Key Issues For Fashion Design Practice & Research

By Prof. Angela McRobbie (Goldsmiths University of London)

Thank you for inviting me. I’m going to start off with some context about investigating the creative economy in the UK context now rather than five years ago. There are two points that are most marked – one is the relatively low profile of the DCMS in relationship to the creative economy in comparison to the days of New Labour. There’s a demotion if you like of the DCMS – if you look on their websites, it is much less lively, much less concerned with artists, there’s much less attention to the creative economy than was the case during the time of the Labour government so there’s a pulling back from the enthusiasm of the creative economy that was very much in place when I started doing this research some years ago. However, that does not mean in any sense an end of creative economy. In many journals, for example in the International Journal of Cultural Policy we see several articles with titles such as ‘After Creative Economy’ or ‘Beyond Creative Economy’, as though creative economy is something now firmly in the past and instead of seeing it as a moment of decline we actually have to slightly adjust our vocabularies without necessarily taking the lead from Westminster and I think we can adjust our vocabularies on a number of fronts.

First of all, we can do this by looking at the emphasis now on innovation – it being a bridge between creative economy from 1997 to 2007 and the current moment. So the concept of innovation is one that remains with us and remains in place and very much shapes and defines the work that we are doing. The second point of connection is one where we can see a shift, and this is perhaps also a sign of the maturity of debate and scholarship on the creative economy. We can see a process of ‘redifferentiation’ by which I mean that in the early days of the DCMS and the many creative economy mapping documents, there was a process of categorisation that really spoke to the blurring of the boundaries, that spoke to the idea of multi-tasking and there was a dissatisfaction with the many categories that were considered within the DCMS and there was a blurring of the lines between being a musician, being a fashion designer, being a new media person, being an information architect or an incubator or all the designations that were very much in the air in those days of the DCMS where it was assumed that there would be a blurring of the boundaries between these different sectors of the industry. Looking at the fashion industry, what has happened in the last five years in the UK is indeed a process of redifferentiation, that is to say the fashion industry has completely lifted itself out of these troubling blurred designations of multi-taskers and in many ways it has come into its own. You could say that the UK fashion industry in the last five to seven years has fully professionalised itself. Recently, I noticed an article in the Guardian that discussed the British fashion label Mulberry that the fashion industry was described as a ‘global powerhouse’!

The idea of fashion as having lifted itself out of the early days of the DCMS into this major sector is really significant. A key factor there has been the role of the British Fashion Council and it speaking very closely with Number 10. Indeed some people would say that the British Fashion Council has almost got an open door at Number 10, has really developed policies in a very energetic and a very forceful way around this idea of the professionalisation of a British Fashion Industry. However, the downside is that it is very London focused and that means that where as everybody knows fashion design students are trained to the highest standard right across the country from Aberdeen to Dundee to Cornwall, nevertheless postgraduate study and entering employment seems to be narrowly focused in London, not even the South East, actually in London – that is one big downside of this professional model. Global yes, going to Milan and so on, but it’s very London focused within UK.

But the professionalization is really something now that we have to absolutely take seriously and the British Fashion Council have developed a very specific set of policies for supporting young designers and that my feeling is that it is rather fixated on the idea of winner takes all. So the model that the British Fashion Council has been championing is one that is not really about a more open, slightly more democratic notion of subsidy and support to the hundreds of young people and very talented but it’s very much a winner takes all, prize based model and that prize based model is very professional, it’s based around mentor-ship, sponsorship, for maybe a handful of prize winners every year and those prize winners almost have a guaranteed pathway into the industry. So that’s one area of policy that I’ve got some criticisms of.

The other element of professionalisation through the British Fashion Council is of course tie ups with retail so that the major retailers are in the game whether it’s Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, all the big retailers are also very much involved so it’s a very top end set of policies and it’s successful but I think with limitations.

Just to sum up the first section that this process of redifferentiation is not just professional but it’s also very corporate and so one might then ask about a grounded support for newcomers into the sector and that’s very much apparent when we look at London start-ups. London start-ups compared to for example Berlin are very few, very thin on the ground and almost impossible to support financially so that the start-up culture in London is actually in fashion on the verges of viability. So that’s the pros and cons of this process of redifferentiation where countries across the world now look to London, investing hugely in London Fashion Week, investing in huge amounts of publicity and very fancy PR, a very top end set of policies. So that’s a sketch that I wanted to start with.

The second set of points I want to raise in relation to our specific CREATe project, are those based around the methodologies that we are using in this particular study. What the study is doing is looking at two elements in the process of the relationship between fashion design industry and question of IP and copyright. And what I’m focusing on in particular is how designers actually work and how copyright and IP impacts on their practice. How they protect themselves, how much they know about copyright protection, how their daily practice involves questions about protecting their own practice.

