“Fashion’s Democratic Disease”

It’s not difficult to imagine: a line of cold, hungry people waddling in the middle of the street in the early hours of the morning. Their cheeks have turned rosy and the thin air is momentarily misty from the clouds of exhalation. Some have brought sleeping bags and some have brought lawn chairs, but all have decided to suffer the tumultuous night for tomorrow’s rewards. I could be talking about a line of homeless people outside a Salvation Army soup kitchen, or the bleak crowds outside an employment agency, and in some ways I wish I were. But I’m not. I’m talking about the lines outside H&M, and they’re quickly expanding as more people gather to buy clothes from the latest designer collaboration.

Maison Martin Margiela for H&M. Image from H&M.

Maison Martin Margiela for H&M. Image from H&M.

There’s something unsettling about seeing people lining up to buy clothing, which is so utilitarian you would not normally consider having to wait for it. I can understand lining up for tickets to see the Rolling Stones in concert. I can understand lining up to buy the latest Harry Potter book, and I may give you a pass if you want to watch the midnight screening of the latest installment of that awful Twilight series. What I can’t understand is why anybody–stylish or sartorially-challenged, rich or poor, whose natural (and I say this because H&M brings out the fashion crazies) taste slants more to Wu than Wang–would EVER consider lining up overnight in arctic weather conditions for fast fashion. Granted, I don’t have access to any H&M stores in Australia so I can’t say for sure how I would react under different circumstances. But regardless of geographical or retail convenience, I don’t think I could ever do it.

This H&M mania, a particular example of consumer hysteria, is a symptom of a wider disease. It’s a disease characterized by an insatiable hunger for novelty in every way possible, from how we listen to music to how we transmit units of information from Australia to Zimbabwe. We need the latest Apple products. We need the latest phones, computers, and cameras. We need the confirmation that our purchases are in fact our needs and not our wants, and the corporations are picking up on this. Clothing is one of the few democratic symbols of modern life because everyone wears clothes. They may not look the same or be made of the same materials, and the price points are supremely divisive, but everyone does wear clothing of some variety. And when clothing that has traditionally been out of reach for the average consumer (which includes me!) is made attainable and affordable, then that’s a really big deal. Or it’s perceived to be.

A line outside Versace for H&M. I can definitely see some fashion victims in the crowd. Image from The Mirror UK.

A line outside Versace for H&M. I can definitely see some fashion victims in the crowd. Image from The Mirror UK.

I’m writing this post in response to Liroy Choufan’s namesake article because I think it presents an interesting perspective into this hackneyed concept, the “democratisation of fashion”. Yes, there is something wonderful about affordable luxury, as it has come to be known. I also agree with his statement that the current fashion discourse is too focused on “fabric rather than style and aesthetic expression of the garment”, if what he means by fabric is that production of clothing, and thus the excessive use of fabric, has reached a point of teetering instability. There is simply too much fashion in the world and I am suspicious of any designer, regardless if their target client, who produces more than 6 collections a year. A creative mind is a machine that needs rest and recuperation. Dries Van Noten understands this rule and his collections always offer a complete wardrobe full of easy and luxurious pieces that weave in his affinity for feminine flourishes and floral finishes. However, for someone like Marc Jacobs, who designs more than 12 collections a year, creative fatigue is all too evident in his pants-less Prada-reeking collections.

Some looks from Versace for H&M. Image from H&M.

Some looks from Versace for H&M. Image from H&M.

Where I don’t agree with Choufan is in his assertion that fashion should not provide solutions to market demands. He condemns fashion journalists who, rather than encouraging a creative discourse, “critique collections based on their readers’ index of desires, needs, and challenges”, and goes on to liken it to “examining a piece of art based on its practical abilities”. As I have previously argued, fashion can be art and vice versa. The one area where fashion is superior to art is in the privilege of being able to wear the clothes on the human body, to incorporate a design into your working life, and to feel sheltered by it. Fashion is meant to be worn. It serves a very real purpose. A Picasso painting and a Prada dress may both look beautiful (even if in her signature ugly-chic aesthetic), and Matisse and Missoni both have their merits, but I would much rather weather a storm the way the designer intended–in style.

