For decades, Fashion with a capital F played a distinctive function between social strata, groups and economic categories. Then, Fast Fashion and its mammoths, influencers and instagrammers rose and re-shuffled the cards to the point we now ask this question: Do clothes still give away who we are and where we from?
“Today’s youth doesn’t wear suits or laced up shoes. Style strata are fading and don’t depend on labels’ demarcation” says Arthur Hoeld, Adidas development director (« L’athleisure » in Le Monde, A. Pfeiffer).
For men, the ideal culprits of this development are sneakers. Everybody wears some, from rappers to traders, athletes to college kids. Success stories wearing Nike Jordan’s or Adidas’ superstars allowed men and menswear to break free from the almost sacro-saint “suits/derbies” axiom.
For girls, wearing leggings in town is now a norm. It’s now socially and culturally acceptable to wear leggings regardless of where one’s from or work while. Not so long ago, while LA or Miami social scenes allowed it, Parisians, true to their reputation, wouldn’t mind asking if you should haven’t a skirt above it.
Along the way, women “got busy” and don’t want to switch outfits between social and professional lives, yoga and office, cocktails and motherhood.
The NY scene rising influence, illustrated by the successes of Alexander Wang or Phillip Lim is partly explained by the smart mix between high tech materials (scuba, light fibers) and high-end fashion design. A strategy designed for a clientele who’s not just one type or belong to one group, but to several and often simultaneously.
Leggings is now a uniform and if Wang is out of your budget, no worries, H&M offers “almost” the same thing for 10 euros. Design is the new chic, not labels. Being fit, thin, slightly athletic without showing how many hours you put in the gym coupled with a solid resume is the new equation all of us try to solve. Thus garments don’t really matter much.
It’s about expressing a lifestyle and the dynamics that compose it and that we synthetize and channel through pieces: leggings, sneakers are the new signs of empowerment. A new kind of soft power but power regardless to paraphrase Joseph Nye.
Fast fashion giants like Zara, H&M or Uniqlo replicate designs and season flavours altogether and way faster than other brands. Therefore, originals by Wang, Balenciaga or Celine arrive on racks at the same time as the copycats from the aforementioned tycoons. The old axiom where elites wore the most exclusive labels and designs before the rest of us is no more. Fast fashion works well and fast and who never get fooled by the “I LOVE your sweater, what is it? Balenciaga? No, it’s Zara”.
The old hierarchy between Culture and pop culture, tastes and norms, meant to divide people between elites and masses is no more. Therefore, its only logical Fashion follows the same path and leans towards democratization. The case of young blogger Tavi Gevinson is insightful. She’s eleven, launches her website and voices her opinions and preferences. Laughed at first, she’s now followed by millions. The rising power of the masses, the amateurs and their media (Instagram, blogs, Pinterest) challenge the Bourdieu’s old correlation between social status and cultural capital.
So if price tags and labels don’t matter much, attitude must be the new king. Self-styling, mixing vintage or cheap pieces with designers’ is what’s lauded on the sacro-saint Instagram. Being rich and showing it is not only deemed “cheap” and nouveau riche but also increasingly irrelevant. Second hand websites (Grailed, Vestiaire collective), possibility to pay three times and so on, everything is done to get the goods without paying the price. As such, social differentiation is not about how many we have and how much we pay for it but how smart we are to capture the “season feeling” without going bankrupt. Design over price. Taste over money. Smarts over spoiled brats.
However, Fashion is not democratic. When we say H&M sweaters are cheap, we refer to price just as much as quality. If Fashion and taste are not about money, one must still possess some skills to identify value: fabrics, details, cut. To quote Bourdieu again, “wrong choice” or a “mistake” soon gives away the one trying to hide where he’s from. Thus, Fashion remains a powerful vector to convey one’s background, mainly because we can mimic codes.
Codes may be blurred but still matter. I remember a conference regarding retail practices in the jewellery industry. A High jewellery retail manager on Place Vendome explained: “I train my team never to assume anything regarding potential clients. Last week, an elderly couple came bearing all stigma of the old bourgeoisie and didn’t buy anything. Contrarily, the client who bought the most was wearing sneakers and sweatpants and just popped in on a Friday right before we closed”.
If so, are clothes still relevant when the rich endorses streetwear codes? Yes, 10 times yes. Isn’t “disturbing the establishment and conventions” Fashion’s purpose? Normcore trend illustrates this: blending in to stand out better.
Singled out, clothes don’t reveal much. They belong and acquire purpose within a given context. Only professionals would be able to “trace” the social background behind clothes. Analysis is more insightful if, in addition to garments, we also focus on allure, speech, vocabulary instead of focusing on old axioms and labels.