Category Archives: LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

Boutiques.com: The Scientization of Style and The Promise of Happiness

Yesterday, I created a virtual boutique on Google’s new website, Boutiques.com. The process begins with The Stylizer quiz which involves answering something like 40 – 50 questions about whether my style was more like Jennifer Garner’s or Beyonce’s, Rachel Weisz or Jennifer Biel, Kate Moss or Serena Williams, Courtney Cox or Kristen Stewart – [sigh] – Chloe Sevigny or Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Biel or Alexa Chung, M.I.A. or Rachel Bilson, a margarita or a tequila shot, Las Vegas or New York City, and on (and on) it goes. I’ve never really understood the appeal of personality surveys so this process felt really interminable to me. And while I do want to give Google credit for trying to think outside of the binary box by providing users the option to not choose either Courtney Cox’s style or Kristen Stewart’s, for example, there were times I would’ve liked the option to choose Style A and B.

Following the Stylizer quiz, there was another set of questions regarding the types of silhouettes, patterns, and colors I love or hate in dresses, tops, bottoms, and shoes. And still another set of questions about which designers I love and hate (organized in categories of Boho, Casual Chic, Classic, Edgy, Romantic, or Street). Note: my personal style category, The Softer Side of the Matrix Warrior, was not an available choice.

Having taken all my sartorial vitals, the website then generates a Personal Storefront filled with clothes that are scientifically determined to match my taste. In some ways, it was spot-on. I loved the Opening Ceremony black loopy poncho, the 3.1 Phillip Lim gray t-shirt dress, and the Alexander Wang Addison platform ankle boots (which have been a personal sartorial fantasy of mine for weeks now). But the bowler bag, the multitude of flat strappy sandals (think: suburban mom on vacation), and the 7 for All Mankind halter top (I definitely remember checking “halter” as a silhouette I hate) are inexplicable. In other words, after 20 or 25 minutes of testing, the system’s accuracy rate was about 50% – not unlike flipping a coin? Maybe I need to edit my answers . . . then again, maybe it’s not me. Cate Corcoran of WWD relates: “the number of inappropriate, random or unappealing suggestions it throws out is overwhelming.”


Longtime readers of Threadbared know my propensity for sample sale shopping but what I haven’t mentioned before is that I’m an avid and, if I do say so myself, expert online shopper. In the past few years, I’ve teased out a good number of small e-tail sites devoted to independent and emerging designers; keep abreast of about 20 fashion blogs from which I regularly poach shopping and style ideas, learned how to game sites with more e-coupons, promotional codes, and friends and family discounts than I (sometimes) know what to do with; and am a member of half a dozen or so members-only shopping sites. (A recent example of my e-shopping prowess: 60% off the price of a pair of this season’s Surface to Air ankle boots from an outlet e-tail site using two coupon codes. The boots are going back but the achievement remains.)  All of this is to say that I approached Boutiques more as a hopeful consumer than a skeptical critic. And while the website failed to impress, its appeal is real.

The defining feature of the site and one repeatedly highlighted in every review (see here, here, and here)  is its tacit claim to have scientifically “cracked” style. No longer elusive and mysterious, style is now a set of codified information in the form of “hundreds of style rules” – an algorithm implements these rules and separates friendly style pairings from bad pairings and then these scientific codes are inscribed onto the user’s body via the automatically generated style suggestions in my personal boutique. An example of a bad pairing, according to Google, is “heavily patterned handbags don’t tend to go with heavily patterned dresses.” Should a user attempt this pairing while building her outfit, (the site doesn’t yet include men’s clothing), the website will automatically suggest different options – and not just any ol’ option but, using “computer vision and machine learning technology” it “visually analyze[s] your taste and match[es] it to items you would like.” And voila! The scientization of style!

The words algorithm, precision, hone, analyze, and vision technology that pepper every review and description of the website are suggestive of fashion’s recent turn to science. The “art of fashion” might be OK for the industrial age (new means of mass producing and mass distributing clothes meant that more women than ever before could aesthetically, sartorially express themselves) but in the digital age, it’s all about the “science of style” – the digital age being a time when scientific advancements in information technologies have dramatically increased the cultural and economic value of digital or nonmaterial fashionable goods (e.g., blogs, viral marketing campaigns, and web-hosted fashion films) and decreased the values of fashion’s traditional material objects (e.g., print magazines and brick and mortar shops).

The appeal of and desire for a scientifically rationalized method of consumption and self-fashioning are endemic to what scholars describe as a “risk society”. As a result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (1965); social justice movements for women, gays, and racial minorities; the growing privatization of welfare services; and declining personal economic security (due to wage stagnation and increased work hours) throughout the latter half of the 20th century, traditional structures of U.S. society have been profoundly destabilized. Americans experienced these instabilities or risks most acutely in the changing structures of their neighborhoods, workplaces, and families. To alleviate their anxieties, Americans turned to an expanding and welcoming market of self-help literature, time-saving and self-empowering consumer goods, and life coaches.

An array of TV chefs, shopping experts, style gurus, and therapists promise time-poor and anxious Americans quicker meals, better sales, no-fail style tips, relationship strategies, career advice, more efficient workouts, and so on. Such lifestyle expertise gives us a sense of control (a feeling backed by the surety of science) in a changing post-traditional world. It also resonates with and reifies key principles of neoliberalism including self-responsibility and self-management that are now commonsense ethics in a post-welfare society. What were once concerns of the state and the rights to which citizens were entitled (jobs and health care, say) are now responsibilities of individuals who are tasked with making good choices among a wide range of products and services. Tanking economy? Shop for America! Feeling sick and under- or uninsured? Web MD! Un- or underemployed? Don’t just be a blogger! Diversify your skills by also being a photographer, a stylist, a social media expert, and a dogwalker!

