Could there be a more fitting symbol of the fashion world’s current juvenile mood than the Barbie doll? The plastic, no longer quite so fantastic, figure was the inspiration for Moschino’s collection for spring/summer ’15, in which creative director Jeremy Scott styled models as blonde-haired, bubble-gum-pink-lipped living dolls. Scott’s collection may make some sense in the context of his work for the brand (his first collection borrowed heavily from McDonald’s and American junk foods, while his latest, for autumn/winter ’15, features Looney Tunes characters), but it’s a challenge to see much beneath the surface.
Scott is not alone in mining a seam of nostalgia and novelty in order to sell collections. Anya Hindmarch littered her spring/summer ’15 collection with googly eyes, Mickey Mouse thumbs up and all manner of doodles that might be more at home in a schoolgirl’s rough book than a leather handbag that costs as much as the monthly rent on a four-bedroom house in Surrey. These motifs were chopped into bitesize pieces, too, as leather stickers available to buy immediately, the better for a voracious social-media audience to gobble them up.
“[I] just want to bring joy to people,” said Scott to Style.com about his Barbie collection, while Hindmarch’s motto is: “Fashion doesn’t save lives, but it should make you smile.” Are these designers just providing some cheer to counterbalance the increasingly gloomy real world, or is there something more insidious afoot? Lou Stoppard, the editor of the fashion website SHOWstudio.com, believes firmly that it’s the latter. “It’s about shoving branding down young people’s throats, grabbing their attention with surface – not cut or structure – and reeling them in as a committed consumer that will shell out for iPhone cases at first, then graduate on to bags and apparel later.”
Enticing customers with entry-level items – keyrings, phone cases, sunglasses and scents – is a solid strategy, but thanks to the rise of the “Instagram moment” it’s now played out on the catwalks for the world to see. “Don’t let those childish logos make you think it’s silly, innocent fun,” Stoppard says. “It’s shrewd.”
Perhaps one of the scariest aspects of Scott’s tactics is how successfully they’ve worked. Before his appointment, Moschino had been flatlining; now, sales are up – they rose 7 per cent in 2014, bucking a trend of decline across their parent group, Aeffe. It now makes up 65 per cent of its sales. When Scott’s McDonald’s collection was available in Selfridges, a source at the department store told me that it was selling “depressingly” well. That this collection was available almost immediately after it was on the catwalk can’t have hurt – these are designs perfect for the age of the internet, after all: see it, want it, buy it at the click of a button, and discard it soon after. That immediacy is astute – if you had six months to think about it, would a Happy Meal handbag be quite so appealing?
Scott and Hindmarch aren’t the only designers successfully selling luxurious kitsch: Stella McCartney’s spring collection featured superhero bags and corkboard prints, Fendi’s googly-eyed bag bugs are multiplying, and Chanel collections are chock-a-block with visual gags. Considering that “shallow” is one of the most frequent insults lobbed at people with more than a passing interest in fashion, it’s odd that so many brands seem happy to accept, and even welcome, the clueless connotations of their collections. “I’m not saying all fashion has to be minimal, severe and strict,” Stoppard agrees. “I just think there’s a better way to offer pop fashion than plastering it with the emblems of consumerism.”
But what’s behind this desire for the surface, the silly and the strange? Perhaps it’s a reaction to the blandness of “normcore”, itself a reaction to the peacocking of street style. That fashion is eating itself has long been a theory, but that cycle has sped up in recent years to a point that is almost untenable – the high street may be full of “designer-inspired” merchandise, but its speedy sales models are in turn being aped by those luxury labels. “Brands are trying to cash in, not by offering good design but maximum impact and immediacy,” Stoppard says. “Throwaway fashion is now the norm, no matter what the price tag.”
But that price tag is important – Hindmarch’s sticker collection may be reminiscent of playground swaps and silliness but its pricing also brings with it cliquey connotations. That’s not to advocate a complete sense-of-humour failure; contemporary pricing certainly helps pop culture to seem a more palatable proposition.
Whether it’s a blip or a trend that will come to define the fashion of the Instagram era, there’s one thing that’s sure: sometimes the funny thing about fashion is that it’s not very funny at all.
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