Category Archives: CHEAP CHIC

LINKAGE: Couture’s Chinese Culture Shock

A short comments piece I wrote for American Prospect is finally online! It briefly explores the emergence of a new but not unique stereotype: the tacky Chinese luxury consumer. I consider how we might understand the co-existence of this ugly stereotype alongside all those breathless proclamations among fashion industry insiders about Chinese luxury consumers saving fashion.

Check it here.


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What’s in a Name?

If you haven’t already, check out the short piece I wrote for the political magazine, The American Prospect. It’s called, “What’s in a Name?” and it’s about the legal dimensions of cultural appropriation, specifically with regard to the Urban Outfitters/Navajo Nation trademark situation that emerged last month. I’ve been told that the piece is getting a lot of readers – and I’ve been invited to write more pieces for them in the future. Will let you know!

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LINKAGE: Cheap Chic Craze

In the summer of 1988 in Linköping, Sweden, I bought what I believed to be the most fabulous cropped – to the midriff! – acid washed jean jacket that ever existed from a trendy store called Hennes & Mauritz.  While popular among the Swedish kids I knew, it didn’t have the global cultural cache H&M does today.

But why does this ABC news feature piece about the Swedish retail giant portray cheap chic consumers as crazy, irrational, hordes of women (or animals, as one observer describes them) who get whipped up into a frenzy in the proximity of discount prices and conversely, cheap chic producers as rational, methodical, cost-conscious business people (led by one very rich man)?

(ABC doesn’t allow video sharing – click here for video – but there are plenty of YouTube videos depicting cheap chic consumers in much the same way. I recommend turning the volume down on this video of a French H&M below.)

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LINKAGE: A Case for Legitimate Knock-offs

Charles Guislain, (another) teen blogger phenom

While some in the fashion media have been fixating on the growing importance of editorial coverage by young bloggers, relatively little has been said about a broader democratisation that’s happening in the fashion industry overall. For one thing, runway knock-offs — formerly a marginal industry — have become a borderline acceptable business practice, with stores such as Zara and Forever 21 building successful franchises by copycatting high fashion designs. In a sense, fast fashion collaborations such as Jimmy Choo for H&M or Rodarte for Target seem to legitimise this practice.

This is a quote from a recent article on the effects of fashion’s democratization from the website The Business of Fashion. Unfortunately, Ken Miller (the writer) doesn’t examine the changing meanings of knock-offs in this era of democratization or analyze which knock-offs are acceptable and which aren’t (and why) in the context of the emerging creative economy. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by the relationship he’s suggesting between cheap chic fashion retailers like H&M and Target and the industry of legitimate knock-offs. Who authorizes this legitimacy? And what are the conditions of cultural legitimation?

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Uniqlo + Jil Sander = Quality for the People

Jil Sander, the enigmatic and somewhat reclusive German designer known for her minimalist aesthetic is returning to fashion after a 5 year hiatus – but not to the world of upmarket luxury fashion that she’s been associated with since the 1980s. No, she’s coming to Uniqlo.
While this mass retail chain specializing in affordable casualwear (think Japanese Gap) has had its share of high-low collaborations including some of my personal favorite designers Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang, the collaboration with Sander is a little different. Her line at Uniqlo, called +J, is not a limited-time only capsule collection. Sander signed on to Uniqlo as its creative director!

Besides the clothes which are expected to be available by October, I’ll also be interested in the tenor of the marketing campaign surrounding the cheap chic collection. Already, the line (like so many previous cheap chic lines) is incorporating the language of democracy into its sartorial identity. Hangtags for the collection will include the message: “Quality for the people” and Sander has stated that her goal at Uniqlo is “to establish a premium quality in a democratically-priced range.” How will +J, a fast fashion label, articulate and accelerate neoliberal identifications with democracy now that the ethical politics of fashion has shifted to the slow fashion movement of sustainable fabrics and recession-friendly trans seasonal “investment pieces”?

A postscript: I’m anxiously awaiting the delivery of three generations of cheap chic style manuals (Caterine Milinaire’s 1978 Cheap Chic: Update; Kate Hogg’s 1982 More Dash than Cash; and Kira Jolliffe and Bay Garnett’s 2008 The Cheap Date Guide to Style). Look for a forthcoming post comparing the principles and meanings of “cheap chic style” and democracy across the disco generation, the me generation, and the O generation!

UPDATE: Vogue now has a sneak peek at some of the pieces from this collaboration.

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Soup or Sale

Apologies for our unexpected sabbatical from threadbared! For my part, journal article revisions, rogue or maybe just lost TAs, teaching, and drawn-out faculty meetings about departmental minutiae left me with no time for a lot of things including posting. But the semester is in in its final two weeks! So, taking Mimi’s optimistic cue of things to come, I wanted to mention for now that a pop-up retail store called The 1929 (124 Mott St. in Little Italy) is giving away soup and coffee to shoppers.

I haven’t visited the store yet (will swing by this week on my way to the Alexander Wang sample sale) but Daily News describes the store this way: “The street level store is decked out with racks of snazzy dresses, pants and tops by independent designers. The basement level has been transformed into an art and performance space by night and a spot where hungry shoppers, or even passersby, can pick up a free bowl of soup and coffee during the day.”