Against the backdrop of this risk society, fashion’s new technologies (the Stylizer as well as mobile device apps, vlogs, blogs, and 3D imaging body and garment simulation technologies) emerge as “happy objects” – objects as Sara Ahmed has written, that are culturally and socially endowed with the capacity for happiness-making.  As happy objects, fashion’s new and “democratized” technologies (because, ostensibly, everyone has access to the Stylizer quiz) promise the ultimate kind of happiness in a risk society: risk free choice-making in one of the most important areas of our lives, our self-presentation.

Fashion, we are repeatedly reminded in the deluge of makeover TV shows, fashion magazines, blogs, and even our colleagues, is an external expression of an internal character. Unkempt look = low self-esteem and bad lifestyle choices. Polished appearance =  strong self-esteem and good lifestyle choices.  Evidence of good choices mark individuals as good workers, good citizens, good parents, etc. Thus the scientization of style that fashion’s latest technologies promise are nothing short of, to borrow the title of Ahmed’s book, a promise of happiness. And who doesn’t want that?

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Filed under FASHION 2.0, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

Meet Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion

We’re over the moon about this profile post on NYU professor Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, whose fabulously smart book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, is due out this Winter from Duke University Press.

Longtime readers and friends of Threadbared will recognize Thuy Linh’s name from previous mentions of her in this blog. Thuy Linh (pronounced “Twee Lin”) is not just a colleague, but a good friend. Mimi first grew to love Thuy Linh about a billion years ago in her first graduate program and co-edited with her Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America (Duke University Press, 2007); years later, Minh-Ha and Thuy Linh met as professors at NYU where they happily discovered that by joining forces they were able to cover the most ground at sample sales. Recently, Thuy Linh chatted with Minh-Ha about her book, The Beautiful Generation, her own fashion history, and her most devastating fashion loss. See below for all  the highlights.

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Nattering with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu in her Noho apartment.

 

When I was a grad student (in the mid 1990s), I started noticing all these new boutiques in Nolita, the East Village, 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Williamsburg that were helmed by Asian women. And it struck me as really curious. Asian women aren’t traditionally seen as stewards of chic fashion; we usually think of them—if we think about them at all in relation to fashion—as sewers and sweatshop workers. But at that time, we began to see them working in small scale boutiques, becoming bold face names—Vera Wang and Vivienne Tam, for instance—and entering fashion schools like Pratt and Parsons in droves. I really felt that this was a unique social phenomenon and I wanted to understand why we were seeing this growth in Asian Americans’ participation in the fashion industry and what the effects of their presence was. Eventually, this curiosity became The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion.

It’s not inaccurate to say that fashion is a frivolous thing to study because some studies of fashion are frivolous, but it’s not much different from the film or television industries, and I do take an industry approach to fashion. Fashion’s a multi-billion dollar industry that is globally dispersed and that cuts through class, race, gender. So it has this significance that if we’re able to look at fashion beyond “what’s in, what’s out” we’re able to see how it drives economic development, shapes identities, mobilizes consumer desires, etc.

Fashion is a wonderful cultural object that allows us to see how economics and culture are interlinked.

 

There’s this picture of me, my mother, and my sister on my bookshelf that I love. It’s one of three or four that I have of us from Viet Nam—because everything else was lost in the war. My mom is wearing a beautiful black and white áo dài and she’s wearing these cat eye Ray-Ban sunglasses that she bought with my dad on their first date. You can just imagine—a young, single Vietnamese woman buying American sunglasses in front of her new boyfriend in the 1960s. This was a fashion statement.

My mom didn’t buy a stitch of clothing for herself and she always looked phenomenal. Everything my mom owned when I was younger—like, our first five years in the U.S.—was given to her from the church that sponsored us (in Avon, Connecticut). I remember this green shift dress she had with black piping . . . she always looked like a total class act.

 

I don’t have any sense of anyone influencing my style. That’s not to say I’m so original. But I always felt that—even though my fashion sense has changed so much since high school—I have always felt myself sartorially. Everything I put on is the me of that moment.

I fear I’m sometimes sartorially boring. There are a lot of fashion limbs I won’t go out on. I’m pretty classic. I do have a sense of fashion though. I do like the updating of fashion . . . and details kill me. A well-placed pleat can always turn me.

The Japanese are going to kill me but I hate asymmetry. I don’t want to have to tilt my head to see your outfit.

I’d love to say that my mom is my style influence but I don’t think I’m as creative as she is.

A while ago, my favorite item of clothing was a 3.1 Phillip Lim tan wool shift dress with square sleeves and a wide belt. I got it with Minh-Ha at a sample sale. Every time I put it on, I felt fantastic. The genius of this dress is that it’s cut in such a way that it would look good on, seriously, any body.  Recently, though, I went through a very stressful period in my life and I have to say that the article of clothing that I wear the most and that makes me feel the best is my Adidas running shorts.  I feel like I can kick some serious butt in those things.

Five years ago, I was moving from one apartment in Manhattan to an apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We packed up everything and I had this brilliant idea to put all my shoes in a giant duffel bag—all the shoes I own except the flip flops I was wearing. The movers came and moved our stuff. In Brooklyn, I unpack and there’s no duffel bag. I called the movers and they said they moved it. They said they remember seeing it in Brooklyn as they were unloading the truck. But it never made it inside. Someone must have swiped my bag of shoes! These are all my shoes. It’s not like a dress that doesn’t fit you. You can wear shoes for the rest of your life. My beloved shoes—all gone. This is my most devastating fashion loss—my bag of shoes. I’m still rebuilding.

 

I don’t actually love to shop. This is probably surprising to people, considering the work I do. I like to shop as much as the average person. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it.

Sometimes people do things fashion-wise that I don’t think will work but it works for them.

