Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Digital Decade in Fashion (and then some)

The End-of-Year List reflecting back on the best, worst, biggest, funniest, etc. is by now a popular culture tradition. The CBS-run website BNET has already come up with its “10 Biggest Fashion Business Faux Pas” list (the Rodarte/Juarez debacle gets top billing, deservedly). And Newsweek has just published its “13 Worst Trends of 2010” (jeggings get no love). Since this month also marks the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I expect (and look forward to) many more lists that recount this historical period. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, a TVLand tribute to reality television competitions (beginning with Big Brother, Survivor, and of course American Idol) which came of age—and for some, is now well past its prime—in the last decade.

On behalf of Threadbared, I offer this (annotated) list tracing some of the roots and routes of what has become a defining event in the fashion industry, in particular, and in global commercial culture, in general: fashion’s digital revolution. (The focus is certainly on the post-millennium but, as with all cultural phenomena, it has a history so my list begins in the mid 1990s.)

  • 1994: The Stanford Federal Credit Union and Pizza Hut establish their place in e-commerce history by being the first financial institution to offer online banking and the first commercial business to record an online sale (a pepperoni and mushroom pizza with extra cheese). Also in this year, the Dutch company Stork Prints launched the first digital textile printer which not only increased the speed and scale of garment production but also helped to initiate the business practice of mass customization, which would later come to define fashion in the digital age.
  • 2002: Friendster, the first popular social media site, helps establish computer-mediated communication (CMC) as an everyday practice of daily life in the new millennium. In the new fashion media complex, CMC is not only an everyday practice but, for many, an all-day activity.
  • 2002: LookOnline Daily Fashion Report and She She Me invent the fashion blog. (Both are still in operation!)
  • 2003: Isaac Mizrahi debuts his diffusion line of classically-designed fashion sportswear made exclusively for Target’s female customers.

While Mizrahi certainly didn’t invent affordable fashion (this distinction, as we know from Joan DeJean, belongs to the 17th century French couturieres’ trade guild) or even designer affordable fashion (Halston had a similar idea in the 1980s with his J.C. Penney’s collection), Mizrahi did successfully re-brand the concept of affordable fashion for a 21st century U.S. market. Claiming that the Target line “celebrated the style of American women of all ages and all walks of life,” Mizrahi successfully inaugurated a sartorial-political philosophy of democratic fashion that resonated strongly with post-September 11 patriotic consumer values while still being attentive to recessionary levels of consumer confidence. (For more on democracy and fashion, see my essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism.”)

Mizrahi’s mass market partnership was both a commercial success (to the tune of $1.5 billion over its five year run) and a cultural sensation. Boldface named designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Roberto Cavalli, Vivienne Westwood, and Oscar de la Renta followed Mizrahi’s business model by collaborating with Target but also other mass market retailers including H&M, Payless Shoe Source, Macy’s, and Kohl’s department store. And style icon Sarah Jessica Parker teamed with discount (and now defunct) retailer Steve and Barry’s to create a line of fashionable clothes and accessories under the label Bitten that she promised would never cost more than $19.98 for any single piece. Meanwhile, prominent tastemakers such as American designer Tom Ford and Gucci creative director Frida Giannini publicly boasted about shopping at the Gap, Banana Republic, Target, and H&M.

Though certainly not without its detractors, the idea that fashion is a cultural form and practice that every woman had a right to—a right coextensive with her right to self-expression and self-determination—was firmly established in the cultural imaginary by the mid 2000s. However, the global economic crisis, widespread un- and under-employment, and the emergent trend of eco-chic in the latter half of the decade strained, if not ended, U.S. fashion consumers’ love affair with cheap chic fashion, now often disparaged as “fast fashion,” the sartorial equivalent of fast food. (Parker’s move away from Bitten to Halston Heritage where she now designs is reflective of a larger shift in popular sartorial philosophy from the logic of cheap chic to that of investment fashion.) Nonetheless, the neoliberal democratic discourse around fashion has a second life in fashion’s digital revolution and particularly in the rise of fashion bloggers.



While some critics contend that social media spectacles like D&G’s are nothing more than marketing ploys to show off a designer’s technocultural relevance (and thus curry virtual street cred with the highly influential consumer market segment that is the Teen Vogue and Nylon fashion crowd), the impact of social media in fashion is more than symbolic.

