Checkmate or Check Out
A Game of Fashion Politics.
The world is strewn with ambitious disruptors, game changers and pioneers, the ones that question their realities and look at the world differently, hoping to subvert the status quo and shake entire industries up onto their heads. The world needs these disruptors, it needs breaks from predominant ideologies and processes in order to evolve and bring about change – and change, as noted by Hannah Arendt, can only come through violence. She was of course, referring to the overarching reality governing battle that is geopolitics and its many modern day soldiers; global cross cultural and cross border battalions taking the form of sociopolitical ideologies, the world war of our generation.
When it comes to fashion, the playing field is no different. Numerous analogies can be made with the fashion industry, a natural representative of its wider social context: game changers in fashion are no less important than game changers in politics. Fashion is politics. It’s politics masked as idle indulgences, peripheral consumables, a match of illusions for the wealthy and those who aspire to look it.
In truth, there are few things so inherently political as fashion, music and art. They are the dresses donned by powerful social ideas, beautiful and enchanting as they are distracting and deceptive, hiding a breadth of cultural cues and deeply significant ideologies that shape and influence on a mass scale. Magazines like Vice and i-D aren’t just a collection of the latest street born fashions, the defining carriers of counterculture, but are powerful vehicles of ideas targeted at the future leaders and game changers of the next generations. As much as Vogue illustrates the latest trends in the pages of its glossy magazines, it projects aspirational lifestyles and identities imbued with multiple layers of social conformity cues. What seems innocuous at first glance, the industry of fashion and play, has seeped deeper into the modern industry of manufacturing of meaning as the world got larger with globalization and digitization, curling its roots insidiously around other powerful mediums of culture such as music, dance, literature and entertainment to strengthen the charge of its message through emotional marketing.
What follows, we learn, is that fashion is inherently manipulative. Such a powerful medium of persuasion is easily nothing short of propaganda. The mainstream fashion media have the ability to sway public opinion through the image of legitimacy they have created over the years, and hence, hold a lot of power over which brands rise to influence and to triple digit profits and who don’t, representing a great opportunity for emerging talent struggling to succeed in the industry. And if we recognize that the modern ubiquity of brands translates into the fact that brands are carriers of identity, of ideas and of social conformity – as numerous academic papers and articles have theorized – it is not a power to underestimate. Yet, what we naturally recognize in politics, we routinely fail to remember when we indulge in the amusement of fashion: the game is rigged, and it is an opaque system of power relations and advertising spending power, and not one of meritocracy, that dictates who wins.
Fashion publishers, journalists and brands are locked into a closed, self sustaining circuit that relationally affects the entire industry, offering up an impossible barrier to entry into the fashion system for those unwilling to play the game. When the pages of a publication are filled with thousands of dollars of advertising revenues from major brands, it is safe to say that both its editors and its writers steer clear of any form of criticism, lest a furious creative director at the helm of an iconic fashion house pull its “contribution.”
In this way advertising spending acts as an investment – the investor is always looking for a return. As journalist Tamara Pearson notes in an article for Truth-Out, journalism is dead and content marketing has taken its place. It is a tacit agreement between entities to scratch each other’s back to the detriment of the final consumer, hoodwinked into buying into facts with no real foundation in scientific analysis and objective reporting, and into products lacking in all the value adding attributes they promised to bring.
In 2016, British Vogue was estimated to have made £25 million per year in print advertising alone, commanding just over £70,000 for a double page spread. Yet print isn’t the only channel that commands advertising – between Vogue.co.uk with 2.16 million users, Youtube channels that span around 2.6 million subscribers for the brand overall and 17.6 million followers on Instagram, we can just imagine the vast potential for profit, its tempting shadow quelling any and all qualms about journalistic integrity. This is of course does not yet count annual festivals, sponsorships, fashion competitions (indoctrinating future fashion generations into the sycophancy demanded by the industry’s modus operandi) and all the sister publications with their own distinctive channels covering target markets of every size, income bracket, age, culture and niche.
Not surprisingly, the idea that informational reliability can coexist harmoniously with a model that relies on advertising revenues rests on shaky ground. And yet, this idea is aggressively defended by its perpetrators.
Stephen Quinn, Vogue’s publishing director since 1991, held his head high when the September 2014 issue was criticized for carrying more ad pages than any other September issue in the magazine’s entire history. So did Jefferson Hack, founder, publisher and director of Dazed and Confused Magazine, when he was questioned on the hypocritical commercial underpinnings of his self-proclaimed status as an independent publisher, in an interview by Lou Stoppard for SHOWstudio in 2014. With deep pocket brands such as Chanel, Nike and Gucci’s backing, and as a media conglomerate that spans AnOther Magazine, Dazed Digital, AnOther Man, and NOWNESS, the latter on LVMH’s payroll, Hack’s anti mainstream stance as an independent voice for this generation’s rebellious counter culture is laughable, if not downright despicable.
