Battle for survival vs consumerism: no one can deny that these opposite poles have always been the source of issues all over the world. The economic theory according to which one buys and consumes in an endless cycle has brought a revolution in the lives of most of us, even for those who are against it. We’re not even aware of dealing with the culture of consumption, since we were born with it, but stopping for a moment and thinking about it can be an eye-opening act. Artists have often harshly criticized consumerism (think of Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can series or of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, for example), though perfectly aware of being part of the same mechanism they are criticizing. Mainstream fashion has never dared to use it as a theme: its central role in consumerism has served as a deterrent, because criticizing consumerism would mean criticizing fashion itself. The deceptive concept that fashion is democratic has been incredibly boosted consumerism: you may not be among the happy few who can wear haute couture, but designer bags, shoes or accessories seem more and more attainable. Fashion has turned desires into needs, thus making one of the main elements of capitalism real and tangible.
Expecting a criticism to fashion from fashion is as unrealistic as expecting approval of abortion from the Catholic Church: it simply can never happen, because this is not its role, but it’s interesting to see how these themes can influence fashion. These were my thoughts when I saw pictures from Chanel fall/winter 2014 fashion show, which took place this morning in Paris. The set design was an incredible Chanel-version of a supermarket, where each and every item on the shelves was customized.
The concept may be intriguing, but the execution was genius. The detail with which everything was planned and arranged is breath-taking. In such a setting, models walked as if they were customers, carrying carts and lining up at the check-out counters, once done with their shopping.
Was this a hymn to mass-consumption or a criticism? I think it was the former (I can’t see Karl Lagerfeld as a champion of anti-consumerism), with a touch of the latter thrown in. Building a supermarket as the setting for a fashion show emphasizes the main goal of mainstream fashion (people must buy), but at the same time highlights what fashion has turned into – a luxury supermarket, fast shopping and fast consumption, because new needs must be created.
The obsessive attention to details contributed in casting a shadow of verisimilitude: for example, the iconic quilted bags were put on styrofoam trays and wrapped in plastic, as if they were fruit or vegetables, while others were carried in a chain-and-leather embellished hand baskets. This is the evolution of what Marc Jacobs did in 2007, when he sent a luxury version of plastic woven shopping bags on the catwalk, thus demonstrating how it is possible to take a mundane object and turn it into an object of desire: capitalism at its best.
At the same time, the setting and the theme of the show reminded me of the “born to shop” culture shown by U2 in the impressive set design of their PopMart Tour, which took place from 1997 to 1998.
The band poked fun at their rock star personas, at the pop culture they were (and are) part of and at consumerism, having a gigantic stage as backdrop. The idea came from Willie Williams, the genius behind many U2 stage designs: one of his preparatory projects resembled a supermarket, inspired by American suburban outlet stores. The fantasy “entertainment park” and the consumerism theme merged into an impressive result. The stage was backed by 36 screens projecting and amplifying videos; my favourite is the one above, where the evolution of an ape into a human being pushing a shopping cart is hilarious and so very true.
The yellow arch dominating the stage was present in the cd booklet, too: it was a reference to a consumerism symbol known world-wide, the McDonalds Golden Arches. U2 obviously didn’t use the exact logo to prevent possible legal problems, but the single golden arch was automatically a reminder of the biggest fast-food restaurant chain of the world. The same logo served as source of reference to Jeremy Scott, who showed his first Moschino collection just a few days ago.
Far from being a criticism to fashion consumerism, the whole collection was an audience-pleaser: symbols which are synonims of mass-consumption have been turned into decorations on clothes inspired to classic pieces by other designers (Chanel, anyone?). Is it the triumph of junk-food fashion, meaning clothes and accessories whose first, only and apparent goal is being sold?
Funny accessories which will soon appear on fashion bloggers and magazine editorials – a Happy Meal-shaped chain-strap bag, a French fry iPhone cover, a French fry box-shaped chain-strap bag. I see them as a mere divertissement, which kind of wipes away the spirit of the Italian maison’s founder, unparalleled example of designer who took fashion’s symbols (Chanel’s, too) and turned them upside down.
Are these examples of fashion finally starting to criticize itself? I don’t think so. It’s rather the same old game of smoke and mirrors, where we are tempted to believe in something which doesn’t exist. After all, isn’t it the main reason why fashion is fascinating? You want to believe there’s more in it – a message, maybe, or a certain symbolism – when the truth is that it rarely means more than what you see.