Representing the creative future

Are you too old to make it in fashion?

As fashion graduates have to live up to unfeasible career paths, established designers face ageism in an industry infatuated with youth

are you too old to make it in fashion?

Fashion sells dreams. Fashion image, in particular, relies on the notion that males and females aspire to appearances that comply with a mainstream idea of beauty and success. But consumers are not the only ones having to live up to a superficial stereotype. Fashion students’ career paths centre on their young years and leave almost no prospect of becoming successful after passing the momentum. Even more so, the industry’s platforms for new talent focuses on young designers as if these personas had to sell themselves and not their creations. New equals young. But in fashion, there seems to be an expiration date for anyone.

Historically, the focus on the youth market came with the breaking down of Parisian haute couture in the 1950s. Reflecting revolution, young designers displaced the couturier. While before, fashion had already equated to the mirror of society, namely aspiring to be young, wealthy, and successful, in the wake of the social turmoil after the Second World War the new generation of designers also rattled on long-established career paths and profiles. Pop culture and mass consumption paved the way for modern needs. Rebellion superseded experience. And soon the up-and-coming designers outran the respectable profession of the couturier.

Has youth become the epitome of progressiveness, or does youth outweigh expertise?

Fast forward: 2020. The media’s continuing focus on the creative youth has created a paranoia to disappear from the radar of the industry. As soon as the momentum of young, promising graduates has passed due to a new wave of fresh faces half a year later, designers find it hard to grasp the media’s attention and remain relevant. Mahoro Seward, staff writer for i-D, grants insight into the immense misconception these pressures create, “I receive emails from students even before the graduation show asking me to feature them. It appears as if at universities, the fashion students are driven into the belief they have to become successful right after graduation to sustain in the industry.” – “This pressure begins even before graduation,” explains Bianca Büche, a 33-years old designer and former Royal College of Arts graduate. “There were so many students who were dreaming of receiving the media’s attention. But in the end, not all of us can be published and there exists only a very short time frame in which you can reach out.” The fear of becoming irrelevant to the industry even increases the longer graduation dates back. Exemplifying the imbalance of age representation, the 100 most progressive artists of 2020 as claimed by Dazed are aged on average 23 years. Usually, by that time, many creatives have just graduated from university. The intrinsic paradox raises a bleak question: has youth become the epitome of progressiveness, or does youth outweigh expertise?

The fashion industry directly impacts fashion media and vice versa, but the consumer commands both. In 2019, more than one-quarter of  Vice’s readership was under 24 years old, the average age of the Dazed Media outlets’ readers is between eighteen and 30. Both characterise as youth-culture publications that strongly focus on profiling emerging talent, while Vogue with an average readership aged 39 covers instead established brands. “Our audience is very young; our audience is students, it is fresh graduates. Our content has a lot to do with what they are interested in,” explains Seward. Surprisingly, however, various publications ranging from youth culture oriented to generally fashion-focused outlets refused to talk to us about the reasons underlying the insistence on young talents, denying insights into internal criteria for what makes new talent interesting. Is the media as uninvolved as they claim to be, solely representing their readership’s interests?

It is to note that audiences are changing and due to the new media hold more power over their media consumption. In a few years, the consumers aged from eighteen to thirty-five will comprise the market. The new consumer is not only more digitally-driven but differs in values. According to McKinsey, societal values, social influence, status, the community, and emphasising one’s individuality outweigh a price or product. Besides, as social media reflects a primary communication tool for both, brands and media, consumers can filter by their values which information they wish to receive. As a result, for fashion brands and media to break through to the consumer requires authenticity, emotional connection, and great storytelling. But while these criteria are per se not limited to age, their implementation often is.

Journalists are more likely to feature graduates’ ideas and visions rather than a business model as there might never be one.

The digitalisation of the mediascape has impacted the research process of journalists for new talent to become rather informal. Mahoro Seward admits that in reality, next to benefitting from a network that almost organically points you to fresh faces, Instagram suggestions and tags have become a primary research tool. The two influential streams on designers, first the audience’s changing demographic and second, the media’s evolution in the course of the digital age creates seemingly disadvantageous premises. Recent graduates, for sure, can count on the advantage of being familiar with social media as a business tool due to being born into the digital revolution. However, in comparison to established designers, they often struggle to grab a foothold in the industry amongst others due to a lack of business education. Thus, journalists are more likely to feature graduates’ ideas and visions rather than a business model as there might never be one. Nadia Boujo and Kathrin Hüsgen, who founded the luxury underwear label BOUJO HAKE after each had worked for several years in the industry, highlight the importance of experience and expertise, stating, “Our joint years of experience in design, journalism, and theatre certainly are a plus, and it feels that journalists take us seriously and we can build genuine relationships with them.”

“I had worked so hard to establish my own brand but it felt like I was applying for financial support over and over again. Eventually, I realised that there was no realistic chance of me selling my designs and living off it” – Bianca Büche

Even though the media outlets, which provide new talent with a platform, undeniably focus on the youth, and digitalisation challenges existing business models – an innovative vision and progressive creativity cannot be owned by any particular generation. The future belongs to the young. The presence is to be shaped by the current generations. Therefore, the system should not create pressures by taking advantage of false illusions. “I had worked so hard to establish my own brand but it felt like I was applying for financial support over and over again. Eventually, I realised that there was no realistic chance of me selling my designs and living off it,” confesses Bianca Büche. So, if you step over the edge of the world that is your momentum, is it really the end of your career? “I am not where I want to be, yet, but I am quite happy with what I have and what I do,” ensures Büche. “I have a steady job, I have great colleagues, I have my routine; and yes, my designs are actually bought, people like what I create and they actually wear it everyday. Plus, I don’t have the financial pressure of having to sell.” In the end, it takes more than a high-reach Instagram account or a magazine feature to be seen by the industry. “The media eventually has to meet its audience’s interest. Yes, magazines have the power to generate reach. But one feature is not going to lead to a designer’s breakthrough,” clarifies Mahoro Seward. The necessity to slow down the industry’s pace should most importantly apply to the expectations on students’ career paths. On a further note, using youth as a selling point and simultaneously neglecting to inform about diverse career paths solely adds to the tremendous pressures on students to stand out even before being properly trained. Talent should not be equated with nor limited to youth.

So, are you too old to make it? “What’s funny is that a homogenous society is never good on any level and especially from a creative point of view, so it makes complete sense to have different ages and races who instinctively have varying reference points,” explain Boujo and Hüsgen, whom themselves differ in background, culture, and slightly in generation. The industry has yet to reach democracy in various areas. And while the audience indeed determines the content, the underrepresentation of individual age groups is one factor adding to the misconception of new talent equaling young talent.