R.J. Cutler's The September Issue and last year's The Devil Wears Prada have ripped the frilly veil off the $2 trillion global fashion industry, revealing it as the last bastion of a bunch of autocratic dinosaurs. Even for a dedicated non-fashionista like myself, it is shocking to see the iron grip that the fashion potentates have had over this huge marketplace, and equally refreshing to see the revolution that is clearly brewing to dethrone them.
For someone who is more familiar with the worlds of entertainment, media and politics, the recent slew of behind-the-scenes fashion movies is like taking a trip back to the days of Tammany Hall politics or movie mogul Hollywood. Seeing Anna Wintour dismissively pronouncing "I don't like black" as cowed assistants hurriedly remove all remnants of black clothing from the upcoming issue of Vogue is a lot like watching a Chicago political boss haul in a hapless City Councilman and summarily fire him or having Sam Goldwyn casually toss out a script by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The point is that whether you are a politician or a movie producer or a fashion editor, you are ultimately supposed to answer to the voters or the audience or the readers. When a system gets so top-heavy that decision makers show only contempt for their constituents or customers, then you know that system is doomed to fail. Sure, the system can hum along nicely for years, but in the end, there will be a revolution that will bring the corrupt system down with a crash.
Today, that revolution has come largely through the internet, which gives voters, audiences, magazine readers, consumers and everyone else not only access to more information more quickly, but also the ability to communicate our ideas and feelings to one another much more easily. Gone are the days when politicians could simply close the doors and make secret deals. With C-SPAN and YouTube, much more of the public's business is done in the open, whether politicians like it or not.
With the internet and digital technology, all kinds of entertainment are being democratized, whether it is the creation of low-budget films, the recording and distribution of music, or the blossoming of personal videos on YouTube. It is a global burst of communication and creativity that involves everyone with access to the internet. No longer can the fashion doyennes have exclusive runway shows that are selectively leaked to favored publications, because within minutes of the show there are photos and videos online. No longer can designers hold off for months in offering their clothing to the public, because consumers want to buy it now and manufacturers will rush to sell it to them. And no longer can a few powerful people dictate fashion from the top down, because there is a growing fashion revolution from the bottom up, as more designers find underground, web-based outlets to reach consumers.
The global economic crisis has hastened the demise of the already toppling fashion establishment. It is as if consumers have awakened after a decade of mindless spending and asked "Why did I pay all that money for something I didn't want or didn't like just because someone I don't respect told me to buy it?" Clearly, this is the beginning of a mass uncoupling from the giant advertising machine whose main purpose was to get consumers to buy things they didn't need or want. And it may even be a backlash against the Bush years, when crazy spending beyond our means was epitomized by President Bush, who urged us all to put aside our concerns about war and terrorism and "go shopping."
Not there is anything wrong with shopping, or fashion, for that matter. Beauty and style are universal and timeless concepts, and are hallmarks of our humanity. But having these very personal modes of expression hijacked by aging potentates who display little more than scorn for the tastes or wants of average consumers stretches credulity. A very telling moment in the September Issue is near the end when Anna Wintour is presenting the issue to her bosses at Conde Nast, most notably Si Newhouse. After seeing her parade through the Vogue offices like some kind of third-world dictator, we see her timidity and anxiety as she presents her work to her real bosses -- the advertising world that pays the bills. It brings to mind slogans from revolutionary periods in the past, "The Queen is dead! Long live the Queen!"