The Exploitation and Crushing Capitalism of Fashion Week

By Mike Abu


The author with Paris Hilton. Photo by Andrew Boyle 

First and foremost, the term “fashion week” is somewhat of a misnomer. It really should be called “fashion month.” The week bounces around from New York, London, and Paris to Milan, and since it happens twice a year, fashion week is really a two-month debacle.  

The collections debuted are meant for the following year, ensuring that by the time you’re in season, you’re already outdated. It’s such a wonderful system that it almost makes you wonder if it developed accidentally. No matter what, you’re behind the times, and if you wanna catch up, you have to pay more than attention.

It’s hard to quantify how much money ultimately gets dumped into fashion week, but judging by what I’ve seen, it’s somewhere around one quadrillion dollars. There’s a lot on the line. If you’re capable of designing the right dress that the right celebrity will wear at the right event, you’re golden. If you’re really doing well, Entertainment Weekly will ask, “Who wore it better?” Stylists style, models model, and gawkers gawk, some to be seen, others to pay witness. Dead presidents painted green are thrown around like confetti in a ticker-tape parade.     

Fashion week is a strange gold mine of potentiality. When you nail it, you nail it, and when you don’t, you’re doomed. Think about all the secondary companies that profit off of fashion week. Vogue has to be twice as thick as usual just to incorporate all the coverage of shows and ads from an array of cosmetic companies, brands, and corporate sponsors of all shapes and forms marketing themselves to the bone. Venues, clubs, retail stores, restaurants; it’s like Manhattan hosts the Super Bowl every February and September. Fashion week brings a lot of money into the community. Unfortunately, it’s a community that’s already swimming in cash.

Corporate sponsors pay to have their name attached to events in hope that the marketing will ultimately generate profits. Obviously there’s no guarantee it will work. Last year, I went to a few shows sponsored by Walgreens. Walgreens? Nothing says high-end fashion like Walgreens. It didn’t make sense, yet somehow there they were, handing out cups containing their new line of fresh ready-to-eat fruit-yogurt things. Have you had one recently? Neither have I.

Designers aren’t guaranteed financial success by being there either. They dump a significant amount of their own money into presentations and runways shows, hoping to gain exposure and buyers for their line. For smaller designers, this can be a make or break moment. Michael Kors can afford to drop $500,000-plus on a 15-minute show, but unlike most designers, his name (i.e. corporation) is traded openly on Wall Street. He’s loaded. Smaller designers often spend every last dime to put together their shows. They have to privately fund studio time, models, stylists, etc.—all with no guarantee that they’ll receive any worthwhile press. Of course, even if they do create buzz, it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. Fashion week is like a glamorous game of Russian roulette, where winning is purely survival.

Of course, they have no choice but to play by the rules. Conspicuous consumption is more than just the norm. It is the game itself. No one will take you seriously if you appear frugal. Here’s the thing—New York fashion week is actually a very unprofitable event. Sponsors, designers, venues; nearly all of them use fashion week as a marketing tool, investing million upon millions of dollars just to get their names attached.

It appears the old adage “it costs money to make money” rings true. Money gets thrown around during fashion week necessarily—there is nothing more vogue than conspicuously wasting as much money as you can.

Like everything, the fashion world has a distinct hierarchy that is impossible to avoid. Class distinctions in the industry are rather acute in general, but it’s never more on display than during fashion week. Status is vigorously observed. On one hand, you have the people who work around the clock to make sure everything comes together on time. These people are seldom, if ever, invited to any of the ridiculous parties that are thrown to celebrate their achievement. On the other hand, there are a slew of entitled celebrities and aristocrats who do nothing more than show up to be seen. For those who can afford it, everything is free.

Fashion week's upper class doesn’t have to do anything other than show up and get their photo taken. It’s true that going to exclusive events could potentially be a taxing form of work, but for those who are willing to take the challenge, it’s worth it. It’s going to be hard explaining that to the crews cleaning up the mess at night’s end. Of course, the latter isn’t really doing anything honorable, not like those who have the misfortune of sipping free cocktails as elegantly garnished as they are. This occupation is an expression of their rank. The people doing the least matter the most. If you can manage to pull off doing absolutely nothing other than standing there with a manicured smile (like my girl Paris), you’ve made it.

The cult of personality is very clear here. A-list celebrities constitute the highest tier of attendees. They are the true nobility. Their status is given regardless of artistic credibility or the lack there of. They stand above the rest. On their heels are the up-and-comers, the next wave, followed by a succession of lesser and lesser waves.

There are secondary occupations that lesser classes can participate in (that are still subordinate to the highest class), like styling the models, production, photography, etc., but these people aren’t nearly as affluent as the highest class. 

I’d talk about all the people who are responsible for the buildup and tear downs, but there’s really no point. I’ll put it like this—manual labor is a clear-cut sign of class inferiority. These people don’t matter unless they’ve done something wrong.

Strangely enough, there seems to be an anomaly in the class system that represents a more affluent group being treated like dirt—the interns. These slaves amount to less than nothing during fashion week, a thousand times lower on the totem pole than the guy pressing the buttons on the elevator.