I am a stickler for well-fitting clothes. Ill-fitting clothes do no one any favors.

 

Smart fashion is hard to find. That’s what Threadbared is—smart fashion, not fast fashion. All I want is to be on Threadbared.

(All photos by Brian Camarao)

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Threadbared will be celebrating the publication of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion in the Winter with a special profile and promotional giveaway of copies of the book, courtesy of Duke University Press!

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Filed under IN THE CLASSROOM, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, THEORY TO THINK WITH

LINKAGES: Maquiladoras Enchant Rodarte and Fashion Pretends Technology Is Not Its Friend

I’ve been working at a frenetic pace lately trying to toggle between researching and writing a chapter on the relationship between fashion, creativity, and copyright (from a critical race and gender studies perspective, naturally); responding to queries about our exhibition on the fashion histories and practices of women of color (such queries are increasing so YAY!!); and playing Julie the cruise ship director for our impending family trip (we are not going on a cruise).

All this is to explain why this post is full of links rather than original writing. If I had the time to blog, I’d finish this post about Rodarte’s upcoming Fall collection, inspired by the maquiladora workers in Juárez, Mexico. (I have to admit that I missed the news on this collection and only caught up with it when a link showed up this weekend on my personal Facebook wall to a blog post on Oh Industry. So thank god for social media doing its thing!)

As Nicole Phelps from Style.com explains, the collection came to the Mulleavy sisters (the design team behind Rodarte) as a brainstorm while on a recent roadtrip from El Paso to Marfa, Texas:

[A] long drive from El Paso to Marfa, Texas, got them thinking they might like to explore their Mexican roots. From there, they became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night. And that, according to the designers, who certainly know how to romance a pitch, led to this conclusion: They’d build a collection off the idea of sleepwalking.

While it is frequently speculated that the Mulleavys were attempting to comment on the mass murders of maquiladora workers along the Juárez border with this collection, their message clearly did not telegraph. Consider the ways in which luminaries from the runway show describe the collection (see video below).

Glossed over by the fantasies of fashion (consider the descriptions by Glenda Bailey and Nadja Swarovski in the above video: enchanted forest, the modern American fashion spirit) are the harsh physical and economic realities of the thousands of maquiladora workers who provide the hidden labors of globalized fashion and the hundreds (some argue, thousands) of women who have been murdered between Tijuana and Juárez. (For more about maquiladoras, check out Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre’s documentary Maquilapolis.)

I know Mimi would have a ton of smart things to say about this collection as well as Rodarte’s forthcoming collaboration with MAC on cosmetic products inspired by their latest collection, which was inspired by their depoliticized aestheticization of maquiladoras. Beginning on September 15, 2010, customers can purchase lipsticks called “Ghost Town” and “Sleepless”; lipglass called “del Norte”; eyeshadow called “Bordertown”; and nail polish called “Factory” and “Juarez” (and there’s more). Addendum: Looks like MAC is backing off maquiladora-chic: see here and here.

Mimi already has several posts in her draft queue for when she returns from her much-deserved vacation but I’m hoping she’ll have a few choice words about this collection as well. But for now,  why not revisit her crazy smart post on a related topic on the tangled complex of race, gender, labor, and fashion representation in Background Color?

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As anyone who peruses the fashion media complex with any regularity knows by now, luxury fashion designers and companies have both praised and vilified new media communication technologies for democratizing or massifying (depending on your perspective) fashion.

Here are two recent pieces on fashion’s vexed relationship with technology. The first is Amy Odell’s blog post called “The Recession Has Forced High-Fashion Companies to Use the Internet” and the second is an article in the New York Times titled, “High Fashion Relents to Web’s Pull” . . . “Forced” and “Relents” – ha! – as if the fashion elite hasn’t already benefited enormously from the free labors of bloggers and other social media types who deftly use these technologies. Sigh. So much to post and so little time.

Ok, see you next week when I get back from week-long vacation from thinking about work (hopefully)!

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Filed under FASHION 2.0, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, LINKAGE

Mary Sibande

Inspired by the explorations of race, gender and sexuality in the work of American artists Kara Walker and Cindy Sherman, and London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Mary cast her own body in fibreglass and silicone to create Sophie. She then painted her a “flat black,” so that she stands out like a dark and static shadow … Sophie’s eyes are always closed as if in a “constant ecstasy of fantasy” and it’s in her mind that her dress becomes a thing of voluminous Victorian splendour. “If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform,” said Mary.

Elle Decoration ZA (Cited at M. Dash)

The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin, and clothing is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out. Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black women and in this sense her work is informed by postcolonial theory, through her art making. In her work, domestic setting acts as a stage where historical psycho-dramas play out.

Sibande’s work also highlights how priviledged ideals of beauty and femininity aspired to by black women discipline their body through rituals of imitation and reproduction. She inverts the social power indexed by Victorian costumes by reconfiguring it as a domestic worker’s “uniform” complexifying the colonial relationship between “slave” and “master” in a post-apartheid context. The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships.

Gallery MOMO

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, ON BEAUTY

Why Are We Willing to Pay for Fashion Magazines and Not Blogs?

I’ve written several posts about the value of digital labor but what is the value of digital content? I don’t have a ready answer for this question so I’m posing it to you, dear readers. I’m particularly interested in how fellow fashion/style bloggers might approach this: Would you be willing to pay to read blogs? How much would you pay? (Edited to add: A subscription to a domestic monthly fashion magazine is about $12/year, an international magazine is $40/year. If a reader follows, say, 15 blogs – the cost per year to read these 15 blogs, if we assume fashion magazines and blogs are of equal value, would be $180-$480/year. Of course, there would be no shipping costs but blogs are required to update with much more frequency than fashion magazines and all of this labor is usually undertaken by one person rather than a team of people.)  And if not, why are you still willing to pay for print magazines and yet unwilling to pay for fashion/style blogs?

