On this humble little day in 1883, Coco Chanel was delivered to the world in all her groundbreaking glory. In honor of her singlehanded transformation of the feminine style MO, it’s pertinent to explore the state of high fashion today. Colin McDowell, a badass opinion writer over at Business of Fashion, recently declared the contemporary fashion landscape as The Age of Irresponsible Excess. No disrespect to Coco, as this is a reality whose birth she essentially contributed to (and which her company has in many ways gone on to wholeheartedly represent), but I think McDowell is right with a capital R. No—not a capital R—but a Swarovski-crystal-bedecked one with a shopping addiction and a floundering bank account.
Though he begins his article through the lens of the recent tabloid news story that told of Oprah Winfrey being denied access to a $38,000 bag in Zurich because it was presumed to be “too expensive for her,” he leaves the blatant racism of that situation for someone else to dissect and hones in on the subtler disturbance. [Sidenote: The racism is obviously a weightier issue, which he acknowledges, but one to be explored in a different piece.] He writes:
But what has not been questioned or examined in this particular case is something which should shock and appal all right-minded people. And that is the price asked for the bag. What an affront to society and civilisation it presents. Above all, it is a shocking indictment of the mindless greed of the higher echelons of the fashion industry and the way in which it has corrupted certain areas of society.
I’m no historian or economist, but I’ve read enough about the production of goods to know that those created in the orbit of fashion tend to be ripe with the stink of price inflation. Rather than question this, though, or try to make a change, the majority of us tend to settle for it, deluding ourselves that these frivolous, fun embellishments are worthy of their oft-barbaric pricetags. Despite our deep-seated beliefs and values which would normally antagonize this dynamic, we end up convincing ourselves that a leather jacket or a pair of shoes should be the sole proprietor of our paycheck (or five). McDowell continues:
To me this is exactly what has gone wrong with the fashion business. A spat between a designer and a journalist, like the one between Hedi Slimane and Cathy Horyn, is demeaning and embarrassing, but the “Oprah Bag” question is infinitely more important and should outrage us all. Can we really have respect for an industry that sells handbags for $38,000?
My view is that we are so corrupted by high prices, and even higher praise, for the frequently banal artefacts that command them that we have only one way to gauge their value and that is how much they cost. That is why we have stopped looking at fashion and have become obsessed with the value of the label it bears — a value put on it not only by customers but by its owners.
He’s absolutely right. When I pay for something with a hefty price tag, it immediately seems more important, more special, than something I buy for much less or receive for free. But that is rarely, if ever, the reality. Do I cherish my Alexander Wang pieces more than the oversized dress shirts borrowed from my father’s closet? The pair of diamond earrings my mom received when she was 18 and the only remotely expensive jewelry I wear to this day? Do my pricier goods mean more to me than the friendship bracelet inscribed with the word “EAT” that my little sister made for me as motivation to recover from anorexia? How about the handmade leather bracelet an ex-boyfriend once brought me back from a trip to Spain? Does the new Theory dress that I’ve worn once even exist on the same level as any of these more-treasured items? Not at all.
But these high-priced items are still incredibly alluring. In conjunction with false advertising and the belief that material goods will automatically change our lives for the better [when we all know they really won’t], the extravagant prices attached to these pieces are a significant part of their appeal. Though we’re often told money isn’t everything, we’re also made to believe that excessive money attached to a product deems it superior, extraordinary. This is a paradox that needs to be untangled, and shelved for good. McDowell seems to agree, concluding:
You might say, if the rich are foolish enough to pay that amount, it is their stupidity. And you would be right. But it is the industry that is weakened and besmirched by such attitudes, because It encourages the decision-makers to believe that anything goes, as long as the prices continue to go up and the profits remain buoyant.
In order to fix a problem, you must go to the root. Attacking it from the final point of the supply chain is futile, so you have to confront the supplier itself. And the supplier we’re referencing here is the fashion industry, one that has normalized blind excess to the point where we barely notice nor question it. Chanel herself believed that “a fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion.” That statement alone would negate the fashionable titles of a broad section of the contemporary market. In honor of the designer’s revolutionary sense, I think it’s time that customers start demanding more honest pricing and some serious self-reflection on the part of fashion’s beloved upper tier.