An essay on our discomfort with commerce by Briony Somers
“Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent”, sings Bruno Mars in Uptown Funk. “What’s Gucci my nigga? What's Louie my killa?...What’s that jacket, Margiela?”, sings Kanye in Niggas in Paris. Aside from the evidence that the rebranding of YSL as Saint Laurent has sunk into public consciousness, these lyrics tell us a lot about the consumer’s relationship with luxury brands. It is infinitely cooler to have a bit of edge in your designer wardrobe. For each artist this manifests in a different style. The Mark Ronson penned lyrics of Bruno Mars convey a typically English, attitude of dressing down. Fully committing to a Saint Laurent Suit and matching shoes would not be as cool as wearing the jacket with Chuck Taylor Converse. Kanye, an artist known for his own fashion line as well as his general presence in the industry, infers his understanding of fashion beyond the regular Gucci and Louis Vuitton references common in popular culture. The Belgian deconstructionist label Margiela produces clothes that require understanding and move Kanye’s wardrobe choices beyond the superficial. In this desire to seem more than simply a consumer, lies the impulse to distance themselves beyond the experience of buying to something more noble and, certainly in the case of Kanye, artistic.
This is a worthy impulse. There is certainly something to be said for the examined life. But there is an extent to which doing this can make fear a guiding factor in our decisions. A fear of commerce, that our proximity to it will taint us. That we will be reduced to gullible consumers needlessly parting with our money. Rather than free us from engaging in considerations of image and facade, we are left with merely more abstracted considerations. As Lorelai Gilmore put it “Not going to a school you wanna go to just because your boyfriend is there is just as bad as going to a school you don't wanna go to just because your boyfriend (is) there.”
Fashion has a difficult time establishing credibility for what it is selling. When talking about the industry people can be very fond of deploying The Emperor’s New Clothes analogies. This is an interesting metaphor and it’s a pity it isn’t always given done service. The story ultimately seeks to undermine the Emperor for his foolhardiness in purchasing clothes that could not, in fact, be shown off. While this Emperor is certainly an egomaniac, and probably quite insecure, the story is more a challenge to the notion that the clothes we wear are for those around us. His downfall stems from trying to convince the tailors that, he too, was intelligent enough to see their mystical cloth. This is far more about lacking a sense of self than being swindled by sly fashion designers.
But today’s fashion marketing is viewed with the suspicion deserving of Hans Christian Anderson’s tailors. The fashion shows, campaign images and the luxury retail experience are seen as mere tricky to convince us that these new and ugly clothes are something to be desired. Many fashion items reveal something about what luxury fashion is selling that seems to be the source of this distrust. An raw edged Lanvin gown may defy “investment piece” logic. You are not paying €7,650 simply because the fabric and craftsmanship is of exceptional quality, although it certainly is. You are also paying for the design. For the process of its creation, which goes beyond small tweaks of computer generated trends.
Yet there is a hesitancy in recognising this as cultural output which should be valued for how it makes us feel. Commerce apparently detracts from fashion’s claim to creativity. There is no clearer illustration of this than in the industry’s language of “commercial” and “editorial”. Interesting designs on unusual looking faces are editorial, while simple clothes on pretty girls are commercial; a clear divide between what is done with a view towards making a statement and what is done to sell clothes. This stems from a notion of artistic purity. True art is not concerned with money. True art has integrity and does not go around hat in hand begging to be bought.
This is a misconception. In his book The Art of Forgery, Noah Charney makes the argument that since The Old Masters openly enlisted those in their studios to recreate their famous works, we should have a more open mind when looking at modern artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who employ teams to produce their artworks. Similarly the work of Dalí tends not to elicit the response “Surrealism?! That’s just something he made up to sell us ridiculous pictures”. America’s National Public Radio is not viewed as producing radio shows just “to sell tote bags”, which it sells at exceptionally high mark ups.
What fashion produces goes far beyond the products it sells. It is the basis of a sizeable proportion of the media and its readership goes well beyond the ready to wear market. That fashion houses invest so much in producing content, not just clothes, shows that they see engagement with their wider audience as an important part of what they do. Prada describe luxury as intelligence, “an altruistic gesture of adding value to an object.” Altruism may seem a counterintuitive term from a luxury goods brand that is one of the highest valued companies in the industry. But this is a very self aware statement for a house run by one of the most consistently copied designers in an industry with an incomparable copyright structure which has little conception of ownership over design. There is a sense in which the corporatism of fashion is not all that corporate. Raf Simons’ first show at Dior, Haute Couture A/W ’12, was attended by numerous fashion designers from competing companies, such as Alber Elbaz of Harmonia owned Lanvin and Donatella Versace of privately owned Versace.
Ms Versace, in her iconic status, made a similar appearance in Givenchy’s A/W ’15 campaign. This was viewed as daring on both parts, Ricardo Tisci explained their desire to “break boundaries and give a strong message about how to think Fashion.” As with many progressions in fashion, it goes back to its fundamental values. It is interesting that many of the industry’s most influential people, be they in design, media or photography, often speak unfavourably about “fashion”.
"There is a hesitancy in recognising fashion as cultural output which should be valued for how it makes us feel."
Céline’s creative director Phoebe Philo developed much of the house’s aesthetic from her discontent with how much of womenswear is designed. Penny Martin, editor of the pioneering magazine The Gentlewomanhas spoken about her discomfort with the product heavy publications on the market. Fashion photographer Glen Luchford, creator of, among many others, the current Gucci campaign, the Rag and Bone campaigns and numerous editorials in the pages of international Vogues and biannual heavyweights such as Self Serviceand i-D, has a well voiced discontent with the current state of fashion imagery. And yet each of these figures represent staggering successes in the industry. They may distance themselves from the industry but their ability to use their work to redefine fashion so powerfully speaks to the fact that they are resonating with something probably more “fashion” than their language would suggest.
The fact that fashion brands seek to go beyond the mere function of their clothes and convey something about the lives of men and women creates a form of communication. The power of art is in its ability to resonate with and arouse empathy in its audience, be they consumers or not. Few media structures can claim to do this as immediately or as widely as fashion. Alexander Wang has stated that he feels “like the real reviews are the sell throughs”. Rather than be contradictory it would seem that, in fashion, creativity and commerce are symbiotic. For fashion design to sell it must be free of the stagnation necessary in other industries where, say, dramatic biannual changes the formulation of McVities digestives would cause consumer outrage and despair. The fact that design inertia at Gucci inspired a corporate reshuffle resulting in men being sent down the runway in pussy bow blouses shows fashion to be inherently expressive.
"Rather than be contradictory it would seem that, in fashion, creativity and commerce are symbiotic."
Discomfort with fashion as a commercial endeavour means giving no market worth to this form of creativity and expression. The irony is only valuing that which has a productive value is, in itself, a very capitalistic way of thinking. And it is important that we value these things. Kant saw freedom as being free from your desires. Choices made on the basis of need or desire, be it hunger, thirst, greed or indeed marketing are ones where we are secondary to those influences. To be free in this sense, not only of the functional needs we obey when buying a car or loaf of bread, but also of the need to fit in, is something fashion uniquely offers. Those who are the deepest in fashion, are often the least concerned with it. I don’t believe Iris Apfel or Daphne Guinness spend much time worrying about how silly they might seem buying Etro prints or Chanel feather jackets. Perhaps the Emperor would have led a happier life as a nudist, if only he had the bravery to embrace the feeling of the breeze.