This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

SCHOLARS’ CONVERSATIONS: ALEX HOPPE, FASHION, WORK, AESTHETIC EVALUATION, AND CREATIVE DECISION-MAKING

BY JORDAN FOSTER

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Alex Hoppe, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and this year’s winner of the Consumers and Consumption Student Paper Award. Alex’s research focuses on the dynamics that surround cultural production and creative decision making especially as these apply to the fashion industry. In this conversation, we talked about his ethnographic work in fashion, his dissertation more broadly, and his forthcoming (and award recognized) project on aesthetic evaluation.  

Jordan Foster: How did you come to investigate the fashion industry? What sparked your interest?

Alex Hoppe: I’ve been interested in fashion for almost 10 years. Much like Ashley Mears, my own interest grew out of my work as a model. I began observing creative decision making and power at multiple levels, and my work followed from this. 

Jordan Foster: Over the summer you received the section’s Student Paper Award for your work, “Coordinating Transnational Futurework in Fashion Design.” Can you tell us a little bit about how it is you came to begin this research? 

Alex Hoppe: This research is part of my dissertation, and it came out of maybe four or five months of dedicated ethnographic observations of design in India. Over the course of my observations, I noticed a bunch of different sets of issues in design including issues related to forecasting tools like WGSN (Worth Global Style Network). Following Blumer’s early work in fashion and through fieldwork, I was left with questions related to production and decision-making. Specifically, how do people come to agreement?  What is particularly fascinating about this question in the context of fashion is that the industry is future-focused. And so, there is considerable ambiguity and uncertainty around what could or should come next. Yet season after season after season, there is substantial agreement on what the trends are and what the trends were. What is more, industry figures are often using the same tools to make these decisions (whether they admit to it or not). 

In my forthcoming work in Qualitative Sociology on aesthetic evaluation I ask a similar set of questions related to creative decision-making, but I do this with an eye toward the modeling industry. How, for example, do people decide on which models will appear on the runway? What processes underscore their decisions and how do people make aesthetic choices in the absence of any strict technical criteria? 

Jordan Foster: With respect to Futurework in Fashion [published in Socio-Economic Review], call you tell us what the publishing process like for you? 

Alex Hoppe: This one was quite straightforward, I think. I had the data ready to go, and writing prepared within my dissertation chapter so, from there, I elaborated and moved toward publication. 

As for the work itself, it was a straightforward application of economic theory and organizational theory to the aesthetic realm. Here, like fashion in general, we find some conformity and some dynamism; some conformity that comes from the top and some innovation that moves from the bottom up. As when, for example, workers or designers play with new concepts or pieces. 

Jordan Foster: With respect to both this project and to your dissertation more broadly, what are some of the key takeaways that you would like readers to leave with? 

Alex Hoppe: There’s a great scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) kind of lays out how the fashion industry works. She criticizes Andrea’s (Anne Hathaway’s) skepticism and puts a small group of people at the center of the fashion industry. The idea is that this group makes decisions, and that these decisions take effect from there. It’s a producer-oriented version of the trickle-down thesis.

In my own work, I would tend to agree with that basic perspective. It’s a small set of people who are making a lot of the initial decisions and my position is (more or less) that they do trickle down. It’s a simplistic formula, but overall, that’s an easy way to think about fashion production and creative decision-making. 

Jordan Foster: Can you tell us a little bit about your methodological approach to fieldwork in fashion? 

Alex Hoppe: Ethnography feels very intuitive to me, I think. You have to ask the kinds of questions that are relevant for the field and in the case of fashion, I’m really interested in organizational and workplace dynamics. So, it’s not just what happens, but about the structured processes by which decisions are made. Martha Feldman and Brian Pentland provide some great tools for accessing these processes. They do a lot of good work on organizational routines, for example, and provide an iterative methodology that you can apply in most settings. 

Jordan Foster: What other scholars (or scholarly works) are you inspired by? 

Alex Hoppe: The go-to answer for me is Simmel, no question. He’s a little bit of out of left-field stylistically, but for me that’s extremely inspirational because you can pick up on, you know, little bits and pieces and then follow them. I think he’s got answers for everything; all the interesting problems that I’ve come across, or at least a good starting point which to work from.

Jordan Foster:  And last, but not least Alex, what does consumption mean in your work?

Alex Hoppe: Well, it’s a tricky question. Whether fashion starts with consumption, that is. I tend to think that it does, even though my first set of research projects are all on the side of production. But I’ve always been fascinated by consumption and the curious relationship between an individual’s fashion choices and conformity.

Put differently, I’m struck by the fact that while most people tend to think that other people are conforming, they’re doing something different themselves. There is an ideology of individualism that circles around consumption, and as sociologists, we can kind of unpack that and take it apart. 

About the Interviewer: 

Jordan Foster is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His research interests lie at the intersection of consumption, new media, and inequality. 

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