What is alarming isn’t just the obvious prostitution of the media, a discourse that has now become common knowledge, but the shameless appropriation of a populist guise, complete with zine trimmings and political (albeit vague) calls to action in order to serve his very corporate, and very mainstream, interests. Here we begin to tread into waters that are much more obviously political to the eyes of the layman – just look at Vice Media, so commonly taken by millenials in creative industries as a hub of intellect, pop culture and populist street style instead of the highly political news media agency that it is. Give me one student from Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion that doesn’t make Vice, i-D, Dazed or AnOther Magazine their source of news.
The effect is disastrous – the hypocrisy of a system that demands the best of both worlds, donning the veil of truth whilst selling out to the highest bidder, destabilizes our collective ability to think critically and independently, and normalizes a system where wisdom is undermined in order to accept happy illusions in the place of ugly realities. Michel Clouscard called it back in the 1960’s, stating that a world that so heavily relies on advertising is a world that bastardizes the significance of reality and truth and their place in our social hierarchy of values. The manufacturing of concepts is as devious as it is persuasive, which is why initial theories and studies of mass communication focused on its usage for mind control, beginning with American two time Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Lippman’s novel Public Opinion published a century ago in 1922. A quick read of a couple of excerpts will soon bring the horrific realization that rather than a cultural analysis, Public Opinion acts as an elitist guide on how to steer the masses, referred to as a ‘bewildered herd’ incapable of reasoning in their best interests and in that of the world’s. Interestingly, Lippman is also one of the founding fathers of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), one of the world’s most influential foreign policy think tank.
Michel Clouscard understood the seductive importance of the spectacle, underlining how marketing worked so well because it operates ambiguously between the opposite realms of truth and falsehoods, a strategic positioning that enables appearances to easily annihilate reality, the superficial replacing any form of depth in one swift blow.
The age of influence coincides with the age of entertainment, perpetrated by a static power structure; an ingrained set of interconnected factors that hold it all in place, shaping the face of the fashion industry at will in a vicious cycle of self affirmation, executed in large part by the consistent filtering of information through multiple channels of censorship.
A brief overview makes this clear. Like Hack, editors will play on the fact they only publish what they like, omitting that what they like is heavily edited to conform to prevailing narratives. Fashion journalists and writers innately know how to turn a blind eye to their objectivity by relying on techniques of propaganda such as omission of information and usage of emotionally charged descriptions in order to maintain their status within the publication and the industry. PR agencies loom threateningly behind any exchange of information between brands and the outside world, their presence alone signifying implicit censorship. Bloggers and influencers, the people’s solution to the pervasive infiltration of marketing and image in the goings of ordinary life, enter into a tacit mutual understanding with the brands that pay them to direct their social media posts to their trusting immediate social circles. Runway, launches and private fashion party invites are handed out to industry insiders that are known to garner only positive buzz for the brands that host them. Public personalities and celebrities become brand ambassadors legally bound to non disclosure and coerced positive promotion so stringently it borders on identity ownership. Models, the faces and main promoters of the industry, are selectively picked from within the system maintaining an incestuous circle that naturally eliminates most of the threat of ideological defiance. Stylists and photographers work with hyped brands with wide reach that garner high publicity in order to make their way into the big dog’s good graces, get higher exposure and get paid for their associations to high status. Retailers stock the brands with the highest buzz to increase their chances of selling and maximizing revenues. Fashion interns swarm in the thousands to big, buzzy fashion houses, offering up their expensive graduate degrees, promises of free labor and fresh creative ideas to be plagiarized in the hopes of jumpstarting their careers. And finally, brands need to mass produce novel content by attracting high quality creatives on a budget in order boost profits further, showcase attractive growth metrics to investors and shareholders, and maintain their imperial position through aggressive branding and advertising with influential publications, closing the loop.
“The manufacturing of image and consent have become such powerful tools they have even managed to topple logical directions of power hierarchies among industry players.“
The effects of a system built to applaud itself for its own grandiosity through the careful filtering of yes-sayers has direct consequences to consumers and the non fashionable inner workings of garment production. The quest for shock worthy, perpetually avant garde content has translated into runway designs more noteworthy as artistic sculptures, manifesting a combination of designers’ self importance and deeply embedded pressures to deliver on the hype promulgated by the fashion press, rather than into clothing consumers would want to or could afford to wear. That the fashion industry is heading straight for the brink of burn out is a topic well discussed, but the cracks keep getting paved on with short term solutions that only aggravate the problem. The high social and environmental cost of fashion has recently become a hot topic, yet institutions still tip toe around big brands, knowing better than to bite the beast too harshly and call out human rights violations by name for fear of being shut out.
