Today, with the Maison Martin Margiela for H&M capsule collection set to arrive in stores later this week, guest contributor Eugene Rabkin, editor-in-chief of StyleZeitgeist magazine, makes the case against fast fashion collaborations.
NEW YORK, United States — It’s been eight years since Karl Lagerfeld for H&M, the first collaboration between a high fashion designer and a mass retailer on a limited-edition capsule collection. Since then, a number of retailers, from Target to Topshop, have launched designer collaborations of their own with the likes of Proenza Schouler, Christopher Kane, Alexander McQueen and others. And the success of this formula shows no signs of fading, with Maison Martin Margiela for H&M expected to sell out soon after it hits stores on November 15th.
But while ‘cheap and chic’ collaborations have proven extremely popular with consumers, it’s important to point out that, for large retailers like H&M and Target, their success is mostly measured in media impressions, not sales. Indeed, these collaborations rarely move the needle in terms of overall sales volume. Instead, they generate the ‘earned media’ equivalent of millions of dollars in advertising, driving people into stores. Meanwhile, participating designers benefit from large scale exposure to potential new customers and fat fees that can sometimes exceed $1 million.
These 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?
For the words 'democratisation' and 'fashion' no longer have meaning. In an essay written in 1947, titled “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warned against political figures who purposefully obscured language, rendering certain words meaningless. 'Democracy' was his prime example. But since then, marketing gurus have left politicians in the dust.
'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.
But somewhere along the line, the definition of 'fashion' shifted. Several years ago, I was taken aback by one of my students at Parsons who proclaimed that “everything is designed.” Not true. For example, the first polo shirt was carefully designed. But these days, the only major difference between polo shirts made by various competitors (often in the same factories) is the logo: alligator or polo player. Indeed, today, the word ‘design’ merely means ‘cool.’ To say that something is designed is to say ‘Isn’t it cool?’ And by extension, ‘Aren’t I cool?’ The same goes for fashion.
I invite anyone to argue that fast fashion brands produce 'fashion' in the original sense of the word. They may sell decent clothing at affordable prices — but not fashion.
This is perfectly fine, of course. Providing access to affordable clothing is a noble goal. But, alas, this goal was perverted a long time ago by the rise of irresponsible consumer behaviour that has transformed the act of shopping into a leisure activity. According to Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development (TRAID), consumers in the UK purchase a whopping 2.15 million tonnes of new clothing a year. They also throw away over 900,000 garments each year, sometimes with the sales tags still on them. In the US, the picture is even more dire, with consumers dumping an estimated 10 million tonnes of clothing annually.
Dries van Noten once told me that his grandfather was a tailor whose specialty was to repair worn suits by taking them apart, turning the fabric inside out, and putting them back together. Surely, we no longer need to do this, but there is nonetheless something endearing in this story. We used to care about objects that surround us.
It was not until the 1930s that the price of clothing started to fall and people were able to buy more. In fact, the cost of clothing has been on a constant downward trajectory since, despite inflation. And today, much of Western society has gone from meeting their needs to gorging on disposable clothes. 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.
Real style is a matter of taste. And taste is a matter of experience. Just like one’s tastes in music, art or books, taste in clothes forms over time. It takes effort and knowledge. Buying into a style, quickly and cheaply, inevitably leads to the disposability of style. It’s like reading the Cliff’s Notes instead of the book.
Search YouTube for “H&M collaborations.” You’ll see bleary-eyed kids lining up hours before stores open in order to get some “designer” bargains. In one such video, a young gentleman says he arrived at H&M nine hours before the launch of the Comme des Garçons for H&M collaboration because “Comme des Garçons is a cool brand.”
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. The tags on his garments did not carry his name, but were pure white. He was a tinkerer, a sartorial engineer whose clothes often concealed their complexity.
Linda Loppa, head of Florentine fashion school Polimoda and former director of the fashion department at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, wrote via email: “It only appears on the surface that the Margiela concept can easily be replicated, In fact, the garments are not simple. The patterns require a lot of skill; the tailoring a lot of knowledge and attention to detail.”
In 2002, Margiela sold his company to Renzo Rosso's OTB Group, which also owns Viktor & Rolf and Diesel. Then, in December of 2009, he left the brand. And today, we have H&M x MMM. 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.
Eugene Rabkin is the editor-in-chief of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of stylezeitgeist.com
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 13 November, 2012. An earlier version of this article misstated that, in 2002, Margiela was bought by Diesel Group. Margiela was bought by OTB Group, which also owns Viktor & Rolf and Diesel."