Ultimately, there needs to be a balance. Designers should be responding to the market needs, and if the market demands a cheaper version of what they’re showing in Paris and Milan then so be it. Where I believe designers should tread with caution is in business ventures that thin out their brand to the point that they become almost farcical. Take Hermes, for example. A legendary French house famous for bags and scarves. They’re also known for making ludicrously overpriced playing cards, colouring books, and pencils. Is this the democratisation or is it the bastardisation of fashion? With licensing opportunities everywhere we turn, and more ways than ever before for a designer to get their name out there (Marc Jacobs coke cans, anyone?), we’re entering a very slippery slope that could potentially exacerbate the consumer hysteria, as volatile as it already stands.

Marc Jacobs models naked (again) for his Coca-Cola deal. Image from Coco Cola.

Marc Jacobs models naked (again) for his Coca-Cola deal. Image from Coco Cola.

I do not take a purist approach to fashion, but rather one that strives to protect the integrity of the designer and their aesthetic signature. That’s how you tell the great designers who are making smart business moves from the Kardashians of the world, who slap their name onto everything and pretend to be fashion…people (I will not flatter them with the label “designers”). But whether I like it or not, there is a demand for these designer collaborations, judging from the dizzying crowds that flock to H&M stores on release date. Designers wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand for them, even if that demanding body is constituted by tweens fueled by the Top Model mentality. We can’t create monsters and not expect them to act the way they do. Likewise, designers can’t parade their luxury goods on every advertisement wall and window without expecting the masses to follow suit. If you put Chanel on a bangle, people will buy it. If you put Chanel on a perfume bottle, people will buy it. Under the status quo, I think it’s safe to say that Chanel dog biscuits would sell considerably well.

H&M understands that a name is everything and there are people who respond to the words “Versace for H&M” just as they do to their own names. They come running with cash in hand.

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About Hung Tran

My name is Hung. I am 21 years old. I study Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
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38 Responses to “Fashion’s Democratic Disease”

  1. daniel says:

    standing ovation***

  2. daniel says:

    I’m guilty of lining up for this h&m collaboration craze. It was the one with Marni. I’m happy with like 3 out of 7 purchases (I spent way too much). I’ve learned my lesson the hard way and I WILL NEVER do it again.

    • Hung Tran says:

      I really loved that collection and I probably would have bought some pieces (but I wouldn’t have lined up for it). I’m not sure why it didn’t get more attention…

  3. Michelle says:

    I never liked H&M and I won’t line up for it.

    I would, however, line up for a Chanel jacket if they were to have some discount or stuff like that!

  4. Veronica says:

    I feel the same way about H&M collabs, but I hate to admit that I temporarily lost my mind over the H&M x MMM collection. Don’t think I’ll be going though all that ever again (hopefully).

    • Hung Tran says:

      I actually felt quite underwhelmed by that collection. MMM’s deconstructed pieces look amazing when they’re done properly, but with H&M standards it won’t look as convincing. I wonder how they turned out.

  5. Tuileries says:

    I find everything to be too accessible, especially with the emergence of the new generation of fashion people (bloggers, etc) coupled with this age. This isn’t the 90s anymore. Fashion, especially fast-fashion like these collabs, are very much in demand.
    I’m reminded of Cathy’s comment re: SLP F/W 13 because it’s relevant to so much more than that – “But a box of labels is worth a million.”. You’re exactly right in saying that people are so label crazy they WOULD buy Chanel branded anything.

    • Hung Tran says:

      This accessibility is a double-edged sword. Without it, this very blog wouldn’t exist because I wouldn’t have access to runway photos, editorial previews, etc. On the other hand, after fashion week my brain was completely fried because there was just way too much too soon.

  6. Jess says:

    I also kind of don’t get why brands like Versace would collaborate with H&M since H&M is clearly of a low status?
    also, many people are buying this, in my opinion, because of the ‘Versace’, because they see a chance of being viewed as a rich person (everyone wants to seem rich one way or another in the end.) what they don’t see is that these exact same people are viewed as crazy teen maniacs who line up in a freezing weather to buy these probably low-quality clothes. They’re blinded by the ‘Versace’, and they probably don’t SEE themselves wearing these clothes, anyway. Such label-obsessed individuals would probably buy and eat the Chanel dog biscuits themselves, and a picture of that would be all over my Tumblr dashboard, praised and envied by masses of teens that I for some reason follow.

    • domenicbr says:

      Would you eat Chanel poo?

