There is a common element in a lot of the street style photos over the past couple of seasons or so: Vetements. The Paris-based brand, which was launched in 2014 by brothers Demna and Guram Gvasalia and friends, is undeniably the “it” brand at the moment amongst industry insiders (or wannabe insiders or “fashion victims” as fashion blogger, BryanBoy aptly coined them recently) with $1000 to spend on a sweatshirt. The sweatshirts that say Thrasher on them are Vetements. The yellow DHL-logoed t-shirts are Vetements. The poncho-like rain jackets that say Vetements on the back of them are obviously Vetements, as well.
Maybe more interesting than the rapid proliferation of Vetements fans (read: fashion victims) is what these $1000+ sweatshirts (which are made of 80% cotton, 20% polyester) and $330+ DHL t-shirts stand for. As we all know, fashion is in a weird, unstable place at the moment. The future of the fashion calendar is up in the air. Sales growth is low. Consumer fatigue is growing, and widespread economic woes certainly do not help.
With this in mind, we have seen an array of attempts by brands to weather the storm. Speeding up the runway-to-retail timeline and making collections shoppable instantaneously is one way brands are coping. Playing on consumers’ desires to own “it” items – a longstanding principle in luxury fashion – is another. And this is where Vetements plays a role (in addition to falling in the former camp, as the brand recently announced that it is changing up its own runway show schedule).
Status matters to consumers. It is the reason fashion houses can charge $2000 for a basic nylon or laminated canvas bag that is covered in logos or $100+ for a licensed fragrance. Sure, Vetements does not sell bags or fragrances but it does fit neatly into this same notion, nonetheless, as its garments have risen to industry “it” items. And its founders appear to understand what drives luxury shopping to an extent: "In order to make people want something, you need to make scarcity. The real definition of luxury is something that is scarce. Every single piece in our collection is going to be a limited item ... We don't restock and we don't reproduce -- if it's sold out, it's sold out,” the brothers recently noted.
As Vogue’s Sarah Mower wrote of the brand last October, “Demna Gvasalia himself learned the ropes at Maison Martin Margiela, before setting up Vetements and getting on with proving that there can be a different way of doing things.”
Yet, if we consider the aforementioned notion, Vetements is not actually doing anything completely revolutionary. At its core, the brand is tapping into fashion fans’ desires to show that they are worthy, that they are in the know, that they have something exclusive, that they are cool. And maybe above all, that they are part of something.
These individuals are essentially taking the coveted “it” bag of the season and wearing it as a sweatshirt. In this way, the Vetements’ method (at least when it comes to the brand’s most coveted items) and the resulting fan fury over those garments is not anything new.
The statement sweatshirt is not coming completely out of left field. In some circles, statements sweatshirts or t-shirts rival the “it” bag. Ask Supreme die-hards. Or look at the Givenchy fans, who were walking around in Rottweiler sweatshirts not too long ago. (Note: such garments really helped Givenchy, which was for many, many decades known primarily for couture, make its mark in the ready-to-wear market and to up profits and visibility).
With this in mind, it is not surprising that we see the offering for sale of Thrasher sweatshirts for $1,000 by Vetements and more importantly, it is not surprising to see people actually buying them. And let’s be clear: we are not talking about die-hard skateboarders here - they probably already own the official Thrasher Magazine tee that predates the Vetements one. No, we are talking primarily about fashion girls and Kanye West clones, who are happy to spend $1k on a trendy sweatshirt that will send a message to their friends and to other fashion insiders/fans.
These are likely the same people that were “die-hard” fans of Russian streetwear designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy, a year or two ago – praising him and lauding his awesome casting and edgy garments and crazy innovative (yet niche) vision, etc., while posing for street style photos. They’re the same ones that rallied hard behind Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent by – like Kanye – adopting the $750+ skinny jeans with the ripped knees and pairing them with the brand’s Chelsea boots – the ones that have completely saturated the market.
But Gosha is out now – old news in comparison to Vetements – because it’s too mainstream (and if we are being honest, Gosha could only ever be called “mainstream” if we consider high fashion fans in isolation, otherwise no one really has a clue what a Gosha Rubchinskiy even is). In Gosha’s place, Vetements has neatly found a home with this special group of fashion fans.
