The Fashion Industry is Exclusive, Should We Expect its Coverage to Be Any Different?

Fashion is an inherently exclusive, uppity industry, one whose leading participants stage $500,000+ runway shows twice a year in order to sell $3,000+ handbags and dresses with price tags that are even more expensive to a small(ish) segment of the population. With this in mind, it should probably not be surprising that coverage of it tends to reflect that, explicitly or otherwise. This is something that at least some have argued is being demonstrated in connection with coverage of the death of American designer and businesswoman Kate Spade.

In a thread started by Farai Chideya on Twitter, where no shortage of vital discussions that tend to escape publication by mainstream outlets thrive, the New York-based journalist and recent Harvard Media fellow has a point to make about some of the reporting on Ms. Spade’s death (and to be honest, a lot of reporting generally): It is exclusionary.

Citing a New York Times article, entitled, “It Was the ’90s. And Kate Spade’s Bag Was It,” which was published shortly after the 55-year old designer’s death this week, Ms. Chideya points to three quotes. The first comes by way of the paper’s page-A1 headline, “Buying a Kate Spade bag was a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of Americans."

Another highlighted excerpt comes from the article’s author, Sarah Maslin Nir, which reads: "Good girls got [Kate Spade bags] for their bat mitzvahs; the bad girls swiped them." Finally, a comment from longtime Vogue editor-in-chief and Condè Nast artistic director, Anna Wintour, reflecting on Spade, who was born Katherine Noel Brosnahan in Kansas City, Missouri, reads: "There was a moment when you couldn't walk a block in New York without seeing one of her bags."

To this larger narrative, which she says contains some serious “class-based assumptions,” Ms. Chideya offers a counter quote of her own, “I walked many blocks in New York over the past 25 years where I didn't see [Skate Spade] bags because the people on those blocks couldn't afford them or, if they had the money, would make completely different consumer choices.”

I think it might be difficult to frame the success of Ms. Spade and her brand in a context that is not based, at least in part, on its relationship to upper-middle class consumers, since, really those are the individuals who were the most frequent patrons of this brand. But still, it seems appropriate to use this as an opportunity to reflect on how the insider-y and oft-elitist tone that has long dominated fashion translates into the media and how it impacts the equity of such writing.

This is what Ms. Chideya is addressing, after all.

Yes, Kate Spade’s bags – which fall neatly into (and in many ways helped to kick-start) the massive market category of “accessible luxury” with its $100 to $400 bags, ones that are relatively inexpensive offerings if compared to the thousands-of-dollars bags being offered by Chanel, Hermes, and Goyard – “took over the world” in the 90's, as a recent New York Post article put it. However, is that "world" reflective of ... the real world, or is it merely referencing the small percentage of people that are fortunate enough to be consumers of certain types of fashion?

These are questions we should be asking in order to avoid, or at least address, the dangerous trap into which we, as fashion industry participants (or individuals in whatever your industry of choice/occupation may be), fall. The echo-chamber that is any industry, including, of course, fashion, tends to be strong and indoctrinating at times for even the most well-meaning among us, and the result is that we end up writing things that fail to take into account any number of varying perspectives. And that, per Ms. Chideya, is simply not what mainstream media should be about.