Has the ‘Democratization’ of Fashion Created a New Fashion Elite?


Has the ‘Democratization’ of Fashion Created a New Fashion Elite?


For a few seasons, the so-called ‘democratization’ of fashion has been a sort of rallying cry. The thinking went that any old Tuula, Doré, or Hanneli could write or photograph herself into fashion week, landing a prime seat and a billion Tommy Ton snaps and free clothing. That may be the fairytale version, but it was hard not to believe when the most recognizable faces at shows were often ones you knew from the internet. Besides, not every designer is Proenza Schouler, and seats were made to be filled. And if you couldn’t make (or hack) it, there were live streams and crystal-clear runway pictures to be reviewed online. Stream the show, post your favorite look on Tumblr, write “words cannot even describe. Ethereal,” and there: you’re a part of the fashion industry.

This ‘democratization’ enchanted even those who weren’t trying to elbow their way into Milk Studios, because if you couldn’t afford the Real Thing, you could get a designer-approved cheapo version at Target.

For some time, this has been the defining theme of the American fashion industry. (Not, it unfortunately must be added, the lack of racial diversity on the runway or the sour reality of how these ‘democratic’ clothes are produced.) It’s well-tread ground for fashion outlets and even general interest publications. But as fashion week begins this week, the air is clearly different, and it seems the so-called democratization of fashion may have done what all democracies inevitably do: cultivated an even stronger ruling class of elitists.

First, there was the cancellation of Fashion’s Night Out, the big, Wintour-helmed consumer hurrah meant to rally a flailing retail economy by lending a glossy, club appeal to Soho stores, but which quickly morphed into a garish monstrosity right out of a dystopian novel (announcing the hiatus, The Cut called it an “epidemic”). Then there was Suzy Menkes’s T magazine piece comparing the state outside the tents to a circus, and waxing nostalgic for the days when “us fashion folk” tramped around New York relatively unnoticed in Comme and Yohji.

Menkes blamed the peacocking internet superstars, who took wild offense, but who seem to have gotten the memo: Lauren Santo Domingo wore white t-shirts all of last February, Taylor Tomasi Hill allegedly plans to attend shows incognito, and even the Man Repeller, who calls fashion week “the Olympics of Man Repelling” and once filled her blog with how-to guides for adding layers upon layers to bait photographers, appears more subdued.

What’s more, the industry has pretty much told nail art, another celebrated way of going high fashion for less, that it can see itself out.

Mickey Boardman emerged from a pile of 10,000 necklaces last winter to pupu designer collaborations, another cornerstone of fashion’s democratic city upon a hill. (Though it must be said that the excitement for Phillip Lim’s Target collaboration is palpable.)

It isn’t simply that less is now more, and those peacocks with their tails in 2012 need to get with the program. The attitude has clearly shifted. “Just so we are clear: being in New York during fashion week doesn’t mean you’re ‘going to fashion week,’ sniffed Nicolette Mason, a fashion writer who is cooler than you and also has an awesome dog, on Twitter. “This fashion week, should I just accessorize with a sense of entitlement?” mused Harper’s BAZAAR Executive Editor Laura Brown on Twitter. There seems to be a sense that a new establishment is drawing a line in the sand, and while they may not be bunk buddies with Ms. Menkes and Cathy Horyn, they are at least asserting themselves as the establishment.

Then, of course, there is Oscar de la Renta’s decision to hold just one show. He told Women’s Wear Daily, “It’s important for [certain industry professionals] to look at the clothes and see them. They shouldn’t have to go through 30,000 people, and 10,000 who are trying to take pictures of all of those people who are totally unrelated to the clothes.” He adds that everyone can watch the livestream later.

And there’s the rub: whereas livestreams were once the rallying point for a new age of accessibility in the fashion industry, they’re now enabling an even more rarefied, more elite attitude and environment.

More power to them. It’s hard not to look at Cathy Horyn’s recent reverie on fashion weeks past, which featured an unbelievable photo of a late ‘80s Alaia show, and long for an earlier time before you were tweeting from the womb. There is just a single row of chairs, a speck-sized audience dotted with people wearing non-ironic Dad jeans. The audience is just feet from the clothing, and can actually see the garments, in detail. Instead of the phones that light up the stadium rows like pesty fireflies, people appear to be, well, thinking.

You realize there was once a point to a runway show, and it wasn’t spectacle. Once, you could actually really see the clothes. Perhaps the spectacle is finding its place back behind the computer screen.