I’ve always regarded Sacha Baron Cohen’s Austrian alter ego, Brüno Gehard, as an embarrassing post-Borat low point in his career. But then I stumbled across this video, which appears to have been filmed in the early-to-mid 2000s, SBC’s golden period. In it, we see the comedian trolling his way through fashion week, luring naive American style industry insiders into his satirical honey-trap, which they inevitably fall into and come up looking utterly stupid.
Where Borat existed to depict Middle America as a nation of dumbed-down ignoramuses whose knowledge of the world barely extends beyond their own state, let alone country, Brüno took aim at the fashion world, which he lampooned as shallow and vapid. These criticisms of fashion are so common that they go well beyond the point of cliche, but is there a degree of truth to them? Is fashion inherently superficial, or is that just a tired and lazy prejudice?
The aforementioned Brüno spoof effectively summarizes why so many people roll their eyes at the fashion industry: from stylists who laugh about the fact that poor people can’t afford the clothes that they provide the inspiration for, to New Yorkers talking about unfashionable outsiders with conceited disdain, and a casting director who quite clearly doesn’t know who Osama Bin Laden is after describing him as “really cool”, it becomes painfully obvious why fashion is often caricatured as a cesspit of Paris Hilton-esque airheads.
Of course the video probably presents a very warped account: we can only begin to wonder how many of SBC’s facetious questions fell flat on their face before he found a few useful dupes to say some dumb shit on camera. The edit gives the false impression that everybody at Fashion Week is a total moron, when really they’re probably in the minority. But this perception endures and one can’t help wonder how big this presumed minority really is.
The reason why this stigma hangs over the style industry is pretty self-explanatory: the sort of superficial bimbos of both genders depicted in that Brüno video are abundant in fashion and many people see this as a logical byproduct of the industry’s obsession with the external rather than the internal. While all visual art and design trades in aesthetics, fashion tends to be far more superficial than, say, architecture or product design. Architecture is technical and rooted in mathematics. Product design is shaped by ergonomics and functionality. Both have a steel-headed logic that is often conflated with depth, purpose and meaning. Fashion, on the other hand, rarely ever looks beyond the surface level – in fact, it often willfully ignores any other considerations.
The comical disproportion popularized by Vetements, or the ridiculous half-on/half-off trend, represent an active rejection of practicality for no discernible reason. The recent faddishness of ugly fashion, epitomized by Balenciaga’s monstrosity of a sneaker, the Triple S, doesn’t scorn beauty as a way of exploring an idea in the way that the abstract expressionists did, it’s just another one of Demna Gvasalia’s ironic gags. Or maybe he likes recycling old ideas that Egon Schiele explored a century ago.
Either way, it feels like a random roll of the dice rather than a deeply rooted idea with conceptual substance. The oversized proportions that he’s so famous for are said to be a nod to his impoverished upbringing in Georgia, where he had to wear clothes that he would grow into. It’s an interesting source of inspiration, but it doesn’t actually say anything about poverty, it simply reflects it. It’s an interesting visual statement, but not a very profound one.
This randomness is a defining feature of the industry. The New York Timesrecently reported that dressing like a cowboy is totally in this season, thanks to Raf Simons. Apparently it’s a comment on Americana and the myths that the U.S. tells about itself, a perception that’s reinforced by Raf’s recent use of horrific cheerleaders. There’s reason to presume that this might be a comment on the decrepitness of the American dream in the era of Trump, but it’s always hard to tell with a nonverbal medium like fashion.
But if the trend does take off and we see dudes walking around dressed like cattle ranchers I’d be compelled to ask why. Why didn’t they dress that way before? What has changed between this season and last season that compelled them to invest in a pair of rattlesnake skin boots?
This is precisely why fashion attracts the criticisms that it does: because its obsession with disposable trends creates an air of frivolousness, one that’s reinforced by the fact that it’s an art form that, unlike literature or film, doesn’t tackle any of life’s big questions. Not that it should have to necessarily – fashion is a decorative art form, after all, and no one puts similar expectations on product or graphic design. Apple became the world’s most valuable brand not by producing the most technologically advanced products, but by making them the best looking and wrapping them in the slickest branding, yet no one ever called Steve Jobs superficial. One has to wonder what it is about fashion that attracts such scorn. The reason for this, I believe, is the reverence that’s heaped upon fashion in the wider culture.
