What’s the story behind the velvet phenomenon?
In case you were unaware, 2016 was the year of velvet, the ancient weave, took not only the fashion world by storm, but – seemingly – the entire planet. Vogue cited velvet as the fashion must-have for 2016, and designers such as Prada, Gucci, Fendi and Dries Van Noten all agreed at Paris’ Autumn/Winter collection, revealed in March this year: “…velvet has ruled the runway this Fashion Week. Whether it’s a well-cut dress or pants and a top, here’s how you will be wearing velvet next season…”.1
Velvet dominated red carpets from the Emmys to the Oscars, with the unlikely concept of even ‘velvet heel’ shoes making an appearance. Online fashion portal Net-A-Porter’s sales of such shoes increased tenfold compared to last year; they now boast over 400 models of velvet shoes for sale!
And velvet was not limited to catwalks or photoshoots. The BBC credited the material with saving fashion group Zara’s finances2 (contrasting a disappointing year for other high street brands), helping to make its owner, Amancio Ortega, officially the World’s richest man.
Wow – so velvet certainly means business! But what else does it mean? What is the explanation behind the sudden ubiquity of this woven knit (velvet refers to the structure of fabric, apparently, not the fibre itself which can be wool or cotton. It is the raised knit that catches the light producing the distinct shine).
Can it be explained by a sort of ‘Game of Thrones’ effect; the TV and Web phenomenon combining intrigue, politics and high drama in a medieval setting? It’s notable that the drama’s plots and machinations resemble today’s current affairs (from Brexit to the US election), but – quoting the BBC – “… for all its grimness and brutality, represents a return of old-fashioned escapism. Game of Thrones invites you to join a world where you can solve your problems with a sword and saddle…”.
Maybe the velvet phenomenon is a reaction to the age of logic and reason, where everything can be debated and rationalized, where passion, emotion and – yes – brute force, have been reduced to an irrelevance. Maybe, we are seeing a return to a New Age of Camelot; a desire to define new forms of chivalry and social conventions. This is particularly relevant in an age of speed dating and online relationship apps, where relationships are ‘optimised’ by Big Data and the ‘Algorithm’.
Traditionally, associated with royalty, due to its prohibitive price tag (Henry VIII was painted wearing it, while Richard II said he wanted to be buried in it), technology and automation has democratized the cloth; today, velvet has become an affordable, daily indulgence for the High Street.
But I think that this year’s ‘daily velvet’ phenomenon contains a deeper socio-economic meaning. A cursory search on Google reveals the number and variety of communities this year talking about traditional forms of chivalry and manners can be applied in a modern context; from dating etiquette3, to student life4, from new peer-to-peer mobile payment systems5, to addressing the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean6…
Does the velvet phenomenon reflect a reaction against the ‘transactionalisation’ of human interaction, where time, resources and – yes – people, are there to be optimised and arbitraged? Where every human contact is offset by a form of rolling ‘opportunity cost’ of not dedicating the same resources to something else?
Velvet is the perfect antidote; to reference Grace Cook’s beautiful article on the fabric from the Financial Times7: “Velvet is full of historical and personal connotations. It has a way of making one feel special. It’s also nostalgic — everyone remembers their own defining velvet moment…”
How to explain the year of velvet; a return to the Age of Camelot, New Chivalry, a reaction against modern transnationalism…? Whatever the reason, 2016 certainly proved a ‘defining velvet moment’ for Amancio Ortega!