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Op-Ed | The Rise of the Fashion Hipster

Catering to the fashion hipster — whose purchases are driven by irony, camp and insider humour — risks making promising brands the flavour of the day, argues Eugene Rabkin.
  • Eugene Rabkin

NEW YORK, United States — This past Paris Fashion Week, the young label Vetements headed by Demna Gvasalia was the talk of the town and their instantly recognisable logo-ed raincoats and sweatshirts were seemingly everywhere. They were mostly worn by the young, self-conscious, well-informed fashion insiders and were instant fodder for the street-style photographers, who themselves tend to be young, self-conscious, and well informed.

What we are witnessing is the rise of the fashion hipster — a new consumer class that in its self-image and purchasing habits is not driven by the notion of luxury but by characteristics normally associated with hipsterism — irony, camp, and insider humour. They are as self-conscious in their status markers as the Veblenian leisure class, but their status is not stamped with the Chanel logo on cashmere, rather, with "Vetements" in Champion font on sweatshirts. And they have the disposable income to buy designer fashion, at least on the lower end of its price spectrum.

The two labels that are capitalising on this new consumer class most are Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy. In their first collection, presented just two years ago, Vetements did not have a single logo-ed garment. The label was well received by the fashion press but few people could afford their deconstructed jeans priced at $1,400.

A year later, however, the Vetements offerings contained two items of note: the cut up Antwerp t-shirt that you could buy (as they did) in any souvenir shop in that city for €10 (retail price on the Vetements version – $225), and an oversized raincoat that resembled the ones security personnel wear at stadiums. Instead of "SECURITY" it said "VETEMENTS" and it retailed for $185. The two items sold out in the matter of weeks.

We are witnessing the rise of a new consumer class whose purchasing habits are not driven by the notion of luxury, but by irony, camp, and insider humour.

Their relatively low price allowed young people to buy into the hot new brand. The jacket has all the characteristics required for fashion hipster appeal – it is instantly recognisable to the select few through the logo, signalling that you belong to the well-informed in-club at the forefront of fashion, but signalling nothing to the masses. It possesses a sense of irony – it is a security jacket but not. And it has an element of campy humour – it’s so bad that it’s good.

Vetements quickly realised they were onto something and their next collections were full of items with logo appropriation: that of Champion, the American sweatshirt maker, Everlast, the maker of boxing gear, and DHL, the shipping company, to name a few. These were not intellectual, because that's too hard to digest, but quirky. "Irony is [the] draw. If you haven't quite honed yours to Jane Austen wattage, then how about wearing that DHL t-shirt? And telling everyone you bought it first," commented Lisa Armstrong, the fashion director of London's Telegraph newspaper.

On the runway, the DHL t-shirt was modelled by none other than Gosha Rubchinskiy, whose own label mines the post-Soviet nostalgia of the '90s. One of his bestsellers is a sweatshirt that appropriates the Tommy Hilfiger flag, only now with "GOSHA RUBCHINSKIY" on it. Since I am also a product of the post-Soviet youth, let me help you trace this circle of irony – the Tommy Hilfiger flag would have been copied on the fake sweatshirts in Russia for the kids who could not afford a real one. Now, Rubchinsky has put it on the runway as real fashion to be consumed by hip Westerners.

What Rubchinsky does is interesting in the way the brand operates. It has all the markers of a full-fledged fashion brand — the backing of Comme des Garçons, which produces and distributes the collection and a runway show in Paris. This June he will be the guest designer at Pitti Uomo, the Florentine men's trade fair that keeps its pulse firmly on the fashion zeitgeist. Yet his prices are approachable – his t-shirts sell for around $75, which allows young people to buy into the brand. Unsurprisingly, they routinely sell out at shops like Dover Street Market in New York and London, and Union in Los Angeles. "It's a very good fit here," said Chris Gibbs, the owner of Union. "Our store walks the line between streetwear and fashion, and Gosha does the same."

In addition to hitting all the right cultural notes, what Gvasalia and Rubchinsky have in common is a kind of exoticism that hipsters love. Both hail from the former Soviet Union. Both are approachable but remote enough from the mainstream.

There are a couple of things worth noting about the rise of the fashion hipster. First, because information travels fast, the fashion hipster is a global phenomenon, no longer confined to London’s East End and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Several weeks ago, by happenstance, I rented out my parents’ apartment for a photo shoot for GQ China. They were looking for a post-Soviet nostalgia theme, and it was all about Vetements and Rubchinsky. At SVMOSCOW, a prominent Moscow boutique for the local fashion cognoscenti, Vetements is the top-selling label.

Second is that fashion hipsterism is not entirely innocent and not without socio-political connotations. One must tread carefully with logo appropriation. The Vetements security raincoat and the DHL t-shirt are appropriated from the lower middle class, whose members often live hand-to-mouth. What does it say about fashion when the Vetements DHL t-shirts retail at $350? Armstrong writes in the Daily Telegraph, “Previously worn by workers on low wages, they’re now a fashion insider’s status marker, having been talked up, with zero irony, as a rebellious response to the corporate greed sucking the creativity out of fashion.”

Lastly, fashion hipsters tend to move on in their tastes quickly — they have to, to be ahead of the masses — and therein lies the danger. Vetements started out as a promising brand with an interesting concept, infusing fresh energy into fashion. But it could quickly become the flavour of the day, because of logo fatigue and because today’s masses follow the cognoscenti fast (see the GQ China reference above). Remember Hood By Air? Two years ago it was all over the streets of New York and used as bait for street style photographers during fashion weeks. Today, not so much. During this past Paris Fashion Week, the street-style photographers were already talking about dumping their Vetements on eBay.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and a contributor to The Business of Fashion.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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