That Vetements Window Display and The Trouble With Social Justice Chic

In luxury fashion, social justice is the new black. Headlines following each round of fashion weeks, especially in the last year, have highlighted the infusion of politics and progressive messages into runway shows. More and more designers are using these literal platforms as a way to send messages about inequality, environmentalism, and other causes. And that should be cause for celebration, right?

So when I see this…

Or this:

Prabal Gurung’s 2017 t-shirt series, inspired by Women’s March signs.

Or especially this:

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"Fashion is a very dirty industry. Deadstock in the US amounts to $50bn every year. After the oil industry, fashion is the second-biggest polluting industry in the world. Fashion chief executives scream about sustainability, and how they plan to cut carbon emissions by 40 per cent and reduce environmental impact by 50 per cent in every interview. But none of those brands seem to understand that a much easier solution is just in front of them. Preventing overproduction in the first place would have an immediate effect on reaching those sustainability goals. The industry talks about conspicuous consumption — buying for the sake of buying — as the reason behind the growth in the luxury segment. But brands are producing more product than there is demand for. I call it conspicuous production, producing for the sake of producing and artificially inflating the numbers." #VETEMENTSxSAKS @financialtimes

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…why I don’t feel empowered?

Why, despite knowing that Stella McCartney is committed to making improvements across the supply chain, and is an outspoken voice for policy change to protect garment workers and the environment, do I still find my eyebrow raising when I see models in caramel wool jumpsuits frolicking in a landfill, because…um…pollution? And even knowing that Prabal Gurung strives for racial and body diversity on the runway, why did I feel like his “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts were not designed for me? (Oh, wait I know this one! It’s because they cost $195.00 and were only available up to a US size 10! I wrote about this here).

There is no single answer to these questions, and probably no solution to my ambivalence. But I think the last example, the recent Vetements window display in Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship NYC store, can best illustrate what’s wrong with much of the luxury fashion world’s embrace of “causes.”

The display featured a pile of clothes…that’s pretty much it. Except for a couple of municipal looking signs like the one that says “Danger Thin Ice.” Apparently the clothing was collected from Saks employees and unsold stock and will be donated to RewearAble, a textile recycler, when the display comes down. From what I’ve read, it’s meant to be a statement about either over-consumption or over-production. Maybe both.

Cool.

I agree with everything in that Instagram post. The point about “conspicuous production” is spot on. So why am I still feeling skeptical?

Let’s think this through.

The Luxury Brand “Holding Up a Mirror” to Consumers

Vetements has been among these Brands With a Message from its inception. A 2016 Wall Street Journal article wrote that “The [Gvasalia] brothers also believe that too many clothes are bad for both the environment and the soul. ‘You don’t need an extra shirt—it’s your ego that needs an extra shirt,’ says Guram.” Recent Elle coverage of Vetements’ Fall/Winter 17 collection described the brand as “holding up a mirror to show our (fashion consumers) reflection, because we sipped that Kool-Aid.”

We begin to find a source of my mixed-feelings.

It’s this: I wish they’d worked harder to turn that mirror the other way around. Their Instagram contains a message about over-production, but all the coverage I’ve read about this display has interpreted it as being about over-consumption. This is a logical conclusion. It’s in the window of a luxury department store. The Vetements brand is front and center. So what is the desired outcome here? Are wealthy shoppers going to see that pile of clothes and the drowning stick figure and think, “I’m contributing to the degradation of resources and exploitation of workers in developing nations. I am the problem! I shall henceforth cease buying more than I need!”  

We know that’s not happening. In fact, it’s the opposite. The display seems more like a stunt meant to draw attention to the brand and make people nod and say, “Ah yes. That is a problem. But the fact that I understand it absolves me. I’m above this issue because I buy ‘quality’.” So, as a message to high-end consumers, it’s profoundly unproductive.

Actually, it’s something worse. It’s re-productive. When a luxury brand like Vetements makes an empty statement about “over consumption” (whether or not that’s their intent, that’s effect) they’re reproducing a set of values that actually keeps the system running. Among those values is the idea that everything rests on our individual choices as consumers. And since it’s in a high-end department store that wants people to keep shopping, that there are “good” consumers and “bad” consumers (and those bad consumers are usually poor people and girls).

Exclusivity Does Not Reduce Consumption. It Generates Desire.

In a recent interview CEO Guram Gvasalia discussed Vetements’ partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue, and stated that it was indeed focused on sustainability and recycling. He goes on to describe the measures Vetements takes to prevent over-production. It’s an interesting discussion that seems to leave the author, Jo Ellison, scratching her head.

Controlling how much they sell to each store is helpful, to be sure. But their philosophy seems to rest on creating scarcity for the sake of exclusivity. The trouble with this can be found in Gvasalia’s own words, “Luxury is like dating. If something is available and in front of you, it’s less desirable.” That’s the sentiment of someone who is never going to stop dating. Exclusivity does not reduce consumption. By his own logic it generates desire. (Seriously, it’s worth looking at the highlights from Ellison’s interview, which unpacks more of Vetements’ inconsistent philosophy.)  

