Imagine the scene.
In a pitch black European warehouse, hundreds hold their breath. Lights flick on. The crowd exhales. Above it all, obscure '90s electro pulses. Suddenly, all is silent except for that drum machine. The crowd inhales; camera shutters exhale. Between stifled giggles, you overhear:
“Are those Crocs?”
It’s London, June 2016, and Christopher Kane has thrown down the gauntlet. In a modern fashion scene fueled by the pedestrian given a platform, a different Kering-owned designer line has used the world’s footwear punchline to achieve nuclear kitsch. One year later, Kane x Crocs would still grab headlines in British Vogue. And then came Balenciaga. The second Kering-owned designer line to do just that. By walking a 10-inch tall platform Croc at this year’s Paris Fashion Week, Demna Gvasalia didn’t just achieve nuclear kitsch. In one moment of meme-bait, Balenciaga dunked Kane’s alley-oop.
Ever since Sunday’s show, “the Crocs” have seemingly generated their own gravity, riding a wave of provocation towards headlines on everything from the BBC to Spanish language digital culture blogs. Like Kane, few headlines contained praise. Unlike Kane, they came from everywhere. Untold dozens have been published as I write this.
Impressive; daunting; inspiring great apprehension. This tidal wave of press coverage is, in a Biblical sense, awesome. Another thing it happens to be is immensely frustrating.
While Messrs. both Kane and Gvasalia had created products meant to be ridiculed, with last Saturday’s Balenciaga show, a 20-year-old industry shift is finally running at peak. In the battle for eyeballs and social shares, meme bait – campy, ridiculous, 100 percent pure-cast irony — has won.
As a fan of things authentic and constructive, I’m genuinely disappointed. If we’ve learned anything from the current state of our world, it’s time to stop pretending this meme bait has value.
First things first, I don’t blame anyone at Kering for pushing towards what we see today. In many ways, it’s just good marketing. The emergence of zero barrier to entry digital media (aka, free blogs) around the year 2000 began the long-term dilution of the influence once carried by traditional print publications. Yes, it's still big to get into Vogue, but at the end of the day, those eyeballs are spread out. Even better, of all those now-spread eyeballs belonging to the vaunted 18-34 demographic, a 2015 Harvard poll found that only 12 percent trust the media. Full stop.
Getting the same effect as a pre-digital Vogue feature (trust! eyeballs!) then creates a brand-new mandate for quants and creatives alike: considering how much trust is placed in personal relationships, you need individual people to share what you make within their personal networks. Theoretically, a raft of personal shares solves both the “dilution” problem and the “authenticity” problem. It also, rather annoyingly, introduces some design incentives straight from a troll thread on a message board.
In general, people share something for one of three reasons: to entertain others, to build social capital, or to provide practical information. In a subjective field like fashion, those first two rule.
If you can crank out spectacles that a) entertain (reactions!) and b) in doing so, give those who self-identify as fashion people an opportunity to make themselves look better by reacting to it (clout!), there’s a good chance you’ll get the shares you’re looking for.
Unlike past designer provocateurs (Schiaparelli, McQueen, Takahashi, etc.), this latest trend towards making noise, not clothes (sorry Jun) has arguably subjugated the role of the product itself. Effective meme bait is not incepted from a trip abroad, nor is it even reverse-engineered to fill out a wholesale assortment. Instead, it is simply a desired reaction in physical form without anything constructive to claim as purpose – a means to an end, but also the end in itself.
In short: it’s bait.
Unfortunately, many of today’s most hyped-up fashion lines adopt more or less this same strategy.
Vetements (another Gvasalia project) superimposes ’90s Margiela tropes onto unfashionably chic brands, resulting in price tags that act as their own “what costs what?!?” headlines.
OFF-WHITE blatantly recycles zip ties and construction gear under the guise of an avant-garde consumerism, once literally telling its legions of fans that of “the point” of the line was “not to buy it.”
And then there’s Anti Social Social Club. We’ll leave it at that.
Taken in full, the digital-era incentive to design around social media shares has led brands to produce the fashion equivalents of a Breitbart headline: a final product reverse-engineered from its desired social media effect, and only then given physical form.
It’s all just so… tacky.
While I’ve been fortunate enough to watch most of this shift towards meme bait happen from a distance, Balenciaga x Crocs was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Aesthetic revulsion aside, what really bothered me was how on-the-nose both shoe and ensuing media circus all seemed. Challenging norms through agitation followed by purpose is one thing, but open design around a reaction with no “so what?” comes off to me as patronizing. Such a blatant play for social reactions (Outrage! Entertainment!) based around my generation’s expected behavior is no less belittling than a Pepsi protest ad.
But here’s what kills me the most.
A rock-solid defense to my point of view is the argument that anyone who agrees with my read on hype fashion as a click-driven camp fest simply doesn’t “get the culture.” Even more so, by reacting to this in public, I’m simply playing the hand I was meant to, adding another log to the fire whose flames I tried to put out. Before it gets too Bioshock ending, let’s kindly pump the brakes.
At the end of the day, fashion’s fickle (and therefore exciting) nature derives from the fact that the industry lives and dies on short-term hype. What sucks so much about a shift towards meme bait is that it encourages, for lack of better words, hype without foundations.
Why waste time building authenticity, when the marketing metrics you want are an IKEA meme away? In the same way that Twitter allowed Arab Spring protestors to quickly organize larger crowds but in the end created less sustainable social movements, the rapid scaling that social media allows is a double-edged sword.
There aren’t any overexposed pictures of waifish models eating pizza in Thom Browne that catalyzed his success – just really solid product that used the excitement generated around contrarianism as a means to building a universe, not just as a promotional ends in itself. In an age of designer Uggs and Pornhub collabs, fashion designed around virality is due for a cure.