I suspect that paid blogs would suffer the same fate as satellite radio – what CNet has called one of the top 10 biggest tech flops of the decade. Like radio, blogs are a form of media we’re accustomed to accessing for free – how many of us (or our readers for that matter) would be willing to pay for something we once got for free? And unlike radios – at least for our generation – blogs are more intimately tied to the concept of free access and all the ideas about the democratization of information it entails.

If you’re not willing to pay to read blogs (and maybe not even to maintain a blog), is there another way to valorize (give value to) a blog? Some bloggers have been materially compensated with gifts from designers in the form of free clothes and accessories; invitations to exclusive parties and shows; ad revenue; book deals; and salaried employment with established print and digital media companies. But the “glittering prizes” of this digital jackpot economy are unevenly distributed upwards to those who already have a large and mainstream following, who have already been acknowledged by traditional media (a glowing write-up in the New York Times, for example), and whose blogs already show up in the top 5 results of Internet searches (determined by several factors such as: their number of unique daily and monthly visits or “hits,” the frequency in which blogs appear in top bloggers’ blogrolls, and the number and prevalence of reader commentaries).

But what about the blogs and bloggers who don’t have the patronage of star designers and media giants? How might their blogs be valued? What are alternative ways in which we might determine their “value”? How might we reimagine the meaning of “value”?

I don’t mean for these questions to be posed in the abstract – these are real questions that I hope will generate thoughtful answers or even thoughtful speculation from those who have a material, temporal, and/or emotional investment in the work of blogging.

I imagine/hope that this is the start of a larger discussion about how to valorize digital content in our writing portfolios, in our tenure file, etc. What are the dangers of counting blog posts as professional work? What are the dangers of not counting them? More posts about this important subject on the way!

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Filed under DEMOCRATIZATION OF FASHION, FASHION 2.0, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

LINKAGE: The Future of Fashion Work

I’m on a bit of a roll on my manuscript right now (as any writer knows, these are cherished and rare moments of writing) so I won’t be blogging too much today. But as always, I can’t completely stay away from Threadbared (or from the news, events, and issues having to do with fashion) so for now, I offer these links:

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Amy Odell at The Cut blog published this short post on the dismal state of employment for fashion design students. It’s depressing but an important read. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s nearly impossible for recent design graduates to find work now. Companies are producing more with fewer staff, while recent grads have to compete with laid-off, more experienced baby boomers for open positions.

The post also includes some sobering advice to fashion design students – advice that anyone who’s in a graduate program in the arts, humanities, and some social science fields would do well to consider: be prepared to fund yourself, be open to unpaid internships (see my post about unpaid internships which speaks to some of the privileges that inhere in this system of apprenticeship), and if all else fails, have a Plan B.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about labor in relation to fashion, in particular, and the creative economy, in general. Most recently, I wrote a post about the free labor that the new fashion media complex depends on and hinted at the more complex issues of copyright law. This is a subject that deeply concerns not only fashion bloggers but also subscribers of blogs who provide content to fashion blogs in the form of daily outfit images submitted to blogs such as Chictopia, Lookbook, etc. as well as, as Meg of Good Morning Midnight so eloquently points out in her comments to my post, those working in or trying to find employment in traditional fashion media as journalists, professional models, and ad copy writers.

The sad state of employment makes it difficult to understand another, seemingly conflicted reality about the creative economy (and note that “employment” is not the same thing as “work” – as I’ve noted before, free labor is a driving force of the creative economy). Urban studies scholar Richard Florida, to name one of the most vocal theorists of the “creative class,” has argued that now more than ever before creative laborers play a significant role in economic development and urban regeneration. While many have criticized his findings as classist (he focuses on a privileged class of “high bohemians” and neglects the experiences of the greater majority of the creative proletariat), I would also add that Florida doesn’t seem to fully understand the situation of digital free labor in relation to the new creative economy. That is to say, while creativity and innovation are highly valued today, they are not always or often financially compensated. Bloggers and others providing free digital labor do so for a lot of reasons (many of them having to do with personal pleasure and the love of communication and the arts) but not least of these reasons is the hope that these free digital labors will one day lead to paid employment or some other form of monetization. And for some star bloggers and haul vloggers, it has (to varying degrees).

But the creative economy is a “jackpot economy.” From Andrew Ross’ book, Nice Work If  You Can Get It:

Once marginal on the landscape of production, it is artists, designers, and other creatives who are becoming the new model workers – self directed, entrepreneurial, accustomed to precarious, nonstandard employment, and attuned to producing career hits. All of these features are endemic to a jackpot economy, where intellectual property is the glittering prize for the lucky few.

It is the potential of this glittering prize of somewhat stable employment where an individual’s work is granted all kinds of validation including legal and economic protections that keeps so many working upwards of 12 hours a day, seven day a week on their blogs, vlogs, etc. for free.

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Melissa Tan, a blogger for the San Francisco Examiner has a short write-up of Suzy Menkes’ talk at the Academy of Art University in SF last Thursday. I intended to go but got caught up with a journal article I’m working on (about digital labor, what else?) and so missed the entire event. I’m hoping that someone videotaped the hour-long conversation with the strange title “If fashion is for everyone – is it fashion?” but haven’t yet found it anywhere.

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Filed under LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, LINKAGE

Bloggers and the Politics of “Free” Labor

Depeche Mode once opined in “Blasephemous Rumors” that God’s got a sick sense of humor. I don’t know much about God, but it may be that the blogging gods have a funny kind of humor as well. Just as I promise to shift the blog onto the proverbial back burner and focus on my manuscript, out pops a slew of articles, posts, and debates I can’t help but post about!

