Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
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Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Simple Economics of (the Lack of) Fashion

One of the problems with the States is a deep lack of style. The States is (to put it bluntly) the most unstylish place in the world.

Now, this is important. Because style (fashion) is a creative industry. And creative industries are going to be the growth industries of the very near future.

Why is the States so unstylish?

Certainly, one driver of a lack of demand for style is cultural. Above all, the States is a nation built on the ideal of productivity. The (myopically) productive is prized above all else.

Fashion, of course is the opposite of productive, in the myopic sense. That it helps us sustain and nurture social and cultural capital doesn't count in the States, because these forms of capital aren't factored into the dominant logic of the economy.

Rather, being stylish signals that you don't believe in this ethic of productivity - that you're willing to be frivolous enough to invest in things that aren't productive. And that's deeply out of sync with the essence of being American - though there flashes of fashion brilliance in the 30s, 50s, and 70s. Being stylish isn't in demand because it signals anti-productivity, if you like.

But there's another driver of lack of demand for style as well. I bring all this up because there's a heatwave in London at the moment. Now, air conditioning in London (in fact, most of the rest of the world) is about as plentiful as style in the States - there's not much of it around (and even what there is sucks).

That means that what you wear counts. In the States, we can get away with wearing the same old industrial era mass-produced "apparel" because the climate we face rarely changes. We move from air conditioned car to train to home to office to bar to club - etc.

But in London, for example, wearing a winter shirt on a day like today would be a very, very painful experience. Because you go from non-air conditioned home to tube to (weakly air conditioned) office to pub to club.

Style isn't just social and cultural - it's deeply functional. All of which, I think, bears deep thinking about by innnovators across industries - there are powerful lessons about why creativity is exploding in this parable of fashion as form and fashion as function.

-- umair // 6:39 PM // 19 comments


You're definitely right about the aircon, and I hate to resort to cliches, but I think one other aspect of this style disparity thing is to do with european and asian sensitivity to social class.

Over here we're brought up in worlds where a huge amount about you, your status and your background can be learned from how you look, how you sound and importantly, what you wear.

So we're used to unconciously encoding and uncoding what the styles of the people around us say about them.

In an essay somewhere William Gibson talks about how the British and the Japanese are so naturally expert in branding because they're brought up to instantly spot the status inference in the tiniest marginal signal - accent, appearance, language. This must apply to style too.

So even if we've swapped the suit for a t-shirt because of the heat we're still using style to give each other signals about class and status.

Just a thought.
// Anonymous russell davies // 7:56 PM

I think youre being quite kind on the tube to say 'weakly air conditioned'! :)
Interesting post though.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 8:25 PM

Please define "style", please.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 11:13 PM

I remember reading a paper on the political impact of air conditioning on the US. AC made the American south habitable (ever been to Louisiana in August without AC?). This has allowed southern populations to grow, and with that growth both experience increased political power and increased influence of southern values. According to the paper (with a little toungue in cheek) AC is partially responsible for the rightward shift in American politics over the past several years.
// Anonymous niblettes // 12:25 AM

I'm not sure sure about style as a social marker, at least in Italy. One thing that struck me when I moved to Italy (I'm American, sort of) was that everybody looked stylish and very few people look abjectly poor. There are no rusted-out cars being driven, few people dress like slobs, and there's none of the gross obesity that tends to mark Americans as poor. There are subtler markers in Europe, I suppose, but, at first impact, social class is less obvious than it is in the US.
// Anonymous Deirdr´┐Ż Straughan // 9:41 AM

'Style' is something you have, or are born with. 'Fashion' is something you buy.
// Anonymous Tony // 3:06 PM

Interesting post. I think you have a few things at work here, most notably that style in the USA is sold by the sea-container.

The USA has a big-box mentality in regards to style. I think that is slowly starting to change but we still have a long way to go.

Wal-Mart, the mall, Costco, outlet malls, etc all perpetuate this concept of style being purchased in bulk. Its so watered down and we are trained to look for the value priced apparel goods. Yes, climate does play a role but that's a smaller part of the issue in my opinion. If you perceive something to be cheap, inexpensive then it becomes ranked that way in life & society. We've basically packaged style like fast food, we want a deal, supersized and ready to go when we get to the store.

I can even use myself as an example. On a trip to Italy last year I was the good tourist and purchased some 'cool' jeans, afew shirts, etc etc eve though I knew I could get something of equal qualty back home for half the price. Funny thing is, even a year later I mentally consider those items my 'nice' apparel for going out for an evening. Mentally I just assigned a higher value to them because of the price I paid.
// Anonymous Miles Sims // 4:29 PM

Having lost, Europe seems to have bought into the adage, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how good you look."

