What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Fashion?

In the most recent issue of the popular fashion magazine i-D, the writer Charlie Porter draws a sharp distinction between fashion and luxury. Though Porter acknowledges that they oftentimes overlap, he hopes to proselytize the so-called lazy thinkers who ignorantly conflate fashion—which by Porter’s understanding seems to be an aesthetic pursuit—with luxury—this nebulous and ignoble body of conspicuous consumption.

As Porter argues, to believe in the amalgamation of fashion and luxury bears dangerous consequences. In this vein, Porter seems to believe that such a deleterious perspective actually obscures one’s understanding of the fashion zeitgeist, much to the detriment of creativity. “In 2017, tracksuits and sweatshirts say more about the real fashion of our times than many of the collections by luxury houses, yet they are frequently labeled as streetwear. Why?” he rhetorically asks. “Because fashion has become too closely linked to luxury, meaning that valid work goes undervalued…”

In 2017, Porter’s observations of luxury’s comingling with fashion perhaps come as a surprise to no one. Fashion magazines, like i-D, are today filled with buzzy labels and young designers who oftentimes define their raison d’etre as carving out a new— alternative—luxury. Perhaps more importantly, as Porter notes, traditional luxury brands have been producing collections using fashion designers for some time now: since the mid-1990s, John Galliano and later Lee McQueen took the helm at Givenchy, Tom Ford reinvented Gucci, and Mrs. Prada elevated her family business to become a fashion powerhouse.

For the most part, especially in the above section of the essay, Porter’s argument seems to be largely semantic. Despite the fact that fashion is being produced by luxury conglomerates, one still ought not to confuse fashion as being luxury. As Porter sees it, this business partnership is merely the phenomenon of great designers tapping the resources of luxury in order to create fashion. Fashion, in this view, seems to be rigidly designating—and our error lies in our inability to see that. But what does it designate, one might ask? In response, Porter is less than explicit in his definition. As a probable late-Wittgensteinian, he instead highlights some intersecting similarities amongst that which belongs to fashion: “cut, creative thought, manipulation of material, with an understanding of the body, of the character that can be given to clothing, and the wider societal situations that fashion can address.”

Though Porter cites the current luxury era as starting in the mid-1990s, the historian Marc De Ferrière le Vayer takes the position that, in some sense, the period in fact stretches back to the 1960s, when the great French luxury brands first became interested in the fashion world. In this view, pioneering this relationship between luxury and fashion were designers like Yves Saint Laurent, who began to produce ready-to-wear garments under his label ‘Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.” Later in the 1980s, when capital began to concentrate in the creation of large conglomerates (e.g. LVMH), budding industrialists feverishly acquired couture brands in order to force a return on investment through a process le Vayer calls ‘declination of the brand”—by extending the brand’s value across products in diverse segments of the market. As a result, by the 1990s, a far greater number of consumers began to accrue objects from luxury brands: if couture was out of one’s price range, comparatively accessible ready-to-wear was readily available in the department stores—alongside perfumes and accessories.

In light of le Vayer, Porter’s observations are perhaps not novel either. Referring to the conglomerate tactics from a few decades back, “this commercial and marketing strategy is a historical break from several points of view,” explains le Vayer. “It has produced a certain degree of confusion as it no longer distinguishes between production of exceptional pieces or high luxury and those of mass or serial production.” The fashion zeitgeist, in this sense, has somewhat become subsumed by the luxury sector. Both le Vayer and Porter’s arguments center on a notable confusion, but whereas the former’s pertains to the ‘high’ and ‘the low’, the latter’s seemingly focuses on the demarcation of fashion. In any case, the last few decades in this space have created a category-mistake of sorts. Today, we can no longer tell luxury from fashion.

More often than not, abstract perplexities like these are best illustrated through concrete examples. Consider then, for instance, the iconoclastic “Saddle Bag” by John Galliano for Dior from the beginning of this century. Its craftsmanship combines a luxurious construction akin to the likes of Vuitton and Hèrmes with an aesthetic that is starkly low-brow, usually connoting the vulgar lifestyles of the masses. As le Vayer notes, “Such a bag could not be machine-made—its quality is too high; yet it tends to play with and obscure that process of making. Most consumers have no idea how such goods are produced today, quite different from the couture customer of the 1950s”. If you are paying attention the Balenciaga for the past few seasons, you are likely already familiar with this conundrum.

In this respect, Porter’s observations are undeniable; nevertheless, his understanding of the issue seems at best incomplete and at worst deeply problematic. In the piece, one practical solution to solving this category-mistake seems to come by way of an evolving retail landscape. “It’s the perfect time for the creativity of fashion to break free,” Porter writes. “Online retail and social media are giving opportunities for releasing collections on a designer’s own terms and timescales. Fashion designers should be nimble, and able to work on their own terms.” Regardless of whether this is sound business advice or not, commercial solutions—so limited in scope—neglect precisely the final point of similarity Porter lists amongst all things fashion: the wider societal situations.

