I was once offered a chance to work with people in prison. I jumped at it. It wasn't because I was some adrenaline junkie, seeking thrills in a hopeless place. Nor was it because of my crush for Uzo in OITNB or the chav-mania aesthetics orchestrated by maestro Gvasalia. Instead, I was driven by the challenge of drawing out kindness and empathy for those who were in need of help – helping them to rehabilitate in a way that brings good to themselves and society. That was when I put my heart and money where my mouth is.
Kindness seems to have gone out of trend in fashion; especially in recent times of turbulence experienced by most parts of the industry. Turbulent; as the bottom-line is driving a harder bargain for labels and companies to survive. Out of trend; as more creative and thoughtful designs (think exquisite artisanship paired with personal narratives) seem to get lost, much due to the ever-accelerating market that favours fleeting embraces and disposable minds. Several professionals in the fashion industry agree that the current demands have given us a commerce-centred process that offers little space to create, a limited time to react, and no chance to get things wrong. Does this overshadow and compromise our ability to care for ourselves, for others, and also for what we do?
It seems money can sometimes take our heart and creativity out of the process.
We know that kindness is contagious. Much romanticised by anthropologist Sir J. Frazer and later explained by the laws of Contagion, kindness and its empathetic charms can be transferred from one person to another. As if by magic, kindness can ripple through from person to person, making both share these thoughts and feelings. Just think about national marathons or other major charity events. We see blood, sweat and tears being poured out to raise money – to be kind. We donate to help those we don’t know – to also be kind. Kindness is in all of us. Could kindness also be a viable solution to improve the fashion industry and its output? Those who love and buy fashion (i.e. our customers) are beginning to turn their search for this hearty element; looking for a heart in what we do.
Honesty, empowerment and owning a social conscience are some key elements that users find increasingly important for today's businesses.
The newly-found voices of customers are also cheering for transparent inclusions and dialogues. Gone are the days when we would buy things, simply because brands and large corporations are telling us to. We are drawn to meanings and experiences that underscore a deeper personal connection; people are looking for a meaningful (ex)change. Coincidentally, the industry is also looking for meaningful solutions. Take the example of technology and sustainability developments. No matter how many advancements are made with fashion and textile technologies, if it has no real emotional relevance to the users and their everyday lives, they won’t buy into it. It seems being able to show kindness and empathise with the audience is key. It's time to find this heart and put it to where our mouth is.
Psychologists have traditionally viewed empathy as a sophisticated social-thinking process that comprises of affective empathy (e.g. how someone is feeling) and cognitive empathy (e.g. why someone is feeling that way). On most occasions, Instagram could tell you what someone is feeling, based on the images they post or like, but not necessarily why they feel like this. This ‘why’ requires a deeper dive for user insights; a show of kindness to the reasons they want your products. Doing this would mean a direct interface with your audience; hearing them out, testing your ideas with them, and adding their process to your creativity. Heck, it may also answer uncertainties within the design process (e.g. why are your customers not feeling the trend for velvet green? AND what can we learn from this?). To apply empathy and use it in fashion is where we need to start - tailoring kindness to fit a fashion business model.
Unleashing head-on empathy for consumers would help the industry to keep up with the times.
Think of the recent direct-to-consumer digital brands, like Milk Makeup and Glossier, who are turning heads in the beauty industry. Their constant engagement with their customers has become the base and primer for attracting fans and investments alike. It is this approach of kindness, call it user-inclusion or whatever you may, that begins to appreciate the importance of understanding what users can bring. Simply put, user empathy can't be sidelined from the process anymore. This is where our money and mouth should ultimately belong.