The Truth & Something Beautiful
"We are looking for a new story," says Ruth Marshall-Johnson, speaking about the future of fashion at the Wear it Well Future Focus event organised by Unlocking Potential in Cornwall this week, "a new narrative." A personal hero of mine, Marshall-Johnson is a Director at The Future Laboratory where she uses foresight to help people and brands find their cultural place and "future proof" their businesses. I'm interested in Marshall-Johnson's take on storytelling in an age of augmented reality: will consumers be prepared to immerse themselves in the fantasy fashion sells so well, I wonder, or will we demand greater authenticity and culpability from the brands we support? In short, is brand storytelling destined to be a matter of truth or fiction?
"I think it will be both", Marshall-Johnson replies, "I think we will still want the fantasy of fashion, but truth too, in the service, in the offering of fashion. The story about what I wear... is the truth about where I put my money." I wonder how her answer is received by the designers and manufacturers in the room. Finisterre are here, and Francli, Frugi, and Davy J. These brands are at the cutting edge when it comes to the evolution of materials and processes for a circular design blueprint for the fashion industry, but can companies who have made a business out of telling the truth also sell a dream?
Marshall-Johnson believes "there is no Tesla of fashion, not yet." And perhaps she is right. Even compared to Patagonia, Tesla has a unique edge: it is a byword for innovation, excellence and desirability that takes sustainability as a given, not a USP, unlike Patagonia which sells in the most part to a like-minded, if very large, global community. Tesla was the breakthrough company long anticipated by environmentalists who did not accept that sustainable design meant compromised design; a Tesla product sold despite its eco-credentials, not because of them. The significance of this achievement was underscored by the prominence of Tesla at the inaugural exhibition at London's new Design Museum in 2016. Designer Maker User that seemed to offer up a hallelujah to Tesla: thank goodness, finally, here is a brand that sees sustainability as a challenge and an opportunity - a way forward, not back.
So, who will show us the way forward for fashion? Where is the brand that gives us the truth and something beautiful? On the whole, Marshall-Johnson is "optimistic" that the fashion industry will find "new energy from sustainability" with "an increased collaboration between sectors." She speaks enthusiastically about digital fabrics from Wang & Söderström, virtual tailoring technologies to give us all perfectly fitting clothes and natural dies that react to the ph of water, telling a story about pollution.
Marshall-Johnson's language is ambivalent when discussion fashion's emerging technologies and trends. She speaks of the future as a potentially "scary" place where emotions may be commodified and where our isolation as online consumers could compromise our mental health as human beings. As a case in point, she introduces us to LilMiquela, the avatar with 1.1m followers on Instagram and uncanny valley case-in-point of whom followers ask daily, "are you real?"
There is no doubt about Marshall-Johnson's insightfulness when it comes to looking back or forward and her message seems to be that if hindsight teaches us anything it is that humanity is conflicted in its wants and needs; and why would we be any different in the future? At the moment we don't know if our leading sustainable designers will find a way to embrace fantasy, or whether the augmented reality will find a conscience, and all we can do is strive to protect both our dreams and our planet.