Take, for instance, this post on IFB on the issue of digital content and copyright. In a nutshell, the discount shoe company Payless Shoes seems to have entered into a partnership with Chictopia for use of the outfit posts of their users in Payless shoewear. The question: who has the right to give permission to Payless Shoes for the use of these images? (A summer storm of props to Jenny of FFW for bringing this to my attention, by the way, via our Threadbared Facebook page.)

Because I’m still determined to be all about the manuscript this week, I’ll save my longer commentary for another time. For now, I do want to point out that Chictopia users’ ire about this partnership (from the comments, many are suggesting a boycott of Chictopia) is both understandable and misguided. As we’ve noted before, “free” Web 2.0 technologies are a complicated matter. In posts about The Fake Sartorialist, the digital wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, and pretty much all our posts listed under the category “Labor and the Creative Economy” and the tag “New Digital Work Order,” we’ve pointed out that the free exchange of visual and textual content that blogs and other social media technologies enable is both democratizing (the modes of knowledge and culture production are diffused across a wider swath of people – yay!) and capitalist (and thus exploitative – boo!) because the products that we produce and consume (digital content) are given voluntarily/freely. As such, bloggers and other digital laborers are providing (freely) FREE LABOR to entities like Chictopia as well as Facebook, MySpace, The Sartorialist, etc. who profit from that labor. (I realize that’s an incredibly long and probably run-on sentence but the manuscript beckons! (I love your run-ons, and I love making them into discrete sentences for you! — Mimi))

Chictopia users certainly have reason to gripe about this – it doesn’t feel good when our labors profit others (see Marx and the concept of “alienation”) but a boycott of Chictopia isn’t really the answer. As I said, Chictopia is not the only one that profits (materially or immaterially) from this free digital content. A more productive approach might be to insist on updating laws for the digital age that takes into account the changing relations of labor and capital. As one commenter called Unfunded rightly points out:

There is such a double standard between digital media and print media. Magazines inspire people and publish creative content and, holy crap guess what??, they get paid to do it! They receive daily shipments of a bunch of products from various merchants who hope to get their product featured. And I guarantee if Payless posted an article or editorial on their site that was originally published in a top magazine, with no credit back to that magazine, they would have hell to pay.

Copyright law is expanding for better and for worse and hopefully one day it’ll address the similarities and differences between digital and print media labor.

But before we all jump on the copyright bandwagon – let’s also consider how copyright protections are historically embedded in narrow ideas of what it means to be an author, an individual, and thus worthy of legal protection. See Martha Woodmansee’s work for more on this history and also my post on the politics of fake.

Oh, what the hell – here’s the Depeche Mode video too:

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The Value of Fashion Work

This is just a (relatively) short addendum to yesterday’s post about the labor issues involved with child bloggers. Lauren Sherman at Fashionista.com has written a provocative essay about the cost and benefits of unpaid internships for the fashion industry as well as those aspiring to break into the industry. These internships generally aren’t for blogging (because you don’t need to be hired by anyone to blog about fashion) or any other specific role but are purposely broad in scope so that interns can fill many different needs. And, as Sherman argues, the fashion industry needs unpaid interns “to make things happen.” Also, she writes that while interns may not be getting a paycheck, they get something just as (or more?) valuable in return – mentorship, experience, and future employment:

I know that, during my time in college, I did four internships, one of which I was paid a commission on sales that I closed. (It was at a boutique/art gallery.) However, the other three internships, which were in editorial, were unpaid. One landed me my first job out of college. Britt’s senior year internship also resulted in a job right out of school.

Also, it is not uncommon for college students to get course credits for interning. But as many of my students who had internships at W magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and LogoTV can attest (if you’re reading, please share your thoughts!) – the number of course credits often didn’t reflect the kinds of hours they were logging. And according to the National Association of College and Employers, in 2008 83% of graduating students have held internships – compare that to 9% in 1992.

Unpaid internships in New York and other states in any company in any commercial field may be a thing of the past though. Nancy J. Leppink, acting director of the Department of Labor’s wage and hour division is working hard to end this practice.

If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law. (Nancy Leppink)

While garment workers aren’t mentioned in either of these articles, I can’t help but think that the social, cultural, and economic capital of even unpaid interns in the US is far greater than the economic capital of those laboring in the CMT (cut, make, trim) sectors of garment manufacturing that is really where the things (e.g., the material objects) of fashion things happen. In bringing up the severe undervaluation of garment work and garment workers, I don’t mean to minimize the legitimacy of the Labor Department’s concerns for unpaid American interns at all but rather to add to the conversation.

Today, after the deregulation of trade in the mid-1990s, the majority of garment work happens outside of the US in places where labor is both plenty and cheap. Some numbers to consider – according to the Global Apparel Manufacturing Labour Cost Update in 2008, Indian garment industry workers get the highest wage at $0.51 cents (US) per hour. The hourly wage is $0.44 in Indonesia, $0.43 in Sri Lanka, $0.38 in Viet Nam, $0.37 in Pakistan and $0.33 in Cambodia. The egregious economic disparity between garment workers and apparel companies, the Global South and the Global North, and the sweated mass of predominantly female racial labor and the singular American celebrity/icon that represents and profits from the products of sweated labor is by now well known. Just as one example, recall that Michael Jordan was paid more than $20 million for endorsing Nike’s running shoes (in the 1990s) – this was more than Nike’s entire 30,000 person Indonesian work force was paid for making the shoes.

We should remember, too, that the numbers reported by the Global Apparel Manufacturing Labour Cost Update don’t take into account the number of hours, days, weeks, and months in which workers aren’t paid or the health, human rights, and labor violations that are the common conditions in which garment workers labor.

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What is this “Fake” in the Fake Sartorialist?

