Shopping list: napkins, coffee pods, sugar cubes, sparkling water, biscuits (whichever looks the most expensive), lunch for team; To-do later: steam-iron garments, rearrange showroom furniture, serve refreshments. My job was basically to make the environment inspiring for buyers to buy. Paris Fashion Week Spring-Summer 2018 had dawned upon us — a.k.a. Holy Week. I shifted gears from my usual classroom hours as a Fashion Studies graduate student to intern at a brand’s showroom, probably my fourth internship in the fashion industry. I took a picture of myself hauling the grocery basket, and sent it to my best friend back home in Singapore. It was a six-hour time difference.
I hurried out of Monoprix. There was an unnamable jitter beneath my skin, pushing against my epidermis, on the verge of bursting out. What was this nervous undercurrent that made my feet walk before I told them to whenever I was on a fashion internship? It was the tick-tock of the fashion clock, the secondhand that dictates fashion news can never be fashionably late. It is to this clock that a $2.4 trillion industry kowtows to and the world accepts as natural as when falls turns to Wintour. My muscles remember that it is a cardinal sin to 'waste' time.
What is fashion but time, anyway?
For an industry that is built on creating the new, the now, it never allows you to live in the present. Like the ethos of modernity, once the present appears, fashion instantly displaces it into the past. The constructed linearity of fashion’s timeline can largely be credited to when haute couture fashion week became as twice-yearly affair in Paris. It was institutionalised in the early 20th century, while the collective effort of the media, producers and the government in the prior centuries enabled the mass acceptance of the imperative of fashion’s continual change. This secured the livelihood of the French fashion industry and boosted its cultural capital.
Not only was time accelerating, it was getting ahead of itself; trend forecasting agencies have the ‘prophetic’ ability to tell future desires and package them for brand clients. Time-space compression − as David Harvey calls it − is when the far becomes near and everything feels like it’s moving faster. Always, always chasing the next thing.
Fashion, fully bloomed and worn by modernity like a corsage, is notorious for ousting anyone who doesn’t keep up with its rhythm. Shame on you for clapping a millisecond later. This measure of fashionability is calculated against the painfully specific mood-board of the Western fashion system; ‘allochronism,’ as Aurélie Van de Peer says, is the neocolonialist harnessing of time as a political device to establish who’s in and who’s out of fashion. This is the flower bed that allows fashion, as we know it, to blossom, and us the little bees transferring the pollen.
I buzzed back to the showroom with the groceries. After finishing my errands, I sat at a table in the corner to await the buyers, making small talk with the model. I never knew what to do with myself during these in-between moments. Where does an intern place herself other than ‘out of the way’?
Great! My best friend’s reply came through. I guess that’s one place to be: virtually 10,722 km back home.
A year later, I would move to New York City to finish my graduate studies. I had never seen so many people plugged into their Airpods and talking to the air as they did here. Of course, they were talking to their loved ones, clients, or colleagues, who were out of sight. So if they weren’t on the streets of Manhattan as I saw them, where were they?
In that moment, I was on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue walking to class, but I was also on Rue Saint-Roch in Paris. A project I had done for the French fashion brand, Koché, was on display in a window in Paris for Paris Fashion Week. My disembodied face and voice were on a screen explaining the project and this palimpsest of temporal experiences was very disorienting.
Apparently my experience has a name − time-space distortion. That’s what scholars like Ackbar Abbas calls the multiplicity of temporal existences. And yes, time-space compression is so last season. Time had moved so fast that it became imperceptibly blurred, overlapping and pulling in different directions:
Away from home, I existed somewhere in between memories of home and where I was, constantly negotiating the time differences. I was always distracted from the local clock by reminders of elsewhere, but it was also in this middle space that I was the most here. When I arrived in New York I took a week to overcome the jet lag − I would be awake in Manhattan time but my body would be asleep in Singapore time. As my body caught up with my consciousness, the residual in-between haze accorded with no identifiable metronome. I oscillated between complete lethargy and random spurts of energy. I was a very unproductive member of society, anti-capitalist in the most torturous way.
But this in-betweenness is more and more coming to define our everyday lives and identities.
We are increasingly becoming nomads of time and space. The shift from linear acceleration to an explosion of multiple temporalities − the acknowledgement of alternative histories and realities − is a direct confrontation to the tyranny of fashion time.
For the last two years, travelling between Paris, Singapore, and New York, I was living out of single suitcase. Everything that did not fit into it, I donated. They would become ‘new’ for someone else, circulating in the secondhand clothing economy. The criteria of newness is completely different in this hidden market, re-valued by women working in sorting factories which illuminates how fashion’s constant displacement of the ‘old’ is completely arbitrary. The value of newness is fabricated. What was ‘then’ becomes ‘now’ interchangeably.
Two buyers had come and gone and I needed to rush out for more errands.
The floor beneath my feet is opening. My hurried steps have no grounding. I am falling … not falling down, but away − away from the grip of this singular clock, out of time, into the space of no-when.
How does fashion fasten itself when the warp and weft of its current fabric rip apart?
No longer are 52 fashion seasons a year the naturalised norm. It has proven itself deathly, while we are becoming more skeptical of our ‘birthright’ and ‘obligation’ as consumers. Our realities and identities rest in the in-between spaces, the slivers of presences that slip through the grasp of advanced capitalism’s commodification. It is losing its grip on time and space as collective histories are being reconsidered − no longer can we validate a singular narrative of fashion, especially when it throws its weight around on the 40 million hands that bend to its whims from factories buried beneath shiny marketing campaigns. The pace is changing, demanding a redefinition of fashion-ability.
I enjoy fashion but there’s a lot wrong with its system. Though, this is not to use fashion as a scapegoat as many often do. Fashion simply makes global inequalities blindingly perceptible once we lift the glamourous veil. Every T-shirt is a worn cartography of interhuman power negotiations. And the thought of transforming this capitalist, globally interconnected behemoth is often quite immobilising. But the horizon is not closed. The weight of fashion’s pendulum becomes less imposing when we realise the artificiality of its swing.
As the intern, my efforts seem meagre. I rush out of the showroom continuing to serve fashion’s capitalist imperative but what I would really like is to refuse to conform my step to its perilous swing. Am I naive? Perhaps. But this could be a start: instead of rushing, this time, I simply slow down —
Would I be in fashion’s way?