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.
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.
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.
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.
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.