Which World Do We Live in?

We are often told that, at its best, fashion is supposed to tell us something about the Zeitgeist. This school of thought asserts that fashion is not simply about creativity, craftsmanship, and beauty, if you take an enthusiastic view of it, or materialism and conspicuous consumption, if you do not; that it’s not just an escapist exercise in fantasy, but a reflection of the world. And it is true that designers don’t always operate in a vacuum, and that socio-political issues sometimes make their way into fashion. But the question remains whether these excursions amount to anything substantial enough to support the claim above. Take Gucci and Balenciaga, arguably two of the hottest brands today: the worlds they present are polar opposites, a la-la-land and a dystopia. Which means that we are either living in a completely schizophrenic world, or that fashion is not a medium that is capable of mastering a coherent response to the world around us.

Gucci, the champion of juvenility, mostly sees the world as a carefree, cutesy utopia where flowers bloom and butterflies flutter across high-priced denim. Its stock in trade is sensory overload via fabric and color clash that recalls a tween’s room, and its nerdy quirk is meant to endear. In the Gucci world, problems never go beyond the level of a Wes Anderson film. By and large, neither war, nor political strife, nor social ills exist there.

The Balenciaga universe is the inverse of Gucci’s – dark and dystopian almost to a sensationalized degree, like a news channel that keeps the viewers glued to their screens through fear mongering. Its past shows include references to an impending climate catastrophe, a possible break-up of the European Union, celebrity worship, and lately, the war in Ukraine. Demna has literally covered in black both Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, the latter one at the Met Gala, no less. Whereas Gucci has collaborated with Disney, literally confirming its Disneyland-of-fashion status, Balenciaga has collaborated with the Simpsons, the knowingly humorous and politically charged cartoon.

The two brands’ respective philosophies – if they may be called that – extend down to the clothes. At Gucci, colorful dresses, whimsy track suits, monogram galore, a maximalist fantasia bordering on an aesthetic seizure. At Balenciaga, bleak, washed oversized hoodies in earthy tones and stomping boots, a mix of expensive poverty and post-apocalyptic grit.

How can both brands be so extremely popular despite such diametrically opposed outlooks? After all, we are not talking about cult brands that cater to a niche audience with a tribal mentality, which would explain this phenomenon. These are behemoths that cater to the monied masses. Though Gucci outsells Balenciaga five to one, the latter is still an almost two billion dollar brand that commands the attention of not only the entire fashion industry but legions of customers across the globe.

To find an explanation, perhaps one needs to look a bit closer. Because, despite their diametrically opposed aesthetics, there are similarities between the two of an order that is less concerned with presentation. Both are major corporate brands with large marketing budgets, and both take advantage of traditional marketing vehicles that manufacture demand. For all the praise heaped on Alessandro Michele and Demna for their creativity, both Gucci and Balenciaga engage in celebrity marketing (witness the latest Balenciaga advertising campaign with Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian), carefully courting famous musicians, actors, and influencers. Both advertise slowly and are heavily featured in magazine editorials across the globe. And as far as the clothes go, both produce heavily logoed goods in overwhelming quantities. On my recent visit to a Balenciaga flagship in Paris, nine out of ten garments hanging on its racks had a logo on them. Ditto, Gucci.

Though it’s not impossible that there are enough fashion fans that subscribe to either the cheery view of Michele or the dark one of Demna, the more sensible answer is that most fashion customers simply don’t care. Which would certainly explain why the two brands collaborated last year by plastering each other’s logos onto their garments and breaking the internet in the process, even though the collaboration made as much sense as Alien crashing Frozen.

“Fashion only cares about itself,” a fellow journalist has told me more than once, a statement that rings true every time I see someone on the street wearing Gucci sneakers with a golden bee paired with an oversized Balenciaga hoodie. What’s important to the final consumer, it seems, is that they are wearing the right brands. What the brand has to say about the world doesn’t really matter.

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