So the question of methodology in a small study like this is very important. We’ve developed a qualitative study, not quantitative, and there are just two or three things I want to say about our methodological strategy. The first is that we found it really again difficult if not impossible to rely on the conventional qualitative tools from social science such as ethnography (hanging out about in the design study) or semi-structured interviews, which we thought were not quite right for this sort of study. The study, for example, in London involves interviews with designers or design teams as well as with lawyers and legal teams, and, we’re duplicating that in Berlin and Milan. Now what my argument here would be is that when one is working with professionals who are under a lot of pressure with deadlines, with international shows, with huge amounts of obligations we could say that really what we developed is an idea of event research, that is to say bringing people together to an event, an event where the professionals feel that there will be some reciprocity, that there will be really something of value there for them. So we developed that really quite early on and again on the basis on the research I’ve done with fashion designers before knowing that hanging about in design studies is really not going to be possible or the even semi-structured interviews are often cancelled at the last moment unfortunately.

So we kicked off with this idea of event research – round table – and actually that proved incredibly fruitful because it gave people a sense of being stakeholders in the project. And so we then developed a group of stakeholders who we keep in touch with throughout the duration of the project. It’s a little bit expensive obviously to bring people from Italy and Germany but it was good value for money because it provided a solid groundwork and a framework of familiarity, a solid network. So if a network is increasingly using email and digital processes, having a live event has proved incredibly useful.

The second thing is the concept of methodological individualism and this is a concept that has developed from contemporary sociology. In a nutshell, if people are working and pursuing more individualised pathways, if you like in the creative economy everybody sells themselves or their talents or their skills on the basis of their uniqueness, then the conventional seventies and eighties sociology cohort or sample really just does not work. Actually one has got to respond to people’s uniqueness is what I find, that you actually have to reflect people’s uniqueness, you have to rise to the challenge of the uniqueness of each person that you’re interviewing. Even though they might be working in a design company doing corporate level design, nevertheless, the ethos of the designer is pretty much akin to the ethos of the fine artist; you have to respond to their uniqueness and to the structural uniqueness of the organisation form in which they work. So that means that we’re actually customising a methodological process that almost fits with each of the people who are taking part in the study. And actually that has proved by far the most fruitful way of working. Also it’s time intensive, it means that it becomes very much case study based and also it means that the research which is terribly interesting to me develops all these professional obligations because as you probably all know in the world of professional research people expect some payback, they expect some value from the research. So it’s actually involved me becoming a virtual lobbyist particularly in Berlin for the fledgling fashion sector, so I’ve become the interface of policy and lobbying with a whole set of fashion small companies. And even in Milan I become then a slightly ambassador for the lessons learnt from the British Fashion Industry, so there’s a professional responsibility that comes upon me that even though I’ve never been a specialist in policy making that seems to be a positive role actually and also a guarantee of participation and enthusiasm on the part of the participants. So there has to be a payback, there has to be a degree of professional reciprocity and that’s proved really interesting and productive and we could talk more about it later. The companies that I’m working with, the events that I’m doing, the idea of for example in Berlin with Goldsmiths on a wider basis there is the idea that what really is needed in Berlin is a regular fashion forum, conducted in English but with guest speakers and so on.

So that’s the questions of methodological individualism, intensive, not even semi-structured interviews but almost like open ended conversations with professionals. Actually in many ways I take the lead from Bruno Latour here in that Latour writes a lot about you enter a research situation midway through, and you never quite leave it and that’s why Latour is very valuable, for giving you this idea of process and there’s no beginning and there’s no end really. So they’re the two points in relation to methodological individualism and event research both proving very productive.

Response by Prof. Philip Schlesinger (University of Glasgow)

First point in relation to what Angela was saying, I think you’re right that there’s been a shift in the way in which the creative economy has been spoken of but actually there’s been tremendous continuity rather than any sort of substantive shift. I think the rhetorics are still very alive and actually perhaps what’s happened, and maybe your case of fashion is one example of it is that the way in which the creative economy or initially the creative industries were envisaged as a whole when they were actually an agglomeration of separate things has begun to dawn on government so that there’s much more if you like a sense of pursuing policies for the sectors in their own right and less of a fantasy about that. But at the same time I think in terms of the sell of the importance of the creative economy that’s not changed at all and just a couple of weeks ago the DCMS was tweeting that the creative economy was worth eight million pounds an hour or something like that so it doesn’t quite reconcile with your argument.

Your point about methods, I think it’s very interesting what you were saying about the difficulty of interviewing people and pinning them down and it’s certainly been my own experience on previous research and current research too that if you don’t value people either by giving them something back or actually paying them for their time because they’re living precarious lives them you’re really not going to get very much, so I think that is actually an important observation and I think it’s one that we’ll almost certainly return to in relation to other research that’s being conducted. And your point about when is ethnography helpful and when does an event or a round table actually produce the goods because there are exchanges going on is an extremely sensible way of trying to get people to do things.

When you were talking about individualism I think that sort of sparked off another thought on my part which was yes of course there is a great deal of individualisation going on and there are a whole bunch of social forces which are perhaps producing that but at the same time in pretty well all creative sectors people live by their contacts and they’re also part of informal moral economies where they can call on favours and give favours and so on and I can’t imagine it’s any different in fashion. So where you’ve got this curious combination of the need for self promotion and the need to sell yourself increasingly through social media or by any other means but that’s also coupled with the fact that people do operate within knowledgeable communities where they share things and it might be interesting to bend the stick back in that direction, how does that affect your conclusions.