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EDITORIAL/문화 & 예술 :: Culture & Art

Fashion Babble: Art, Consumerism, and Waste

By: Diane Han | English Columnist

Is Fashion Art? Elevating Fashion to an Intellectual Frame

The attempt to draw a distinction between art and craft is really nothing new. Art has historically been regarded as the ingenious creation that is appreciated purely for aesthetics, whereas design (including fashion design) has been regarded as the “low art” motivated by commercial reasons, and offers utility to “consumers”. Fashion design has long been part of craftsmanship. In the contemporary context, however, the line between art and fashion has become blurred and the relationship has become extremely convoluted as high fashion became conceptual and avant-garde.

Art inspires fashion, fashion inspires art, and artists and fashion designers continue to collaborate to create wearable masterpieces.  Often, high fashion coincides with the contemporary art movement. In the 1920s, the Parisian avant-garde artists, such as Cubists Picasso and Surrealists Dalí and Cocteau, worked with Coco Chanel and her greatest rival Elsa Schiaparelli to design costumes for performance and trompe l’oeil dresses for bourgeois women in Paris. In the 60s, Yves Saint Laurent released the iconic shift dresses inspired by Piet Mondrian. Despite the fact that the “Mondrian” Collection [1] consisted of only six simple dresses, typical of the mid-sixties, Saint Laurent’s incorporation of Mondrian-inspired colorful, geometric patterns became some of his most famous works. Such collaboration and references became more common in the ‘90s and continue through to  today. In 1994, the internationally acclaimed photographer, Cindy Sherman, starred in Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçon ads. Sherman would go on to more of successful collaborations with fashion brands like Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga. Today, teaming up with artists is matter-of-course for many fashion lines, whether successful or controversial, as observed in Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons’ Masters Collection [2].

[3] Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçon (F/W 2015 & S/S 2017)

Some fashion designers take it further and incorporate artistic themes such as deconstruction and minimalism into their designs, thereby moving away from conventional clothing into abstract realms. For example, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçon is the master of elevating fashion to “art.” Incorporating Eastern philosophy into her design, Kawakubo rewrites Japanese avant-garde. Her design defies the traditional silhouette and distorts the shape of the human body. Her design can be characterized as “clusters,” “randomness,” and “cacophony.” She is also known for displaying her clothes in the stores in the way that artworks are displayed in museums. Inspired by Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, the founder of Maison Martin Margiela, applied deconstruction techniques using recycled materials and raw finishes on his minimal designs. Rejecting functional aspects of fashion, Margiela created oversized shirts and distorted zippers, deconstructing every parts of clothing and turning them into pieces of art. His radical ideas have transformed high fashion completely, inspiring future internationally acclaimed designers like Alexander McQueen and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements. Unfortunately, rejecting the commercial drive of new Diesel ownership, Martin Margiela left the label in 2009.

The Logo Fashion: Conspicuous Consumption in the Age of Instagram

“Fashion has become bi-dimensional. It’s just flat. I see that designers, especially young designers, are considering the shapes and volumes in a totally different way; the colors, also. I think they pay much more attention to the photogenic value of an outfit.”

Tiziana Cardini

[4] From left: Kanye West in Supreme, Rihanna in Balenciaga, Justin Theroux in Gucci

Nevertheless, fashion designers are designers, not artists. As seen in the case of Maison Martin Margiela, the fashion is a competitive business driven by commercial motives and sadly, creativity and artistic ingenuity often don’t sell. I believe that one of the key driving factors in the fashion industry is conspicuous consumption of the buyers. Conspicuous consumption, a term coined by the American economist Thorstein Veblen, refers to the extravagant spending of money to publicly display one’s wealth or social prestige. High end brands in the fashion industry, such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Hermes, frequently represent  conspicuous consumption. Although recent studies show that millennials value experiences, such as nice vacations over owning assets, such as cars or designer bags, and predict that the high-end market will lose millennial customers, the reality is different. In fact, conspicuous consumption of luxury goods is still taking place - in a different form.

