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IN PERSPECTIVE: "Culture" in the UK is under attack; what are the implications for fashion?

Ollie Shepherd
16 October 2020

As the COVID pandemic – and the ever-shifting measures introduced by the government in an attempt to control it – wipes out the nightlife industry, the future for culture, arts and, indeed, the fashion industry remains uncertain.

The UK’s music scene has been the catalyst for culture for decades, and it has informed why and how we dress.

Mods, Rockers, Punk, Rave, these are just a thin but famous slice of some culture/music scenes that developed tribal dress codes and aesthetics that have informed and continue to inform presentations from fashion's top brass.

1980's Punk

From Raf Simons’ continued referencing of the seventies do it yourself cut/paste graphics (punk) in his recent debut collection at Prada, to Virgil Abloh's fluffy buckets at the fan-favourite Louis Vuitton show (subtle but synonymous with early Rave attire), references to the styling found amongst Britain's music and style tribes of the past century are hard to avoid.

Said tribes were a culmination of creativity and expression, sharing influences from an evolving population. Artists created soundtracks to dress to and adopters created aesthetics to abide by; unwritten codes of uniform to affirm your affiliation.

Louis Vuitton AW20

In the age of technology however the lines are blurred.  We are not restrained to our location; the world is in our pockets. With this, how and why younger generations dress is less about carving out an identity, or fitting into the crowd, but more akin to replication and emulation.

Emulation of our “stars” and our “idols” sounds similar to the past, but with paywall of physical music removed by Spotify and the like, (and a direct line to what your sound selector is copping – thank you Instagram!) we have the ability to peer over, digest and discard multiple artists, their sound and their style at a rapid rate.

This type of consumption and, in fact, consumption in general is altering the way we shop, and so (perhaps more importantly) the way we design.

If a designer's job was once solving the problem of proportion, colour and texture to create a narrative around aesthetic, mood and following, today's brief adds a larger focus on solving the problems around production and purpose. A more curated, conscious approach to simultaneously deliver culture and consumerism.

It is this conscious effort that is perhaps an interesting signal for the mood of a market; a refined lens on the references drawn from the immediate environment. Piecing together elements of the past and steering into the foggy(/digital) cloud of the future. The UK has done, and continues to execute, this extremely well.

Peckham based retailers Wavey Garms, for example, can be credited to a large degree for reinventing the approach to pre-worm garments. Gone, were the rack and stack rails of the Indie era Shoreditch basements and instead there were curated and sought-after selections, incubating moments of recent history derived for UK-driven culture, whether it be the early noughties Garage scene or the Trimm Trab terrace tribe.

Wavey Garms

It is this kind of retailing that redressed and re-educated its followers. It’s less of a trend and more a modern mentality that now sees retail institution Selfridges “Closing the Loop” and portioning off its ground floor to its Resellfridges concept.

The building of an online following and enhanced styling by Wavey Garms perhaps set the tone for new tech giant Depop, and its reselling app, and spawned the uptick of the gENzTREPRENEURS. We now have a mass of micro retailers curating fits and vibes from the familiar, perpetuating the exaggerated versions of Britain's stylized past, with swathes of swoosh-led sportswear for good measure.

The impact of American giant Nike and its influence on the UK's evolving identity can’t go unmentioned. UK Drill videos (very DIY, anti establishment, modern punk in mindset and of course micro-influencers in themselves) are hard to come by sans swoosh. This is to a degree, testament to the efforts of big chain sportswear multiples whose presence on every high street, have ensured they are and remain the de facto shopping environment for teen/young adults.

Bolt this onto last year's collaborative efforts from Martine Rose, and a recent drop of Jordan-driven Dior from Kim Jones, and it's hard to deny the cut-through and adoption of the geometrically satisfying seal of approval amongst British talent at both ends of the spend spectrum. These examples of course are driven by global marketing efforts, but are not to be dismissed.

The question then arises of what will become of British culture in ‘21 and beyond. The answer isn’t entirely visible today, but clues are in place. The Nightlife industry is in tatters, and lack of support does not look optimistic for the thin thread the clubs and eventing spaces are hanging onto. Fallout from a lack of such spaces coupled with fatigue with restrictive measures, WILL push moments of (required) shared experiences and music/club culture further underground. We will be back to DIY and back to punk (in mentality at least).

This won't be favoured by all; with COVID at large it will be documented as irresponsible. However, “Counter Culture” is an inevitable outcome when freedom of expression is challenged. The cultures I described early on were all products of fighting the status quo, challenging societal norms, re-defining a narrative, reflective of a snippet in time, each with a sound defining the moment.

The alternative is stay home, stay cosy. Stay online – a very new, very 2020 aesthetic, an enforced culture in itself.  It’s reappropriating 2019’s outdoor/hike game for indoor screen time, it’s fleece and slippers and PJs. It’s less base camp and more camp base (layer). “Comfort before style” is this year's subversive moment when it comes to attire.  Shelves and wall hangings the accessories de choix.   

But is the new out? Certainly not, and the longer we live without the influences of a physical environment the less our “culture” will draw on them to take shape, establish or evolve. It is imperative at this stage that the government look to support an industry they claim to have propped up with a “£1.5 billion package”.

The independent and freelance artists, musicians, venues, culture creators and curators have received a less than required amount (if any) of this opaque distribution of “support”. Stuck on loop soundbites from ministers claiming job done will not hide the subtle attempt to erode Britain's spaces and purveyors of culture.

Now is the chance for the Government to change tack, identify our culture as something they are proud of to truly support it. Britain's ability for twinning visual and sonic aesthetics across multitudes of media, form and function is one of our finest exports to the world and a marker in our history to preserve.


Ollie Shepherd is the Head of Product & Merchandising at SWEETSHOP, the 360 agency that helps brands tell their stories.

SWEETSHOP work with brands including Ellesse, Nokia, Sony Music and Sam Branson. To view more, visit SWEETSHOPMEDIA.COM

About SWEETSHOP: More than ever for brands operating in the fashion space, it is important to identify one's own culture and place within it, then most importantly, ensure you are true to it.

Chasing trends or misappropriation of “culture” demonstrates a lack of authenticity and can only be a mask for a brand and the wrong one at that. Customers will see past it and longevity will not be a product of the input, particularly if communication and execution are delivered without real integrity.  

At SWEETSHOP we think purpose first. Why are we creating? Why are we developing? A concept, a product, an outcome? Always identify purpose first and this will answer some questions to the Culture you are striving to deliver and partake in. 

If lockdown has slowed the pace of business, this is the time to utilize as a moment of reflection both front and back house to ensure your business is delivering on the mission outcome it intended. Is it delivering the right message, not only to its customers but also its staff?  

A brand is not just a composite of what's on rails or delivered in boxes, but is a reflection of the team and value that drives its creation and purpose, a reflection of their own culture. Brands that live and breathe the values they offer the customer are the ones who will settle and find their place within culture, and a continued existence in our time. 


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