Fashion’s Second Wave of Democratization

Fashion’s Second Wave of Democratization

Kay Ean Leong explores how social media has enhanced the accessibility of the fashion world

When French novelist Émile Zola published Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883, he would hardly have envisaged the current landscape of luxury fashion. The novel, loosely inspired by the emergence of the world’s first department store, demonstrates how the institution radically transformed the industry by bringing together aspects of ready-to-wear fashion straight to the hands of eager shoppers. Furthermore, as shoppers from different social classes aspired to own the same things and were all-inclusively romanticized into a singular category of the ‘beautiful female consumer’, so began the first wave of fashion’s democratization.

Even so, the domain of luxury fashion was still largely dominated by the privileged. Exorbitant pricing discriminated –  only so few could own that coveted Hermes bag. Access to runways was invite-only, open exclusively to press and buyers. The masses still revered fashion pundits, turning to the glossy pages of Vogue for style advice. The state of fashion was perhaps much akin to the iconic Project Runway catchphrase: “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out” – Fashion held a palpable power to selectively include or exclude.

Yet that world today is dramatically different, in part thanks to the deluge of social media and technology. In a similar vein, the runway space that was once closed to fashion outsiders is now accessible to all.  All you need to do is click a few buttons, and you’re suddenly in amongst the action of the Gucci 2018 Spring/Summer show, livestreamed straight from Milan. Even better, you’re backstage watching the models get prepped. Thanks to the lnsta-stories of bloggers, you can be transposed to a formerly restricted world, all from the comfort of your bed.

The extent to which fashion has become democratized is most discernible in the figure of the fashion blogger or influencer. A good photographic eye, a unique sense of style and a shrewd knowledge of how to market yourself, that’s all it takes to be a fashion blogger, even if your educational background is vastly disparate. Take millennial fashion influencers such as Margaret Zhang and Zoe Suen, for instance. While both are law graduates, they have become veritable fashion icons: their career profiles include working with big name brands such as Chanel or Louis Vuitton. Likewise, the online presence of Italian blogger Chiara Ferragni has earned her enough credibility to start her own shoe brand (which is, in fact, stocked alongside specialist shoe designers like Giuseppe Zanotti). Last year, Ferragni even began an online retail business, in which online shoppers can ‘shop Chiara’s Instagram’. The authority of the venerable fashion editor as the key purveyor of trends is gradually receding as masses turn to these quasi-celebrities for aesthetic guidance. No longer is a design or journalism degree from Central Saint Martins or London College of Fashion the sole way of making it big.

Part of embracing the “fashion for all” attitude includes introducing to the the market a whole host of designer and high street collaborations. Just last month, we had the collaboration between Uniqlo and British designer J.W. Anderson. As November approaches, fashion enthusiasts look forward to the collaboration between H&M with Turkish-British designer Erdem Moralioglu. Brand-name designs can be had by all for just a fraction.

Fashion is no longer a domain reserved for the elite, due to social media and deliberate moves to democratize the industry. However, even in the ostentatious world of fashion, all that glitters is not gold.

The democratization of fashion has further exposed the industry as superficial and shallow. The intrusion of fashion bloggers into the industry’s most anticipated event, Fashion Month, has transformed it into a spectacle, much to the chagrin of seasoned insiders like fashion critic Suzy Menkes, who bitterly denounced the whole affair as a “circus”. The artistry of fashion has given way to the gilded glitz of the street style parade, a “survival of the gaudiest” of sorts.

In an era where Instagram promulgates the idea of Image as Power, fashion has also become factitiously political to stay relevant. Take, for instance, the £490 Dior t-shirts emblazoned with “We Should All Be Feminists”, or the fanfare of the Prabal Gurung Fall 2017 collection, in which a flock of influencers strutted down the streets of New York in t-shirts boldly embellished with lofty statements. While the industry possesses the power to effect change, these attempts appear more like a form of ‘passive activism’ through which politics is sold, a reductive act in which activism becomes a mere trend.

In addition, the speed at which the fashionable consumer processes information has accelerated. People want to own a new trend, and they want it now. Unsurprisingly, fast fashion retailers like Zara have capitalized on that. The nature of luxury fashion’s seasonal calendar, in which runway shows reflect what will sold 6 months later, is such that imitations can hit the stores way before the originals do. Thus, brands like Burberry have proposed the new “see now, buy now” model to outsmart copycats, in which styles are available for purchase right after the runway show.

Inevitably, such tactics will be matched by fast fashion, exacerbating the rapid and unsustainable speed in which fashion is already progressing. This unsustainable momentum not only edges out young designers who lack the resources and funding to compete, it saps and burns out even the most visionary of designers (see Belgian designer Raf Simon’s unexpected departure at Dior). More importantly, the ethical practices of fast fashion retailers come into question. How are the clothes produced so quickly? Are the materials ethically sourced? One shudders to think about the amount of industrial waste and modern slavery that might go behind closed doors.

Today, the concept for fashion for (almost) all may be de rigeur. I say ‘almost’ because the industry still systematically constrains the less-represented and reinforces the status quo. Despite calls for increased diversity in the industry, runways and campaigns are still mostly devoid of trans, plus-size and non-white models. Models are still being mistreated as testified by the recent controversy surrounding model Louise Parker and Balenciaga. A whole host of problems still looms large over the industry, most notably the widespread exploitation of sweatshop workers by fast fashion retailers. While the democratization of fashion has liberated the industry, inviting the masses in by breaking down previous barriers to entry, equity still constitutes a huge problem. How can fashion be liberated when the industry itself is complicit in engendering inequity? Just as gold ore requires multiple cycles of purification and refinement before it can sparkle, fashion similarly needs to reflect upon itself and move towards reform before it can be called truly democratic.

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