The community organizing and activist spirit of this soup kitchen/retail store is intentional – Aaron Genuth, the store’s manager, says the owners were inspired by President Elect Obama. Levi Okunov, part owner of The 1929, notes too, “Fashion has always been something for the rich. Who said it can’t be for the masses? We want people to come here, have a bowl of soup, try on some clothing and maybe check out the artwork downstairs.”

I’ll be interested to see how this new incarnation of fashion-as-therapy-for-the-masses develops. It’s clearly more grassroots than the recent fashion industry-led “cheap-chic” movements which offered up capsule collections by luxury designers like Vera Wang, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, and Proenza Schouler at mass retail stores like Kohl’s, The Gap, and Uniqlo as a post-9/11 emotional and economic salve. But the idea that The 1929 is “a place where fashionistas and the down-and-out soon could be rubbing shoulders” is too glib. While the recession affects everyone, some of the “down-and-out” are cushioned by their fat assets.

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Copy Cats and Cheap Chic

We all know about the raft of allegations and lawsuits for intellectual copyright infringement aimed at Forever 21, Top Shop, H&M, and other discount retailers. (Fashionista regularly features sharp-eyed notes about the proliferation of such copies.) Because these retailers replicate print patterns, dress styles, et cetera, major designers claim cheap manufacturing and mass distribution degrades the “originality” of their creative output.

This is, of course, the rehearsal of what Walter Benjamin called “the aura” in his essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This “aura,” he argued, was first derived from art’s original value in religious ceremonies and rituals, and later from the Renaissance’s secularization of art as singular works of individual genius. This produced the notion of “art of art’s sake,” of art as transcendent and of the artist guided by a privileged insight into capital-T truth, in the 1800s, against the rapid industrialization and urbanization of “culture.”

We can see this at work in claims by major designers against Forever 21 and its cheap cohort of retailers. At the same time, major designers buying vintage and copying these pieces include Jill Stuart, Anna Sui, Jean Paul Gautier, and of course Marc Jacobs, who is seen browsing vintage stores in New York City for just this purpose in his new documentary. Some of these same designers are part of copyright lawsuits against Forever 21 and other discount retailers – and a few are finding themselves at the other end of such lawsuits.

Famed Belgian deconstructionist designer Martin Margiela was recently dinged for only slightly, –very, very slightly– modifying a copyrighted t-shirt design featuring an ominous sky full of thundering white horses and a barren mountain cliff. Reproduced on an asymmetrically draped and padded cotton shirt, and sold out at the designer’s Beverly Hills boutique, the almost exact image’s copyright belongs to British artist David Penfound, who sells reproduction rights to the painting for as much as one of Margiela’s shirts.

TOP: Margiela’s version from the S/S 08 collection, BOTTOM: Penfound’s original from a $20 t-shirt.

Margiela’s representatives say the graphic is a “collage of nostalgic images compiled in-house.” Nevermind for a moment that there is pretty much no “collage” effect at all in the copy. This invocation of nostalgia is telling because it suggests a fashion-backwardness, a temporal anomaly, brought forward into the future at the behest of the fashion-forward. This nostalgia for a certain set of images, however, is nonetheless contemporaneous; a particular aesthetic imagined to be still alive and, as many observers have noted, representative of a series of degraded cultural touchstones: “Midwestern gas station,” “trailer trash,” and “cheap and ugly souvenir.” (This chain of associations is no accident.) One fashion blog commentator wrote, “I picture the original on someone buying an extra-large order of nachos and a foot-long hot dog.“

These aesthetic judgments of the original design are called upon in both defenses and denunciations of Margiela. In the first, such judgments suggest that the original design was of such poor aesthetic quality that Margiela’s replication of the design only elevated something that was otherwise cultural detritus. Which is to say, Margiela’s transformation of the design (in the details and drape) can and should be regarded as the design’s alienation –not as isolation but as repudiation—of the original. In the second, such judgments argue that the original design is too ugly to redeem, too “cheesy” to rip off.

So what sort of aura is it when major designers copy cheap and derided –in no uncertain terms of economic and cultural capital— thrift store and vintage items? How are discourses of art and originality distributed unevenly, unequally, here? How do certain ideas about other peoples’ styles travel, and inform (or not!) the clothing options and choices for the consumers of these styles? How do these same ideas inform the clothing options and choices for consumers of these styles when they are “transformed” in other contexts – whether Urban Outfitters’s array of vintage reprints for the college crowd, or Martin Margiela’s vintage rip off for the wealthy?

Consider feminist media theorist Judith Williamson’s seminal essay, “No Woman Is an Island:” “It is currently ‘in’ for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags, but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people’s dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes.” Written in 1986, it seems this still applies.

Meanwhile, 55 year-old Swede, Göran Olofsson, has been compensated an unknown amount for the scarf that Marc Jacobs blatantly plagiarized for Louis Vuitton. The scarf had been designed and created by Olofsson’s father Gosta in the 1950s as part of a line of tourist souvenirs for the Swedish small town of Linsell, and the print on Jacob’s silk scarf was a near exact copy. (He replaced the name of the town with the tagline, “Marc Jacobs since 1984.”) (Mimi)

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