    • Hung Tran says:

      I think it’s interesting that in 2008 Donatella Versace said that she wasn’t interested in fast fashion collabs because it would “confuse the [Versace] brand”. She obviously changed her mind. Versace has been through some financial woes and I can’t really think of a downside, at least not in economic terms, to the collab with H&M. Sometimes exclusivity and keeping brand integrity intact just doesn’t seem worth it anymore, you know?

  7. Melina says:

    I understand the collaborations and their crave, but I would much rather prefer to save up some money and buy one designer piece than camp outside of a store in freezing cold weather.
    I think people need to care more for fashion than the designer’s name, you know? They need to not lust something just because of a name.

    • Hung Tran says:

      I would MUCH rather buy Comme des Garcons than Comme des Garcons for H&M. I have a few CdG pieces and I treasure them, and I wouldn’t feel the same way about clothes that were mass produced and which will be all over street style blogs within 48 hours.

  8. Derek says:

    People are so obsessed with labels and brands. The amount of knock-offs I see walking the halls at my school is nauseating. I understand the lines for the most part though. People want the high fashion label for an affordable price, and H&M is benefiting handsomely from it. I personally don’t see myself waiting in line then pushing people out of the way for a collab clothing item, but who knows..

  9. faeriecubicle says:

    The only H&M collab that I liked was Lanvin’s and while I scream and fangirl about these designer collaborations I don’t think I would purchase anything (if there was an H&M store where I live) since they’re still too pricey for me….

    • Hung Tran says:

      The Lanvin collection was stunning! I loved it too. These collabs are a bit on the expensive side, and who knows what happened to the cheap tulle once the dress was put in the wash by some careless fashionista, but it was a very good collection just from the pictures I’ve seen on the internet.

  10. Eleazar says:

    This is your best article to date. Good read!

  11. domenicbr says:

    Looks like Marc Jacobs having roid rage with a coke can

  12. S. says:

    Jean Paul Gaultier also collaborated with Coca Cola, though. I find that these sort of collaborations are another way to sell “the dream” to the mainstream audience. But this actually reminds me of a quote by François Lesage which went something like, “I’d rather sell one dress for 100,000 Euros than 100,000 dresses for 1 Euro.”

    • S. says:

      The subject of the article being the complete opposite of that quote.

    • Hung Tran says:

      That’s a very powerful and pertinent quote. Thanks for sharing it. You’re right — it’s definitely about selling the dream and making people buy into it. Chanel, for example, offers cosmetics and perfumes so that people can buy into the black and white Paris fairytale, even if very few people can afford Chanel ready-to-wear (let alone couture). Now designers are putting their names on furniture, dishware, beverages, etc. It’s crazy.

  13. Meagan says:

    I guess I get brand labels and people wanting to be able to say they are wearing Versace or whatever but if you’re just buying clothes for school or work, anything that looks nice is fine. I’ve never lined up for clothing and never plan to. I got a nice sweater and some casual jeans at H&M without having to sleepover on some dirty sidewalk (granted they aren’t “designer” articles of clothing)…I don’t understand the desire to be quite honest. I don’t care what you’re wearing, if it’s Marc Jacobs but it still looks trashy then what was the point in waiting hours in freezing weather?

  14. anikatomislavova says:

    Great post!
    Some of the h&m collaborations were good, some of them were disaster. But I would like to tell you a story about H&M mania in Croatia (I know that on your tumblr you are in contact with Mirna from Croatian Elle, so I think that you are somehow familiar with fashion over here). It’s long like a novel, but I’d really like you to read this. First of all, before first h&m opened in late 2010 in Croatia, women were traveling to the nearest store IN AUSTRIA (6 hours long trip!) When there was r.cavalli x h&m launch, many of them went day before in Austria, they slept in their cars during the night and spent whole morning in the long order to buy a leopard print dress or whatever. Then, in late 2010, the first h&m (“finally”) came to Croatia and there was a long long line up in front of the store and the security used to give a pass in to 10 people, others were used to wait for those 10 to leave so that they could enter in. 10 by 10, OMG! Awful, but ITit was interesting to see people and the way they behave in line up. When that first h&m mania settled down, there came new h&m mania. One web portal gave an information about date and time when versace x h&m collection will be launched, and there was another line up in front of the store. Line up again. There were a rumors about fighting for a piece of clothing (I don’t know, just say what I heard from rumors). And now I’m coming to the point: few days later, that same portal published an open letter of an excuse, in which they say that “It was Versace for the poor ones”. Firstly, they apology for giving an information and beneath they gave a brief explanation and description of buying Versace. They said that when somebody wants to buy Versace, first come to the boutique, sellers give the best service they could, so the real customer, who can afford it, is buying it in calm and elegant way, served with whole attention. But when Versace came overnight affordable to anyone – then happens – the mess and the chaos because everyone wants the slice of that cake (that’s how we call whole that thing). That’s about it – fashion democratization!
    Sorry for my bad English!

