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image: Balenciaga
image: Balenciaga

On the heels of the Spring/Summer 2018 shows, Highsnobiety’s Alex Rakestraw took on one of the buzziest of the month’s accessories: The shoes borne from a collaboration between Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga and Crocs. In an article, entitled, “Let’s Stop Pretending Balenciaga’s Meme-Bait Is Cool,” Mr. Rakestraw, in one fell swoop, takes on fashion and its “battle for eyeballs and social shares” and the “tacky” result.

A couple of lines from Rakestraw’s article are particularly striking: He writes, “If we’ve learned anything from the current state of our world, it’s time to stop pretending this meme bait has value.” He goes on, “Taken in full, the digital-era incentive to design around social media shares has led brands to produce the fashion equivalents of a Breitbart headline: a final product reverse-engineered from its desired social media effect, and only then given physical form.”

Something to Talk About?

At least one glaring question arises from this epic display of what Rakestraw calls “meme bait – campy, ridiculous, 100 percent pure-cast irony,” “hype without foundations,”  “a blatant play for social reactions,” and a “trend towards making noise, not clothes” that is being taken up by “many of today’s most hyped-up fashion lines.” Why is this new(ish) trend in fashion (and I say new(ish) because it has been in the making for quite some time) not a larger part of the industry’s critical conversation?

It is worth noting, after all, that these clickbait-creating, social media frenzy-seeking fashion design entities are not acting alone. The fashion media – or most of it, at least – is arguably right there enabling this development and the purveyors of what Rakestraw calls “fashion designed around virality,” but not calling foul (or at least putting forth thought-provoking takes) on such outings. 

This is not lost on everyone. Of Rakestraw’s piece, Eugene Rabkin, the Editor in Chief & Creative Director of StyleZeitgeist, stated: “One of the most thoughtful pieces on Balenciaga and contemporary fashion in general comes from Highsnobiety. That’s right, not the [New York] Times’ Style section, not Cathy Horyn, not Vogue (duh), not Dazed or i-D, but Highsnobiety.”

So, why, is it, you ask, that the fashion industry continues to allow such frivolity-posing-as-fashion to live another day without so much as a passing comment (save for Raketraw’s missive, of course)? Well, it is likely a combination of a number of factors. One of them is that in 2017, when the state of publishing is very much on shaky ground, publications are downright scared to rock the boat that carries their precious advertisers.

It is not unlike Nicole Phelps, the director of Vogue Runway, told Vestoj a few years ago: “We know that if we write a really bad review about an advertiser we’re going to get a phone call. It’s just a fact of life.” This is something of fashion’s best kept secret … that is becoming not so secret at all. [Do note: I am not sure we can say that Vogue Runway – or very many publications at all pen “really bad” or even overly scathing reviews anymore for fear of alienating advertisers.]

Advertisers are given special treatment, whether it be in terms of the placement of their garments in magazines (“The June cover with Alexa Chung in a stupid Michael Kors T-shirt is crap. He’s a big advertiser so I knew why I had to do it.”) and also in terms of actual coverage (remember when Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana threatened to pull tens of millions in advertising from Condé Nast if Vanity Fair published a feature on their tax woes?).

Compromised Content

The result of the modern-day advertiser/publication relationship is that content is compromised and collection reviews are more often to the tune of fluff-pieces than critical writing. They are heavy on detail (the set, the scene, the music, the designer’s inspiration) and light on anything terribly harsh.

If that is not enough, there is a very good chance that fashion industry figures – whether it be a designer responsible for turning out garments or a writer tasked with writing reviews/collection coverage (again, reviews are largely dead save for a few noteworthy exceptions, mostly from newspaper critics) – do not have the luxury of giving collections a whole lot of time. Just as creatives have lamented the sped-up schedule and with it, a drop in their ability to be truly creative, the same can be argued of almost everyone in the ecosystem of the industry.

Even if an individual is not designing collections and thus, under the deadline of the seasonal fashion show calendar, the immediacy of the internet and social media, as well as the incessant race for breaking news and the drive to meet ever-growing traffic goals, has shifted the paradigm and brought with it a whole new set of downsides. Lack of depth is one. Inaccuracy is another

Still yet, maybe there is just too little click-able value to be derived from lengthy and/or overly reflective takes on anything. This is something that Mr. Rakestraw touches upon, in positing: “Why waste time building authenticity, when the marketing metrics you want are an IKEA meme away?”

Finally, and maybe most striking, is that fashion largely lacks a regular or consistent conversation that involves constructive criticism (it is seemingly too scary or damning or threatening or personal to those operating within the industry in 2017) – and that void is obvious on a number of fronts, not least of which is a lack of compelling design from the likes of Balenciaga. 

But there are more signs pointing to this void: Many designers, for instance, have fought against criticism, being overt in stating that they do not care about criticism. Balmain’s creative director Olivier Rousteing, for instance, said in 2016, speaking specifically about critics: “I don’t care. You can dislike my show.” And he is not alone. In the past, while creatives may have taken a critic’s review to heart, using it to improve, to fine-tune design kinks or shortcomings, nowadays, no shortage have taken to banning critics that write negative reviews.

As for designers that have qualms about the system, instead of being made able to air their grievances for the good of the whole, powerful publications, conglomerates, and brands, alike, make use of legal devices (read: non-disclosure agreements, non-disparagement provisions, and threats of defamation-centric lawsuits) to nullify any unpleasant discussions. This should be clear given that any time an article is published that pierces the nicey-nicey veil of the fashion industry, that looks behind the curtain, the industry stops – just for a few minutes – and takes notice. Remember Elle on Earth? 

So, with the decline in thoughtful garments and accessories – as indicated by those Balenciaga Crocs – largely comes a coinciding downfall of the freedom of the media and of criticism in general that is meant to keep the industry in check and enable it to grow and thrive. This is all just becoming a bit more dystopian than the plot of Blade Runner