Last week, Balenciaga, the storied French fashion house currently helmed by Demna Gvasalia of Vetements fame, dropped a comically oversized blue tote bag.
Almost immediately, the internet imploded because Balenciaga’s "Arena Extra-Large Shopper" is near-identical to IKEA’s 99-cent "FRAKTA" bag.
Why is the internet riled up? Balenciaga’s IKEA-inspired statement accessory carries a $2,145 price tag.
The now infamous "Balenciaga IKEA" tote has drawn coverage from outlets like CNN and it's spawned a flurry of scathingly sardonic news pieces, snarky headlines, and frothy-raged Twitter fits in 140 characters or less.
Of course, amidst the hysteria, the fashion press can always be counted on to sustain a sense of absolutism. Jake Woolf at GQ bluntly said, “everyone needs to calm down.” He’s not wrong, but what’s really fueling this media-perpetuated outrage, beyond the bag's price?
Is it because fashion has always trolled dominant culture to re-contextualize the most banal of everyday products, albeit with luxurious details?
Since taking the helm at Moschino in 2013, American designer Jeremy Scott has consistently sent out a brazen parade of kitsch pop-cultural paraphernalia at luxe prices. In 2013, Chanel’s itsy-bitsy Lego Clutch made its runway debut and retailed for a staggering $9,900.00 and unsurprisingly, it sold out.
Or does the Balenciaga bag hit the root of a deeper-set problem within the industry and its casual approach to appropriation?
Remember when fashion brands came under fire for peddling "migrant worker chic?" In 2007, Louis Vuitton was ridiculed for its replica of the “Chinatown bag” that’s regularly touted by local shoppers on Canal St in New York City.
It’s a plastic plaid bag that’s most closely associated with immigrants and it’s historically been a bag carried by the working class commuting during Chinese New Year.
Louis Vuitton isn't alone in its imitation of "Chinatown plaid," though. Both Céline and Stella McCartney created looks with a specific red, white, and blue tartan that appears on these large, shiny bags that cost about $3 in China.
These luxury European brands reworked and marked up a culturally ripe artifact but the controversy these brands stirred pales in comparison to that of Balenciaga.
Demna Gvasalia is simply not the first fashion designer at a big, buzzy house to take an emblem of popular culture and turn it into something achingly expensive. Designers have always peeled back the lo-fi layers of mass culture for inspiration. So does Gvasalia merit all this fanfare?
In order to cut through this media maelstrom, we’ve asked a circle of industry insiders what they really think about Balenciaga’s $2,000 tote bag.
Keep reading to see what buyers from SSENSE, Browns Fashion, and FarFetch as well as fashion editors from Dazed, Quartz, W, and SHOWstudio all have to say about Demna Gsavlia and his now prolific Balenciaga bag.
We even reached out to IKEA for comment, as well as ACNE, the agency behind IKEA’s new, hilarious ad made in response to Balenciaga.
Alix Rutsey, Menswear Buyer, SSENSE
“I think that sharing technologies, innovation, and design is amazing, whether high to low or low to high. IKEA is widely known for simple, functional design, and their 99-cent bag is no different. Most of us have tons of them stashed around our home. Taking such a functional piece and reinterpreting it through a luxury perspective makes perfect sense given Demna’s direction at Balenciaga.
Designers have forever pulled ideas from the world around them, whether we are immediately aware or not. The IKEA bag, however, is instantly recognizable, as it is a staple for so many of us. In this sense, it is disjointing to see it within the framework of the luxury designer world.”
Anastasiia Fedorova, Freelance Writer and Guest Chair of SHOWstudio Fashion Panels
“I think that the whole IKEA bag controversy is very much in line with Demna Gvasalia’s previous work and with his disputable stardom in the fashion world. He’s never covered up his irony, more like he’s been openly taking the piss by selling overpriced DHL T-shirts and enormous hoodies, and he even confessed in an interview that he himself would never pay the retail price for Vetements garments.
His jokes are so shameless that they actually expose the whole mechanism of fashion, its promises, and desires, which we are all part of–and hopefully it could make us think more before we throw away some more money on the new Raf Simons Adidas shoes, a Supreme T-shirt or anything else hyped.
I also think Gvasalia’s work will end up in fashion history books as a symbol of our times because he appropriates the mundane material artifacts of our era — actually his work is very much about the current political crisis, late-stage capitalism and the place where compulsive consumption has led our society. Enough to make you depressed — but thankfully he has a good sense of humor.“
Emma Hope Alwood, Fashion Features Editor, Dazed Digital
"When I saw Demna Gvasalia backstage after the last Vetements show (held during Paris Couture), he was wearing an IKEA T-shirt and talking to Anna Wintour. To me, it was a brilliant visual of where fashion is at in 2017: it’s a time when an upstart designer with a knack for reappropriation can infiltrate the highest echelons of the industry.
I think this has sparked controversy because the idea of a luxe IKEA bag is admittedly kind of ridiculous. But by that logic, so is Céline taking the print from laundry bags, or Jeremy Scott doing a whole McDonald's inspired Moschino collection – borrowing from the banal, or transforming the lowbrow into high fashion, is all well-trodden territory.
When this happens, people get uncomfortable because fashion is so intrinsically linked to profit and commerce: the Balenciaga Ikea bag has been made to be sold. At a time when people are struggling to make ends meet, we find it disconcerting that someone out there would spend $2000 on a bag that looks like an IKEA tote. But they will, and they’ll probably wear it with a DHL t-shirt that cost $300.
