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Never-ending story

Where does your interest in fashion come from?

My grandmother, who was born in China, had a great influence on my aesthetic interests, including fashion. Her room in our family home was full of Chinese trinkets, jewellery, and original fabrics. That’s probably where the Asian inspiration that can be often found in my styling comes from. Hidden in my grandmother’s cabinets, closets, and drawers you could also find colourful shawls, clips, necklaces, bracelets and… petticoats, which were sent from our family in London. Those petticoats made an especially strong impression on me – so colourful, rustling, and frilly – they were made of heavy polyester and would probably have gone up in flames at the touch of a match (laughs). They were made in such a way that they could not be worn every day, so they hung in the closet as the subject of my childhood fascination. I made them into all sorts of creations – they became ball gowns, wedding dresses, veils, and a thousand other things.

I also remember from childhood the clothes my mother wore, which became part of unique, feminine world for me. A jacket my mother bought in the 1980s survives to this day. It is absolutely timeless. My mum spent most of the 90s in that jacket, and I even wore it to a few school exams. By contrast, it is hard for me to remember any of my jackets from the last five years. They just didn’t stay with me. They were usually chain-store discoveries that seemed cool, but which had a short life both in terms of style and in a purely physical sense. Such clothes appear and disappear. Vintage clothes, however, are something special. For a start, people would acquire them in an entirely different way. People did not analyse the meaning of fashion so much, once. There was also not the same level of access, through magazines, programmes, shows, etc. Fashion was associated with dreams. Someone would dream about owning a dress or a fur coat. It would often be a unique piece, found at the bazaar in Rembertów, put aside, and then – after much deliberation – purchased. Or it was brought from abroad. My mother was lucky that my father would often bring her surprises, in the form of clothes, from his trips. And once you acquired something like that, you enjoyed it. You celebrated possessing it, and there was no question of being bored of it after a week. Quite the opposite, it was worn for years. I also have a few beloved items of clothing that I have put away, which are special for me because of the specific memories they relate to. One of them is my prom dress… which anyway looks more like a bathrobe than a dress (laughs).

The approach to fashion has changed a lot from when you were a child. What is it like to function professionally in a world of changing needs, styles, and seasons?

Paradoxically, submerging myself in it has freed me from it. When I started writing the blog it included a lot about what was in vogue. What colours, what cuts, etc. I was fixated on what was seasonal and current. Now I try to approach fashion more universally. I stopped writing about what to wear on prom night (laughs). I started focusing on various, often contradictory trends occurring in fashion. I also gradually realised that it was the capacity for constant creative reinterpretation of the past that I found most attractive in fashion. It’s a never-ending story. For me the saying “everything has already been done” does not have a negative connotation. It’s wonderful really – finding forgotten things in drawers and looking at them through the prism of the present. The blog “Into the Fashion” by Diana Murek is very interesting in that respect. She shows how the clothes of the past provide inspiration for the today’s designers. It is fascinating to see what changes, and what for instance becomes the core style of a designer. Looking at Chanel: how many creative ways can you play with tweed, and plaid tweed at that?

Do you think that there is still space in fashion for reinterpretation? Every creative action requires time after all, and the fashion industry is accelerating every year. Designers must now not create two new collections a year, but at least four. The pressure is enormous, which can be seen from the turnover among senior designers at the big fashion houses. Raf Simons resigned from Dior after a year, similarly to Alexander Wang from Balenciaga. Do you not have the impression that that has to change somehow? To be revaluated?

Those process will lead ultimately to the number of fashion brands on the market decreasing. At the end of the 90s – when I started being more consciously interested in fashion – the first fashion portals emerged, like They presented the collections of selected designers. I could point to something and say, for example: “that is in the style of this year’s Prada”. That would no longer be possible, because there are really a lot of shows and it is difficult to find something truly original among them. There is no longer one answer to the question of what is fashionable, because there is huge divergence on the subject. There is marketing pressure as well, and often what is deemed fashionable is that which has big money behind it – so those companies that can afford adverts. Chain stores create trends by force. People have to buy new clothes, and they have to be constantly shown why what they bought the year before is no longer fashionable, and that now something entirely different is trendy – that it’s not whistles any longer, now its bells (laughs). It is easy to think that this has little to do with fashion and everything to do with making lots of money. I do think, however, that people crave contact with something arising from an authentically creative activity, and so I believe that consumers will start to be more conscious and they will stop allowing themselves to be manipulated so ruthlessly. That will lead to transformations in the fashion industry. Ultimately, the number of medium-sized named brands will grow at the expense of the massive chain companies.

That is a very optimistic scenario. For now the commercial pressure is great and everything is moving more towards mass production. Even the luxury fashion houses with very high prices have become mass-market in terms of production. Thanks to globalisation and the Internet they sell millions of units a year from their collections across the world.

I wonder if it is possible to be a niche designer these days. The story of Tom Ford is a very interesting example of someone who tried to do that. He tried to create a highly exclusive brand, functioning entirely outside the Internet and mainstream. He wanted to only show his collections to a selected group, without sending photos of the shows to thousands of agencies around the world, etc. It turned out that, without the entire machinery, it just doesn’t work. Tom had to admit defeat, and he started mass-charming through social media.

People had to be more creative in the times when you had to work harder to achieve an interesting look.