A recent study finds that instantaneous user-centered viral marketing—also called word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing—“is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.” It is no surprise, then, that the WOM marketing industry is growing at an exponential rate. In 2001, U.S. companies spent $76 million in WOM marketing; in 2006, spending increased nearly 67 percent to $981 million. Analysts expect that by 2013, U.S. companies will spend $3 billion on viral marketing. Interactive fashion media, in general, is expected grow into a $55 billion industry and represent 21 percent of all marketing spending. These numbers are especially staggering when we consider that fashion’s traditional commodities like the stock overseen by the chief executives of Saks, Neiman, and Bergdorf’s and print magazines are on the wane. Recall the decline of advertising in 2009 in Vogue and Lucky (each 44 percent), Allure (41 percent), and Glamour and Vanity Fair (15 and 15.5 percent, respectively). Some magazines like Jane, Cargo, and Men’s Vogue shuttered their offices altogether. Fashion business – like the creative economy in general – is fueled more and more by the nonmaterial, though highly valued, goods of images and information than traditional material goods.

However, even the most popular of fashion’s new technologies and nonmaterial commodities – fashion blogs – remains a relative minor player in the digital commons. Political/news blogs; celebrity culture/gossip blogs; and tech blogs rank highest in terms of online traffic. Still, the digital fashion media complex on the whole is an incredibly significant cultural, social, economic, and, yes, political site. In addition to the 2 million or so fashion blogs, there are countless more fashion-focused blog posts on non-fashion blogs and websites like The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Mashable; fashion/style/beauty vlogs; microblogs; and through Facebook pages/links/updates. The digital fashion media complex thus generates at breakneck speeds and unprecedented frequency countless web streams of popular knowledge (and nonmaterial goods) everyday.

Taken together, the proliferation of online sales information and product reviews on e-commerce sites as well as on fashion search engines like Google’s latest venture Boutiques.com, blog posts, tweets, how-to-dress and what-to-buy advice streamed to our mobile devices, and of course online magazines begin to illustrate fashion’s central and organizing role not only in the new creative information economy but also in digital literacy and the very nature and form of public culture today. In other words, not only is fashion experiencing a digital revolution, digital culture is experiencing a fashion revolution in which fashion objects, images, and information are the stuff of which digital imaginaries are now made.

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LINKAGE: A Few of Our Favorite Texts on Race, Class, and Fashion

We began this week by giving away 3 copies of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s new book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (now available for sale at the Duke University Press website) and followed up our First Ever Promotional Giveaway by announcing the publication of our companion essays on war and fashion. And so to end this literary week, we give you a list of fashion articles and books we love (beyond those already mentioned).

Regular readers of Threadbared will not be surprised to find that the texts we’ve chosen are not traditional fashion studies. Rather than an emphasis on the history of textiles and design, these texts reflect our interest in the social, cultural, and political contexts of fashion. This list, in particular, is organized around the intersections of race and class in fashion. I hope it’ll be useful to many of you – and as always, feel free to add to the list!

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Addendum: We just discovered that the focus of the Readers’ Forum in a recent issue of English Studies in Canada 35.2-3 (2009) is “Academic Fashion” and moreover, that Threadbared was given high praise by participants – see especially the Introduction and Zwicker’s essay!  (Woot! Canada!!) Similar to the Feminist Currents section of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies that asked readers “Do Clothes Make the Woman?”, ESC asks Canada-based scholars to consider the look and practice of fashion in academia. The result is a series of 6 short essays, available online.

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That’s the Joint

Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.

From "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004)

In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.

(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)

American Vogue, November 2001 (a.k.a The first issue published after September 11.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.

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The Beautiful Generation Winners!

Congratulations to Emily, TT, and Miss Sophie for winning a copy of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion!!

Also, thank you to everyone who entered our first ever promotional giveaway! The response was amazing and illuminating – who knew there were so many Phillip Lim fans among Threadbared readers??

For those who did not win (this time), fret not! This groundbreaking book on the art and practice of fashion is available for purchase at the Duke University Press website and for pre-order at Amazon.com.  

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Why Have Asian Americans Become Such an Influential Force in Fashion? (Find out – and Win a New Book!)

Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Richard Chai are among some of the most well-known names in fashion today. Even those who are less diligent about reading industry rags like WWD will recognize their names from widely publicized events such as the Democratic National Convention in which the future First Lady wore Panichgul’s raspberry and black floral silk dress or the Inaugural Ball in which she wore Wu’s white chiffon asymmetrical gown (beautifully!) or from two of the most popular fashion documentaries, Seamless (2005) and The September Issue (2009) in which Chung and Panichgul were separately featured. All of these designers, moreover, have won prestigious awards and recognition from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This year – for the first time – all three awards given by the CFDA went to Asian Americans Chai, Wu, and Wang.

But what conditions led to the phenomenon of the rise of the Asian American designer? And what does the success of Asian American designers have to do with Asian markets, Asian consumers, and Asian immigrant labor? Finally, is there such a thing as an Asian American aesthetic – if so, what is it?