All images from The Fake Sartorialist


Part I: Free for All = Free for Some

I have to admit that I barely glanced at the New York Times article, “The Sartorialist Blog is a Victim of Knockoffs” when it was published a few days ago. And I gave it very little thought even after more fashion blog parodies were revealed (here and here). The Sartorialist (the blog and the man who created it, Scott Schuman) is located firmly in the cultural imaginary – by Schuman’s own design and with the great help of his throngs of readers and models who provide the bulk of the content for his site. Parodies of The Sartorialist, it seemed to me, was as inevitable as the Times‘ narrative of “victimization” of the most commercially successful fashion blogger in the world is ludicrous.

But what finally caught my attention was the response of 25 year-old resident of Johannesburg, Eduardo Cachucho, who is the mastermind behind The Fake Sartorialist. Here Cachucho is specifically responding to Schuman’s statement that “Now everyone feels the internet is a free-for-all”:

I find it odd that Scott sees this as a “now” moment. The internet has always been somewhat of a free-for-all, that is what makes it such an important medium. Without the internet his very own blog (that is renowned for being reposted all over the web) would not be as popular as it is.

One of the strengths of the internet is in the power users have to create new content from existing sources. And though of course I don’t condone people just copying images willy nilly, I think there is definitely something to be said for new works created from appropriated sources.

I for one used The Sartorialist’s images only as a base and incorporated images from over 100 blogs that I visit every day. It’s hardly a free-for-all; more like a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.

For both Sartorialists, the terms of the debate about the cultural and legal legitimacy of fashion blog parodies turn on the phrase, “free-for-all.” Interestingly, they both seem to agree that the Internet “free-for-all” has its limits. Schuman told the Times that “he was amused to a point” but had to draw the line at “the unflattering depiction of his subjects.” Likewise, Cachucho asserts that free use of digital content should not be available to “people [who] just copy images willy nilly” and that unlike these people, he is doing something more “thoughtful.” In other words, their point is that blog and other new media content while accessible to everyone is not equally accessible to everyone.
And in a way, they’re right.

As numerous Internet scholars have argued, despite the open access of the Internet (for people who must first have access to a computer and a broadband Internet connection), the Internet is hardly democratic. The operating logic of search engines is such that only the most popular websites are likely to show up in searches. The same websites and blogs appear in the top 3-5 results of every web search; all other sites are, as Jodi Dean put it in an NPR interview discussing her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Duke UP), “drowned in the massive flow [of commercialized data].” As such, Internet democracy is not a democracy of equitability but of popularity. To quote Dean further:

Rather than a rhizomatic structure where any one point is as likely to be reached as any other, what we have on the web are situations of massive inequality, massive differentials of scales where some nodes get tons of hits and the vast majority get almost none.

The Internet’s uneven distribution of cultural power is clear when we consider that before the controversy, Cachucho’s site got 50 hits per day whereas Schuman’s site got an estimated 250,000 daily hits – that’s 5000 times more than Cachucho. (Thanks to Schuman’s objections, Cachucho’s online traffic has spiked since the controversy – a point Schuman’s detractors are beyond giddy about.)

But in debating the concept of “free-(use)-for-all” Cachucho and Schuman aren’t talking about technological or class barriers. Instead, they’re referring to the ethical and legal barriers. Schuman actually provides a comment on The Fake Sartorialist post (March 31, 2010) that ominously intones, “Intellectual property beware. Intellectual freedom beware. En garde.” I think the en garde is pretty funny – even charming in another context – but I’m not really sure if he’s threatening Cachucho or being playful here.

On its face, Schuman’s objection to The Fake Sartorialist site – an objection based on his concern for the “unflattering depictions of his subjects” – makes little sense. First of all, Cachucho isn’t parodying Schuman’s subjects so much as he’s parodying fashion blogs in general and The Sartorialist (the exemplar of fashion blogs), in particular. Schuman’s protective claims on behalf of his subject seems mislaid at best and disingenuous at worst since they’re clearly not the target of the parodies.

Secondly, the idea that Schuman was fine with the parody site until it became “unflattering” is illogical. Parodies are intrinsically unflattering (though their objective is not always or necessarily to offend); otherwise, they’d be homages. Schuman probably just reached his limit with the parody – and this is understandable – but his being fed up with it is not a sound ethical basis for Cachucho or any other parodists to cease and desist. Arguably, this is precisely the moment when the parody is most effective! By the way, I’m no legal expert but it doesn’t seem to me that Cachucho is breaking any copyright or intellectual property rights laws either. In 1994, the Supreme Court found in favor of 2 Live Crew in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (yep, a reference to 2 Live freaking Crew found its way into threadbared!) that parodists are protected by fair use doctrines so long as “it is unlikely that the work will act as a substitute for the original.” Since Cachucho’s website explicitly announces its difference from Schuman’s (e.g., The Fake Sartorialist) and since the images are so clearly touched-up (unlike other fashion images – Schuman’s included – that disavow or conceal their processes of production and manipulation), no one is likely to mistake Cachucho’s work for the original. Indeed, the aesthetic punch and cultural value of Cachucho’s site depends on this difference! Anyway, I’m hoping law professor Susan Scafidi of Counterfeit Chic weighs in on her blog.

Finally, Schuman’s squabble with users’ appropriation of his blog style and images, as Cachucho points out, is more than a little hypocritical. Bloggers, to varying degrees, depend on external Internet users for their content. The higher the number of reader comments, links, and cross-postings a blog can amass, the more likely it is that the blog will achieve top search status and as such, increase the unique hits it gets. Sites with large numbers of unique hits gain the attention of not only more readers but advertisers, editors, literary agents, and designers who are all in the position to monetize the blog. Put another way, blogs and other Web 2.0 domains (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) depend on and, increasingly, profit from the voluntary labors of users. That Schuman’s cultural and financial coffers runneth over due in large part to the unpaid digital labors of readers (who are often also fellow bloggers like Cachucho) seems lost on Schuman.

