In this monthly column by Eugene Rabkin, the founder of StyleZeitgeist shares his opinions, observations, and insights about the world of fashion. For this installment, Eugene explains why bad taste could be a symptom of late capitalism.
In recent years we have seen the rise of a certain type of a fashion designer who traffics in the ostentatious, cringe-worthy, and yet commercially successful fashion that used to be the stuff of jokes about the nouveau riche. The designers run the gamut from streetwear-inspired to high-end. Some examples - Heron Preston, Mike Amiri, Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, Henri Alexander of Enfants Riches Deprimes, and Francesco Ragazzi of Palm Angels. Higher up, Philipp Plein. Yet higher, Balmain.
These are not the camp greats like Gianni Versace and Franco Moschino, who used to make loud clothes with a self-conscious wink that gave irony a place in fashion. I am not talking about “it’s so bad, it’s good.” I am talking about it’s so bad, it’s bad. The stuff they churn out ranges from vulgar (in both look and price) - overly distressed Amiri jeans ($1,050) and Fear of God track pants ($995) - to offensive - a $7,000 cashmere noose by Enfants Riche Deprimes, or the sweater that says “COLUMBINE” by the same label.
What unites these “designers” - many of them have no fashion design education whatsoever - is that they churn out the stale archetypes of menswear—hoodies, tees, jeans, bomber jackets and so on. Designers like Amiri and Lorenzo take these and add a bit of distressing here, some embellishment there, and a whole lot of graphics everywhere. (Their womenswear equivalent is something like those embellished Balmain bodycon dresses that belong in Las Vegas.)
Some of these designers have found success because they are affiliated with the right celebrity—others because they come from money. But what has allowed them to prosper is the changing of the fashion milieu itself—mostly the rise of the indiscriminate consumer with significant spending power, the ease of communication and manipulation that comes with Instagram and other methods of direct influence, and the permeating sense of status anxiety that has now been firmly chained to consumerism.
These symptoms belong to the contemporary stage of late capitalism, with its emphasis on image and message in lieu of anything palpable, which in turn has created a kind of ersatz world we now find ourselves in, where people consume things not for themselves but for their Instagram feeds. It is a world where bad taste has been pushed to the level of the absurd, where the rich spend indiscriminately without any regard for context, whether social or political. It’s the world where Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci can send a hoodie down the runway with drawstrings made into a noose-like knot.
This phenomenon is not new and has been building for a while. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard laid it all out in his now seminal 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation, in which he posited that we are increasingly living in the world of the “hyperreal”—where simulation becomes more significant than reality.
“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning,” Baudrillard wrote. Translation, for our purposes - in the fashion universe the erasure of meaning - what it means to be a fashion designer, what it means to call a garment “designed,” the very definition of what fashion is - has now been complete.
Today, anyone can design, because design itself is done behind closed doors in remote places we have no idea about. What we see is an image of design—a collection on the catwalk and then a person taking a bow at the end of a show, taking all the credit for it. This also isn’t new, but the difference is that since today's fashion has become cool, glam, and highly profitable - it has attracted a slew of non-designers and the newly minted cohort of the rich and seemingly insatiable customer. Enter the men above.
These men now occupy a niche formerly reserved for rich housewives. For example, you probably don’t remember a line called Phi, from Michael Dell’s wife, Susan—complete with a NYFW show and a SoHo flagship store. But while Phi was actually designed (Dell hired Andreas Melbostad, the protege of Alber Elbaz, to be the label’s creative director), in today’s version of the hyperreal, design is besides the point. As a matter of fact, you probably want as little design as possible to satisfy the demand of the newly minted fashion consumer class who is not really interested in design at all. All you need to do to attract such a consumer is take this stuff and dress it up with a Paris catwalk show and create an illusion of scarcity.
One common string of contemporary mythology posits that the millennial consumer is more informed and less susceptible to advertising than that of previous generations. I beg to differ. If anything, today’s fashion consumer is more susceptible to influence than ever. More than ever what he is interested in is the right image, the right brand, the right Instagram selfie. He wants to stand out and fit in at the same time. He wants to be cool and socially accepted at the same time. He wants to be an individual who is a part of the mass. In fashion terms this amounts to the right hoodie, the right pair of jeans, the right T-shirt.
And that’s where bad taste often comes in - it’s a product of late capitalism, which has spawned an ostentatious consumer class with too much money and too little taste, easily swayed by the hyperreal world of Instagram influence, whether in the form of a rapper or a sports star, or my favorite product of late capitalism - those influencers without any particular talent, who are simply famous for being famous. As a matter of fact, the very term “influencer” should tell you everything you need to know.
The archetype, the role model of this mass fashion consumer is the footballer.
He is the most emblematic customer for those distressed Amiri jeans and studded Philip Plein hoodies. Landry Thomas, a personal shopper and image consultant to players like Tiémoué Bakayoko, who plays for AC Milan and the French national team, is too familiar with this phenomenon.
“Regrettably, most players, those without much knowledge about fashion turn to these brands, whether because they have a strong presence in the market (Balmain, Givenchy), or because they are targeted by the brands directly (Philipp Plein). But a lot of information circulates in the locker room, the effect of community is a big factor,” says Thomas. In other words, once you sold to Messi or Pogba, you sold to all of them. And once you sold to them, you sold to their millions of fans. Thomas adds that part of his professional duty is to steer his clients away from the brands mentioned above.
It’s no coincidence that Plein, the king of bad taste, has been at it for 20 years, but has only become (in)famous in the past 10 or so, coinciding with the rapid rise in luxury mass consumption. And while Plein has remained largely on the outside, the others have firmly infiltrated the fashion and retail establishment. Amiri is now one of the best-selling brands at Barneys. It has just debuted at Paris Fashion Week. The Vogue correspondent who reviewed the show wrote, “Say what you will of originality (partially objective) and taste (wholly subjective), Amiri’s collections result from good intentions and close-to-home grit.”
Ok, then. If Vogue is so clearly dismissive of originality and taste, then hyperreality has won, and we end up with Baudrillard’s world of simulacra and simulation, where homogeneity and bad taste rule while true creation and originality is pushed to the margins. It’s not the world I want to live in. Do you?