I’m taking a break today, from the usual research routine, and have decided to comment on the much-discussed Chanel show for the A/W 2014 collection. A critical reading of fashion is not something I’ve ever attempted before (though I do enjoy fashion), so this is quite random and informal.
[Images from Garance Dore]
Over the past few days, many online magazines were flooded with images of the purpose-built Chanel Superstore, housed in the Grand Palais in Paris. Known for his innovative runway designs, Karl Lagerfeld amazed the fashion world with his reimagining of luxury pieces as supermarket products: Iconic quilted bags came wrapped as packs of meat; rows of tin cans, lined in Warhol-esque style, bore the Chanel logo; the names of products – like Coco Chanel Coco Pops – were nods to the founder of the house. Models strolled down the supermarket aisles as if they were customers, carrying baskets or carts, and quequing up at the check-out. Judging from the photographs, the details of the elaborate stage set were remarkable. There is a certain whimsical quality to the idea, and the show was deemed a great success. At the end of the show, guests were invited to enter the market and take anything from the aisles. Predictably, the crowd descended and fought over the coveted items stamped with the Chanel logo (though they were asked to return the goods at the end). Lagerfeld understood that if you stick the renowned interlocking C’s (or what some in the Chinese media have coined ‘The Cash-Cash’ sign) on anything, consumers will hunger for it, even if it is only a bottle of ketchup.
[Images from Garance Dore]
The debates that ensued centered on the complex relationship between fashion and consumerism. The mode of consumerism fueled by the fashion industry is elitist yet seemingly egalitarian – while the few decides the trends, and only the few can actually afford the luxury goods, the many can possess a tiny slice of the luxury world. Fashion is, in this sense, a champion of capitalism, and erodes the boundary between luxury and necessity. By drawing a direct link between designer goods and everyday products of the supermarket, Lagerfeld not only taps into the consumerist psyche, but also creates an illusion of affordability, which ironically highlights the fissure between the wealthy and the poor – a fissure that the fashion industry has, sadly, helped to widen.
Fashion’s flirtation with food is by no means confined to the Chanel show. Both the Kate Spade and Charlotte Olympia shows this year featured bags that resemble Chinese takeaway boxes (an idea that Lagerfeld had already executed for the 2010 Chanel collection). But the most notorious reference to food was undoubtedly the Moschino x Jeremy Scott collection in Milan, which made explicit, kitsch references to McDonald’s, with models wearing clothes that resemble the red-and-yellow uniforms, and carrying bags that imitate Happy Meal boxes (costing $1265). Though the show was praised by many in the fashion industry, it enraged real-life McDonald’s employees, who accused the brand of mocking their difficult, low-wage lives. In an interview with The New York Times, Scott claimed that he was just trying to have a little fun, and that the clothes should be seen as humorous, irreverent but gleeful.
The Moschino show is a case of ethical blindness, in my view. The critics were right to point out the inappropriateness of selling a uniform-like dress with a price tag well beyond the reach of those who are forced to wear that uniform on a daily basis. The rich might well dapple in the lifestyles of the less wealthy (going to supermarkets, eating fast food), as if it were a form of alternative tourism, but they know they can return to the comfort of their wealth at the end of the day. Additionally, to promote fattening food in an industry that consistently encourages anorexic thinness and eating disorder (particularly in women) is nothing short of ironic.
Some have read both the Chanel and Moschino shows as examples of fashion being a little facetious and critiquing itself. But is contemporary fashion capable of this critique? Fashion as represented in these shows speak not of self-referential reflection but of excess and consumerist frenzy. Perhaps Lagerfeld’s show signals that fashion is no longer what it was in the days of Coco Chanel (especially with regard to the representation of women). If luxury is meant to be something in which we luxuriate, in which we revel, then these fashion pieces are not luxury since they encourage fast consumption and fast forgetting, prompting the consumer to move on quickly to the next trend. Originally associated with debauchery and sexual pleasure, luxury has now become mostly linked with the possession of certain products or the enjoyment of a particular lifestyle. Robbed of its association with transgression and rebelliousness, fashion has, in a way, become pure market, much like McDonald’s. Our large appetites lead us to consume so much in the market without reflection, hence the excesses of shopping and the debts accumulated. Fashion coupled with fast food means consumption in the double sense of shopping and eating – voraciously, insatiably, self-destructively.
Time to re-read Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin.