Fashion becomes a victim of its own oversharing

Marc Jacobs was accused of cultural appropriation for putting faux dreadlocks on white models at his New York Fashion Week show.
Marc Jacobs was accused of cultural appropriation for putting faux dreadlocks on white models at his New York Fashion Week show. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

We all know about the trends that come out of the four-week circus of shows otherwise known as fashion month. We know about the colours and silhouettes that will shape what we wear in seasons to come.

But there's something else that fashion month occasionally produces: a lesson. It's potentially more worthy of attention than the preponderance of, say, fuchsia.

And so it was this season. The collections, and all the discussion that defined them, were practically a cautionary tale about the downside of the Web.

I'm not talking about the dark side of the Web: the lawless digital underground where humanity's worst impulses can be indulged. Nor am I talking about the trolling that occurs on social media, when anonymous or masked people vent their frustrations on others. I'm talking about the insidious slippery slope of oversharing. This season, for fashion, the consequences sent us tumbling.

It began with the confusion created by the lag between what happens on the runway and is immediately available for visual consumption and the point when said products become available for actual consumption - a six-month gap. Retailers cited it (live-streaming and Instagram) as the culprit for falling sales: People see a dress, they want it but can't get it, they move on.

This in turn gave rise to the mess last season when some labels such as Tommy Hilfiger and Burberry switched to a "see now, shop now" model, meaning they showed fall instead of spring. But then, many did not, so it was unclear where we were or when we were.

Then there was the Marc Jacobs cultural appropriation controversy that concluded New York Fashion Week - which involved his use of pastel-coloured yarn dreadlocks on his models and spurred all sorts of upset and which, like the Valentino cornrow controversy last year or the Junya Watanabe immigrant hoo-ha of the same season, was caused in part by the runway images being immediately loaded up into the ethosphere.

There, they were interpreted in a vacuum, without context or backstory, allowing everyone to leap to the most negative conclusions - which, let's be honest, everyone did. The Web is not a generous place.

Next, in Milan, came the Gigi Hadid drama. The model was accosted by a Ukrainian rabble-rouser named Vitalii Sediuk after leaving the Max Mara show (where she had been widely snapped and shared). He said he wanted to protest against the rise of a "celebrity" model - read: one as famous for her 24 million Instagram followers as for her profile - to high fashion status.

Then, in Paris, Kim Kardashian West was robbed. She was locked in her bathroom and relieved of millions of dollars of jewellery and other goods. All her social media activity was blamed for the theft, in part by fashion insiders (in a mean way) and in part by Kardashian West herself (in a self-castigating way).

She and everyone who saw her were sharing not only her jewellery but also her movements online for pretty much all to see and record. Who needs satellite tracking when you have social media?

Early this month, there was the Hedi Slimane footnote - the former YSL designer unleashed a tweet storm worthy of hip hopper Kanye West after having been effectively silent on Twitter for several years.

Slimane was upset because some critics (not me) reviewing the Saint Laurent show suggested his successor, Anthony Vaccarello, was putting the "Y" back in "YSL" after he had taken it out, when in fact he had simply re-christened the ready-to-wear line Saint Laurent during his tenure (a name that will continue under Vaccarello's leadership) and the brand itself had always remained YSL.

In other words, nothing had changed, which was a fair point. But Slimane's sudden untrammelled emergence and bizarre use of the third person made him look like a sore loser in a game of brand musical chairs, rather than someone trying to correct the record.

For an industry that once thrived on, and was defined by, elitism, fashion has become awfully transparent. Make a product: Boom! Show it to the world. Have a show: Click! Everyone in attendance or on the runway is revealed. There's almost no mystery any more. And rarely do people stop to ask themselves if the long-term payoff for the quick post is worth it.

You can understand why. The user maw is ravenous and needs to be filled.

At least, that's how it seems. The pressure for the new and the constant online is endless, in part because eyeballs are so unpredictable: You never know when someone is going to tune in. Hence, the theory goes, you need to constantly provide output to be there when they do. Volume trumps selectivity.

But after a while, there's not enough real content to provide, so you use whatever is at hand: the reflective blankets at Givenchy given out to keep guests warm; the celebrity across the aisle scratching his nose; anything and everything you make. And you justify it by saying that you are bringing your followers into the experience, democratising access - that this is a good thing.

Yet, just because you have taken a picture does not mean you have to share it with the world. Just because you have created a product does not mean everyone must see it ASAP.

This occurred to me at the Celine show when, bored and waiting for it to start, I saw designer Phoebe Philo's daughter with two friends. I took a picture, as one does. I thought: How sweet. I will post it.

Then I thought: She is here, not even in a public place (there are so many people at fashion shows we tend to forget they are invitation-only events), to support her mother. It does not mean she is fair game. I wouldn't want my underage kids online without my permission. Why should we assume Philo would?

I didn't post the picture. But it was a close call. And somewhere in my heart, I confess, I still felt as if it were a missed opportunity - which is shameful to admit.

I do so because the truth is that not one of us is immune to the pressure to fill the limitless space of the Internet.

But all this direct communication that was dangled so enticingly not that long ago - when fashion first realised the digital world represented an opportunity, not an enemy - is a more complicated, nuanced thing than anyone realised.

Used well, it is a powerful tool. Used not irresponsibly exactly but without consideration perhaps, it can be dangerous. Sometimes a selective drip is more effective than an open tap.

Fashion has not done anything irreparable yet. But it might. We (by that, I mean brands and the people who would be brands) should all stop and think before we post. In that pause, elegance lies.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Fashion becomes a victim of its own oversharing'. Print Edition | Subscribe