 2000s changed all of that. With each wave of new technology, from methods of production to Snapchat, we have seen fashion arrive at this new place where clothes cost less, are worn and loved less, but purchased more.

Prior to January 2005 two major trade agreements regulated the international textile market – the Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA, 1974 to 1994) and the Agreement on Textile and Clothing (ATC, 1995 to 2005). The MFA imposed quotas on the export of textiles and garments made from wool, cotton and synthetic fibres from developing to developed countries.

The quotas were designed to protect fashion houses in developed countries from low cost goods produced en masse. In 1995, the ATC agreed to encourage free trade and phase out quotas on trade in clothing and textiles by January 2005. In the four years following this, one third more clothing was consumed per capita.

On a humanitarian level, the shift towards cheap labour in developing countries has seen more tragedy than just an influx of clothing into the market place. What happened at the Rana Plaza factory in 2013, is just one example of the hidden human cost behind our clothes.

The acceleration of fashion has infiltrated up the chain too, seeing the increased demands of fashion drive out industry figures like Raf Simons, Alber Elbaz and Hedi Slimane. In an interview with System Magazine before resigning from Dior, Simons lamented, ‘everything is done in three weeks, maximum five.’

2016 saw brands like Burberry, Tom Ford and Vetements announce they would show just twice a year and Paul Smith altered his business model to consolidate to just four drops of stock annually. In an interview with the Business of Fashion Smith said ‘There’s this absolute horrendous disease of greed and over-expansion and unnecessary, massive over-supply of product.’ The mood has certainly shifted in recognition that the current system is unsustainable, but it is still a long way from having an impact on consumer behaviour.

This is best evidenced in the behaviour of liberal minded 18-30 year olds, the demographic that, for the most part, vote Green, recycle what they can, have embraced fourth wave feminism and gender fluidity. They champion the rights of immigrants and rail against discrimination based on sexuality or race, but largely, still buy mass-produced clothes.

They don’t seem to be concerned that their new £12 t-shirt could have been made in a factory with poor working conditions, or of cotton grown using toxic pesticides – and that isn’t even the worst thing.

The worst thing is that each of those purchase choices keeps a very dangerous beast afloat. And when ‘the kids’ aren’t willing to embrace a new model, it makes the movement – back towards fashion with artistry, considered design and smarter business models – feel very far away.

Fashion used to be poetic, equal parts authentic and mysterious, immortalised in film and photography. It was a worn leather jacket on a young star with tousled hair. It was faded Levi 501s. It was a double-breasted, wide-legged men’s pinstripe pantsuit on a moody tomboy. It was a favourite overcoat coat thrown on in the morning, pockets full from the day before, worn with those boots, or over that dress, a coat that was yours and yours alone.

Fashion used to be on the street, and that was all that mattered. It didn’t take 100 photos to find one that would get the most likes, because there was no medium for that kind of photography (film was precious too) – fashion was there to be worn.

It was really and truly personal. It told a story. Fashion used to be cool.


Allwood, J and co, Well Dressed, The University of Cambridge Press, 2006, pp.4-21

Draper, S and co, ‘Fashioning Sustainability: A Review of the sustainability impacts of the clothing industry’, Forum For the Future, 2007, pp.1-15

Fletcher, K, Slow Fashion, The Ecologist, June 2007, pp. 1-2

Cathy Horyn’s interview with Raf Simons in the Autumn/Winter 2015 issue of System magazine.

Organic Cotton, NatraCare