Should cities commoditise their fashion culture?

27 : 07 : 2018 Fashion : Branded Cities : Communities

Local governments must work with citizens to create positive, future-facing visions of cities that work for all.

The Nebula Coat by Per/Se and Kvadrat, London The Nebula Coat by Per/Se and Kvadrat, London

The kudos of the fashion capital is fast becoming outmoded, challenged by the zeitgeist of cities like Los Angeles, Berlin, Seoul and Tokyo.

Britt Berden, creative at The Future Laboratory

The State of Fashion event in the Dutch city of Arnhem, a quadrennial programme that replaced the Arnhem Mode Biennale, has just finished for another four years. With the aim of presenting Arnhem – a city recognised for producing talented fashion designers and creatives – as a global fashion city, the month-long event attracted questioning minds, ready to explore the future of fashion.

But, after two Biennales and vast bankrolling by the municipality, the event has built a financial deficit. In turn, bigger questions have emerged. Does the cultural commodification of fashion really boost Arnhem’s global reputation? And do its residents relate to and feel part of the event?

Traditionally, the branding of a city as a fashion capital has brought success. Using fashion as a cultural commodity has been positive for locations such as Paris, London, Milan and New York, which have long served as stages for biannual Fashion Weeks and trade fairs.

Does the influence of one institution and its alumni justify the branding of a city? It’s like saying Central Saint Martins is the only reason for London’s nonchalance.

But the kudos of this claim is becoming outmoded. Fringe fashion cities such as Los Angeles, Berlin, Seoul and Tokyo are emerging to challenge traditional fashion capitals by promoting the zeitgeist of their residents, their unique styles and the movements emerging from their streets.

In Arnhem, its renowned art academy ArtEZ has been pivotal in promoting Arnhem’s fashion credentials, with Renate Litjens, former chairman of the ArtEZ board, even stating that the academy is why Arnhem is a fashion city. Indeed, its thought-provoking and innovative fashion alumni include Viktor & Rolf, Iris van Herpen and Pauline van Dongen. But does the influence of one institution and its alumni justify the branding of a city? It’s like saying Central Saint Martins is the reason for London’s nonchalance, or that New York owes it art and design legacy to Parsons. Partly, yes, but not entirely.

In my view, a city should work together to justify its identity, as seen in Eindhoven, which is branded as The Design City of The Netherlands. In less than 20 years, it has put into place a very successful strategy, becoming a vibrant city of technologically driven innovation and high-value knowledge, where positive collaboration constantly takes place. Its partnerships have united its citizens, government, universities and global companies such as Philips, to create an environment where innovation thrives and entrepreneurial minds meet.

It will be necessary for city leaders to celebrate the true potential of a city without disruptive risk – be that financial or at the cost of civil autonomy and spirit.

So how can a city such as Arnhem balance the promotion of its creative, cultural hubs and citizens' needs to create its own identity? As discussed in our Branded Cities series, it is about engagement. Local governments must realise that if they are trying to brand a city, it must work for its residents, rather than against them. Brands, governments and the public must work together to create their vision of how to brand their city, and furthermore, to proudly promote and retain its label.

It must be valuable and a driver of capital. Through cultural commodification, be it for fashion, design, sport or art, businesses and governments will always want to achieve value in return. Part of this will be about celebrating the history and residents of the city in a way that attracts visitors and wider audiences. But it will also be necessary to look to its future – and for city leaders to celebrate the true potential of a city without disruptive risk – be that financial or at the cost of civil autonomy and spirit.

For more on the future of Branded Cities, read our dedicated report here.