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What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Luxury?

​In 2017, tracksuits and sweatshirts say more about the real fashion of our times than many of the collections by the luxury houses, yet they are frequently labeled as streetwear. Why? Because fashion has become too closely linked to luxury.
Collage by Kristina Britton

This article originally appeared on i-D.

Fashion and luxury: are they the same? So often, the words are used as if they are interchangeable, as if it's now assumed that they are driven by the same urges, by the same people, to create with the same goal for the same audience.

To me, it's clear that fashion and luxury are separate entities that often overlap. Remember the Venn diagrams you were taught in math? In this luxury house era, sometimes the intersection between the two is so big, it's as if luxury and fashion have merged. They have not. It can be deeply damaging in terms of creativity, especially for the young, and even more so for the underprivileged or discriminated against.


For fashion and luxury to be the same, it means that anything fashionable has to be luxurious. Immediately we know this to be false, since some of the most important fashion garments of the 20th century were made from cotton, cheesecloth, and rubber. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had no thought of luxury when they created their work in the 70s under the various labels of Seditionaries, SEX, or Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die. Their work was about ideas, possibilities, and provocations. It was fashion. It was not luxury.

This current luxury era started in the mid-90s, when conglomerate brands started to hire radical fashion designers — first John Galliano at Givenchy, and then his replacement, the late Alexander McQueen. It was around this time that Tom Ford turned luxury brand Gucci into a fashion powerhouse, and Miuccia Prada staged her ground-breaking spring/summer 96 show of purposefully drab prints, challenging notions of what defined luxury itself.

These designers and others have made some exceptionally important fashion at luxury houses. Their work has led many to assume that fashion equals luxury. Nope. These designers have used the opportunities and resources given by luxury brands to create fashion.

In many other cases, the attempt to create fashion at luxury houses falls very short. It is usually due to the compromises and miscommunication that happens in most large corporations. Even if the designer gets to send valid fashion ideas down the catwalk, what's produced for stores may well be watered down or bear no resemblance to the original idea. And the very use of the word "luxury" immediately defines the intended customer — they are wealthy or they aspire to be seen as wealthy. For the fashion customer, it's not always the case.


Let's look at some pure fashion designers: Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons is fashion, not luxury. Dries Van Noten is concerned with the beauty of everyday; Rick Owens with the fashion of other worlds. London has long fostered fashion designers: the slow-burn tensions of Martine Rose. The homemade creations of Matty Bovan. The gleeful subversions of Rottingdean Bazaar. They are all creating fashion. Same for Craig Green, whose fantastical ideas leap from the starting point of the humble workwear jacket. He is a fashion designer, with no interest in luxury.

Some of the greatest fashion of the past few years has been created by those who have focused on sweatshirts and trackpants. Gosha Rubchinskiy. Cottweiler. Nasir Mazhar. Each has made important, individual fashion, yet most of the time they are labeled with that queasy word "streetwear." Why? Because fashion has become too closely linked to luxury in the minds of most.

Of course, tracksuits and sweatshirts say more about the real fashion of our times than much of the stuff created by luxury houses. Yet it is seen as "streetwear" first and not fashion, because it has absolutely no interest in being luxury. It means that valid work goes undervalued and underappreciated. It means that the fashion of our time is not fully understood.

How does it affect creativity if fashion and luxury are seen as the same? Imagine you are a young fashion designer with no backing. You had major acclaim for your first few collections, your clothes are in some great international stockists, but you're wracked by debt. These stores mix you among the work of luxury labels. They consider your fashion sales on their luxury terms. Everyone liked how you started off, but what are you going to do now? Sell a percentage of your brand to a luxury conglomerate? Try and get a creative director post at a luxury brand? What if you just want to keep making fashion?


I'd love a creative environment where young designers felt able to make what they wanted, rather than what was expected of them. Luxury brands always have to fulfill product categories: coats, sweaters, shoes, bags. Who said the same should apply for fashion?

Let's go back a step. Imagine you're a fashion student from a family that can't afford your fees, let alone pay for the materials you need to create your graduate collection. If you have grown up believing luxury and fashion are the same, you are set on a desperate path, trying to get fabric sponsorships and create allegedly elevated garments that have nothing to do with your life. College is a burden, when it should be a time for the greatest creativity and freedom.

Or let's go back even further. Imagine you are a kid at state school, living below the poverty line. The charity Child Action Poverty Group states that if national statistics are evened out, in every class of 30 children, nine are living in poverty. What does it tell them when it is assumed that fashion equals luxury? It shuts them out of the conversation. It belittles them. It keeps them in their place. It tells them their only chance of getting anywhere is some My Fair Lady fantasy, where they assimilate upwards in the hope of being accepted by society. It stifles their creativity, because it tells them they can only succeed if they design for a world that does not want them. If these kids were given a chance, they'd more likely have something more insightful to say about fashion than a young designer who has come from a life of privilege.


To me, these are the basics of fashion: cut, creative thought, manipulation of material, with an understanding of the body, of the character that can be given to clothing, and the wider societal situations that fashion can address. Notice something? None of these involve luxury.

When we talk about the fashion that defines the times, we are not talking about luxury. It is the miniskirts of the 60s, flares of the 70s, and plaid shirts of the early 90s. The word "fashion" has a wider meaning about how society as a whole dresses in certain eras, and not just the wardrobes of those who can afford luxury clothing.

Fashion and luxury are clearly separate entities cohabiting the same space. Wouldn't it be great to try and give them both a bit of room? There are so many luxury brands wasting so much time and energy pretending they're part of fashion. If your youngest customers are in their mid 50s, why think there's any relevance holding a fashion show with models in their late teens? If the hero product of your brand is a traditional design that never changes, why introduce seasonal collections that demand relentless and pointless reinvention? The best luxury brand should be able to have nothing to do with fashion.

Remove the constraints of luxury from fashion, and creativity can flourish. I'm so excited by the current crop of final year BA students at the University of Westminster, whose work I saw halfway through the fall term. It was the first time I can remember a year that has such disinterest in luxury. Their work is diverse: variously personal, radical, humble, questioning, technical, daft, spiritual, and queer. Luxury isn't even an issue: what matters is fashion.


These are young adults—early 20s. Many have had to launch crowd-funding appeals to pay for their graduate collections. They are creating against adversity. When they graduate, wouldn't it be great if there were opportunities in fashion open to them, without them feeling they have to get on a luxury treadmill?

It's the perfect time for the creativity of fashion to break free. Online retail and social media are giving opportunities for releasing collections on a designer's own terms and timescales. Fashion designers should be nimble, and able to work on their own terms.

Why do young designers feel they need to start a label that will last beyond their lifetime? Look at music: it's natural for bands to break up after a few years. Why get bogged down in long-term business structures if your instinct is to do something incredible, then change? It doesn't have to lose money. On the contrary — if it's understood to be short term, it can be turned to the designer's advantage.

Why create complete collections, full of total looks that a customer can allegedly wear from morning till night? Leave that to the spreadsheets of luxury brands. I'd love a creative environment where young designers felt able to make what they wanted, rather than what was expected of them. Luxury brands always have to fulfill the same product categories in each collection: coats, sweaters, shoes, bags, and whatever. Who said the same should apply for fashion?

Of course I'm in favor of greater creativity and more fashion in luxury too. It's a big thrill that 90 percent of Gucci's fashion-heavy catwalk show is produced for its stores. Alessandro Michele's take on Gucci is a great example of fashion and luxury merging almost to the point of invisibility. But for the good of creativity, especially the creativity of the young, fashion and luxury need to be understood for what they are. They must be seen as separate.