Bon chance, mes amis.
// Blogger Gerard // 3:18 PM

How easy it is to be deceived by appearances. Many of the stylishly dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings you see in Italy spending their money on clothes, shoes and cellphones are still living with their parents, and have no possibility of being able to afford a house or a flat of their own. They spend so much on little things because they can't afford the big ones, like a home or a family. Excuse me if I don't manage to see this as evidence of a superior culture or way of life.
// Blogger Real Cheap Travel Team // 5:17 PM

Oh please, Umair. Just because you don't unerstand a culture doesn't mean there is no culture. There is tons of style in the US. We understand as well as anybody that the medium is the message.
And we've got 50 dialects to each one of yours in england. That's 50 stlyes of using "your" queen's english.
Our style is just wrapped up in our language - our very own custom medium.
And one final point - "Them there redcoats 'cross the pond yonder don't have a Danah Boyd (See???? Our style is functional too!!!!)."
I love reading you Umair! Talk to you later.
// Anonymous Jim Parker // 5:56 PM

"One of the problems with the States is a deep lack of style."

"Deep" and "lack of style"? Man, are you kidding?

If there is an urban center where young people aren't obsessive about their appearance, where they're not hyper-sensitive about the prospect of turning off the opposite sex (or earning ridicule from their peers) then please, send me there.

Cuz I'm tired of all the "depth" among the high school and college crowd. :)

// Anonymous Jamie // 7:56 PM

Give America some time and watch the retailer Target.

Their mantra is "Democratizing design" and they are making style functional as well.

Style or not, if there is money to be made in it, people in America will figure it out.

// Anonymous Anonymous // 6:24 AM

Hi Guys,

Thanks for all these excellent comments.

Some points. I'm not trying to make a Marxist argument - ie fashion signals "class". I think class in those terms is pretty much dead everywhere in the world.

Defining style is easy. A nice definition I like to use is per capita investment/expenditure on creative businesses, where these can be defined as those that spend less than (10,20,30%) on marketing. You get the idea.

Niblettes, that is a very interesting point and I would luv to read that paper.

Miles, I think your point is right on. But those consumption dynamics also reflect the structure of the Italian fashion industry - it is quite fragmented, not massively concentrated like ours is.

Gerard, you make the same old boring point that Europe has "lost" some race, probably that of GDP growth. The entire argument I'm making rests on the fact that social and cultural capital aren't measured by most macro numbers, which is something any economist worth his salt will readily admit.

Marco, you fall into the same trap as Gerard. We know the *costs* of social and cultural capital. In fact, they're far greater than what you describe (think currency crises).

The whole point is that in America, we've gotten very good at using markets to kill social and cultural capital. What we're interested in is their *benefits*, which we are foregoing - not their costs.

Jim, FYI, I'm American :)

Jamie, that is a great point. Sure teenagers across the world are obsessed with giving display to their hormones. The difference, I think, is that American teens spend their money in very different places than the rest of the world's teens (as much as abercrombie and the gap have tried to change things).

Baris, you are the only one to hit the nail on the head. This is not me being idly "anti-american"; I am pointing out what I think is the next big market gap for consumer industries.

Now, the deeper point you raise is that to get there...Target has to invest in creativity. Which it's already doing (viz Starcke, etc).

Thx for the comments.
// Blogger umair // 1:32 PM

An important point here is that functionality actually encourages fashion and vice-versa. If I understand Umair's argument correctly, the issue is not that Americans think of functionality and fashion as mutually exclusive, but actually, because of the ubiquity of climate control in the US, Americans have no need and therefore no concept of functionality at all.

A word I think you'll find bandied about among American consumers of clothing is "practical". ("Buy a sweater, its more practical") Assuming Umair is correct in his assumption about the ubiquity of climate control in the US vs. Europe, practicality has, in the US, come to mean something different than functional. "Practicle" means "not fashionable", i.e. listing towards the productive side of the American "productivity vs. style" dichotomy.

One issue I have is with the relationship between style and functionality. These days big innovators in consumer fashion seems to come from t-shirt design communities. The designs for these t-shirts are variations of screen prints/silk screen logos. So what exactly does "non-form" design like t-shirt logos have to do with you sweating on the tube?

- Zack
// Anonymous Zack // 11:44 PM

Umair, even if creative industries are the growth industries of the future -- and I *really* hope that's true -- I don't think that's gonna change things in America. At least, not very much.

You wrote: "Defining style is easy. A nice definition I like to use is per capita investment/expenditure on creative businesses, where these can be defined as those that spend less than (10,20,30%) on marketing."