The fashion blogosphere is an inherently referential, associational, and interactive space of cultural production. Typically, readers comb through fashion and style blogs to see what other people are wearing; what they should be buying, wearing, or storing this season and next season; and where to shop for these items. And as part of these consumption practices, they often leave comments on the site that comprise a major part of the digital content of the blog. Fellow bloggers cite, link to, and cross-post each other’s posts as well as the fashion images found in an array of digital sites. An exemplar of the fashion blogosphere – are there any print or digital discussions of fashion blogs that don’t include at least a mention of The Sartorialist? – Schuman’s blog is one of several elite blogs that show up in any Internet search among the hundreds of fashion and style blogs that don’t. The digital buzz about his blog is free advertising that helps to maintain and secure his cultural dominance. Cachucho’s parody is just another – albeit more creative – mode of productive consumption that does free work benefiting Schuman’s blog and blogger profile. Whatever Schuman’s personal feelings are about the parody site, it along with the controversy Schuman has helped to manufacture will likely increase his readership as well as secure his position as the reigning fashion blogger. To echo Amy Odell, “We Thought Scott Schuman Understood the Internet Better” too.

To be sure, parody is double-edged: at once confirming and contesting dominant relations of power. The parody site and the controversy has inarguably raised Cachucho’s cultural capital as well. How many had even heard about The Fake Sartorialist until this controversy? How sustainable this cultural capital is or whether he will see a financial effect remains to be seen though.

Part II: Legitimate Fakeness vs. Illegitimate Fakeness

I can’t end this post without considering this key question: if the Internet’s democratic mantra “free-for-all” really means “free-for-some,” then what are the conditions for accessing and claiming its freedoms (of communication, knowledge, and artistic expression)?

According to Cachucho, “people just copying images willy nilly” don’t count. This is a stunning distinction: here, The Fake Sartorialist is legitimizing his fake art against the illegitimate fakery of so-called willy nilly copycats. Legitimate fakeness vs. illegitimate fakeness? What’s the difference? Cachucho explains that his is a “new work created from . . . a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.” In other words, his fake art is an original and unique endeavor (“new work”) and thus he is a true author of fakes (rather than a real copycat) since he alone produced this new work (a labor-intensive and time-consuming “sifting” of over 100 blogs per day).

By positioning himself as an author of “new work,” Cachucho articulates himself as an individual against the masses of “people just copying images willy nilly.” This is the definition of an author. According to Martha Woodmansee, the author (a figure that emerged in the 18th century alongside print capitalism and the modern nation-state) is “a unique individual uniquely responsible for a unique product.” She also notes that historically the author was never “regarded as distinctly and personally responsible for his creation” but instead was perceived as a master craftsman who was notable for “manipulating traditional materials in order to achieve [desirable] effects.” But the cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic value of Cachucho as creative genius also differs from Woodmansee’s 18th century example. Rather than a unique or original genius, we might say that he is an ordinary genius – an oxymoron that actually makes sense in the era of the democratization of fashion and communication. Rather than a signification of artifice or derivation, “The Fake Sartorialist” is a brand that signifies democratic expression. This is what Cachucho means when he asserts that the Internet enables users to have “the power . . . to create.”

That said, the “fake” in the Fake Sartorialist stands for “the little guy” against the cultural and social giants that the Sartorialist aligns himself with and represents. Fakeness sets right and secures the democratic socioeconomic relations the Internet is supposed to foment (as Cachucho points out).

But it isn’t just Web 2.0 technologies that have opened up a space in the fashion world for those outside to enter and occupy it. For the past 8 or 9 years, cheap chic fashion and democratic design have been valorized as enabling non-elite consumers to access and own the look of elite classes. The democratization of fashion ushered in a new cultural politic that values and legitimizes (some) knockoffs. It is against this political economic and cultural backdrop that the real and virtual consumption and circulation of fashion images, objects, and discourses are given new meaning. Cachucho’s blog is appealing because its fakeness, like the legitimate knockoffs I mentioned in a previous post, is embedded in and enacts the new cultural dominant of democratic design.

The Fake Sartorialist site is a reminder that the margins, as Stuart Hall, bell hooks, and so many others have shown us, is a productive space. It is the site in which new cultural forms, new social relations, and new identities are imagined and produced against their dominant counterparts to struggle over the meaning of “culture”. Thus, “fake” in this new creative economy is not the opposite of “authentic” but rather the other side of the same coin. They mutually constitute each other. Additionally, the fake and the authentic are linked as well by a shared neoliberal logic of the creative economy in which privatized identities (“individuals”) are endowed with political economic protections such as intellectual property rights – protections the unindividuated masses are denied. It is as such that Schuman has been shielded from accusations that he’s copying Bill Cunningham who’s been doing street fashion photography for more than 40 years and that the “ethnic inspired” clothing collections of star Western designers are aesthetically valued in the fashion industry while designer-inspired handbags circulating in underground economies are condemned as “fake.”

** My “fake” title is brazenly taken from Stuart Hall’s essay, “What is the black in black popular culture?” which inspired key ideas in this post.

