Monday, June 18, 2012

Is the gap between designer fashion and what people can afford a bad thing?

In Saturday's post ( I mentioned that the seriously talented designers of the world lead the fashion industry forward through their innovation, creativity, and skill. The creations they unleash season after season are then copied in lesser fabrics and with lesser construction at lower prices. The styles available at prices that the average person can afford are at there best derivative and at their worst cheap copies. This is the way that fashion had functioned for decades and it was accepted by the designers of luxury fashion and accessories. There are just not that many people in the world who can afford a $7,000 dollar dress and that was fine. A top designer could still fashion themselves a very nice life and be justly known and celebrated. In the 1980s however large amounts of capital investment began to flow into fashion as the capitalists of the world realized that they could take advantage of the culture of debt that began to rule the marketplace. The creation of "Brands" and the subsequent launching of diffusion labels opened up vast new opportunities for billions in profit. The key was to maximize margins by keeping production costs low, capitalist code for cheap labor, and to price the goods at a point that would allow people to rationalize putting it on a credit card. Soon Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and Donna Karan were billionaires who still retained their status as top fashion designers and became immensely wealthy. That combination became the coveted goal for most of the big money investors in fashion. LVMH, PPR, and Richemont became titanic fashion based conglomerates and raked in hundreds of billions of dollars changing the direction of the entire industry. Brilliance and quality better.

In essence the strategies of the 80s and 90s represented the first modern attempt to make the average consumer feel that they were part of the luxury marketplace. With the purchase of diffusion labels, cosmetics, perfumes, and accessories the working classes could create the impression that they were rich, or at least richer. As the debt culture collapsed in the last decade new tactics sprung up to continue the strategy. Lower priced contemporary labels have done a brilliant job in mimicking the culture of high fashion houses. Brands that create designs that really aren't all that special act just like their higher priced peers and are thus perceived as luxury brands. The more recent trend of superstar fashion designers doing collaborations with mass market retailers has been another incredibly successful tactic in making the average citizen feel a part of the world of the rich and elite. The explosion in vintage is another example. Anything to get that label at that price.

There are two major questions that nobody's asking about all of this that I feel should be being discussed. Is this direction good for serious fashion as a whole? And is it good for luxury brands, is a person making $35,000 a year owning anything YSL good for YSL?

Let me begin my answer by saying that my only area of concern is the most talented of the designers working in the world today and that represents a very small fraction of the fashion industry. However their importance to the fashion industry is disproportional to their size because they are both the face and driving force behind the whole industry. The top talents set the trends and produce the work that generate massive amounts of press. That point established the answer to the first question I would say is no, the devaluation and dilution of the work of the best fashion designers on Earth is leading to some ugly and unintended consequences. The majority of the fashion press and particularly the leading fashion bloggers don't appear to know why Albert Kriemler is special or why Akris is expensive. They tend to speak of and represent all fashion as equal which is ludicrous. In every generation of every culture there will exist people who are capable of producing items that others simply can not create. As Fran Lebowitz pointed out in Public Speaking, "There is too much democracy in our culture and not enough in our government." The truth is that for every generation of fashion designers there will be a select few who are more talented than everybody else. This is just life happening the way that it happens. Fashion is seemingly the only artistic based form of commerce where acknowledging this is a problem. We have no trouble labeling music, TV, or film as poor, good, or brilliant. Nor is it an issue in architecture, books, dance, or food. Only in fashion is there this insane need to say everybody's just as talented as everybody else. The critical media in fashion stopped being critical and started getting excited about EVERYTHING.

The answer to the second question of is the current state of marketing good for the individual brands is both yes and no. The increased revenue is of course a wonderful thing for any business. However the loss of exclusivity and the dilution of brand potency have potentially huge consequences. The instant a luxury goods maker decides to chase cash it begins to decline in status. And when status is your stock in trade losing it is lethal. If you could get for example Chanel at Walmart, (Chanel's decision to decline to participate in the current trend will be a long term net positive for them), then how special can they really be? Exclusivity is a tremendous asset for a luxury brand and anything that compromises it must be viewed with an intensely wary eye.

There are two things that I hope come to pass. First I want the fashion media to return to its role as curator. It is our job to help people understand and appreciate the brilliant artists working in our industry and to point out when somebody is a product of marketing and is not really all that talented. Yes people will get mad at us and we may lose a few party invites; suck it up and deal with it. Second the fashion brands of the world need to understand who their client is and be careful to make sure that their particular client always comes first in their thinking. If you can create revenue increasing opportunities for your brand that are genuine and don't affect your relationship with your core client go for it. But value the person you deeply want wearing your designs over the pile of money you see over there in the swamp. To paraphrase, For what shall it profit a brand, if they shall gain the whole world, and lose their own soul?  

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