“Fashion is an illusion. It’s a multibillion pound industry that has to appear frivolous. Designers work and work and work, all night sometimes.”
- Philip Treacy, fashion designer
To the outsider, the fashion industry is a thrilling space, hinged on magic, illusion, high drama, the weird and the bold. A world on stilts in danger of tripping itself, a fabulous circus.
To the insider fashion is grossly misunderstood, like the child genius with ADHD bored with the entire year’s syllabus. Something to be fiercely defended. It is their life, their space, and invasion is to be repelled. There is a self declared third side, one that is blasé about fashion. I do not bank on their existence. Not unless they live in the woods sans Wi-Fi in goatskin and coconut shells.
You would think, of course, we all automatically know fashion is an illusion. Models in ridiculous outfits that may or may not be making a profound statement tell us so. But when it comes to fashion it can be tricky identifying the magician. Is it the industry, placing shiny things on our path, those darned Kardashian-Jenners for creating entire universes out of hot air or consumers overwhelmed with choice yet soundly capable of exercising free will?
Illusion comes in many decidedly visual forms. Strong is the new sexy captions one out of every two Instagram posts, skinny, light-skinned models photograph better say people too lethargic to light the rich complexity of African tones. What of British Vogue launching an education programme telling school children magazine pictures are not real despite extensive photoshopping, by insisting everyone obviously knows these images do not represent reality, but are instead meant to “inspire and entertain.”
Our love for trends leads us to buy to fit in and conform aka skinny jeans. Fast fashion or barely worn “designer” mitumba is popular because they, consumers have sworn, are cheaper and unique.
Did you know by 2013 the cost of designer fashion had risen by 60 per cent because consumers are willing to pay for it? Then there is the over-reported and overhyped rise of an actual Kenyan fashion industry whose players are scattered like the ends of the earth. Or just how fervently Kenyans lovingly buy the idea West African is better than East African. What have you believed?
Smoke and mirrors create the illusion fashion insiders are wealthy, sipping the champagne of good life. A fellow journalist surprised me when she pulled me aside and whispered, “So, where do you keep all those clothes you wear on TV? You get to keep them, right?” I don’t.
My Kenya Fashion Awards Gala gown cost Nato Design House over Sh40,000. I can never wear that gorgeous gown again. But, it has intrigued enough brides. The designer and I both hope, nay, anticipate, this will eventually make up for the cost because fashion business in Kenya is not fast moving. Most celebrities locally and globally operate on the principle of wear and return.
For that reason I have yet to seek out carpenters for my walk-in closet. Also, I have a, shall we say rather distinct personal style. Part of the process of collaboration is to inspire. Most outfits I wear get modified. As is the case with whatever hits the runway. That is when the real work begins for the designer.
Instagram is as much about messaging as it is about self promotion. Skinny, light skinned models are people too, just as much as the young plus size industry which ironically has rules about who gets in. Celebrities rarely buy haute couture so much so when they do it makes news. The larger your celebrity or your stylist’s reach, the higher the odds of gifting and paradoxically, the higher your visibility. It is a numbers game.
The Glam Squad; hair, makeup, styling, nails, jewellery, body works, shoes, cars right down to the demographic of your escort, counts. Spectators are hardly immune, whether gleefully trolling, whispering behind your hand in public, sharing images on WhatsApp and Facebook, declaring you would never ever wear that to envying someone’s toned body, you are actively participating in the illusion.
The entire fashion industry heaves with this symbiosis. It is illusory because we let it exist. We are all in on the lie. Or as Morpheus told Neo, “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”