‘Kalòs Kai Agathòs’: The Soul of Beauty
The Abstract Quality That We Yearn For
Kalòs kai agathòs is the Soul of Beauty. It is beauty’s inherent quality. It predates written language, and we have always loved it unconditionally. What it conveys, we can only theorise, but it fascinates us.
Words can’t do it justice. It is regal, mysterious, ornamental, artistic, magical, enchanting, precious, sublime… As Umberto Eco said, ‘It is superfluous… It is beauty!’
As humans we have dreamt about it since the beginning of time, because it gives us the hope and sensation that we can elevate ourselves to an almost divine perfection. As such, it has always played an important role in our lives. On the walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d’Arc, France, is the oldest known example of prehistoric art. Over 35,000 years ago we began to paint ourselves as being perfectly placed between the earth and the sky. Buddha, Confucius, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed all linked it to the harmony of a moment.
That is why its perception has changed over time. As history evolved, people, the source of civilisation, developed different interpretations. Therefore, there is not just one beauty, but rather a myriad of moments of beauty. They are all different, yet all intrinsically focussed on the same universal principle. We only need to look at it to feel the reflection of the cosmos on us.
The Origins of the Phrase Kalòs Kai Agathòs
The first to study it were the Greeks, who defined art as an imitation of nature. At the dawn of democracy in the 5th century BC, it was described as καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός, (kalòs kai agathòs), meaning ‘beautiful and good’. This phrase soon came to be used as one to describe somebody or something that possessed all the ideal virtues. The term referred not only to that which was ‘beautiful’ on the outside, but also to the beauty which was reflected in its good, virtuous and moral behaviour.
Homer’s heroes were young and beautiful in appearance but also valiant, virtuous and ready to fight with great courage. Beauty was a gift granted by the gods for the chosen few to perform noble deeds. Beauty, both physical and intellectual, was the object of continuous education, of constant training and hence the gymnasia was born.
As Plato said, ‘Art forms character…’
Over time, social codes changed, and so too did this Greek concept. The Roman bonum et aequm absorbed the Hellenic heritage of the idea, but what was once reserved for people in the arts became a description for themselves too.
Early Christians plunged this notion back into obscurity by distinguishing sacred beauty from everything else. In the Middle Ages, it was beauty that came from the East. In the Renaissance, it was Western Europe that redesigned the norms, starting with the glorification of the Antiquity. Industrial society then progressively detached ‘the beautiful and the good’ from the transcendent order that qualified it, and portrayed it as synonymous with modernity; they compared it to the East which was represented as ancient, and underdeveloped.
The Rise of Accessible Beauty
The greatest innovations in the concept of luxury came from France, initially with Coco Chanel who revolutionised the traditional look of the 1920s to bring it closer to a more modern style. In the post-war period, the aesthetic reformism of Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent made it accessible to the emerging classes.
At the same time, Italy appeared on the international scene with their renowned tailors. The two European fashion capitals became Paris and Milan. The former with the haute couture model, and the latter with the ready-to-wear model, that developed the stylist companies. The aura of sacredness and uniqueness which, until then, had characterised luxury and beauty, lost their connotations.
Towards the end of the 1900s, commercialisation, corporate greed and globalisation established new codes for fashion. To enlarge the market, the product of beauty had to be accessible to everyone. The prestige of beauty had to be brought to the masses. The speed of creation sped up: a fashion show every three months, the speed of production changed from the time from the idea to the ready-to-wear market, and ‘fast-fashion’ ended up diluting the principles of fashion and adjusting them to the globalised world of commercialisation.
The outsourcing of production processes and the change in the production model have ended up confusing the origin of products, and ‘Made in…’ has lost its significance. Fashion has become one of the biggest businesses on the planet, with $2.5 trillion globally in 2021, and by 2030, according to estimates by BCG and Global Fashion Agenda, it will reach $3.3 trillion. Corporate greed has reaped all the benefits, leaving the disadvantages to the planet and civil progress.
Here are just a few figures taken from the European Parliament report of April 2022. Fashion is responsible for 20% of global water waste. It causes ~9% of the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions. 85% of clothes end up in landfill and only 1% of them are recycled or reclaimed.
So What is the Value of Beauty, of True Luxury?
All of this poses one simple question. What is the significance now of the beautiful, the good and the true, in a society that simultaneously promises, threatens and conceals?
Banksy, perhaps speaking for himself, said he was sure that everyone has the capacity to perceive luxury. While a glance may be enough to perceive it, observing something is not the same as understanding it. There must be an added awareness of who produced it, where and with what materials and to recognise whether it produces the least environmental issues and the greatest social impact possible.
Summers are hotter than ever, the sun scorches us more every year. Glaciers are progressively melting and rivers are drying up. There are no longer Gods on Mount Olympus who establish the laws of beauty: instead we are left with those who persist in maintaining a business model that is destructive to our precious resources, the planet and ourselves.
All hope isn’t lost though. We have new brands emerging that have sustainability at the centre of DNA, following regenerative business models. New organic fibres are being produced from maize, banana, oranges, milk and bamboo; these are making strong appearances on the market.
The new buzzwords in the world of beauty have become ‘eco sustainability’ and ‘inclusion’. Supporting this new wave of brands is a new generation of consumers. Millennials are at the centre of this change, making the new vision loud and clear: go green, take care of the planet and the people and be inclusive or go home.
Are many of the supposedly big, premium brands that were everywhere during fashion season and the centre of ‘beautiful luxury’ still considered to be beautiful? Those brands that persist in hosting one fashion week after another. Those brands that think sustainability is a way to save face, a PR stunt, or just a communication problem…
We don’t think so!
Sustainability isn’t just a Buzzword
Changing globalised production models organised within the globalised industrial system is not easy even for those who have understood the problems and want to adapt. There are no shortcuts. After the era of hedonistic and unbridled aesthetics, during which we gave up the effort to be ourselves, rediscovering that essence of beauty has become an ethical task.
We believe in the chaos that characterises contemporary society, that the new beauty is the result of a rational, emotional, artistic, and empathic harmony that again begins with καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός. It is true that today the value we place on people is independent of the pleasantness of their appearance, and that world can never go back on its history. However, one can find a familiarity in the sense that there is a close correlation between what appears and what is.
On the day of Karl Lagerfeld’s death, we were gathered in a retreat in Umbria to discuss what could regenerate the industry. Alongside us was the designer who had worked to make the superfluous desirable, as well as others of similar backgrounds from all corners of the world.
That day, it was clear to us that not only was the international fashion icon dead, but that an era of fashion was over. The standard of beauty had changed. It was no longer desirable to consider a handbag or a pair of crocodile shoes beautiful if you had to kill two alligators to make them. The ship had set sail for creations of immense value that no longer represented the new feeling of society, and was now far away over the horizon.
That day we founded MANIMA. Our name comes from mani, meaning hands, and anima, meaning soul, representing our belief in ethical, hand-made, authentic luxury.
We founded MANIMA striving to bring new standards to the industry. To bring back the true essence of Beauty, to put the virtue back into luxury.
by Piero, Carolina and Will Scott