October 16, 2007

Kitten Heels, Stilletos and the Rise of the Proletariat

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Fashion is often associated with luxury items. Being well dressed is equated with having a wide assortment of designer labels. However, fashion is continually becoming more egalitarian and less directly related to wealth. But is this democratization of fashion ruining the true art of fashion?
Fashion is not strictly about wearing high priced goods in order to demonstrate affluence, success or accomplishment. Fashion is an individual and wearable form of expression available to any consumer regardless of their income. Everyone says something about who they are by what they wear, whether or not they intend to make such a statement. High end designers hold the reins of what is and will be stylish, even when such changes filter down through the ladder of the fashion world.
An assortment of designers has martyred themselves in the name of fashion for the masses. Vera Wang is the latest high status designer to join the ranks of Isaac Mizrahi, Luella Bartley and other big names that have designed for stores like Target and Kohls. Anyone can own designer merchandise, even without setting foot on the likes of Madison Avenue.
High end designers are accessible at every mall in America. Beyond their wide array of locations, designers also make merchandise to accommodate every budget — think a Gucci bag offered in canvas, calf skin, mink fur, python and/or ostrich. Or cloth Chanel bags with stitching reminiscent of alligator, for those who can afford Chanel but can’t afford the best of it. Additionally, many designers create discounted merchandise sold exclusively at their outlet locations. Think about that bag/wallet/makeup case that you’ve been dying for but only available in paper thin nylon or neon orange or a year after it was released.
Knock-offs of these retail luxury goods may even be released before the real item. These expertly designed luxury items can barely be appreciated for their skill and innovation in a sea of look-alikes. Any fashion conscious individual can take a walk through Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Bloomingdales or Nordstrom and identify the luxury item that most pieces are either copies of or inspired by. Why pay for the real deal when you can have a similar item at a mere fraction of the cost?
Yet there is still something to be said for high quality goods and designs that are original to the artist who created them. Designers are truly artists and their work is being copied. If plagiarized essays result in a failing grade for a college course then why are plagiarized clothes and accessories such a success? Law suits have been filed for an assortment of artistic endeavors, such as book or movie ideas, yet there is a struggle to apply that standard of original work to fashion. There is an inherent hypocrisy in our society if we teach honesty and scrupulous work ethics to children yet can’t maintain those standards in the fashion industry (or on the clothes that those same parents and teachers wear).
Fashion is genuinely a form of art. It is innovative, diverse, distinctive, wearable art. Unfortunately, the commercialism of fashion has ruined the art of fashion. In an industry where knock offs and plagiarized designs abound it is hard to appreciate the skill and ingenuity necessary to produce such art. Clothes are not merely about keeping warm/cool/dry but about a rapidly progressing medium of art that is now accessible to nearly all socio-economic strata.
The democratization of fashion is meant to be a good thing — a wide range of consumers is able to purchase fashionable items that may otherwise be out of their grasp. Everyone deserves to dress, feel and look better. Every consumer deserves well designed merchandise, not just low quality/mass quantity crap. Yet, putting those high end items into their grasp may be at the expense of fashion itself. The fine art of fashion may be lost on the masses who simply prefer the imitation.
Fashion (like healthcare) should be accessible to everyone. At the same time, luxury just is not as luxurious if everyone has got the goods. Yet, fashion should not sacrifice itself for the sake of fashion.