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January 21, 2016

Has Fashion Lost Touch With Reality?


Balenciaga SS17 Campaign | Image Source: Balenciaga

Numerous media outlets have recently commented about the striking similarities between Balenciaga’s Arena leather holdall bag and Ikea’s iconic blue bag. People have remarked that whilst the design and colour of both are eerily similar, there is a drastic price difference between the two: US$2,145 for the luxury bag versus US$0.99 for the cheap, plastic version.

Read Twitter or the comment section of any of these articles, and the responses have been varied, though somewhat predictable. There are the comments that suggest the fashion industry is now nothing more than an over-priced and over-hyped bubble. Judgment is also made about the hypothetical patron of this Balenciaga bag: usually someone who is described as having more money than sense, and blindly follows trends.

The media attention given to the Arena bag is not a one-off event. Much has already been written about the exorbitant prices of other much higher-priced luxury products. There was that US$38,000 Tom Ford Python bag that a store clerk at Trois Pommes in Switzerland refused to sell to Oprah (she assumed a black woman could not afford the product). There was also a research study that came out last year, which uncovered that the Hermès Birkin bag, priced at US$60,000 to US$200,000, was a better investment than gold.

All of these examples illustrate how expensive fashion can and has become. It forces us to ask ourselves the question: has fashion lost touch with the common man? Have we lost touch with reality? It's easy to sit idly and agree with these statements. Yet behind the furor of attention at the Balenciaga and Ikea comparison is a much more nuanced truth that few media outlets have talked about so far.

An Uncomfortable Truth

Whilst Balenciaga may have produced and priced the Arena bag much higher than its Ikea counterpart, it’s creative director Demna Gvasalia is someone who was born without a silver spoon in his mouth. It was not so long ago that the designer was considered a nobody in fashion. Born in Georgia, Gvasalia once said that the only reason he studied at the critically acclaimed Antwerp Fine Art Academic was because he was too poor to study anywhere else. (The school was state-owned, and education fees amounted to a few hundred euros per year at the time.) He even admitted last year that he wasn’t the sort of person who would pay full retail price for his own clothes.

Balenciaga's Arena leather holdall bag | Image Source: Régis Colin Berthelier/NOWFASHION.

Instead, the business decision which has brought Balenciaga’s Arena bag to market reflects that, for better or for worse, there is an audience who are very much willing to pay for the product. It’s a simple economic decision – to supply a product where there is market demand. It is this reality that makes people uncomfortable – that fashion is more in touch with a market's irrational behaviour. It's a truth that few would care to admit.

We live at a time where lust for material wealth has intensified. In this way, the bag is a symptom of a wider ailment that has influenced and afflicted the values of modern society, and how people prioritize their spending habits. This symptom is not exclusive to the world’s elite, but is part of a system that even the everyday man ascribes to. One need only to look on Instagram to see the kind of life people aspire to have, and the people they follow – influencers are perpetually jet-setting, going to stylish coffee shops, wearing the right brands and dining on gastronomic fare. As Colin McDowell says, we now live in an age of irresponsible excess.

Luxury Goes Soul-Searching

On a creative level, the bag also illustrates an identity crisis within the luxury industry. Oversaturated and set on overdrive mode, fashion now indiscriminately pumps out new products with no other reason other than to make more money. Creating collection after collection (spring / summer, fall / winter, pre-fall, cruise etc), designers are pressured to create for the sake of creating. How then to make a product that has a memorable impact?

One way recent designers are doing so is by blurring the lines between good taste and bad taste (like Gucci’s ugly grandma sweaters), and by celebrating the high brow and low brow (see Supreme X Louis Vuitton). Cheap, bad taste has enjoyed something of a renewed interested, that whilst already explored by Miuccia Prada and the idea of ugly chic, still represents a purposeful and intentional rebellion again good taste. Judging by media attention, it still has a shock factor which generates attention. Intentional bad taste suggests that the wearer has courage, individual style, and is privy to a new code of dressing. As a result, this bag and its polarizing design creates a distinction between “us” and “them”, and a new code of exclusivity.

Balenciaga - Bernie 1 copy

Bernie Sander's influence on Balenciaga FW17 menswear collection | Image source: Monica Feudi /

Of course, the IKEA bag is just one example of this high-low phenomenon that Gvasalia has played around with. The brand has dove headfirst into other seemingly uncool influences, including Bernie Sanders and DHL. Balenciaga also released a series of Chinese blanket bags and plaid plastic bags often associated with the working class Asian community to similar effect.

The intentional and consistent way that Gvasalia and his team releases collections are a testament to Balenciaga’s ability to tap into today’s unfamiliar zeitgeist and create marketing buzz. And placed within the context of a dramatically shifting industry, the Balenciaga bag speaks about an unsettling reality that many still don't realise.  It is a reminder that, like the world which shifts and changes around us, fashion and its unspoken codes relentlessly evolve.




Published by: admin in Journal

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