(In which I take quote-unquote to a whole new level)
H&M’s new designer collaboration hit stores last week, and you may have heard about it. Despite H&M having collaborated with many a brand in the past, including the equally ‘obscure’ brand Comme des Garcons, there’s something about this particular collection that’s touched a nerve in the fashion community.There was a new load of stock coming in when I was in the store, and people who already had bags of merchandise were queuing along some invisible line as they waited for their size to come back in stock. These are the ‘masses’ of which we would all be afraid, if the high fashion gods had their way.
I went down to the Regent St branch on Thursday afternoon to stare at the empty shelves and ponder the circumstances that combined in my life to mean I am too poor for ‘fast fashion’. I suppose this affords me a perspective that you don’t hear of too much in fashion commentary, which often takes for granted the ‘affordable’ nature of high street fashion.
As I perused what was on offer (which actually seemed to be of relatively high quality at least in comparison to the lacklustre Marni collection), I came to the conclusion that there was probably something more to this collaboration than simple brand-lust. I’ve been thinking about the recent article from the Business of Fashion, which essentially took the position that designer collaborations devalued the idea of fashion itself and that appealing to the masses is symptomatic of some kind of cultural rot:
“Underlying commercial motives are often obscured, however, by a ubiquitous but pernicious phrase: ‘the democratisation of fashion.’ Whoever coined the term is surely the marketing genius of the 21st century. On the face of it, who can argue that ‘the democratisation of fashion’ isn’t a good thing?
I find this kind of attitude quite scary and, to state the obvious, a little outdated. The writer, Eugene Rabkin of StyleZeistGeist magazine (?) seems to be working with some rather odd definitions of what ‘fashion’ means, using ‘fashion’ and ‘high fashion’ pretty much interchangeably, as if they were the same thing.
“‘Fashion,’ in the sense now being co-opted by the high street, used to mean designer fashion; that is, something made by a creator who puts care and thought into what he or she is creating. It means carefully crafted designs made with attention to detail and aesthetic sensibility.”
Take a weekend stroll on London’s Oxford Street or on New York’s Broadway and witness hordes of teenagers on their weekly shopping pilgrimages courtesy of mass-market retailers.
For this audience, ‘clothes’ are not cool enough. ‘Fashion’ is what lures young people into stores, which is the raison d’être behind these designer collaborations. But make no mistake, what is called ‘the democratisation of fashion’ is really the bastardisation of fashion; that is, taking a designer’s ideas and watering them down for mass consumption.”
Somehow fashion becomes something to be hated when everyone else wants to participate. He speaks of mass fashion as if it were some new phenomenon of the 21 century (it is not, this cycle of innovators/adopters has always been around, its just working a bit faster these days, with the internet facilitating the consumption of fashion imagery) his working definition infers fashion that isn’t created with a couture level of care and innovation isn’t fashion, which is clearly bullshit.
Without this process of ‘watering down’, designers would simply be preaching to the choir and would soon prove themselves utterly culturally irrelevant. Without this cultural exchange, of high to low, and low to high, innovation would stall, as there would be no momentum carrying people forwards towards the new. After all, Coco Chanel copied her little black dress from the street wear of the time. Fashion types seem not to be so offended when the price tag is gaining zeros instead of losing them.
“Ironically, such brand worship was exactly what Maison Martin Margiela was against. For years Margiela was a designer’s designer, an intelligent creator and a pioneer of deconstruction who refused to talk to the media, letting his work speak for itself . . . Two opposites have met. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees the paradox.
By all means, if you are willing to buy into this collaboration, please do, just don’t think that you are buying ‘fashion’ or a part of Margiela’s legacy — what you are buying are assembly-line knockoffs that you will discard by next year. But if this has become your idea of fashion, I urge you to reconsider.”
This analysis of Martin Margiela as some naïve dreamer who preferred to stay away from the limelight completely misses the point of Margiela. The blank labels, the ‘anonymity’, the splicing of iconic garments to each other and themselves into new-yet-old mongrels of iconography, all lead into the most extreme level of mystique and exclusivity and form the perfect ‘anti-brand’.
I’m of the opinion that Margiela knew exactly what he was doing. If you refuse people exactly what they want, you only make them want it more. Margiela himself is a marketing genius. He understood the mythic appeal of the elusive genius and worked this into his brand, and most probably made a fair deal of money out of it (one assumes, seeing as he sold his brand to Diesel group). This cynicism and desire for commercial gain only ever becomes a problem it seems, when it starts to go beyond the anointed few. For twenty years, Margiela has indeed been the ‘designer’s designer’, the ultimate secret.
