Many of the largest fashion houses and their owners have taken note of the commercial power of common culture. In an attempt to draw consumers from lower demographics who felt alienated from these high fashion brands, these cultures have crept into the design language of many notable fashion houses.
Marc Jacobs recently launched an offshoot company, ‘Heaven by Marc Jacobs’ centred around the rebellious youth. Journalist Kate Bowie remarks their new brand is ‘A collection aimed at teens. And by god have they aimed with precision.’ Upon further inspection of Marc Jacob's brand history, this is a clear bid to commercialise popular culture.
In 2018, the New York Times claimed Jacobs’ brand had ‘fallen out of fashion.’ During an earnings call with investors in January 2017, Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive of LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), spoke volumes of Jacobs’ current performance. While responding to questions about the business environment during the Trump presidency he stated, “I’m more concerned about Marc Jacobs than the U.S. president.” Thus, it becomes clear that Jacobs' namesake fashion house was struggling, and the launch of Heaven was a desperate attempt to recapture the market’s interest.
Launched in 2020, the collection is an entanglement of 00’s rave, 90’s grunge, and 2022’s maximalism. However, as Kate Bowie notes, ”While undoubtedly cool, it must be said that these clothes aren’t anything particularly new. Similar grunge pieces have been clogging up Depop and padding out issues of Fruits magazine for years. No, what’s new is the marketing behind the collection.” Due to the financial backing of LVMH, Heaven has employed a variety of culturally significant celebrities that resonate with their target audience, such as Charli XCX, Bladee, Doja Cat, and Steve Lacy. Despite these endorsements, many fashion critics argue that the brand has commercialised the ‘y2k’ aesthetic, and copied from culturally resonant source material such as Fruits magazine and Unif clothing.
Co-creator of the brand Ava Nirui is far from denying that Heaven is a collection about culture, not profit. In a recent interview with Vogue, she argued that “the younger generation is just so innovative. They’re so funny, crafty, and experimental. I learned through the behaviour that I see on TikTok that younger kids are very climate-conscious and are more into thrifting.”
However, the internet is not so easily fooled, many comment sections surrounding Heaven products are hard-nosed and cynical; one TikTok user discussed Marc Jacob's strategy of profiting from ‘orientalism’ in Heaven’s marketing and products, such as American film posters translated into Japanese, which are sold for upwards of $100. In addition, a recent collaboration with popular Swedish hyper-pop artist ‘Bladee’ was met with scathing criticism. Another TikTok user criticised the ‘fake-denim’ pants produced in the collaboration, which are actually screen-printed nylon pants retailing at an eye-watering $250. As such, their brand identity as a youthful and representative entity could very well be a facade, as they operate very similarly to any fashion brand owned by LVMH.
Recently, they were accused of stealing their name and Instagram handle from a smaller creative trans-pride organisation (@shopheav3n) on Instagram. They claimed through a twitter thread that Heaven management attempted to bribe her with free clothes to maintain control over the handle during a phone call.
It is not just Marc Jacobs’ label that has been accused of culture commodification. Demna’s Balenciaga is heavily criticised for its mimicry of punk and rave cultures at extortionate price tags, as their recently produced ‘rave jeans’ are heavily resonant of Heatwave ‘phat pants’, a culturally significant piece of clothing in the rave community.
Instagram fashion page @diet_prada also criticised the brand for copying a Berlin student's unique concept of ‘wearable sculptures’ for their marketing campaign in 2020. They alleged that a “recruiter” from Balenciaga attended a master’s presentation and requested Nguyen's portfolio. After sending her work with multiple process images, she never received a reply, but an uncannily similar piece of work appeared on Balenciaga’s Instagram feed in July 2020.
Unlike other brands, Balenciaga seems to deliberately exploit online controversy as a form of promotion. Demna’s 2022 collection for the brand was intended to represent the apocalyptic conditions of Ukraine during the war with Russia yet came across as a blatant jab at the consumer. As part of the collection, ‘Trash Pouches’ hit the stores, retailing at $1,790. Designed as bin bags rendered in calfskin leather, the bags and the show offer a conflicting vision: a designer, displaced due to war, wrestling with the trauma of his past through a medium that turns the refugee experience into an aspirational aesthetic at a luxury price point. In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily Demna said: ‘I couldn’t miss an opportunity to make the most expensive trash bag in the world, because who doesn’t love a fashion scandal?’
However, both Demna and Marc pale in comparison to the controversial character of Philipp Plein. His namesake brand is entirely built upon flaunting wealth; a quick look at the brand’s website reveals that a simple black denim jacket sells for $1300. A studded military parka with plenty of appliqués and Swarovski jewels goes for $2800. This is a brand for customers who seek to demonstrate visible wealth, which the Plein brand is more than happy to provide.
However, Plein’s biggest offence came to popular culture in Milan Fashion Week 2020, where he debuted a collection that included a limited-edition selection of purple-and-gold jerseys ($2,070), hoodies ($3,150) and sneakers ($2,200) that take their styling cues from the late Kobe Bryant’s iconic Lakers jersey. Bryant’s tragic death took place only the month prior, but Plein’s extravagant ‘homage’ to the Lakers Legend even included two gold-studded helicopters, which many have labelled as a gruesome reference to Bryant’s death.
After an expected online backlash, Plein made a statement to Page Six, “I would have clearly removed them if possible, but it was too late to replace [the helicopters].” “This tragedy affected myself and all the world deeply and I feel that my fashion show have been the best moment to express my respect and admiration for Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and his family.” Failing to apologise, the designer only promised that all sales from the collection would go towards the athlete’s Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation.
We have come to the primary issue with luxury fashion; no matter how hard it tries, it cannot become a mainstream cultural symbol for the youth. In desperately attempting to commercialise cultures that can only dream of buying into their product, they alienate their established markets and often grossly humiliate the people they seek to imitate.
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