The following was written by North American Executive Board member Matthew LaCorte.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to experience Kanye West’s live show in New York City. During the show, West rattled off a litany of names of fashion designers that he aspired to work with; however, the crowd did not react, as attendees were not familiar with the names. West stated, “I know none of you know anybody I am talking about”. This quote made me reflect more about these small circles of uber-specialized people holding major influence over certain industries. Most new styles we wear today are refined imitations that originate in the overtly expensive and glamorized world of fashion houses we don’t know the names of. I began to think about the process of change in the fashion world and drew connections to the process of political change. It seemed to me West, without knowing it, was channeling a Hayekian theory of social change on stage in New York City.
Here at SFL, Hayek’s famous essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism” serves as a major influence for our theory of social change. But his ideas do not only correspond to politics. His theory begins with the “first-hand dealers in ideas” that formulate the policy prescriptions and ideas of tomorrow. These ideas are contained to small circles within the academy. Real social change happens when the intellectuals convey the ideas to the public. These “second hand dealers in ideas” include writers, teachers, journalists, priests, artists, etc., who have a massive influence on society. They allow for the ideas to permeate and eventually reach a critical mass where political change is possible. The process starts with academics but ends with the laymen.
The spread of fashion works similarly. The newest designs, color patterns, materials, etc. are presented on runways of high-end fashion houses during Paris and New York’s fashion week for elite circles. In politics, the ideas have to be distilled and “softened” for the public. In fashion, many collections are not ready for general use and require refining. This occurs in three ways. First, high-end designers release cheaper, ready-to-wear collections often through popular stores like H&M or Zara. Second, grassroots designers and underground trends elevate in popularity. Third, and most importantly, is a point of contention in the fashion world: the copyist. Simply, the copyist takes the newest designs and copies them for widespread production and use. When mega-celebrities like Beyonce wear a specific piece or fashion houses like Balmain or Balenciaga introduce designs, copyists immediately jump on the style and work to produce something similar. Celebrities also enjoy a higher level of freedom to experiment with their style which leads to more downstream innovation in fashion trends and thus more copying.
As economist Ed Lopez writes, “Copying releases new fashions from the small circles of their origins to the wider marketplace; it translates designs from abstract experimentation on the catwalk to concrete visibility on the sidewalk”. Keep in mind the difference between violating trademark protection and copying. Lopez explains, “the stitched polo player on Ralph Lauren is protected, but the overall design of the shirt is not”.
Many argue that copyists are stealing the would-be profits of hard-working designers. But the truth of the matter is, without copyists, many in society would not be able to wear, afford, or even know about these designs. Copying enables the fashion industry to touch more people, achieve greater success in selling their products, and have more influence on the overall style of the world. Lopez says, “Copyists translate the abstract into the real… and make fashion relevant to all segments of consumers and society”. Simply, copyists translate originators’ abstract work into aesthetics you find at the local mall. Copyists enable high-end designers to remain impactful.
The same analysis can be made for public policies, exotic theater productions, and sophisticated dance performances which will have larger impact after the ideas are distilled and presented more widely. Fashion, art, and politics are all constantly changing to adapt to new trends, new designs, and new ideas. This is obviously an elementary and over-simplified version of the process which demands more analysis. But the process of change in both politics and fashion is a laboratory for observing innovation. Social change is not just something that occurs in regards to politics. It’s entirely possible to view social change and big ideas through different mediums and this often enables students with interests outside of politics to further delve into the ideas. Whether its legislation or the stylish jacket on a friend, thinking about the process of social change behind the individual piece can open one up to a new world of design, influence, and change.