The manufacturing of image and consent have become such powerful tools they have even managed to topple logical directions of power hierarchies among industry players. When Alexa Chung released her first collection, a buyer for a prominent luxury multi brand retail store decided against stocking the nascent label because it fell short of luxury standards, only to be later called up by infuriated representatives of the brand to demand how she dared not spend her allocated budget, and to undermine her position by threatening to report her insolence to Vogue. One can only wonder at the deeply ingrained mechanics of coercion, so authoritative so as to turn a brand’s relationship with a purchaser upside down.
The extortion goes in multiple ways. Jacques Hyzagi published an article with the Observer in 2016 where he denounces Elle Magazine for the hijacking of a brilliant unprecedented interview with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, one of the most interesting designers alive today, in the name of content branding and petty power meddling.
Predominantly, we’re looking at a system that not only discourages critique and opposition, but downright banishes it into non existence, closing the door on any player at any level in the fashion industry hierarchy that refuses to play the game, throttled of their voice through the simple act of exclusion from networks and their monopoly on publicity channels, whose absolute power is cemented as the primary filters of any and all information generated on a global scale. If cultural codes are fixed and the process by which they shed and gain meaning controlled, everybody is inclined to think the same, bringing forth a secondary channel of censorship enforced by individuals onto each other and new entrants, who are then forced to confirm to prevailing narratives in order to gain any sort of credibility in the system and gain access.
The closed fashion industry circuit feeds back into itself in a never ending cycle of hype-feeds profits-maintains status figures’ legitimacy-feeds hype, blocked from any form of evolution that isn’t a direct extension of its internalized logic. The industry mimics the workings of a chessboard; all industry insiders acting as pawns forced to play by the conditions imposed by the game. The only way out is to choose not to play, in which case you’re out. And the game continues.
In its appraisal of self censorship in the realm of fashion writing, Vestoj brings forth Noam Chomsky’s arguments with regards to the elite domination of mass media news reporting, which it illustrates as fundamental in garnering voluntary compliance with the dominating forces in the industry, naturally applicable to the fashion industry microcosm.
What we find is that propaganda has had the leeway to flourish and ingrain itself into internalized rationalization on an individual level, shifting conformity from external forces into voluntary internal obedience, for the simple reason that we all need to work and make money in order to survive. Few will be able to hold their stance before succumbing to its debilitating limitations, and few, as Chomsky notes, will have the time, energy and commitment to carry on the battle to break from the illusions we perpetuate that keeps the system alive.
This censorship isn’t exclusive to the realm of fashion, but to other fields that rest, whether fully or in part, on the realm of ideas, the driving forces behind our behavior, conformity, and direction and process of evolution. When the source of all social drivers, no matter how diverse in principle and thought, is one and the same – and in this case we are referring to the capitalist model – then thriving naturally enters into the complex, murky waters of gray areas. Principle, integrity and righteousness are naturally subverted for survival. We all need money to live, and we are all driven by the socially ingrained definition that success is measured through material wealth and individuality. Individuality may seem out of place, but it is in fact fundamental, bringing public recognition, the ultimate cultural driver in a society running on image fumes, as well as allowing for the private ownership and aggregation of wealth.
Historically, the real disrupters of cultural mainstream conventions starved. They were outcast, ostracized, ridiculed and impoverished, only to gain notoriety post mortem, refueling an ideology where life goals are measured by publicity and wealth. Few contemporary artists wouldn’t want to hold the same weight of Van Gogh; however, even fewer would want to accept the same conditions with which he earned that weight. Counter culture is now a multibillion dollar industry, its proclaimed disruptors glorified, revered and marketed as such, fueling a bubble of hype, publicity, higher prices, and monetary gain.
The most important subcultures throughout history have been plagiarized to give carefully constructed branding the appearance of price inflating edginess. Through appropriating the visual codes of political movements and reinserting them into contradictory, superficial contexts, the fashion industry acts as a machine of deconstruction, stripping away their depth and power in a manner that ultimately dilutes their argument. Whether a natural occurrence of the processes by which the system survives or not, some would recognize that as a form of social engineering.
In all of this, modern consumers of counter culture stop looking around and stop questioning. Fashion’s current façade interestingly centers on one of the most important issues of our time: the disparity of wealth. While we engage in class battles, the driver of our global foundation, money, is quietly siphoned into the bank accounts of a small group of top dogs, leaving very little for the rest of the world to use to address the numerous ills of modernity. Behind this, the normalization of global economic crises is largely contributed to by bourgeois interests swathed in worker class fashions, marketing the idea that poverty is cool by placing democratic clothing like white tees, hoodies and jeans in elitist contexts and price tags. All we have to do is take a look at brands like Vetements, Balenciaga, Off White, Supreme, and any other brand that appropriates populist uniforms to give couture priced and marketed products the appearance of counter culture coolness, littering their branding channels with pictures of shanty towns and low income workers that would never be able to afford the products they promote.