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The Incensed Beauty Guru and Pop-Feminism

Oh, my. A vlogger who was mentioned in a post about the phenomenon of “haul vlogging” in New York magazine’s The Cut last week is fighting back against what she perceived as the slandering of her reputation, in particular, and the profession of haul vloggers, in general. To be sure, The Cut’s assessment of haul vloggers was rather piquant:

“‘[H]aul videos’ . . . consist of girls videotaping themselves showing the world what they just bought at the mall. Like, they go home, plop down in front of their webcams, and pull their new purchases out of shopping bags. And discuss each item in way too much detail . . . Haul vloggers seem to be primarily of one species: the girl who flatirons her hair, wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and gets her brows waxed regularly. She also wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish and probably gets chemical peels at regular monthly intervals. Haul vloggers seem to favor, typically, cheap stores like Forever 21 and Target. Also, they don’t ever seem to wear half the trendy crap they’re constantly buying. And to think these people think they need this stuff, when what they need most of all are lives, hobbies, jobs, maybe cats.

As an example of haul vlogging, The Cut offered this popular video – apparently viewed nearly 8,000 times when the post was published.

The haul vlogger ChanelBlueSatin, a 22 year-old “Blogger, Youtuber, teacher, model, and wife!” from Texas, was so incensed by The Cut’s characterization of her that she made this response video.

Last week, I posted about the backlash against fashion bloggers and what this backlash might suggest about the shifting meanings of fashion’s democratization. The Cut’s review of haul vloggers is yet another example of this backlash. But what’s particularly interesting about this kerfuffle between ChanelBlueSatin and The Cut (mostly its readers now rather than the blogger Amy Odell who has since issued a mea culpa to the vlogger) is the ways in which the response calls Odell out for the misogynistic tone of her post:

Shouldn’t the editor of New York magazine try to be inspiring to women rather than bashing other women? I mean, shouldn’t they try to report on factual information rather than accusations based on outward appearances? . . . Bottom line is I respect the editor for having an interest in us beauty gurus on YouTube but I don’t respect the fact that she took a negative spin on it. Listen, there’s a whole lot of hate in this world so let’s just stop hating and start loving again. So keep the peace.

While the vlogger misidentifies Odell as the “editor” of New York magazine (Odell is the magazine’s fashion blogger) and misrepresents the blog post as a “featured article,” she is right to feel gender bashed by Odell and especially the readers who commented on the blog post. There’s a lot of “dumb girl fashion/capitalist victim” talk that dismisses fashion consumerism as feminine stupidity. (Click here for another example of this as well as Susie Bubble’s response.) We’ve posted about the stupidity of this line of logic but for a summation of the significance of fashion that is so spot-on that I wish we had written it, see Good Morning Midnight‘s post, which Mimi has also cited in a previous post. (See especially the paragraph that begins, “Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably.” – a blogger after my own heart.) Moreover, the classist strain of Odell’s evaluation of ChanelBlueSatin and haul vloggers in general is incredibly ugly. Odell seems most bothered not by haul vlogging as such but by the inauthenticity of haul vloggers who shop at down-market stores like Forever21 and “wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and . . . wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish.”

Yet, how does ChanelBlueSatin’s call for peace (among women) square with her self-identification as a “beauty guru”? How is the mastery over one’s image and body (the real commodity beauty and style gurus sell) the means and measure of pop-feminist inspiration, according to this vlogger? Put another way, how are material entitlements to Forever21 jewelry and teeth whitening strips coextensive with a moral discourse about love and inspiration among women?

Unfortunately, ChanelBlueSatin’s pop-feminism is commodified rather than politicized in consumer culture. It is, as Sarah Banet-Weiser describes postfeminism, a “commodity-driven empowerment.” More from Banet-Weiser’s essay “What’s Your Flava?”: “As a contemporary social and political movement, then, feminism has been rescripted (though not necessarily disavowed) so as to allow its smooth incorporation into the world of commerce and corporate culture.”

As a self-professed “beauty guru,” ChanelBlueSatin as well as the growing cadre of fashion bloggers, vloggers, television personalities, and print media authors of the what-to-wear/what-not-to-wear makeover variety disenables precisely the humanist feminist project she claims to be leading. The relationship between the makeover guru and makeoveree is an inherently hierarchical one that is based not simply on an uneven distribution of skills (shopping, styling, etc.) but rather an uneven distribution of personhood based on the apparent mastery of or incompetence about dominant codes of beauty and behavior. The subject “in need” of the expertise of the lifestyle guru is imagined as a deficient person – a person who lacks self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth – and thus, in need of correction. I’ve cited Brenda Weber’s account of the role of the fashion/beauty guru before and she’s useful here again:

A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities.”

So while ChanelBlueSatin’s self-identification as a “beauty guru” made me giggle, it is worth recalling that being a lifestyle guru is serious economic and cultural political business that is also ideological and disciplinary. The social relationship of lifestyle gurus to their subjects is one of casual, consensual, neoliberal domination. As Tania Lewis, the editor of a wonderful special issue on the topic of makeover television in the journal Continuum (volume 22.4) explains: “As government seeks to devolve responsibility for welfare to individuals, television, and in particular what they term ‘life intervention’ formats . . . can be seen to play an increasingly central role in inducting viewers into new neoliberal modes of self-governing citizenship.”

The Internet, which is quickly surpassing the television as the primary medium of visual and consumer culture, makes “life intervention” ideologies especially appealing. Whereas television is generally understood to be a top-down medium controlled by a handful of profit-seeking corporations, the prevailing logic about the Internet is that it is an inherently democratic form in which ordinary people participate in the structuring and content-building of new cultural publics. And indeed, the celebrity of bloggers and vloggers like Tavi Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin are particular to the way the Internet works. What is especially appealing about these “gurus” is that they are ordinary people, people whose person and style of modern personhood seem to be easily accessible. As embodiments of the democratization of fashion, the figure of the citizen blogger/vlogger occludes the uneven access to commodities and communication technologies between makeover gurus and makeoverees (both Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin, for example, are privy to the deep pockets of fashion and media companies) and thus conceals the ways in which the promise of self-invention is shaped and limited by one’s successful self-governing and normativizing of body, image, and behavior.

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Filed under FASHION 2.0, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS