When ppl talk about "democratizing fashion," should we trust them??
Or is it a fraudulent cornball maneuver intended, IN SOOTH, to move units & confuse you !?
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During our last open call for “Personal Spyplane” questions, a few ppl wrote in asking us to grapple with what one reader, @andrew__estella, called “brands’ claims of democratizing fashion,” along with related issues of “anti-egalitarianism” and “inaccessibility” when it comes to RAREFIED jawns…
We’ve decided to tackle these questions profoundly in a brand new … “Spyplane HOLY DECREE.”
There’s obvious bogosity around artificial scarcity, i.e. the techniques big brands have engineered to whip up feeding-frenzies out of nothing — but, while these techniques can be predatory, it’s not like if you don’t get JJJJound 990 v4s for msrp there won’t be another near-identical drop coming along in ~15 minutes — and we’re talking sneakers that get marked up ~4x at resale, not meds that get marked up ~100x in the U.S. when they cost $3 everywhere else for no reason besides pharmaceutical lobbying power — so at the end of the day you’re “movin’ goofy” if you get too worked up about it!!
However, at BBSP we regard the notion of “democratizing fashion” with ample suspicion. These days the term gets deployed most commonly in the context of smooth-brain arguments defending fast-fashion nightmare-merchants; the sales pitches of swagless timeline brands selling “minimal affordable basiczzz😴”; and the media hype whenever a mass retailer throws a 💰PLUMP BAGGIOLI💰 at a designer with “fashion cachet” for a collab…
“Democratizing” as it’s used here is a euphemism that translates to “opening up new markets while driving down prices,” and the way prices tend to get driven down in the economy as currently configured is via gargantuan manufacturing capacity, cheap materials, shoddy enviromental practices, and trash wages and poor conditions for workers…
So, regardless of yr thoughts on, say, Gap x Yeezy, calling that collaboration and others like it a “democratizing” event at best reflects a narrow way of thinking about how jawns are made and sold, and at worst lets product-slingers wrap an aura of exalted intentions around their ABJECT desire to simply sell more low-cost, high-margin s**t to as many people as possible via crushingly vast economies of scale that have already flooded the planet with cheap goods… And that’s “cap of the highest order,” doggie !!
SIDE NOTE: “Low-cost” is of course a relative term — when Erin and I were growing up, our parents couldn’t afford to cop us clothes from Gap except sometimes in January when that s**t went on DEEP post-Xmas sale… Yr boy Young Spyplane stayed dripped down in jawnz from, like, the Williamsburg thrift emporium Domsey’s on Kent Ave (R.I.P.) and NYC discount-clothing chain Conway (also R.I.P.), so check yr mall-brand privilege, GAP AFFORDERS😉!
Historically speaking, there have been some interesting, quasi-utopian strains of thinking around “democratized” fashion, architecture & design — high-concept fever dreams that never came to fruition (e.g. the ‘70s Italian design collective Archizoom Associati’s “Dressing Is Easy” project)…
… amazing man-made public spaces (e.g. Central Park or very sick social housing like Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road estates in London)…
… and prefab/ mass-produced design GEMS (like Eichler houses and Eames chairs).
From the jump, though, that utopian strain ran up against (and, more insidiously, offered high-flown marketing language for) profiteering. Eichler and Eames joints (like Neutra and Sea Ranch cribs and a bunch more vibey midcentury s**t in this ilk) went on to become big-ticket collectibles, and by ~2010 every entrepreneurial dweeb in Silicon Valley & beyond was shrouding his/her ambitions of selling “optimized” malevolent dumb s**t within the empty rhetoric of “building a better world for everybody.”
We aren’t saying that partnerships between mass retailers and popping designers can’t ever produce BIG GAS jawns. Lots of the Christophe Lemaire-overseen Uniqlo U stuff is cool, and the other night we were out at dinner with a tasteful SpyFriend (wearing a great padded Muji noragi jacket) who noted that Uniqlo’s $$$$ allows for materials development that Lemaire likely couldn’t afford without them, resulting in genuinely special pieces; Muji itself makes a ton of ill s**t, often designed by prestigious-but-uncredited names, like Jasper Morrison; the Yeezy Gap puffer is admirably, biomorphically bizarre; we wish we owned the grail-tier ‘90s-era Verner Panton x IKEA “Vilbert” chairs (below); etc., etc.
But where we take righteous Spyplane umbrage is when the people raking in $$$ off these INCREASINGLY PRO FORMA partnerships dress them up as “democratization” instead of just “another revenue stream predicated on worker exploitation and industrial pollution that we want to market as novel.”
Give it 2 us straight or shut da f**k up, baby 😜 !!
Let’s come at the question thru the example of a specific garment, though. What would it mean to say that a jacket is in need of “democratizing”?