That can be seen very clearly through the changes that happened on my blog. At first I often showed my audience what I was wearing with the heading “DO IT YOURSELF”. And you could find out how to make, for instance, a t-shirt in the style of Lanvin. I remember that those t-shirts had characteristic black, ruffled sleeves. I didn’t have anything to sow them from so I used black tights. One of the Balenciaga’s collections had, in turn, keffiyeh headscarves with painted patterns and made with various chains and tags, which I also managed to make at home. Those posts were very popular and I felt that people were really enjoying the fact that they could make their own original outfits. I received emails with thanks and photos from happy girls in hand-made fashion hits. That finished around 2009. Today that would be seen as unprofessional and ridiculous.

Today you can go and buy the currently fashionable thing, at every price range, because the chain stores immediately copy what appears on the catwalks.

Yes, of course. And the rate of change is also much faster. Things are fashionable for a week or two, and then new must-have things appear. And I have the impression that, among others, fashion bloggers unfortunately contribute to strengthening that constant need to buy what is new. It is also due to the nature of Internet communication; its intensity combined with the fact that it is short form and high frequency. Bloggers must constantly provide new content, which fits perfectly into the extreme model of consumption, based on creating and heightening new needs. I don’t really know how to react to the posts of tearful young bloggers whining at the grief of not owning the latest Dior handbag. Or the obsessive search around the entire city for a garment from Zara or H&M that a celebrity happened to be seen wearing. The strength of the influence of others over what we wear is becoming absolutely decisive.

Those others are simply the market. It decides how we look.

Yes, and it does not matter what actually suits you, or what compliments your figure best. All that matters is to be “fashionable”. Needs arise and are satisfied. Then another collection appears, new desires, and so it continues. I completely understand the desire to own things by the “great designer”. The question is why we want those things. If others are deciding for us, those who are often simply advertising things from a given firm, then it seems to me to be quite harmful. We often do not realise how many people and articles are paid for purely so as to awaken specific desires in us. Famous bloggers – watched by millions around the world – appear at fashion weeks in six different outfits per day. Why? Not because they are creative. They simply have lucrative contracts with particular brands. It’s a business like any other. For contrast, I’ll tell you about my dream. I would like to own a Louis Vuitton bag. It is a very conscious decision, and one that takes into account the fact that the monogram does not have positive connotations for everyone. Nevertheless, I think it is a work of art. Something that has been refined to a level that may even cease to exist soon. I have seen first-hand how those bags are made, in small workshops that have often been owned by the same family for generations. It is a long, precise process that has been perfected, and which results in the creation of something absolutely unique. Therefore, notwithstanding how much this Mercedes among handbags costs, I have already started saving… and maybe when I reach retirement I’ll be the happy owner of a Louis Vuitton (laughs).

In what ways do all these changes in the fashion world define your blogging?

First of all, when I started writing the blog there was no such thing as “self-promotion”. I was entirely independent when it came to selecting content for the blog. I just wanted to write about fashion and share that with others. I thought then that it would be nice if someone read it, but I didn’t reflect on the possibility of it becoming some form of business. Besides, no one approached me with any commercial propositions at the time, because companies had not yet realised what a massive influence bloggers could have, and how much of a marketing advantage they could offer. On the contrary, I remember when I had enquire about visits to the studio of a given designer. Now it is completely reversed – I receive dozens of emails a week inviting me for visits, shows, and so on. However, I am grateful that I started out in such circumstances, because I became accustomed to independence and now I try to maintain it. The blog is also not my main means of support. I earn money somewhere else and so I do not have to accept uncomfortable compromises. I prefer to call myself the author of a blog, than a blogger. Of course I benefit in some ways from what I do. I am in close contact with the representatives of various brands, I can sometimes get discounts. But no one is giving me half of a new collection for free in return for writing an article. That is my choice and sometimes I feel its negative consequences. Sometimes I can’t get a good view of the latest collection by a given designer because the front rows are reserved for paid celebrities or sponsors. Independence also means greater responsibility for your own opinions. If I recommend a brand because I think that it presents something interesting, innovative or unique, I have to deal with the fact that my audience may not like it. They don’t have to. Hence the word “subjective” in the subtitle of my blog.

Are Polish brands ready to function in the global fashion bloodstream?

I see that there are more and more professional brands on the Polish market. Their pieces are good quality both in terms of design and manufacturing. Despite the fact that it is hard to sell in Poland because of the lack of boutiques and the domination of shopping centres, increasingly numbers of brands are trying to adapt to the European fashion calendar and release collections on time. On the other hand, many companies are not surviving on the market. People are not aware of what the industry really looks like – how competitive, dynamic, intensive, and demanding of time and money it is. I admire companies that have succeeded because I know how much hard work stands behind that success. And I am happy that there is more and more really interesting work, because mediocrity and shabbiness still predominate. Although not only in Poland – in the rest of the world as well. I also worry that I meet lots of very talented people in this industry who are not able to realistically assess their possibilities. Today everyone aspires above all to be “visible” and they often turn away from more humble professions in which they would be excellent. Rather than become a specialist in embroidery or cutting – respectable crafts – they prefer to make coffee for Anna Wintour’s assistant’s assistant, and spend their evenings dreaming of the glitz of a designer’s job. We live in a time of rampant egos, where everyone wants to be a star, forgetting that today’s stars are quickly extinguished. In the fashion world, the less exposed vocations can offer more satisfaction and fulfilment than momentary attendance among the pantheon of celebrities.

Harel is the author of O modzie subiektywnie (On fashion subjectively), one of the first Polish blogs dedicated broadly to the topic of fashion. She is a promoter of Polish brands, a member of the Cracow Fashion Week Media Board, and collaborates with the editors of Fashion Post.

Max Zieliński is a photographer, traveller and Varsovian. He is fascinated by the process by which cities are destroyed and yet perpetually reborn. Taking photographs is for him a search for what is not obvious. He works with the Zwykłe Życie magazine.