It attracts far more attention than tech or graphic or product design; it demands far more attention, peacocking its way into our consciousness in a way that other branches of design don’t. Because that’s the thing about fashion: the industry has to inflate its own importance to convince people to change their wardrobe every season. You don’t buy a new sofa every six months, do you? Of course not, nobody does. To encourage such rabid consumption, the poorly dressed and the passé are mocked and stigmatized, as we saw in that Brüno video earlier. You’d have to question the values of anyone that buys into this idea: imagine how much money it must cost keeping up with the trend cycle. Imagine all the sacrifices that have to be made elsewhere to fund that sort of spending. If that’s not shallow, then what is?
Ultimately, the main reason why the fashion world is perceived as superficial is because of the people who populate it. Obviously I don’t include accomplished designers in that grouping – only an idiot would. The likes of Rei Kawakubo, Rick Owens and their equivalents are supremely talented artistic visionaries and I don’t think that anyone familiar with their work would label them as shallow.
The same can’t be said for all the people who latch onto the industry in the hopes that some of its reflected glamour might rub off on them: the bloggers, the influencers, the hypebeasts, the ones who hang around Fashion Week wearing silly outfits in the hopes that someone might take a photo of them for a street style as if they were an actual model. These people don’t contribute to the industry in any creative sense and, in my experience, don’t tend to be very interesting.
Because that’s the thing about fashion: clothing gives people the opportunity to buy into a certain image without actually doing anything to justify it. Wear the right garms and you can exude a superficial mystique, or sexiness, or street cred, or creativity, even if the reality couldn’t be further from the facade. Its largely these people that give fashion its reputation for shallowness.
Much like Brüno all those years ago, VICE recently stood outside of a London Fashion Week show and caught members of the Fashion Crowd saying some really dumb things on camera. When presented with the question “why should I give a shit about fashion?”, each of them responded with some absolute twaddle, reinforcing the perception that people who devote their lives to style often lack in substance.
There’s a clear logic to this view: there are only so many hours in the day and our attention spans are finite. Following trends, browsing clothes, putting together outfits and posing for carefully curated Instagram shots is time and energy consuming work – that’s why stylists are paid to do this stuff. And the more someone devotes to dressing up, the less time they have to pursue more enlightened endeavors. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that you can’t have or do it all, and going by my own experiences, those that define themselves through what they wear often have little to offer by the way of meaningful conversation.
I think it’s quite telling that someone like Slavoj Zizek, one of the great thinkers of our time, looks like he sleeps in his car. Bernie Sanders’ unkempt appearance suggests that getting dressed is an unwanted distraction in his daily quest to shift the political bearings of the planet’s dominant superpower. Jonathan Franzen, one of the living greats of modern literature, probably doesn’t even take his blazer and jeans off in the shower.
A number of the world’s leading designers, like Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Tom Ford, and Thom Browne are known for wearing the same outfit most of the time. Picking out what to wear evidently distracts from the much more cerebral work of actually designing clothes and sourcing inspiration for a steady stream of new ideas.
But, you know, superficiality doesn’t necessarily have to be interpreted as an insult. People who are into fashion constantly feel the need to defend it from these accusations of superficiality, but fashion is a decorative rather than conceptual art form. It’s not supposed to be profound, it’s just supposed to look good (or in the case of ugly fashion, interesting). The social commentary that does exist in fashion – the prominence of suits in Vetements’ recent collections is a reference to plummeting suit sales and the decline of formalism in the workplace – has its own value that can be appreciated for what it is if people don’t take it too seriously, which they shouldn’t.
And rather than trying to swat away these criticisms, the Fashion Crowd should embrace them in the way that other groups have reclaimed disparaging words (the N-bomb and “slut” are two that come to mind) as their own and taken the sting out of them. Countless clothing brands have made their fortunes off of aloof nonchalance, so maybe the fashion world should take a page out of its own playbook to fight off the critics.