Now this secret has been blown wide open, so it makes sense to assume that the game is up, and Margiela has in one fell swoop managed to erase all that hard won ‘exclusivity’, right? After all, Rabkin’s article makes it sound like fashion is finally dead. Kaput. Over.
Don’t be silly. People who think that this is somehow a negative thing for the concept of ‘FASHION’ (the caps are soo necessary) are being completely stagnant in their thinking about the whole process. Margiela is about ideas, fashion is about ideas, and the ideas that Margiela proposed have had a massive impact, which we will continue to see the effects of for decades to come. Margiela effectively totally broke down, rebuilt and reaffirmed the power of the brand. He was a master of deconstruction on every level, including his business. In terms of the power of fashion brands, and the ideas attached to them, I honestly believe we haven’t seen anything yet. The way Margiela took ownership of his ideas by refusing ‘ownership’ of them turned everything on its head.
I think what really pissed people off about this particular collaboration was the nature of the pieces included. All the garments were ‘re-editions’ of past product from the mainline, simply taken out of the archive and put into mass production.
BOOOM!! FASHION CHAOS ENSUES!
To say that these pieces are somehow separated completely from-not only the legacy of Margiela-but also the fashion paradigm itself, is short sighted to the point of blindness. This is potentially the most radical thing ever done by Margiela (the brand). All the other collaborations with H&M created ‘new’ designs specifically created for the mass market (do correct me if I’m wrong). A ‘healthy’ distance was kept between the ‘real’ brand and the H&M product. The ‘fakes’ were easy to spot. Now the exact same pieces that were being sold for hundreds are going for tens, with only minor edits in the form of a change in manufacture base and a possible re-jig of the sizing and fabric.
so-called ‘fake’ margiela
|The real thing huh? (pic from tumblr).|
What this collection does, is not explode the myth of ‘fashion’, which is alive and well, thank you very much, but completely exposes the lies of ‘exclusivity’ and ‘rarity’ which are perpetuated by the many-zeroed price tags. My personal problem with fast-fashion knock-offs has always been that the quality of the ideas embodied by the designs does in fact end up being ‘watered down’ to the point where you just get a logo T shirt and a nasty tote bag. And people buy into it, including me (I’ve written about that elsewhere on the blog).
Another thing I have a massive problem with, is this kind of cultural fascism that’s wrapped up in the marketing of ‘exclusivity’. Its representative of a kind of snobbery that simply makes me want to hurl. I don’t care if something is cheap, if everyone is wearing it or if the chosen few look down their noses at it; if I love it I’ll wear it to death. My allergy to the concept of ‘rarity’ I fear makes me somewhat of a rarity myself.
Somewhere in the labyrinth of marketing and branding, the idea of good design, and why we love it, gets lost. People get rich and realize they can have anything, and then they realize they want the one thing nobody else can have. Well I’m not like that, and I like to believe there are other people out there who aren’t like that too. I believe in good design, and believe everyone should be able to have it. I don’t care if that makes me seem tacky and common, and I don’t care that people like Eugene Rabkin think I shouldn’t be able to participate in the wearing and loving of fashion.
I for one am glad that things like designer collaborations exist, and am happy to consume this kind of fast fashion until something better comes along. Perhaps one day high fashion won’t have to water itself down in order to interact with ordinary people.
I’d like to think that one day we could have brands that are so strong and so inspiring that they don’t lose anything by appealing to actual people, and not just the 1%. Brands that are affirmed by popularity, rather than threatened by it. How great would it be to have clever, wonderful brands like Balenciaga, Margiela and Comme produce lines at accessible prices within their own brands, instead of being reliant on H&M. I can see it happening, with the rise of ecommerce the geographical factor in ‘exclusivity’ is being erased, (soon everything will be online, no ifs about it) perhaps next to go will be the price factor. Maybe the idea of exclusivity will maintain its strength through timed sales, along the line of these H&M events.
Perhaps our ability to participate in fashion culture will one day not be dependant on our relative richness, or even our location, but instead on our love of good design, and how much time we are willing to dedicate to the brands we love.
So it’s worth keeping in mind, that this ‘fake’ fashion, is for most people, as real as it gets.
Apologies for the font and sizing weirdness, blame blogger, not me!
Apologies for the font and sizing weirdness, blame blogger, not me!