How can I miss you if you never leave?

What happens to culture when the past just Will. Not. Die.

Smashing up statuary might well be a biological imperative, but what happens when that instinct is curtailed by technology?

It’s pretty obvious that toppling statues of people whose views are no longer even a tiny bit acceptable is fun — but might it also be essential? And if it is, what happens if digital media means no idol ever really dies? Yes, we’re talking about the curse of hauntology, where nothing dies, and newness becomes just a concatenation of pre-existing ideas.

Destroying our idols is clearly an important social act. Smashing things is often a group activity (fun, bonding), it’s satisfyingly hard work (fun, often takes quite a lot of upper body strength, sometimes even a digger), and, and this is the most important bit, it’s Historic, with a capital H.

When we topple the rendering of a slaver, a tyrant, a crook, the eyes of the world are upon us. Likewise when we cancel the cultural leaders of the past. These are moments where, as if by prior agreement, we acknowledge the destruction of the symbol of an idea as in itself symbolic. And whilst in some areas — notably those related to identity — the destruction of our former idols continues apace, in others the iconoclasm that drives innovation seems hogtied by the persistence of the old in culture.

As bushfires show, new growth is often only able to be triggered by the destruction of the previous generation, and as the new boom in tech start-ups might show, the destruction of the past can trigger a similar outpouring of desperately new ideas. In culture and innovation as in scorched earth, it is the death of the old ideology that legitimises for once taking an ahistorical approach. But what happens to this new growth if the old foliage never really dies?

As ever, the answer is probably on TikTok, a place I spend an unwholesome amount of time on in my day job as a professional Gen z stalker strategist with a focus on the fashion industry. Whilst the Y2K revival may get all the headlines, the current that is of particular interest to me is a bubbling-up focus on the avant-garde fashion designers of the 1980s and 90s. This has certainly been helped enormously by the near deification of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, but it is the specific interest in that era’s work by designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Jun Takahashi, Martin Margiela and the new superstardom of stalwarts like Rick Owens and Raf Simons that is both encouraging and gives pause for thought.

In recent years the thriving designer resale market has driven a need for knowledge to ensure authenticity; now it has met the social validation opportunity that TikTok provides. An international commentariat may now endlessly recycle content from past seasons as signifiers of knowledge and this has, in this current moment at least, provided fashion with a new use for the avant-garde of the pre-Y2K era.

Referencing a Yamamoto layering technique, a collection theme, or even a runway model’s unusual walk from a specific show has become a social currency in itself. There is even, at this very moment, an exhibition called 1997 Big Bang at Paris’ fashion museum, the Palais Galleria Musee de la Mode de la ville de Paris, that charts this moment at which these avant-garde designers became cultural drivers. But arguably, this focus on the old avant-garde risks deoxygenating real newness.

This season’s runways saw an online audience celebrate the newest shows from now established avant-garde brands, at the same time as the young designers who they champion sent out what, in some cases, read as cautious homages to a hyper-informed audience, with a view of the avant-garde increasingly set in resin. In such situations gimmickery runs wild as the creative urge for the new meets the expectation for more of the same, and the opportunity for true creative innovation to meet open minds recedes. Because make no mistake, the haunting of popular culture by its antecedents in fashion, as in music is on us.

The power of fashion to reset social norms, change cultural paradigms, shift the perspective and so on is often overhyped

Chanel’s little black dress did not single handedly emancipate women (as recent headlines will attest, there is a long way to go for that statement to run true) but it was powerfully commercial. It was able to achieve an enduring role in culture and to transcend the label because it was successful enough to reach a lot of people.

Fashion’s true power to make change is derived from the alchemy between iconoclasm and popularity and as an industry, we risk creating no change, and no opportunities if we rely simply on that which we know will be popular. 

So, please, break things.

Featured image: Armen Aydinyan / Unsplash

Hannah Hayes-Westall, Strategy Director at MullenLowe Group UK

Hannah is MullenLowe Group UK’s Strategy Director, working on the agency’s sloggi and Farfetch accounts. Starting her career in fashion communications, Hannah has worked with many of the industry’s most recognisable names, from Calvin Klein and Diane von Furstenberg to Versace, Swarovski and Selfridges. An understanding of the codes of luxury and the behaviours of global HNW audiences has been applied on multi-channel campaigns for diverse luxury goods brands from cashmere brands like Loro Piana to Mercedes Benz in automotive, to Vertu mobile phones and hotels and real estate like Sandy Lane and Porto Montenegro. As a journalist Hannah writes about art and culture for Luxury London, City Magazine and Little Black Book, and is co-publisher of the arts magazines Art of Conversation and FAD.

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