Perhaps the richest passage in the essay comes in Porter’s discussion of streetwear versus fashion. Here, he discusses the unfairly dismissed streetwear labels of today (Porter lists Gosha and Cottweilers, but maybe a better example would be Off-White), which produce track pants and sweatshirts, and are often disparagingly labeled streetwear as opposed to fashion. Why is this so? As his argument goes, these brands are relegated to a lower tier because they do not aspire to be luxury—that they are designed not for a luxury consumer. And since we conflate luxury with fashion, in turn, we fail to associate these designs with fashion.

As I see it, not only does this argument seem to rely far too much on the thoughts of Veblen—who, in his seminal work, “Theory of the Leisure Class,” criticizes decorative dress as having the primary function of connoting wealth and status—the argument fails, I think, to reach the crux of the issue altogether for the most part.

For one, the most glaring concern with such a statement is that there seems to be a deep confusion within the claim itself. “Of course, tracksuits and sweatshirts say more about the real fashion of our times than much of the stuff created by luxury houses,” Porter writes. “Yet it is seen as “streetwear” first and not fashion, because it has absolutely no interest in being luxury.” Oddly enough, it would appear as if, in this passage, Porter is conflating two distinct designations for fashion.

Consider the following: in their discussion the Fashion Revolution, scholars Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil discuss several changes that occurred in the 18th century, “[In every social class,] what people consumed came to communicate their identity,” they write. “Consumers were no longer content with using the same old things until they fell apart, but increasingly aimed at the latest fashion or something fashionable.”

Relatedly, Porter’s first usage of fashion, I think, refers to this dynamic force that now informs how a society, culture, or group dresses. The second usage here, I think, refers to the industry circuits of New York, London, Milan, and London—the fashion weeks. In this view, it is easy to see why hoodies might be very fashionable, yet seldom considered fashion. Worn by everyone, yet dismissed by the critics. More than pedantic knit picking, however, I think the above opens a critical discussion that Porter seems to pass over in his essay. For better or for worse, in our system of consumption, culturally, we seem to prize the second referent of fashion over the first. Fashion itself is disseminated from top-down, so how does this inform our standards for judging designers like Rubchinskiy, or the duo at Cottweiler, or Abloh altogether?

Even more importantly, however, one must wonder if the relegation of hoodies and tracksuits to that lower tier of garments is really due to its inability to approximate the offerings of luxury houses or whether it by the systemized workings of a semiotics. In an essay on the non-human prosopopeia from the New Inquiry, the writer Léopold Lambert explains in one passage the importance of the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin to the defense of his murderer. In this situation, the exhibition of Martin’s hoodie served as a means to legitimize the racist killer’s interpretation of Martin’s intentions—as being something malicious. In opaque terms, the hoodie functioned a signifier. Perhaps our distinction between ‘streetwear’ and ‘fashion’ are similarly informed by these codified biases and pre-conceptions, and less anchored by whom we imagine to be buying these clothes, in the first place. This discussion runs parallel to Porter’s, but in the essay, it remains largely untouched.

Still, in the face of rising tuitions, mounting student debt, and an excessive supply of fashion students that far outnumbers industry demands, Porter’s most poignant illustration comes through a discussion of children in state schools who, as he describes, hope to ascend from poverty to attend fashion school and one day become a designer. “Imagine you are a kid at state school, living below the poverty line. The charity Child Action Poverty Group states that if national statistics are evened out, in every class of 30 children, nine are living in poverty. What does it tell them when it is assumed that fashion equals luxury?” Porter writes. “It shuts them out of the conversation”

At this point, the essay seems paradoxically to succeed and fail simultaneously. In his touching story, Porter is obviously right that psychological barriers can and do prevent children from achieving their dreams. But I wonder if the child can attain her goal, as Porter suggests, if only she started thinking about fashion less as a luxurious enterprise founded upon conspicuous consumption and more as some egalitarian artistic endeavor. Indeed, there is an idealistic undertone in the essay that innocently assumes everything can become better solely through the infinite powers of the one’s mind—that as creative entities, we are only bound by the limitations to our own imaginations. Sadly, that the obstacle is merely in your head and will dissipate once you shift your frame of reference is a worldview painfully ignorant of a reality plagued by societal injustices and a fashion industry bedeviled by troubles beyond merely the semantic. Indeed, we shouldn’t conflate fashion with luxury, but for the underprivileged children—particularly those of color—who one day hope to enroll in a top fashion schools, this psychological step seems to be amongst the last in a long winding staircase of obstacles.

Text Edwin Jiang

Illustrations George Liu after Sigmar Polke.