Human beings have always used their appearance as personal advertising – from the advent of the first tattoo to hairstyles used to designate tribal affiliation to “that little black dress,” visual style and fashion have been used as a sort of personal branding mechanism, a calling card signaling who we are and where we are at. What has become perhaps most interesting in a postmodern world defined by mass media, the web and global “tribes” is the extent to which appearance has become a focal point for identity.
Rather than globalization fostering a one-sided, homogeneous construction of culture, however, the ever-shrinking world has allowed us to experiment and redefine ourselves in ever more creative ways. As our world grows ever more complex and fragmented, the importance of appearance grows ever greater. The Goth kid in London has as much in common with her counterpart in Argentina as she does with her accountant father – what it means to be from culture X is less important in many ways than what it means to belong to subculture Y.
So why does it matter to marketers, designers and retailers? It matters because it means the traditional methods of segmentation used by men in khaki pants and pastel golf shirts don’t add up anymore. Yes, we can break people out by zip code, income and age, but it is just as likely that you will find a tattooed, rockabilly mom living in the suburbs as you will the stereotypical mom. And it is in those subtle reflections on and responses to the culture at large that the real insights lie. If you want to develop real breakthrough retail experiences and modes of design, you are better off learning about what happens at the bus station, the museum or the food truck than you are analyzing mounds of statistical variables by zip code.
Fashion tells us more than what is trendy, what is “weird” and what is appropriate to wear. It tells us what matters in a larger cultural sense and reflects on the world at large. It tells us about possibilities.