So, what happened to Gosha, you may be wondering. Well, he’s still around. The more important question is, though: what happened to his self-proclaimed “die-hard” fans, who not too long ago were parading around in Gosha’s Russian writing logo tees? Well, they’ve moved on because this is the state of fashion. It moves quickly and as a result, it lacks depth. There’s simply no time for that, the rapidity of the current fashion model simply won’t allow it. And designers are not the only ones who are feeling the pace.
I’ll spare you the bit about the sped up fashion cycle because by now I am sure you have read at least 12 articles dissecting the rapidity of the current fashion model. There is one very interesting aspect to the recurring discussion about the sped-up nature of fashion, however: The argument that the speed of it all has left designers with less time to be as creative as they’d like and the result is fashion that lacks depth (Raf Simons, for instance, has sounded off on this exact point.
"There is no more thinking time," he said this past fall). But not just limited to designers, the cycle has created a larger feeling that fashion is simply more superficial. It's not personal. It's just business. And in many cases, it really does go both ways.
In theory, this should not be a problem, as the majority of consumers (and of course, there are exceptions!) are not necessarily interested in fashion in anything more than a purely superficial way. Most are not buying based on cut or construction or a deep love or appreciation for the brand – this is true even for high fashion shoppers. They are buying into a brand’s image at the present moment, buying based on what makes them look good - both in a physical way but probably more significantly, in a status type of way.
As such, many consumers are not buying based on factors like quality. They are buying to keep up with appearances, to show that they are part of a community of consumers. They are buying to cement themselves into the zeitgeist. This is not a novel concept. The brands and their offerings (and in some cases, the audiences to which they are catering) are just different.
Buying – regardless of the product or its price point – is one of the easiest ways to gain status or exhibit tribesmanship. It does not require learning or accomplishing anything. It allows the buyer to be part of something cool (and show others that they are part of it) without expending anything more than money.
And that is convenient because in the current landscape of things, which can be probably be aptly categorized by the fact that most people don’t want to read anything longer than a text, ease reigns supreme.
So, why wouldn’t that tide over into the fashion industry? It is, after all, one of the most immediate reflections of the time in which we are living.
In short: Shoppers now – not terribly unlike shoppers in the past – aim to maintain the appearance of some type of status, to present themselves as being part of a community of like-minded consumers. A branded sweatshirt or specific pair of “it” sneakers will give them that for a few seasons.
THE UPSIDE OF ALL OF THIS
What does this say about the state of the fashion industry at the moment? A number of things.
One thing we can say with much certainty is that it does not really speak of the designs themselves in any depth at all. It is not about the clothes. It is the spectacle. It is about that Instagramable moment. It is not about design. That $330 Vetements DHL t-shirt is not the peak of innovation in terms of design (no, it is more like expensive fast fashion. Trend driven, season specific and of questionable quality). But it doesn't have to be because that’s just not where we - collectively - are right now. That’s not where the focus is. An intense focus on design is not what sells clothes.
Right now, it seems to be more about the brands and who is wearing them: Kanye, Rihanna and street style stars in the case of Vetements and the Kardashian/Jenners if we are talking about Balmain. This is what sells. It is less about the garments themselves and their intrinsic value (which may be measured by their design or their materials, etc.) and more about how people can use these garments to display how in the know they really are.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this movement may end up boding very well for fashion brands like Vetements, as consumers are willing to spend a lot for garments they will likely tire of in the very near future and move on and spend similarly large amounts on new “it” garments. In this way, Vetements is little more than a fast fashion brand charging exorbitant prices at retail.
Such cyclicality, such seasonality and such frequent consumption and turnover, is what the industry thrives on - at both ends of the spectrum (from luxury house to fast fashion brands). It is what drives consumers to shop, and fashion - at least from a business perspective - depends on the sale of clothing.
But as I mentioned, this is nothing new. We’ve been doing this exact same thing with “it” bags for ages now; schilling out designs that are oftentimes more about branding and logos (and the message that they will send for the individuals who buy them) than about the designs themselves. The longevity of such bags just tends to be quite a bit longer, their inherent value quite a bit more significant, and thus, their prices a little bit less shocking, which is likely why Birkin bag carriers do not get labeled fashion victims and Vetements fans do.
*This article was initially published in March 2016.