When it comes to creative fields, few ask why art or music matters. But fashion, despite the fact that it represents a multi-billion dollar global industry, is often prone to doubts surrounding its importance.
Designers today face the question of why their collections exist at all amidst an ever-crowded landscape of stuff, both luxury and fast fashion, which fuels an insatiable consumption cycle and belief that garments are disposable. It's also what prompted Vogue to host a panel discussion during its Forces of Fashion conference called "Making Fashion Matter" featuring emerging star designers Marine Serre and Grace Wales Bonner.
To the two 20-something women, mining meaning from fashion comes in the form of community building. To be sure, that's not an entirely new idea, but it's their respective examinations of pressing social and political issues and other cultures that centers their collections around a very human element.
"I'm trying more to focus not on what we already know are the problems, but what are we doing to solve them?" Serre says during the conversation with Vogue's Fashion News Director Chioma Nnadi. "I just feel there must be a way to work around that; to go for it and start working and do something with the people around you. Share your techniques, share knowledge, share technology, and through that, maybe we can make everything less worse. Start talking to each other instead of complaining about the problem all the time. That gives me hope in my everyday work."
Serre has presented meaningful solutions that address fashion's sustainability problem, a focus of much of her work, as seen at her most recent Spring 2020 runway show, in which she featured upcycled materials to tell the story about the impending apocalypse characterized by "climate wars, heatwaves and mass extinction." Prioritizing sustainable practices — which are more costly to implement at an independent brand without the resources of a fashion conglomerate — is no easy feat for Serre. Still, the La Cambre fashion school graduate and LVMH Prize winner finds the value in the challenge of scaling up responsibly. "Using [materials] that were already there made a lot of sense because … it's from the past and you bring it to the future and transform that. You can apply that to everything in life, not only in fashion. I quite like that."
For the Wales Bonner brand and its leader, finding meaning in the fashion world is about creating some kind of harmonious exchange between cultures — not borrowing from them blindly — through the medium of clothing. In almost every instance, that requires Wales Bonner to work with a writer, designer, musician or some other artists with whom she can research ideas, she says.
"My approach is grounded in a research practice," she says. Wales Bonner, who received an LVMH Prize the year before Serre, has attracted high profile fans including Dior's Maria Grazia Chiuri and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle for her critical examination of identity politics through fashion.
"I'm not necessarily willing to be directly inspired by something if I can't work with it," she explains. "I'd rather speak to the artist to create something and be honest about my thought process, my research process...It's doing the research but also having the specific intention with what you're trying to do as well."