Fashion has a new trend for spring. Well, of course it does – that’s how fashion works. Except this time round, the trend isn’t crimson or corduroy, or Peter Pan collars or platform shoes. The hot look for spring 2022 is the “forever wardrobe”. The key pieces of the season are clothes that come with the promise that they will never go out of style: think crisp white shirts and well-cut blazers; classic knitwear and timeless little black dresses. Throwaway fashion is so last season. This spring, chic comes with a lifetime guarantee.
The irony is that the forever wardrobe never went away, it just went out of style. The fast fashion industry, which exploded in the last 30 years, turbocharged the trend cycle, abandoning the principles of enduring elegance in favour of a rollercoaster of plot twists (woah, jumpsuits!), comebacks (Crocs) and about-turns (black is back, again) designed to keep an audience hooked. Bored of your jeans? Why not try leather trousers! Throw out your neutrals, it’s the season for neon!
Many stylish people ignored this all along, of course – even inside the fashion industry, where the front row cheerleads for apple green one season and salmon pink the next, while continuing to mostly wear navy. Now, an urgent need for sustainability has brought investment dressing back into the spotlight. But can fashion ever really come without an expiry date? Or is forever fashion just a feelgood label to make us feel better about buying new clothes?
On an emotional level, the change of heart is real, among both the people who buy clothes and the people who design and make them. Fashion is about the future; without a future for the planet, there is no fashion. Everybody gets that now. But on an economic level, things are not so easy. The fashion industry generates 2% of global GDP, and employs more than 400 million people. It has grown to this size specifically through selling us more clothes than we need.
And the thrill of transformation has always been part of the power of clothes. From Cinderella to My Fair Lady, Grease to Pretty Woman, the magic of a radical new look is ingrained in our culture. At the height of its imperial pomp, around the beginning of this century, fashion leaned hard into the lure of newness. In the 1970s and 1980s, teenagers tuned into the radio every Sunday to find out what pop song was at number one that week; in the 1990s and 2000s, they gravitated to the Topshop shop floor every weekend to find out what look was new for Saturday night. But that was a more innocent age, before we understood that we were running up a carbon tab we would never be able to pay off.
Forever fashion is an easy sell for those lucky enough to be in a position to pivot from buying several new outfits in Zara at the beginning of a season to buying one designer dress. But for shoppers at the “value” end of the market, where jeans can cost as little as £10, there is no Chanel tweed suit (ballpark cost: £8,000) or Hermès Birkin handbag (circa £10,000) at the end of the rainbow. Fashion has become a cheap payday treat, with a new blouse often costing less than a takeaway pizza. High-street price wars have dragged down the quality of the clothes on sale in many shops.
Shoppers have become accustomed to cheap, thin fabric which tears easily, to loose and irregular stitching which makes for seams that don’t hold, to buttons which snap or fall off. If your budget is tight and your experience of fashion is shoes with soles that come unstuck and sweaters that lose shape after the first wash, it is entirely rational to resist spending more than the bare minimum on clothes. Right now, investment dressing is an elite sport, like polo or skiing, a luxe pursuit for those with spare cash. At the lower price points, the trust level between shop and shopper has been eroded, and that will take some fixing. Forever fashion is not just about timeless classics over quick turnover trends, but about making clothes that last.
The forever wardrobe really does exist, if well designed and properly made. A crisp white cotton shirt, a striped Breton, a simple black one-piece swimsuit, a camel trenchcoat, loafers: these were here all along, and they look as modern now as ever. It may be that we will come to look back on the breakneck-speed version of the industry we have known over the past two or three decades as an aberration, and fashion will return to being about beautiful clothes that are made to be treasured.
In a perfect world, the label of a “forever wardrobe” would not be weaponised as a hard sell by retailers to entice consumers with already bulging wardrobes to buy yet more clothes. But the last train to a perfect world left the station some time ago. To use the phrase à la mode, we cannot shop our way to sustainability, but neither can we make an industry that employs one in eight of the world’s workforce disappear overnight. Clothes we want to wear for ever and ever might seem like the opposite of what fashion represents. But from where I’m standing, they look like the last word in chic.