These are just some of the questions Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu explores in her new book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press 2011). While numerous lay and professional journalists have written about this phenomenon, Tu’s is the first book-length study devoted to the topic of Asian American designers in fashion. Masterfully drawing  together historical, ethnographic, and visual analyses, The Beautiful Generation is an incisive and elegant examination of “design as an Asian American practice and Asianness as a fashionable commodity.”

Throughout her book, Tu takes great care in tracing the complex tensions and intimacies between “a host of domains imagined as distinct”: Asian American designers and Asian immigrant sewers; transnational labor and consumer markets and local ones; and the symbolic and the material realms of fashion. As she points out, “The presumption of distance and disconnection has had the effect of obscuring the circuits that have always linked together culture and labor, material and immaterial, here and there.” The goal of Beautiful Generation is thus to tease out the institutional and informal exchanges and coalitions that constitute the art and practice of Asian American designers.

The Beautiful Generation is divided into two parts. It begins with a study of the material production of fashion – how Asian American designers have come to fashion and how they understand its nature. Tu’s discussion draws from interviews she did with designers, design students, fashion curators, and fashion publicists over the course of eight years. What is revealed in her interviews is “an architecture and aesthetic of intimacy” between fashion designers and garment manufacturers that disrupts common understandings  that pit these forms of labor as separate and distinct from one another.

Asian American designers have been able to navigate the demands of the fashion industry in part by engaging in small, sporadic acts of exchange that allow them to access important resources and, in so doing, to transform what are usually considered market relations into intimate relations (of kin or culture) . . . These are acts of intimacy not just in the sense that they are private – though certainly they rely on and reconstruct the private domains of the family, with all its attendant problems – but also in the sense that they acknowledge proximity, contact, and affiliation between domains imaged as distinct.

In the second half of the book, Tu shifts her attention from the material production of fashion to its symbolic production. Specifically, she considers how the fashion industry frames ideas of Asianness. Analyzing more than 500 issues of fashion magazines published between 1995 and 2005, Tu argues that the aesthetic popularly known as Asian chic has fostered “in the fashionable public a sense of their distance from and superiority to Asia.” Tu contends, though, that Asian American designers who entered the industry during these peak years of Asian chic occupy a unique position.

While Asian American designers certainly contributed to the production of Asian chic, they failed to hew entirely to its economy of distance, struggling at times to forge connections to Asia (and beyond) and to assert the types of transnational intimacies that it precluded.

The author in 3.1 Phillip Lim.

The scholarly field of fashion studies is growing by leaps but it still tends to separate aesthetic considerations from material considerations, design from manufacture, culture from economy. The Beautiful Generation shows us the fiction of these divides. More than that, it demonstrates how some designers have imagined “a world of intimacies” among designers, manufacturers, and government elites; political histories and cultural icons; and Asian diasporas and “other streams of internationalism” (a phrase Tu borrows from Lisa Lowe).

It’s an absolute pleasure to recommend this brilliant, timely, and wholly approachable book to Threadbared readers! And it’s not just because we have buckets full of love for Thuy Linh N. Tu but because her book exemplifies precisely the kinds of critical discussions about fashion, culture, politics, and economies that Threadbared is all about.

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It’s Happening, Butterflies!  It’s Happening!

Our much-anticipated promotional giveaway of this fabulous book is here, is now! We’re thrilled to offer 3 lucky readers a free copy of The Beautiful Generation, courtesy of Duke University Press! To enter our drawing, leave a comment below telling us who your favorite Asian American fashion designer is and why – no later than Saturday, December 4. We’ll choose from commenters at random and announce winners via Facebook and Twitter on December 6. Good luck!


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FILM: The Colour of Beauty

Recent reports about the shockingly low wages models earn at top fashion magazines have revealed yet another layer of the ugly underside to the glamorous world of fashion. But for models of color who also face racial barriers to entry in this highly competitive field, the idea of a full-time modeling career is a particularly high-risk and precarious proposition. Elizabeth St. Philip explores the economic and emotional toll of modeling for women of color in her new mini-documentary called, The Colour of Beauty (2010, 18 min). From the website:

The Colour of Beauty is a short documentary about racial discrimination in the fashion industry.  Director Elizabeth St. Philip follows a young and fiercely talented Black model, Renee Thompson, as she navigates the fashion world as a visible minority.

This film asks: Why isn’t the multi-cultural society that we live in reflected in our magazines, on billboards and on the runways of fashion shows?  And who are the parties involved in this industry’s lack of diversity?  Does the answer lie somewhere in the back rooms of fashion magazines or in the offices of casting directors of fashion shows? Is it something that is discussed at advertising agencies, or between designers and modelling agencies?  Whatever the answer, the fact is that models of colour work less, and their chances of success are very low.

(Thanks to Shauna Sweeney for cluing us to this film!)

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