This is why I see the Saks display as finger-wagging rather than self-reflective. There is no reflection on how to generate systemic change within the global supply chain. No acknowledgement of workers directly impacted by, and organizing to change, these conditions. It certainly doesn’t reflect the problem of living in a world of rising income disparity, where the things that produce actual material stability (a living wage, reliable health care, affordable housing) are out of reach for most people. And as real wages and benefits decline and work days lengthen, we’re placated with cheap consumer goods…and then supposed to feel bad for buying them.

Appropriating Working Class Signs to Reinforce Leisure Class Status

Vetements’ “mirror holding” is especially galling given that they made their mark by turning mall brands like Reebok and Levis into exclusive $3000.00 branded hoodies and selling DHL logo t-shirts, based on delivery drivers’ uniforms, for hundreds of dollars (Just FYI, according to GlassDoor, DHL employees earn between 10 and 23 dollars an hour). And I get the joke. Ironic fashion is kind of my thing. I’ve even written about how it can be a useful political tool. So yes, I understand that Vetements is all very winky-winky. That’s their thing. Pranking their own customers while making them feel like part of an exclusive club who gets the joke. From the outside though, it’s just slumming. And their “ironic” appropriation of working-class signs and subcultures does nothing but reinforce class boundaries.

More than 100 years ago, sociologist Georg Simmel theorized that fashion’s appeal lay in its capacity to enable “imitation” and “demarcation” at the same time. In other words we can simultaneously fit into our culture and stand out as individuals. He also theorized that the underlying mechanism inspiring fashion’s changes was social class; the desire to rise up the ranks for some, and the need to differentiate yourself from the rabble for others. Of course, there are a hundred problems with Simmel’s theory, but I think the class element is important.

The fact is most real social justice –  in the fashion industry, and in general – is generated from the bottom. It happens when workers come together and demand better conditions, when neighborhoods hold businesses accountable for their environmental impact, etc. So, to have our slogans and our activism re-packaged, branded and given a price tag we can’t afford is really, really irritating. It’s using social justice to demarcate the upper classes from the people in society who actually deal with injustice.

On Marie Antoinette and Snoop Dogg

In Simmel’s schema, fashion changes as lower classes try to imitate the look of the wealthy. The wealthy then develop new styles to stop looking like the poors (“and thus the game goes merrily on”). But that’s not the only way the upper classes have worked to differentiate themselves. In fact, far from being the revolutionaries they’re so often described as, Vetements’ schtick feels as old as fashion itself. There’s something very Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess at Petit Trianon about these images of young, white waifs wearing over-sized, $1000.00 Snoop Dogg t-shirts.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget what happened to old Marie. Basically her whole job was to have babies and wear cool clothes. That’s what she was raised to do, and things would go very badly for her if she failed. And then she was beheaded for doing those things well. There were many more powerful and influential figures of the Ancien Regime, but Marie Antoinette was the symbol of aristocratic excess.

 

I don’t mean to say that female consumers aren’t culpable. That’s insulting to the many women who are doing things differently. My point is that the simultaneous mandate that women (or other feminized populations) focus on their appearances, that they be fashionable, and then shaming them for being too focused on their appearances and fashion is no more ground-breaking than the rich appropriating working-class fashion as their leisure wear.

From Mirror to Megaphone: How Can Social Justice Chic Do Better?

Minh-Ha T. Pham recently wrote an excellent article outlining the problems with anti fast fashion campaigns. She argues that these campaigns let luxury brands, most of which participate in the same bad practices, off the hook and shift the blame from a global system to working-class consumers and teenage girls. Furthermore, by keeping the focus on consumers, these campaigns contribute to the disempowerment of garment workers, framing them as victims in need of white saviors and downplaying their activism. In my estimation, luxury fashion’s embrace of “social justice” is another page from the same lookbook.

As is so often the case with social justice chic, I just wish there was more attention paid to how the idea of fashion itself (especially luxury fashion) contributes to reproducing inequality. If you dig beneath the surface of that pile of clothes, all you’re likely to find is more clothes. And that’s a shame. Fashion is uniquely positioned to lead the way toward social change because it’s about physicalizing where you fit in society. But as long as the focus remains on consumers, and as long as consumers are encouraged to think primarily in terms of individual choices, the system will remain intact. Consumer choices are important, but only in tandem with workers and policy makers.

I think the real trouble, not just with the Vetements campaign, but with many “social justice chic” promotions is that the story still features only three or four characters: a gifted designer, a brand, maybe a retailer, and a consumer. So the “production-consumption” disconnect isn’t challenged in a meaningful way. The real cast of the fashion industry is so much bigger (and more interesting). What if instead of “raising awareness” among consumers, fashion brands started cultivating new relationships between garment workers and consumers? Instead of a mirror, why not be a megaphone, a signal booster for groups like The Solidarity Center or The Garment Worker Center? Instead of deconstructing mall brands as “an antifashion, finger-in-your-eye cult making a righteous critique of consumer culture,” (WSJ) we could be building a whole new fashion system, rethinking what we want our clothes to say.

I’m not saying high end fashion should stop doing social justice, but that it should go deeper.  And if we consumers need a message, perhaps it’s this: There is pleasure to found in “dressing up,” and there is comfort in fitting in. But if, at some level, fashion is always about affiliation with a larger culture, and if that culture keeps packaging and re-branding the same idea: individual expression through commodity consumption – full stop, perhaps it’s time to think more deeply about what we’re trying to fit into?  

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