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The pitfalls
of fashion

July-August 2002

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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There have always been fashions. They are part of human behavior ad that isn’t, per se, a problem. Some fashions are amusing, intriguing, maybe whimsical, but fun. Others are boring, repetitive and depressing. They can be quite harmful when they turn into manias or cultural diseases. But they are there, it can be useful to understand them – and of course there is always someone around trying to exploit them.

“Fashion” in its strictest meaning, the clothing industry, is a weird environment. “The rag trade”, as it’s called in the grapevine, is full of cloak-and-dagger conflicts, but publicly surrounded by monotonous praise and admiration. Everything is always wonderful, beautiful, fantastic. The most uninventive and unwearable of the fashion shows is invariably acclaimed as a stroke of genius.

Fashion and luxury goods are big and profitable business (especially for exporting countries, such as mine.)  But that’s not a good reason for treating everything related to fashion as an idol that requires perennial reverence and submission, with no room for any criticism or independent opinion.

If this happened only for clothes, accessories, hairdos and cosmetics, I guess we could live with it – as long as we don’t lose our sense of humor. But a “fashion mentality” is prevailing in almost everything, including the economy, politics, culture and information. And it’s rampant in most of the hype about the net (see The “carnivalization” of the internet.)

It’s no coincidence that in a recent lecture in Milan Richard Nelson, professor of Business and Law at Columbia University, talked about “fashion.”  His was a serious academic discussion on the changing relationship between universities and business – and the problems of patenting. It had nothing to do with what people wear or other popular whims and trends. But he pointed to the fact that the “fashionable topics these days” are competitive patenting, startups and venture capital. While “a few years ago” they were cooperative pre-competitive research and development, long-term employee relations, steady finance. (Professor Nelson didn’t suggest that we should simply go back to that older fashion, but he explained why the change isn’t an improvement.)

By “a few years ago” he meant over twenty years. The financial speculative trend had started even before 1980, with a frantic acceleration a the end of the past century. It’s happened (and continues) in practically every business, but especially in biotechnology, information technology and communication.

We are beginning to see some of the consequences of the financial manipulation fashion – and probably the worst is still to come. But there are booby traps in several other “fashions.”

It can be clever, and profitable, to catch on to a new fashion at the right time – or, even better, to understand a new trend before it becomes widely visible.

For instance... when Mary Quant invented the miniskirt, forty years ago, she didn’t only have the bright intuition that the time had come when many women wanted to show their legs. She also exploited a tax advantage. In the UK children’s clothes were exempt from purchase tax (that was before VAT) and the exemption was based on the length of the garment, not the age (or the size) of the person wearing it.

But it’s dangerous to follow fashion. And anyhow it isn’teasy. It’s hard to understand which fashions or trends have relatively deep roots and can last for a while – and which are just whims that can come and go quite unpredictably.

One of the problems is the senseless amplification of fashions in mainstream media. Quite often the media echo reaches it’s peak when a trend is dying. Imitation and fashion-following are often direct roads to failure.

Specifically on the internet, I am not even trying to make a list of the wonder solutions, the “killer applications”, the miracle recipes or the “exponential” trends that a few years ago were widely acclaimed and now are forgotten (leaving behind them a long streak of failures and disappointments.)  Or of the new “fashions” (often old ones in disguise) that are in the limelight today and will disappear tomorrow. Even a short summary would fill a whole issue of the magazine in which this article is published (or more text online that anyone has time to read.) And probably there will be some new (or revamped) magic potions announced in the press or online before this magazine reaches the newsstands.

The remedy is quite simple. Don’t follow fashions. Don’t do what everybody else is doing. Don’t believe in trade jargon, trendy acronyms, miracle tools or “good for all” solutions that aren’t good for anyone. Take time to look into facts and learn from realities, experiment carefully before any ambitious objectives are set, follow simple and clear strategies, based on specific knowhow and practical experience.

Above all, listen to people and concentrate on human relations and dialogue. Learning is a never-ending process. We can, and we should, improve our experience every day. This is the best way to find the road to success. Or, if we have already found it, to continue without slipping into an unexpected pitfall – or being detoured, at the next crossing, by a traffic sign pointing in the wrong direction (by mistake or deliberate deception.)


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