I had the random opportunity to sit through an intern orientation for a major fashion venue last year, and witnessed a room full of excited 18-year-olds about to work for free. For whatever reason, I didn’t get the impression that they would have been as excited to volunteer at the Food Bank or something like that. They were enamored by fashion, and by doing whatever menial task they were assigned, they were part of something bigger than themselves. They had the idea that they were going to be part of something, part of fashion, and I half-wondered how many of them were dreaming about being randomly discovered by somebody famous. They didn’t realize that they were about to be ignored by everyone except for the people with unmanageable tempers.

“I don’t even bother trying to remember any of their names,” one producer told me, “I just yell, ‘Intern!’ and if they don’t do exactly what I say, I fire them on the spot.”

Of course, “hiring” interns is not something unique to fashion week. Exploiting people is the purest form of capitalism—why pay somebody when you don’t have to? It’s economic slavery.

I had the crazy experience to attend Kanye West’s fashion show in Paris a year and change ago. Surrounded by celebrities who had no intention of talking to me, I had nothing better to do than suck down free cocktails and examine the flower arrangements. Two arrangements particularly stood out to me: fluffy cotton pulled right off the plant and pinned onto a Styrofoam ball (i.e., a cotton ball) and a stalk of cotton standing unadulterated in a planter. They were both provocative and political. I imagined Kanye (or whoever makes these decisions for Kanye) came up with the concept as a poignant statement, one that reminded everyone there that it wasn’t very long ago that black people were excluded from high-end fashion. It was a serious statement and one that I appreciated. Only one thing bothered me about it. What he sings about, what he represents—the bling, the bullshit, the money, and all that—actively supports economic slavery. What’s the difference? Where’s Chuck D when you need him?

Like I said, money gets thrown around during Fashion Week necessarily; there is nothing more vogue than conspicuous consumption.

There was this French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, who thought that all meaning came from relative comparisons. For instance, you’re only good at basketball in comparison to somebody who sucks. Baudrillard was really into the concept of signs or signifiers. You can think of it in terms of a traffic light. When you pull up to an intersection, we know red means stop, green means go, and yellow means really go or else you’ll have to stop. The lights are colors, but the colors have meanings attributed to them within a system we’ve created. It’s all part of our collective understanding that helps bring order to the world. Human beings love order, or the perception of order. That’s why we generalize so much. It makes things easier. And if we’re faced with a scenario where we don’t know what’s going on, it’s helpful to have a proverbial roadmap, signs that lead the way. Such are traffic lights, and such is clothing.

What we wear is a signal to others. A stick-and-poke Black Flag tattoo says something and a Dolce & Gabbana handbag says another. Combining the two says something I’ve yet to see. It’d probably say something like, “I sold out.”   

Now, there was another guy, an American economist named Thorstein Veblen, who tried to tackle this from an economic perspective. In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen summed up the motive for much of societal interaction with the term “invidious comparison.” Without getting too much into detail, that means people look at themselves in relation to the rest of the world along the lines of a simple comparison: Is it better than me, or worse than me?

In a society where worth is so often measured in economic terms, invidious comparison is expressed in money. Having the ability to spend lavishly with seemingly no care in the world means you’re doing better than someone struggling to pay the rent. It’s not enough just to have money. If you don’t spend it conspicuously, how will anyone know how good you’re doing? Similarly, if you’re working two jobs just to afford designer jeans, you’ll look better than if you were wearing something bought at the Gap. As Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. the Elephant Man, would say, “It’s all about appearance.”

Clothes make up part of our immediate identity. Inexpensive clothes are seen to be cheap regardless of durability, whereas expensive clothes are held to be the opposite. Counterfeit pieces might look and function the same, but as soon as they’re identified as being “less-than-real,” their aesthetic and commercial value declines dramatically. An Alexander Wang shirt is only worth the money if Alexander Wang approves the tag that says “Alexander Wang.” It doesn’t matter if the copy is an exact replica—it’s nothing like the real thing.

Speaking of real, it’s odd to think that a designer who stitches their clothes by hand is given significant credit while those who sew up garments in sweatshops might as well not even exist. I guess it’s because sweatshop gear is inherently inferior. You could make the argument that designing high-end clothing is markedly different, as the true artistic genius of the designer is justification enough for superior treatment. After all, they did go to Parsons. Luckily enough, no one has to justify anything during fashion week. The artistic genius of the designers in the eyes of the aristocratic class is all that matters and bringing up sweatshops is an exercise in futility.

If I were ever to have my own fashion show, I know exactly what I would do. I’d have a presentation, not a runway show, so people could walk into the room and look at my collection of dirty old T-shirts on mannequins at their leisure. Also on the floor would be 40 old ladies of various ethnicities sewing up replicas of my shirts on outdated sewing machines. They’d never engage anybody there and would just sew shirt after shirt, looking tired as hell. Then at the front of the room I’d have a big, fat, greasy looking guy in a pinstriped suit laughing to himself, repeatedly counting stacks of hundred-dollar bills and puffing on a cigar. I’d have to make sure they allowed smoking indoors.

Think about how incredibly uncomfortable it would make everyone. Even more ridiculously, they’d probably think it was edgy and cool. I can see it now: “Designer Mike Abu Shocks NYFW with a Conceptual Apropos Modulation.”

The world loves a bastard. 

To be fair, not everybody who cares about fashion week is completely oblivious to what it is. There are many people in every class who actively care about this shit. I’ve made a lot of friends through the fashion industry and I don’t regret having written dumb fashion articles many times over. But that doesn’t mean the whole thing isn’t stupid.

mikeabu.com

@countslackula

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