“In any context where humans are involved, you can only benefit from looking at psychology because that’s how to understand behaviour.” Prof Carolyn Mair PhD is a pioneer of fashion psychology, author and adviser to clothing brands and fashion media. She spends her days assessing and tackling the systematic issues that have resulted in the current state of the fashion industry. Her prescription: act fast and act responsibly.
Tell us about what inspired your work and led you to become an expert in fashion psychology?
My first job was as a window dresser doing visual merchandising for store windows and in-store displays. I did a lot of additional creative work to make money (dressmaking and designing, painting portraits and murals) until I realized I needed to get a degree. In my thirties, I studied psychology and computing. I loved studying and went on to get my Master’s in Research Methods. Before long, I was asked to start a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience. My love for fashion never went away. In 2011, by chance, I had the opportunity to give a talk at London College of Fashion, which I seized with two hands. The talk was well-received and I was asked to bring Psychology to the college. From 2012 to 2017 as full Professor for Psychology for Fashion, I set up the Psychology department, created and led the world's only Masters courses that applied Psychology in the context of Fashion and laid the foundation for the undergraduate programme. When that work was complete, I sought a new challenge where I could work directly with the fashion industry and help it become more ethical and more sustainable.
How are fashion companies applying psychology to their design and business?
I believe psychology in fashion companies is going to be something that really takes shape in the future. Psychology has always been applied to commerce, but not evidence-based psychology or psychology theory. Fashion is about people, from creation and design, to retail and production; how businesses interact with customers; and how the consumer buys clothing, wears it and disposes of it. Issues of sustainability and ethical treatment are coming to the forefront and businesses have to address it. If they don’t, they will not survive.
The first courses in the Psychology of Fashion only began recruiting in 2014, so the graduates who studied it aren’t even 5 years into the workforce. Many start as buyers and digital marketers, user experience designers, several start their own businesses. However, I think their influence will go a long way once they advance into more senior leadership roles.
What major challenges do you see (or hear from clients) facing the industry?
There is so much pressure today on the fashion industry to be more careful and reduce waste. The issue of sustainability overlaps with the issue of ethics. Consumers vote with their wallets. How brands treat staff and diversity in the organisation matter. The fashion industry has gotten away with being narrow and biased to a degree that no other industry would get away with.
Diversity goes beyond imagery. We need to see a much wider representation of humans in fashion -- not just on catwalks, but in senior management and behind the camera. This includes diversity in ethnicity, age, body type and ability, and gender. Fashion can be a force for good and that’s why this is so important. Retail assistants who are informed in psychology can help consumers figure out what they are buying and encourage them to buy well, instead of the cheap rubbage they can’t even give away.
A lot of brands are trying really hard, but it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. The good news is that changes are happening. Consumers are better informed and evolving how they interact with clothing.
Can you give an example of how a fashion company might use principles from psychology?
As consumers, we like novelty. It’s not enough for us to just say, “We buy something and we like it, so we keep it forever.” We habituate and eventually we want something new. When it comes to fashion, we need to find a way for consumers to satisfy their need for novelty without damaging the environment.
Think about the way we interact with our clothes and each other, and how we identify. It’s easy and natural for people to think they know about all of this. The theory of psychology gives us a foundation to challenge our general assumptions and break habits in order to create new, responsible practices.
Fashion moves fast and is about newness. How do you see the practice of fashion psychology or its effect on the industry evolving over the next 3 years 5 years?
In the future, I see most fashion brands employing psychologists as a necessary part of their structure...maybe even employing many. Within a brand organisation, I see psychologists informing different departments, for example, working with designers on how they make designs more suitable for their specific client base; helping analyse trends so that production can better meet demand to reduce waste; understanding consumer habits to help them become mindful when shopping; demonstrating with evidence the benefits of diversity. These are just a few example, there are so many.
Over the next 3 years, a lot of fashion companies will struggle to keep themselves afloat and I suspect there will be a dip. Five years from now, business will pick up again as people with Psychology backgrounds and insight begin to wield more influence in the industry. Their perspective will help brands do business in a way that is responsible, respectful and will ultimately win the consumer.
About Carolyn Mair, PhD
Professor Carolyn Mair PhD, founder of psychology.fashion, consults with the fashion industry, retail, NGOs, educators and the public providing behavioural insights, training, masterclasses and workshops, mentoring and career coaching. She is a Chartered Fellow of the British Psychological Society and holder of the British Psychological Society’s Distinguished Contributions to Psychology Education Award. Her book, The Psychology of Fashion, was one of Routledge’s top 10 Psychology books of 2018. Carolyn has published broadly in academic and popular media is frequently interviewed for national and international TV and radio. She has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, MSc in Research Methods Psychology and BSc (Hons) in Applied Psychology and Computing. Find out more at http://psychology.fashion/.
Written by Kathryn McConnell
Kathryn is a MBA 2020 candidate at London Business School and member of the Walpole Programme in Luxury Management. She came to LBS from the US after several years of developing strategic marketing campaigns for multi-national organizations. Her work has ranged from international consumer product launches to corporate earnings strategy and has led to features in the world’s top publications, including The Guardian and Wall Street Journal. Kathryn is an experienced dressmaker and active in preserving the craft in her hometown of Philadelphia. Kathryn has a B.A. degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.