TEL AVIV, Israel — Several months ago, an elaborate event was held in New York to celebrate the launch and international debut of Maison Martin Margiela’s collaboration with fast-fashion retailer H&M. Judging by the flurry of press releases, and the photos and videos distributed by news agencies, the event was executed by the book: guest celebrities sporting items from the collection; an exotic location and a vaguely-authentic, yet certainly disproportionate, sense of enthusiasm — the kind that can only be sparked by couture for the masses. Sarah Jessica Parker, who owes her own fashion profile to the legendary Sex and the City series, successfully summed up the buzz in a single line: “I think it makes luxury available for people and I think that’s wonderful and very democratic.”
Ms. Parker’s insight is not unusually perceptive, seeing as H&M’s entire high fashion collaboration concept is based on the ‘affordable luxury’ paradox. What is interesting is her use of the word democracy — a term used to describe a form of government — in the context of fashion, and specifically, in relation to a giant conglomerate like H&M. Parker isn’t the first to do this, and her off-the-cuff remark represents additional confirmation of a growing movement in the discourse on fashion, namely the application of democratic values to the manner in which we view, interpret and consume fashion.
In recent years, fashion discourse has, to a large extent, become a discourse of rights. The democratic quality associated with the renowned fashion collaboration concept reinforces an important outlook that has developed in the current era: the masses’ right to consume elite fashion; the right of the less-fortunate to partake in this ample goodness, usually reserved for those with means. As citizens of the same society, shouldn’t the same opportunities be available to us all?
Fashion, however, is not about the distribution of social rewards. One could even claim that clothes (and fashion, in this sense, does not describe the physical items but rather the spirit behind them) do not represent the opportunity for such distribution. They are a human creation, much like any other craft. Some are more commercial, some less; some finely made, and some veritably cheap. Either way, even if it serves to promote romantic ideas, there is nothing democratic about H&M’s capsule collection, or about fashion as a whole, which itself has nothing to do with democratic rights (or human rights, if you favour a pathos-filled version). In fact, the mere combination of the two terms is degrading to both.
Linking Social Protest with Trend Adaptation
The current unparalleled visibility of fashion, supported as it is by retailers invading all vacant real-estate, has cultivated an outlook which maintains that every person has the right to maximum fashion at any given time. The multitude, nay, the veritable oversupply of options, function similarly to tiny parliamentary factions, each asserting the right not only to be heard, but also to realise themselves in the public domain. In a similar vein, there is an imagined democratic right for everyone to purchase luxury (or at least, something that looks like luxury). Thus, the needs, desires and intentions regarding clothing, or designer creations, have become important pieces of legislation in the false democracy of fashion, evolving at dizzying speeds and enlisting an army of fools.
Described as heroic acts parallel to the US Declaration of Independence, fashion collaborations (motivated by purely economic incentives as they are) are not alone. Nearly every action in the current fashion dominion is backed by seemingly legitimate and apparently elementary pleas to fashion manufacturers. For instance, one prevalent anathema is known as ‘Trend Adaptation.’ It denotes frightfully cheap, integrity-deficient, renditions by brands and fashion retailers of designer clothing. Considered shameful just a decade ago — nothing was worse than buying a cheap knockoff — this trend has become an integral part of civil economic dissent and general protests about the cost of living. Trend Adaptation has received moral approval through the popular claim: “I have the right to buy the clothing advertised in Vogue at lower prices.”
One can also examine the expanding ‘Plus Sizes’ category to comprehend how it uses a similar discourse. A quick glance at the fashion journalism of recent years reveals a near-obsession with the term ‘Real Women’ (which has appeared on magazine covers, in headlines and talk-back comments), with fashion for ‘big and tall’ men, and with overweight fashionista bloggers. Apart from being a profitable vocation for content editors — and in the age of food abundance, this is surely a high-rating sector — and despite the notion that fashion is legitimate in any form, this discussion is set in motion by an allegedly opinionated worldview. It is based on the right of men and women who perceive themselves as overweight, and thus politically excluded from the world of fashion due to limited fitting alternatives, to express their desires by wearing fashionable clothing.
Though there have been no attempts to define a suitable alternative, limited options join forces with imagined rights, fostering an intentional confusion between the ability to purchase an item, and the right to do so. Therefore, as one person’s right is another person’s duty, making demands has become par for the course. And while the representation of versified body-types may sound like a legitimate demand, complaints against a specific brand’s range of sizes are utterly absurd. It may seem otherwise, but no-one owes anyone almost anything. Fashion designers are not obliged to offer plus sizes, or petite sizes, or shirts designed for left-handed people, just as customers are not obliged to purchase them. They may do so, assuming the financial or emotional reward is worthwhile for either side. This is fundamentally different.
The Democracy that Destroyed Fashion
The democratisation of fashion, which is based on demands for $40 jeans or infinite sizes of a particular dress, is ultimately destroying fashion itself.
Objectively, there is nothing wrong, from any moral point of view, with any clothing size. The size is merely a statistical datum printed on a tiny label on the item. Quality fashion is equally fashionable in XS as it is in XXL. But that element is lost in the current discourse, which concentrates on the amount of fabric rather than the style and aesthetic expression of the garment. True, we can’t take society’s prevalent aesthetic values out of the equation, and nobody is claiming that those can’t be challenged. But it is the other demand — the one for cheap, yet beautiful clothing — that has eliminated solutions such as tailor-made pieces from the game.
The so-called right that indirectly sanctifies and confirms Trend Adaptation has also taken its toll. The demand to buy a lot for a little —fashion retailers’ entire demagogy is based on this simple conception — and to buy ‘designer-like’ clothes at lower prices, has created a constant downward spiral. Even if we could ask workers at the Bangladesh sweatshop that recently burnt down what their opinion of such a democracy is, the joke is on the consumers. You want your cheap clothing? You got it. The truth is, the majority of product sold in current retail chains is so withered and pitiable, so revealing of its unkempt sources, that there is nothing more cynical, or even ironic, than a polyester shirt that can be purchased for pennies.
Unfortunately, fashion journalism has adopted the very same values. Fashion critics have morphed into marketing journalists. Rather than encouraging a creative discourse, many of them critique collections based on their readers’ index of desires, needs and challenges — is the collection sufficiently affordable, and what body type could successfully squeeze itself into such items? The expectation that fashion should provide solutions to these needs not only diminishes the discussion, but also sterilises it. It is equivalent to examining a piece of art based on its practical qualities — is one painting better than the next because its physical dimensions will better fit the majority of walls in the nation’s homes?
Worst of all, the democratic discourse promotes a decrease in creativity and production. Unique brands that do not apply to a wide common denominator, based on price, style or supply, come under attack; meanwhile, larger brands are avoiding setting their sights on smaller audiences with more original taste patterns. In fact, in the name of pluralism and due to the illusion of endless options, the reality that in fact emerges appears to promote a very singular taste. Indeed, there has doubtfully been no other period in the history of fashion when so many clothes have been offered to so many people in similar price ranges and surrounding the same themes. The black-and-white trend welcoming shoppers right now at every retail chain, or the conservative trends displayed at recent world fashion weeks, sufficiently illustrate this point.
Liroy Choufan is a consultant and reporter based in Israel. This article was originally published in Hebrew at fashion.walla.co.il