I think I'm beginning to understand your original point better. You're saying: designed items (such as clothing) are more functional and look nicer in Europe than in the US, because people in the US have an accountant's hang-up about work productivity. Thus there is little demand in the US for stuff that was actually designed well.

I definitely agree with you that European things in general look nicer, from the houses to the fast food stands to the shampoo bottles. Whether they're more functional...I'm not sure. I've always thought that Europeans have, on average, a stronger aesthetic sense than Americans....or at least they demand higher aesthetic standards from the things around them. And their support for the arts is enough to make US artists weep with envy.

But aesthetics can be skin-deep. In Germany, for example (or most of central Europe), it's not uncommon to find businessmen who play in string quartets, or who practice Beethoven piano sonatas on the weekend.

But what does this really amount to? A hidden wellspring of creativity? A deep appreciation of art and music? A profound engagement with the best of the Western culture? In my experience, no. It usually involves a superficial worship of "culture," since cultural education is what "cultured" people attain. In other words, higher aesthetic sensitivity can be just a reflection of an aspiration to be higher in the cultural hierarchy.

The cool stuff in Europe (e.g. really nice bathroom stalls) is also more expensive (on average) than the not-so-cool stuff in the US. So by that score, at least, it's less functional (all other things being equal) since everything must funciton within a finite budget. I could have gotten some nice bookshelves at the local cabinet maker...for $500. Instead, I got some crappy $30 items from WalMart.

I don't want to let American corporations off the hook here, which *could* put their accountant-like mentality on hold for a few seconds, and put a little more thought into, say, the door handles that they design....or maybe their whole market strategies in the first place (*cough* RIAA). :)

// Anonymous Jamie // 3:26 AM

Fashion is frivolous. Changing trends and the need to define or be defined by others and the current tastes? Who needs it?

I'll wear what I like when I like.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 6:47 PM

As a student of economics with an intense interest in fashion (who happens to be pursuing a career in consulting), I must say that it seems that coming up with economic models or ideas about the fashion world is extremely difficult. So basically, a lot of the economic statements one makes about fashion or style can be contested quite easily.

I find it interesting that you say those who invest in fashion items do not believe in the ethic of productivity. I think that absolutely depends on how much value one places on fashion items. Not all luxury fashion items are frivolous comparatively speaking. I for example derive enormous utility from a pair of Louboutin decollete pumps--a verstile, elegant, extraordinarily comfortable 4" heel of exceptional design. I can wear them to work, out, to a funeral, on a date...and for years because they are so classic and well constructed. They are an investment. In fact, I probably increased by productivity by buying a wardrobe consisting of a lesser number of versatile, classic, "durable" pieces. (Do you know how much time some people waste getting ready in the morning, or for a date, etc.?) Granted, not a lot of fashion consumers think this way. But my point is, it's still possible to believe in productivity, or efficiency, and invest in high end fashion product.

Also...I think we need to clarify the definitions of style and fashion you use. ;) Style refers to how a person assembles an outfit or an overall look. People who have no style have it dictated to them and in this way style can be commodified. But it's impossible to commodify all style. Style cannot be quantified. Nor is style necessarily functional. Rather, clothing is functional. Fashion refers to trends or clothes that are popular at a given point in time. It's interesting to consider how consumers' functional needs impact fashion and style, but it's hard to simply describe style as functional.

Finally, I think it's a really interesting point you make about Americans having less "style" comparatively due to their cultural proclivity for productivity.

I enjoyed the post.
// Anonymous Elsa // 5:04 AM

No, no. Americans are unstylish because the fashion industry can make more money selling disposable, ugly clothing to the mass market than it can actually educating them on style. Also, Americans are generally afraid of class and confuse style for pretension.

We keep our fashion cycles short and regular to maximize revenue and ensure that garments can't translate from season to season by making them unattractive and hyper-trendy. The customer, of course, isn't aware of this and is happy to consume more and more to keep ahead of their peers. Also, Americans are getting very fat, and since the industry is based in NYC we simply don't have the expertise or inclination to design for the large.

// Blogger Coutorture // 9:06 PM

I don't know if you care to change this lack of style in the U.S., one person at a time, but here's one way to do it. Dress Kevin. (

Who's Kevin? He's a 23 year old from Hoboken, NJ, who decided to photograph his wardrobe and have visitors on his website vote every day on what his outfit should be. In March of 2006, Kevin had close to 12,000 average daily unique visitors coming to his site. I'm going to vote for the white flowered hawaiian shirt from Old Navy.

That shirt is money!
// Anonymous Zenrob // 11:45 PM

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