Among many other causes at fault in changing consuming patterns, the rise of social media allows people to share their purchases and experiences instantly. Knowing too well that millennials, the future of luxury consumption, tend to prioritize the Instagram-worthy experiences over the quality of products, the designers and fashion marketers find ways to stand out in the flux of images. This means the design has to be simple and eye-catching, than it is creative. In the internet world full of consumable images, people don’t stare at one particular photo for more than 3 seconds. They don’t see the texture or the quality of the products. When it comes to social media, logos and the logos associated with experience are all that matter. Therefore, the logos associated with youthful lifestyles, such as skateboarding and celebrity fashion, are the easiest way to draw attention from millennials. This is how Champion once again became one of the coolest brands. And this is why streetwear brands, such as Supreme, Thrasher and Obey, associated with youth culture, continue to enjoy commercial successes and develop obsessions from many millennials.

[5] Getty Images

However, the “Money First, Creativity Second” mentality in the fashion industry led to the logo-heavy “lazy” design in even the high-end designer brands, like Gucci and Balenciaga. Instead of choosing the experimental (and risky) path, these high-end brands mimic hype streetwear, in order to attract the young consumers. Even Demna Gvasalia’s hyped Vetements cannot escape from such criticisms. Once acclaimed for its innovative and “avant-garde” design, Vetements now produce oversized sweatshirts and subpar rain coats that emblazoned “Vetements.” The same phenomenon is seen with Off-White. The success of the brand lies not in Virgil Abloh’s creative design, but in his understanding of millennials’ desire for a “cool kids experience,” rather than the design.

The Fast Fashion and “Waste Couture”

Here today, gone tomorrow. Fashion is matter of metamorphosis, making the industry highly competitive; fashion designers strive to innovate at the quickest possible speed. Especially in the age of social media we live in, the fashion trends change more rapidly than ever. As a hard-pressed college student living on a tight budget, I cannot afford to think about the rather impractical concerns discussed above. In order to stay in fashion, I look for the most affordable and accessible versions of the latest trends. I consume fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 the same way I consume McDonalds and In-N-Out.

In that sense, fast fashion is the embodiment of modernity defined by Charles Pierre Baudelaire - and yes, he’s the flâneur guy from my last article. Modernity, which began with the rise of industrial capitalism, is defined by its speed, mobility and mutability[i] and also by the mixing of classes. Fast fashion allows camouflage of social class and financial status. Fast fashion offers such a large pool of trends at the most reasonable price, allowing consumers to appear to be part of any social class appearance-wise. Fast fashion gives people pleasure from the freedom to choose from and experiment with different styles to create their unique look, and the chance to blend in with the groups they aspire to be in.

[6] The working condition in fast fashion industry

However, there is always a dark side to modernity and, of course, to fast fashion. Fast fashion is undeniably a waste couture. Following the latest trend relentlessly is unsustainable to the environment and the textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. In addition, most of the materials and labor used to create these products are outsourced, often coming from developing countries. The energy-intensive production of clothing affect the air and water in these developing countries, which already struggle with access to clean water. The working conditions are also generally very unsanitary and cramped. Worse, the workers are often exposed to toxic chemicals.


Another problem with fast fashion is in their design models. With the pressure to produce new designs every 2 weeks, many fast fashion labels look at the designs of high-end brands and indie designers for inspirations in order to keep up with the latest trend with the quickest possible speed. However, the borderline between inspiration and plagiarism is thin and often these brands are accused of copying other labels. Recently, the LA-based artist Tuesday Bassen accused Zara of copying her designs. Although Zara immediately suspended from sale in response, it is only one of many cases in which Zara stole designs and graphics from indie artists and designers. Many of Zara’s collection pieces also mimic high-end fashion designs, particularly from designers like Celine, Alexander Wang, and Isabel Marant.

I plead guilty when it comes to the consumption of fast fashion. Fast fashion offers so much convenience and benefits that it is hard to resist. However, as I suggested in my earlier piece about the flâneur, let us take a step away from modern obsession over speed and progress, in order to slow down and reflect. .

After All, Everyone Has Different Definitions of Fashion

"Don’t be into trends. Don’t make fashion own you, but you decide what you are, what you want to express by the way you dress and the way you live."

Gianni Versace

Fashion is a specialized form of body adornment. Fashion is lifestyle. Fashion tells a story about you - your masculinity and femininity, sexual maturity and immaturity, confidence, dominance and submissiveness, conformity and rebellion, occupation, origin, wealth, morals, values, and the list goes on. In the end, you should wear what you feel most comfortable in, whether it expresses your identity or upholds your passion and ethical cause.







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