The art world, of course, is also driven by money, but it's less explicit about it and so we feel less uneasy with art as an industry, less critical of it. Like Warhol's soup cans and soap boxes, I think Gvasalia is commenting on the often absurd nature of consumerism through his work. In that way, I think you could argue that he’s the fashion world’s answer to Richard Prince: he borrows stuff, sells it for a lot of money, and ruffles a lot of feathers."
Sarah Leon, Digital Director, W Magazine
As a lifetime fan of IKEA bags, I’m glad that Balenciaga is drawing attention to their flawless design. Gvasalia has made a career out of playing with the relationship between mass and elite culture, and has in his own way elevated mass objects. I understand why it has become controversial, with the vast economic divide in this country, but fashion designers and artists regularly draw inspiration from such varied subjects as everyday objects and foreign cultures. There’s a fine line between inspiration and appropriation, and that’s up to the public to decide.
Ida Petersson, Non-Apparel Buying Manager, Browns Fashion
“Personally, I think design should challenge. I appreciate designers that look at things differently and in my opinion, there’s always room to be a little tongue-in-cheek. Fashion wouldn't be what it is today without designers like Martin Margiela and Rei Kawakubo and in my eyes, Demna is just one example of what this generation's disrupter looks like.
This is certainly not the first time a designer has looked low to find inspiration; Phoebe Philo has used laundry bag patterns on everything from sweaters to shoes and Marc Jacobs re-worked the laundry bag at Louis Vuitton just a few years ago.
“I could perhaps understand if the outrage surrounding Balenciaga’s Arena tote came from a copycat angle, but someone finding inspiration in everyday objects and re-contextualising them is what designers have been doing since the beginning of time. Yes, Balenciaga’s tote bag is more expensive than IKEA's 99 cents version, but so is a pair of Chanel espadrilles when compared to an original pair and no one is feigning outrage there.”
Marc Bain, Fashion Reporter, Quartz
“Fashion designers at this point have a long history of pulling ideas from downmarket and non-fashion items. Sometimes they just straight up recreate them. It's all part of looking to the street for inspiration, which is just part of how fashion works now, and there are examples all over.”
“Helmut Lang's bulletproof vests. The leather lunch bags Raf Simons did for Jil Sander. I actually made the argument that you could even look at designer denim as part of the same general process that leads to items like these. Jeans were originally created as a utilitarian item. They had become popular on their own before designers started making high-end versions, but they resulted from that process of looking to the street, finding a common item, and making a luxury version out of it.
I think the controversy stems from how closely Balenciaga's bag resembles IKEA's versus how far apart they are in price. People can understand a designer pulling inspiration from everyday items but reimagining them somehow. It's more provocative when a designer appears to be recreating an item.
You get into arguments about what the designer is really contributing (just look at art history in the 20th century). People are also really familiar with the IKEA bags, so it's not like a rare item, to begin with. Add to that the price tag on the Balenciaga bag, compared to the 99 cents it costs for the IKEA bags, and people start to question whether the bag merits the price premium over the widely available source material. That question has to be answered by the customer, of course.”
Candice Fragis, Buying and Merchandising Director, FarFetch
"It's true to form for Demna. His branded 'iconography,' for both Vetements and Balenciaga, are mostly ironic and based on the mundane; these items are essentially a brilliant marketing tool that is born out of the philosophy ‘all press is good press'. The bag looks like a knock off of a cheap high street holdall but has been handmade in Italy using the best leathers, no doubt. So, really the execution and quality of production override the inspiration.
Just as he did with the DHL T-shirt he did for Vetements, IKEA an instantly recognizable brand that has nothing to do with luxury fashion so it reaches an audience, much wider than those in the industry or coveting 'new luxury.'"
IKEA’s Hilarious Response to Balenciaga
Ok, so now you know what industry impresarios think about Demna Gvasalia’s polarizing accessory, what about IKEA – the original innovators behind the FRAKTA tote? They can’t be too surprised, can they? After all, the Swedish flat-pack giant recently teamed up with Paris-based concept store Collette to rework its iconic FRAKTA bag.
Stella Monteiro, Sales Leader, UK & Ireland at IKEA tells Highsnobiety, “We are extremely flattered to seemingly be an inspiration for the latest catwalk designs for Balenciaga. Our IKEA FRAKTA tote is one of our most iconic products which are already owned and loved by millions – now the many people truly can get the designer look for less.”
It’s safe to say IKEA isn’t worried about losing sales to Balenciaga. If anything, IKEA is enjoying a momentous run of free PR, and it has even capitalized on the moment by putting out a new ad with Swedish agency ACNE. The tongue-in-cheek ad teaches consumers how to identify an original FRAKTA bag.
We asked Johan Holmgren, the lead creative at ACNE about his motivations for creating IKEA’s latest ad. “We saw it as an opportunity as a creative agency to help IKEA be a part of an interesting discussion. And to be able to be a part of that discussion we needed to act fast. So, I called Morten Kjaer, Creative Director on IKEA Creative Hub, and he loved the idea,” he tells Highsnobiety.
“What’s interesting with the Balenciaga bag coming out is that the design is very familiar to people, and you start to question what design, functionality, style, quality, the price, and what its worth. I think that now people will see the IKEA ‘FRAKTA’ in a different way and I feel that it actually gives you even more for the affordable price. I already feel more fashionable when I do my laundry,” Johan continues.
There's no doubt that Balenciaga’s disruptive accessory is a stroke of marketing genius, but what do you think about Balenciaga's $2,145 big, blue tote? Let us know in the comments below.
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