Populist fashions and trends with an authentic call to action lose all of their righteousness the moment they are donned by celebrities in a highly publicized, exclusive runway and sold higher than the price of a worker’s monthly wages, yet that does little to discourage the swarms of millenials ready to buy into the adventure of living in the shoes of a poor man for a night.
What any historic political subculture, be it Dada, Beatniks, Punks or Mods, originated for, what beliefs, lifestyles and calls for action they stood for, were picked apart and remodeled to fit the commercial interests of the capitalist model, where the counter culture ideas they once represented, such as freedom of expression, independence from a system perceived as suffocating and the drive to create new channels of political expression that beat new paths out for others to follow, whether originally authentic or not, are used, cultural code by cultural code, to perpetuate a systematic circular path of indoctrination back into the system, to serve the appealing, yet dependent, consumerist industries of frivolity, entertainment, fashion, leisure, and as Michel Clouscard notes, the commercial monopolies of sex and drugs.
Dazed and Confused was originally a true, independent voice for fashion students and other stakeholders at the bottom of the industry barrel, yet with growth and success, it inevitably morphed from a driver of change into an upholder of the mainstream. Satirical derivatives of logos popularized on merchandise to make important social statements that were initially sued by the brands they defiled for the sacrilege of image desecration, now in turn sue newly created derivatives by third parties having entered into the corporate ethos of maintaining profits and the status that upholds it. Even the Dalai Lama is a brand whose ideology has been used to sell innumerable products, hollow of the ideas that originally may have motivated their creation. There are no outsiders when it comes to industries with image fabrication at their core, the powerful cultural drivers of society. Here, image is power, and those who seek it will eventually have to pay the price of authenticity. I too, as a product of my social context and an individual working in the fashion industry, am inextricably linked to its behavioral and relational power structures.
Herein lies the real problem: can we ever escape the inherent catch 22 of the societal model we’ve erected? When it comes to culture, voluntarily denying ourselves monetary gain and success, and hence, power, in the hopes of maintaining our integrity, would only lead to the unfortunate position of lacking any resource or means to bring about the new forms of cultural expression we envisioned. In our current framework, such an ethical consideration could never work, ultimately revealing that all roads lead to maintaining the positions of power held by established cultural tastemakers.
The fashion industry will continue to operate within its current framework, unchallenged, its endemic system of censorship acting as an impenetrable fortress to any conflicting ideological revolutions that could threaten its very foundations. Postulating solutions inevitably border on the radical, on violence of the kind identified by Hannah Arendt as the only real substance a revolution that ever brought in an entirely new system was made of. And here we open, by default, an entirely new can of worms.
In an issue on power, Vestoj astutely questions that if fashion reflects society, then does this mean we are staring right at the ugly face of our society’s inherent paradigm? In other words, do the structures and hierarchies that we erect around us simply mimic the political dynamics symptomatic of human nature? We are reminded of an Orwellian dystopia, one whose fictional prophecies resonate much too closely with reality. It is also the premise of determinism, which stipulates a series of logical cause and effects from which humanity cannot escape.
With such scenarios in mind, we are forced to question nature’s part in the co-creation of corrupt systems with the power to be self-sustaining. Discussing solutions that do not delve into the dual nature of reality rely too heavily on vague affirmations. In an Orwellian world, a revolutionary upheaval of the chessboard would be redundant, simply buying us time until a new static power structure takes its place; the deterministic trap made unavoidable by humanity’s natural relational dynamics with power.
Perhaps the answer lies not in toppling a system, but in rewriting its rules, replacing the static justifications that maintain the power hierarchy with new, malleable ones able to intermittently prevent abuses of power.
In the fashion industry microcosm, the static pillar is that of multi-branched censorship. As a violation of identity and possibility, the right to own our own thoughts, and to express them to like-minded peers, our social circle or the world, whether by written word or speech, becomes the most critical right that we have. The right to question. The right to transparency. The right to truth; and if that’s too much, then the right to seek it.
Ultimately, in a world governed by a system of manufactured meaning and glorification of image so rooted in our collective perceptions and reasoning we have long lost the natural ability to identify what lies behind the smoke screen, if these illusions are what allow us to face reality, if entertainment is what fills the hole in our existence that the unanswerable universal questions of our time have left, the real question we have to ask ourselves is: can we really ever escape the system, and do we want to?