home about git garden

Considering Fashion Nihilism

The World Is On Fire But We're Still Buying Shoes by Alex Leach reviewed

I picked up Alex Leach's The World Is On Fire But We're Still Buying Shoes at a North Brooklyn bookstore and, between a cafe, park, and bar, read it all in one day. It was a quick and incisive critique of the fashion industry.

Leach spends his first two chapters criticizing, deeply, the process of making and selling clothes. The first section analyzes the psychological and existential desires that clothing as a commodity represents: status, fame, community, and how brands manufacture trends and manipulate desire. It is a dizzying and sometimes repulsive story about how brands intentionally restrict supply to create artificial demand and how celebrities and stylists prey on our weakest instincts to sell the idea that a garment represents.

The second section is about the false promises of "sustainability", of how "sustainability" itself has become a brand and how there really is no such thing as sustainable manufacturing without a dramatic political and economic shift in how clothing is made, a shift few brands are interested in. The answer, Leach argues, to the devastating ecological and human impact of the overproduction of clothing, is to buy less stuff, more carefully.

These ideas could easily lead one to an idea I'd call "fashion nihilism." The first representation of this idea is minimalism. I'm thinking here not of fashionable minimalism, but a sort of "I don't care, I just need to not be naked" anti-fashion minimalism. This minimalism is about owning few, practical things, with little consideration to style. Think uniform dressing, like Mark Zuckerberg's closet, black T-shirts and darkwash jeans.

Many (including Leach) associate anti-fashion minimalism with austerity and coldness, the tech idea of blandly optimizing everything away. The Soylent of clothes. But in terms of sustainability, it genuinely does live up to its grounding principles. The tech guy with zero concern for style who wears plain T shirts and one pair of ABC Pants or Levi's 511s1 until they wear out is genuinely practicing sustainable clothing consumption, but New York (or in Leach's case, Berlin) fashion writers would rightfully bristle at the idea of everyone looking like OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

Another anti-fashion idea with much more cultural buy-in from people who actually do care about clothing (especially in New York) is normcore. Normcore is a sort-of-joking-but-not-really trend that originated in 2014. If anti-fashion minimalism is dressing without any concern at all, normcore is dressing with an obsessive amount of concern to intentionally look as bland, neutral, unexciting as possible. Normcore involves thinking, what is the Platonic ideal of each item? What are "jeans"? Straight leg, blue. What is a t-shirt? Not loose, not slim, white or black. What are "sneakers"? Grey or white, and so on. The strangely redemptive irony (highlighted in the excellent essay on graphic design, "Nothing Special) is that "intentionally being normal" is actually a rather abnormal thing to do. Rather than minimalism's cold pragmatism, normcore (ignoring its co-option as a "trend") is instead a winking, absurd rebellion of what it means to pay attention to clothing. Intentionally and completely refusing trends and dressing as blandly as possible, completely rejecting the idea that clothing can convey anything authentic or unique about you, except that you don't want your clothing to say anything about you, is, at its core, a radical idea.

Both of these ideas are, essentially, fashion nihilism. They discount the idea that fashion is something worth paying attention to, viewing it as wholly and irredeemably corrupted by capital, and consequently reject any idea that there is any way to be interested in fashion at all without reinforcing all the evils of the clothing industry and its associated culture. The difference between the two is what Nietzsche would call "passive" and "active" nihilism, respectively. Anti-fashion minimalism is a sighing "whatever," a naive lack of concern with clothing at all, reducing it to pure pragmatism, whereas normcore is an active nihilism: a strong, conscious, and intentional rejection of clothing as signalling anything authentic about one's self at all.

Leach engages with anti-fashion minimalism, but not with normcore. However, he would definitely reject both: Leach is not a fashion nihilist and believes there remains something joyful and positive about clothing and style that we can extract from its status as a commodity product, and that one can engage with clothing in a different way without rejecting it completely.

Karl Marx writes a lot about clothing. Capital begins with a discussion of exchanging coats for linen, and garment manufacturing is often Marx's representative example of commodity production. Leach leans heavily on Marx's idea of commodity fetishism (the idea that the value of a commodity is intrinsic to itself, independent of the social relationships of its production). In Leach's view, we need to strip clothing of its "ideal" attributes as a symbolic, exchangeable commodity, and instead focus on its "real" use value and the material conditions of its production. Thus, we should purchase less clothing, prefer secondhand clothes, and buy not based on consumerist impulse, but on the real joy and value that a garment brings to us.

What is lacking, for me, from this narrative, is a more serious consideration of the ideas of "fashion nihilism". While Leach does have some (in my view valid) criticism of this perspective, it is a relatively small part of the book. However, if the concerns in parts 1+2 of his book are correct, then is there not a very strong argument that one should renounce fashion entirely and wear nothing but a few bland basics? That we should give up on fashion, consider it a solved problem? Leach is not prepared to go this far, but his argument could easily conclude this way and I wish he spent more time refuting it.

Furthuremore, other hand, if one refuses to accept fashion nihilism, it is easy to see how Leach's argument becomes one simply for a more authentic, genuinely sustainable garment production — a message that is totally co-optable by luxury brands who sell genuine sustainability, but luxury clothing brands nonetheless. A far less radical conclusion than his thesis could point you to.

Ultimately, I do agree with Leach's argument; there is something bleak and sad about fashion nihilism, and there still is some joy in the ability of clothing to express ourselves. But I am more skeptical about out ability to extricate ourselves from the tyranny of branding and trends.

Perhaps I remain more moved than Leach by the fashion-nihilist concept he does not mention, normcore. I only started really paying attention to clothing last year (when I moved to New York), and in so doing, I have leaned heavily into "basics" — prototypical items that I feel good in and can wear many, many times. I don't try to stand out, and often intentionally get the most standard, least interesting version of a garment, knowing that there is something sustainable about being a bit plain. But I still share Leach's love and sentimentality towards clothing, and am not willing to totally reject the idea that clothing can be both joyful and sustainable. I just think it's a much more challenging argument to make than Leach does, and I'm not sure I could make it either.

1 The author is speaking about himself in past tense.