Alessandro Michele’s Gucci Cruise 2018 collection was a roaring success in terms of publicity. Forget the criticism that followed, forget the questionable ethics of appropriating the work of Dapper Dan (a designer that Gucci, among others, effectively put out of business in 1992), because the second that side-by-side picture comparing the two began to spread on Instagram and Twitter, Michele had achieved what he set out to do.
While the bohemian-baroque aesthetic the Roman-born designer has forged at Gucci is certainly one which feels unique to the Italian fashion house, the formula is the same as many of its peers.
It now seems that any collection worth mentioning has at least one ‘it’ item – something designed to be shared, discussed, dissected and, eventually, memed across the internet.
This is something that Demna Gvasalia has clearly mastered and arguably pioneered. The Georgian’s FW17 collection for Balenciaga included a devilishly ironic hoodie emblazoned with the name of the brand’s luxury conglomerate owners, Kering, as well as a bomber jacket with an interpretation of the campaign logo of U.S. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. At his own label, Gvasalia has also shown a flair for outrageous, divisive and meme-able wares, such as the infamous DHL logo T-shirt and a Snoop Dogg tee that retailed for more than $900.
Louis Vuitton’s logo-heavy collaboration with Supreme, unveiled earlier this year, was another instance of this approach to design, where shock value and irony intersect to create products that guarantee column inches and Instagram comments.
In a fashion world that is increasingly overcrowded, it would seem that dominating the conversation has usurped subtlety and nuance in a scramble for people’s attention.
Gucci went one step further in embracing this idea when it tapped a host of meme artists for its #TFW timepiece campaign earlier this year – naturally, the novelty of it meant that the memes received more attention than a conventional watch ad ever would.
Of course, fashion shows, where nearly all of these aforementioned products and collaborations have been unleashed, have always essentially been an exercise in marketing and brand positioning. It would, however, seem that advances in technology – not to mention an ever-expanding fashion week calendar – has meant that brands seek to make the very most of these opportunities.
In a sense, this new mode of design-cum-marketing echoes shifts in other creative fields. Last year, Drake’s "Hotline Bling" video was noticeable for the way that it was deliberately crafted to spawn memes, internet derision and ultimately garner attention. There is perhaps no artist in the music industry who better understands the power of the internet as a marketing tool than the Canadian artist, and he has used it to his advantage at almost every opportunity. (The previous year, Drake effectively won a rap beef with Meek Mill, not by rapping better but by memeing better). Similarly, the choreography for Beyonce’s 2016 visual album Lemonade was noteworthy for how GIF-ready many of its scenes were. The GIFs did, of course, follow.
Back in the world of fashion, the pervasive attitude has even begun to seep into the work of the industry’s old guard. It was telling that Raf Simons – a decidedly anti-celebrity designer with no Instagram account – spent his first months at the helm of Calvin Klein creating content rather than clothes. Before we had even seen a single collection from the Belgian, the brand had released three campaigns – and there has been little let up since, tapping the likes of Gosha Rubchinskiy collaborator Julian Klincewicz and Berlin slomo artist Curses, as well as the cast of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight.
In a recent supplement by System magazine dedicated to these campaigns, Simons and his right-hand Pieter Mulier spoke of the importance of using this content to give “a strong, specific direction” to the company, in the same way Mr Klein had. And while Simons may have stopped short of the head-turning designs that Gvasalia and Michele are increasingly fond of, the attitude was the same: the branding is as important as the clothes. For anyone who has followed Simons’ career, such a stance may have seemed incongruous – but he is as much a pragmatist as he is a purist, and this move only served to reflect the current zeitgeist.
This current state of affairs has undoubtedly been precipitated by the explosion in digital fashion coverage over the past five years, as well as social media. It was remarked upon by David Fischer, founder of Highsnobiety, in a recent 032c article which explored fashion content in the digital age. “I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a good thing, but everything a brand does today is about asking: “Is it bloggable? Is it shareable? If we launch this on the market, will people share this with their friends on Facebook and Instagram?”
All of which poses somewhat of a threat to the way in which we have typically consumed fashion. Just like e-commerce has removed the need to actually go into a store in order to purchase or try on clothes, this new mode of design removed the need to even buy the clothes at all. You view, you repost, you move on. Ever since Helmut Lang pioneered the idea of putting collections on the internet in 1998, we have been able to view fashion online – the subtle but vital difference here is that fashion is now being designed with the sole purpose of being viewed online. To reduce creative directors to simple meme-makers is, of course, reductive, but the practice is not dissimilar.
The problem with memes, or anything else creative solely for internet consumption, however, is their own hyper-ephemerality. And for an industry that still operates on a seasonal basis, it does raise the question of whether this method of shock-jock design is sustainable. Already Balenciaga’s Bernie Sanders jacket – which is still to be released – seems like a stale joke. Six months down the line, it is likely that many similar designs will age poorly.
When (or if?) Gucci’s Dapper Dan knock-off eventually does appear in stores, it’ll be just as impactful as someone still replying with “cash me ousside, how 'bout that?”
For more on memes, find out how much money you can make off making them for a living.