Too often, a strangely one-sided tale is told about the relationship between the internet and the fashion industry. A slow and traditional industry is, so we are led to believe, scared and wary of this mysterious online world, which is seen as a threat to the old world order. Or so the story goes.
The focus has been so weighted towards how brands and established print media tackle the internet that we’ve glossed over what fashion designers themselves have gotten out of the internet. The simple act of typing a search word into Google can spiral into a browsing session that gleans countless images from all manner of sources – Tumblr, random blogs, online archives, scans – each and every one of them likely to end up stuck up on a mood board in a designer’s studio or the walls of a fashion house, acting as a source of inspiration.
Proenza Schouler’s spring/summer 2013 show in New York was showing a familiar array of boxy, perforated leather, patchwork skins and abstract prints; elements that Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have honed into a well-rehearsed repertoire. Then, towards the finale, we saw flashes of photographic images – lush landscapes, a blurry crowd of people, a poolside scene. They glided onto the body, often cleverly cut on the bias in diagonal strips and mimicking the distortions caused by a computer monitor. And the inspiration for the show? Tumblr.
The micro-blogging platform, established in 2007, has become known for enabling users to curate and share their images and now hosts more than 70 million blogs. Thanks to Tumblr’s format, you could easily jump from blog to blog, scrolling through image after image, mindlessly saving, loving or reblogging.
“It was really about the randomness of scrolling through images and how it leads to unexpected juxtapositions,” say McCollough and Hernandez. “All the groupings were of people – a crowd print, pool print, protester print, tree print – then abstracting them all to look like something else.”
The end effect was mesmerising. Straightforward digital print may have been in ascendance for the past few years but with their collection, McCollough and Hernandez managed to tackle modern-day browsing habits and comment on the way our brains are conditioned to take in image after image. Their citing of Tumblr as their main inspiration saw Proenza Schouler tagged as part of the “digital generation” – those who have grown up with the internet and who research differently from previous generations, who relied on libraries and first-hand observation.
This new breed, who are clicking away, saving and creating mood boards, are reluctant to reveal where their inspiration comes from. Christopher Kane left an audience awestruck at his spring/summer 2012 show at London Fashion Week, its rich mix of sparkling brocades and kitschy florals mimicking the run-down interiors in photos of council flat bedrooms which the designer had found. “The pictures came from photography websites and other unknown sources,” he says. “I have many good photography websites that I like to look at but I won’t say which ones.”
In an age where designers are repeatedly asked to reveal their entire process to the media before their collection has been shown, you have to commend Kane for letting his clothes do the talking. Maarten van der Horst, a rising Dutch/London-based designer who has been turning out re-appropriated pop culture-led collections, feels there is a danger of sharing too much in the age of the internet. “As a creative person, I personally have the need to keep things to myself until I present it to the outside world. I guess with all the sharing online, it just makes me a bit possessive. I want my work to be a personal statement and reflect my perspective.”
It’s natural to be protective of sources, especially if they feel like secret corners of the web that you have stumbled upon. Not that that stops websites such as Jalou Gallery (patrimoine.jalougallery.com), which contains over 200,000 scanned pages of l’Officiel dating back to 1921, from being popular. The appetite for carefully selected images has even spawned websites such as the Red List (theredlist.fr), which is home to around 100,000 images and 6,000 profiles. Search for Elsa Schiaparelli, say, and you have masses of key images in one place.
Another reason why designers are loath to reveal their inspiration for a collection is the free-for-all nature of the web. Collections are seen as personal reflections of a designer’s journey and starting that journey with the click of a mouse shatters the romantic idea of a creative being moved by their muse or source of inspiration. When Karl Lagerfeld declares that he likes computers as objects and prefers fax to email, or when Alber Elbaz says he doesn’t “do” the internet, they uphold the idea that they can design without input from a resource that is indispensable to the rest of us, reinforcing the rarefied image of fashion.
Even though inspiration may not be credited to the power of Google, a new generation of designers is integrating the internet into their work process. Flip through the sketchbooks of students in the early stages of a project and you’ll find an array of images derived from the web. What’s more, design students are being taught to maintain blogs as a way of documenting their collections’ development. Fledgling designers such as Manuela Dack, who shows off-schedule in London as part of Fashion Scout, is just one of many designers who blog as a way of promoting their collections. “I started my own blog, Silver Cleaver, as a way of filing images and links that I found online. Initially, I really liked the anonymity it. It was not until the end of my degree that I started posting images of my work and encouraging readership. It gives readers an insight into the brand in a format they are familiar with.”
Other designers are more careful about the act of image accumulation/sharing online. Van der Horst has several Tumblrs, only one of which, Divine Living (divineliving.tumblr.com), is openly known. “(Tumblr) doesn’t really help my design process, but it does reflect the way I think and work. Tumblr pages are almost curated, which is how I treat the ingredients I design with as well. Iconoclastic in a way. I want things to clash with each other and Tumblr, for me, is a good way to try things out, I guess. But not so much for others, more for myself when I’m bored.”
Some designers have taken the internet-sourced inspiration process and combined it with social media as a canny way of brand promotion. Laura Villasenin, the designer behind the up-and-coming shoe brand Miista, recently invited users to upload pictures to their Pinterest board to contribute to their SS13 Electromancer collection. “We really find that sharing the design process or at least the inspiration process with our customers really generates excitement about upcoming collections and also allows us to really interact with them and discover what inspires and excites them.”
It’s impossible to attribute a designer’s inspiration to the internet alone, though. An image printed from a website at the beginning of a collection’s development may well have been discarded by the time garments start to be made. Indeed all the designers in this article insist that inspiration comes from a plethora of places.
“We never source from just one place,” says Proenza Schouler’s Lazaro Hernandez It’s about bringing different ideas and references together. We tend to still find the best, more obscure images in books since online content is accessible to everyone, but the majority of the research definitely comes straight from our laptops.”
Furthermore, the act of being inspired by something designers have witnessed in person is, according to Van der Horst, irreplaceable. “Besides spending a lot of time in the library, I can’t imagine not going to museums or exhibitions. The overpowering sensation of seeing something incredible in a gallery or museum will never be replaced by the internet. Even just the design of a book, holding a book, opening and reading a book, marking your favourite page, the paper that you touch – there is so much about it that is so incredible and something that people have put thought into, which is so incredibly inspiring.”
The most powerful and emotive collections come about from doing far more than pinning up images from Tumblr on a mood board. It is up to fashion schools to continue teaching students that the internet can’t be solely relied upon for research. It can be a positive way of enriching designers’ own gut instincts and act as the catalyst for a collection. But while we are hurtling towards a way of living where we put our faith into one singular source, it is crucial that a designer exercises discipline. Van der Horst, for one, is excited by the endless possibilities of the web while avoiding dependency on this information behemoth. “The good thing about the internet is that you can project your own stories and it definitely stimulates your creativity. But I could never rely on it.”