    P.S. Read your article on antwerpsex about Alexa Chung’s book and laughed out loud! You rock totally!

    • Hung Tran says:

      That’s actually a very interesting story…and it scares me. I remember when Stella McCartney launched a line at Target many years ago and people were literally shoving each other, pulling clothes off mannequins, buying sizes that didn’t fit them, etc. just for a piece of the metaphorical cake.

    • Hung Tran says:

      Also, I can’t take credit for that Alexa Chung article! I reblogged from Hapsical haha

  15. Sofia says:

    Loved this article!

    I have nothing against designer collaborations but what has annoyed me since the beginning is when people buy, say, Lanvin for H&M, and think that they own an exclusive, high-quality and luxurious item when it is actually no different from all the other mass-produced products sold in those stores, only that aesthetically it looks better, and, how should I put it? Expensive, even if it’s not. It’s still the same lousy quality. I’d much rather save up for actual Lanvin, or Marni, or MMM… Much more worth it.

    • Hung Tran says:

      Yep! And especially for a brand like Lanvin! Alber Elbaz makes BEAUTIFUL clothes that you will never go out of style. They are investment pieces. His coats = divine.

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  17. beatrice says:

    I was linked to this blog by a friend. I’m really impressed with your content; it’s a cut above the average style diary that doesn’t quite think about the motivations of either producers or consumers. The only similar blogger I can think of is Hapsical (and he’s fantastic!) so I’d like to say that I really love what you’re doing here and I’ll be checking back for sure. :)

    Have you ever read ‘Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster’ by Dana Thomas? It’s an incredibly interesting book that speaks about the ‘democratisation’ movement and what it means for the industry in the long run. Thomas’ thesis is that through ‘fast fashion’ and the ‘cheapening’ of luxury brands, the true essence of ‘luxury’ is being lost. She believes that luxury is superior design and production, basically: while a few decades ago, a designer item could last you for life, now they’re not being produced as well as they used to be. What I found the most intriguing was the cognitive dissonance of the argument. Thomas, from what I understood (it’s been about two years since I read the book so I might be off the mark), was conflating production of luxury with designer labels. There was a consistent ‘aw shucks’ feeling I was absorbing from the text, and it seemed very rooted in tradition and ‘the way things were.’ Thomas was aware that her idea of luxury and the current roster of designers isn’t synonymous; but she didn’t seem to apply it. If Chanel mass produces handbags, so what? There are other brands, people, companies out there, who will make you a bag by hand, concentrating on only your product for a year, if you like.

    To me, that shows just how powerful and invasive branding is. In our minds, we have a difficult time separating Louis Vuitton from ‘well-bred.’ It’s hard to think of Hermès as anything but ‘aristocratic.’ For that, my opinion of Bernard Arnault is very different from Thomas’. She vilifies him as the man who is destroying all these brands and therefore luxury. I appreciate her concern for the ending of a grand tradition, but I also have an incredible amount of respect for his marketing and branding savvy. His business model might not be sustainable in the long run, based as it is on widening consumer awareness (seemingly as much as possible), but that’s his problem. Some luxury houses will be the casualties, but true design will never really fade. There will always be someone out there who tries to make clothes beautifully, who tries to push the boundaries of design. We don’t need LVMH or PPR for that. Which is why I don’t care what the big houses are doing, not really. They’re trading their pedigree for a tuppence, and that’s their right. The eternal bright side is that these great designers will always have their heirs.

    • Hung Tran says:

      I haven’t read that book, but my local bookstore has a copy in stock (how lucky!) so I will make sure to get my hands on a copy. I’m really interested in reading about why Thomas thinks that Arnault is “destroying all these brands and therefore luxury”. Sounds juicy!

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