Presumably, one or more of the following would be true of an “anti-egalitarian,” “undemocratic” jacket:
Its making involves a lot of time
Its making involves skillful craftsmanship
It’s cut from rare & beautiful material(s)
It’s only available in limited numbers
It costs dough
It reflects a niche, rarefied aesthetic (or has niche, rarefied use-cases), which limits its appeal to a select group
Owning it signifies an elevated social position
In a vacuum, Nos. 1, 2, and 3 strike me as entirely reasonable justifications for Nos. 4 and 5: If you pour ingenuity, hard work, nice materials and time into something you put up for sale, that’ll limit your output, and it’s fair to want greater compensation for yr talent & trouble, which will likely manifest in a higher pricetag.
Where things start to break down, of course, is when the people who actually supply the labor, talent and/or ingenuity see disproportionately little of the wealth generated by the high pricetag — OR when the pricetag is high in the absence of any hard work, talent, ingenuity, or beautiful materials to speak of: a dynamic encapsulated nowhere more BLEAKLY than in the case of bad clothes whose enormous logos constitute the full extent of their “value” (see also: B*red Ape NFTs).
No. 6, meanwhile, is obviously fine! Some people have interests that the cultural mainstream doesn’t share, and it’s not like anyone sane looks at contemporary poetry or art-house movies and gets on their D*MN SOAPBOX about how these forms should be “democratized” (into, what, more M*rvel s**t ?? FOH.)
No. 7 (“owning it signifies an elevated social position”) seems sort of bad, but not really: There are cases when a luxury good signifies unconscionable wealth so grotesquely that it seems to constitute its own moral crime (i.e. Jeff B*zos’s mega-yacht, which made headlines a few weeks ago for being so enormous that it might necessitate the dismantling of public infrastructure to reach the sea) but if you dream of living in a cool non-hierarchical society, mega-yacht-type jawns are just potent symbols of inequality, and the elimination of those symbols would leave the underlying machinery (and materially harmful effects) untouched.
The well-meaning would-be jawnz democratizer might reply that their beef is with the way all manner of popping, well-made jackets have become “luxury goods” by default, meaning they’re kept out of reach (or require a ruinous financial decision) for the vast majority of people, who are (in this scenario) therefore only able to wear un-beautiful jackets made poorly from un-beautiful fabrics.
(Set aside the fact that some non-negligible part of a luxury jawn’s appeal is precisely that it’s “out of reach,” and that it becomes less-desirable by definition when it’s readily available; and set aside the related importance of context: A molded-plastic chair sitting on a white plinth at DWR will likely look more enticing than that same chair stacked into a bin with dozens like it at IKEA.)
There’s a kindvibed old socialist slogan that intersects with this view, asserting the right to live a life that contains both “bread and roses” — the right of all ppl not only to enjoy material security, but also to enjoy “useless,” beautiful, joy-enhancing, soul-enriching things, whether it’s art or a public park or, O yes, a VERY FIRE JACKET… We naturally f**k with this view.
But if that’s what you believe, it’s gotta be deeply unsatisfying to you that the most exciting form “jawn democratization” seems able to take is mass-retail / high-fashion collabs that don’t actually “democratize” anything because they pose zero threat whatsoever to imbalanced social relationships… !
If yr answer to that boils down to, “True, that’s crazy, d*mn, but real talk I just think I should be able to hit up a Target / Gap / H&M type establishment, readily cop a jacket with a CFDA-award winner’s name on the tag, and pay a fraction of what their designs normally cost,” then congratulations, you can totally do that.
But is yr real concern with “democratization” then? OR are you essentially voicing a MAD BOURGEOIS consumer complaint that you know is BENEATH YOU, just because you wish you didn’t have to pay as much as you do for things you want — INSTEAD of thinking in a more critical and holistic way about what makes a nice shirt expensive and what makes a “cheap good” inexpensive in our RIGGED & BROKEN economy?
Since you are a Mach 3+ cool & thoughtful member of Spy Nation the above rhetorical question obviously doesn’t apply to you, but feel free to pass it along to any Mach -1 souls U encounter during yr travels ; )
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Adam Davidson did an excellent and tragic NPR story a decade ago about an NYC bespoke tailor who couldn't afford to make himself a suit, and refused to buy off the rack...
Great Sletter! I think the market is in a weird space at the moment where the middle has been progressively hollowed out and we're left with ever escalating-price luxury goods (with shoddier quality in a lot of cases) and hyper-fast fashion. A lot of the middle space where department stores sat that could produce a nice, well designed jacket at a price someone on an okay wage could afford has been hollowed out, and collabs like Jil Uniqlo and Uniqlo U or "premium" lines at Gap, Zara etc. sort of taking their place. Also small brands doing more direct and less wholesale means smaller minimums from factories and higher costs for consumers (which has nothing to do with the quality of the fabrics/make/design)