The Doughnut Shaped Handbag
No one seems to have told Pharrell, but the future of fashion is shaped like a circle with a hole in the middle. Here's why.
Oh my Lord, can someone give Rihanna a hand there? She seems to be carrying an awful lot of bags. RiRi is never one to let pregnancy get in her way, but if the poor girl is carrying that much luggage, someone should get her a cab.
She is probably in a hurry to get to her front row seat tonight, when we are due to witness one of the biggest moments in 21st century fashion history. In what is likely to be a runway spectacular, at 9.30pm CET (watch live here) Pharrell will unveil his first collection for Louis Vuitton, and he needs RiRi and her bump on side. A lot is riding on it: last year Louis Vuitton became the first luxury brand to record €20billion in sales. Has owner M. Arnault, reached his ‘enough’ moment? No he has not. He is, of course, focussed on yet more growth, only how on earth does Louis Vuitton grow from here? More bags?
The answer, Bernard hopes, lies with Pharrell, global pop star, producer, entrepreneur, designer and all round cultural polymath, whom he recently appointed Creative Director of the behemoth brand. This man, the corporate bodies think, can transform Louis Vuitton from a fashion brand to a culture brand, opening up the enormous customer base even further, creating more and more products from which we can all choose. Plans are already afoot to turn Vuitton’s Paris HQ into an LV hotel. It can’t be long before that coffee Rhianna is carrying is branded LV too.
M. Arnault may be the richest man in the world, but he needs more. He is focused on a consistently rising trajectory to satisfy him and his shareholders; he is on a handbag rocket to the moon, and he doesn’t know how to get off. But as he is probably all too aware, growth cannot continue forever. Nothing in nature grows unchecked. Eventually, everything stops.
I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago that got a lot of you talking. It’s Fashion Economics! started with a humiliating story about me having dinner with Rupert Murdoch (“the most excellent humble brag” as one of you put it), but went on to suggest that actually the elephant in the room in all our conversations about sustainability is growth. We are growing at a rate our planet cannot afford, (1.75 times more), and our entire political, economic and social model is headed for an endgame. Hooked on the drug of consumerism, none of us can see beyond our shopping cart. We are addicted to endless consumption.
The godfather of all this is the American theorist Edward Bernay. He is credited with inventing public relations, and it is no coincidence he was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Noting his uncle’s observations that the deepest human desire is to belong - to be respected and admired, Bernay connected this to the acquisition of goods. In 1929 he branded cigarettes “torches of freedom” for women and then went on to work for everyone from Proctor & Gamble to the United Fruit Company. He conflated the idea of belonging and satisfaction with acquisItion - that in order to be happy we need a bigger house, another car, the latest handbag. He called his own work Propaganda (he wrote a book on it in 1928), and the end result has been that we all now think we can make ourselves happy by buying into brands and goods. And yet after 100 years of consumer culture, as a society we are profoundly unhappy: there is an epidemic of mental health crises and while many of us have gotten extremely rich, there are many, many more who cannot meet their own needs.
The person with whom we must credit these observations is the Oxford economist Kate Raworth, who has been making the point since 2017, when she published her book Doughnut Economics. In that book she proposed a way for the world to grow that would allow us to sustain a decent life - that would allow us in fact to ‘thrive’ as she calls it. Growth can only happen within the boundaries of what our living earth can provide, but it must not shrink to the level beyond which people cannot meet their needs: “Meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet,” she proposes. “We must stop trying to grow endlessly - it’s time to thrive and balance.”
Acquisition is an old, outdated and dirty word in Raworth’s playbook. Thrive is the word she wants to describe a more healthy future. Listen out for this word, you are going to hear it more and more, because Kate’s work is suddenly catching on. In the few weeks since I wrote about her, she has been profiled in the Guardian, and interviewed on The Rest is Politics Leading podcast, by Rory Stewart and Alistair Campbell. They meekly tried to pick holes in her theory but came away shame faced that they hadn’t supported her more. They called her a radical idealist - her idea being the tonic we all need, even if it is politically entirely unacceptable.
Kate is an impassioned, brilliant communicator. In her own words: “growth is a wonderful healthy phase of life. But nothing in nature succeeds by growing forever. Everything in nature grows up and then matures, and then learns to thrive,” whether that’s an oak tree, or a business. She points out that growth at the level we currently have it has already overshot the earth’s capabilities, and the only way forward is regenerative and distributive design: production that regenerates the earth, and profits that are shared equitably amongst all of us, its co-creators.
Cities are already practising her theory - Amsterdam, Brussels, Melbourne and Berlin. Businesses too have signed up, as have various consultancies, education centres and NGOs, (you can find them all here at Doughnut Economics Action Lab).
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