Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Earlier today a friend told me off for perpetuating fashion snobbery with my views on the latest H&M designer collaboration. I don't think (at least, I hope) that snobbery alone is the reason why I take against H&M designer collobarations, though; rather it seems to be a certain aspect of the fashion system which the collobarations emphasise which really aggrieves me.
I have an enormous amount of respect for Alber Elbaz’s work at Lanvin, but as soon as I heard that he wanted to make H&M luxurious (rather than taking Lanvin downmarket) for the collaboration I was highly dubious. It is true that a large part of the appeal of Lanvin lies within the unbelievably high levels of craftsmanship and the fine materials, but when I went into H&M today during my lunch break to have a look for myself, none of those qualities were evident in the collection. The clothes felt just like, well, how anything in H&M normally feels, only the prices were vastly higher. Save for the money paid to Lanvin, I’d bet that the costs of a collaboration item and of a comparable regular H&M item are very similar, so the huge price mark-up on the collaboration pieces really irks me. There are a lot of issues associated with cheap, 'throw away' fashion, but it doesn't bother me as much when the prices are fair. Why not just limit the quantity (as they currently do), but charge regular H&M prices, especially if these collaborations are meant to be all about making fashion less snobbish and more ‘democratic’ and accessible?
I actually never buy the ‘democracy’ argument. If designers really want to assuage any guilt they may feel about producing clothes which only a tiny fraction of the population can afford, there are surely more original, interesting, and less hypocritical, ways to go about it than teaming up with H&M for one-off collections. How about selling old season’s stock of the ‘real’ brand at fair prices (not at some measly 30% reduction) in an accessible way, which is to say not on a Tuesday morning hidden away in some out-of-town location. Even just lowering the current retail prices by 10-20% would help. The thing is, though, H&M collaborations are abundantly more popular because they are not permanent (they are almost token gestures), they are all rather at arm’s length from the designer or brand’s core business, and crucially they generate a lot of publicity. Maybe it is snobbish to disapprove of H&M collaborations, but they hardly seem to be exercises in goodwill on the part of the designers. I would imagine that H&M pay their collaborators richly, and they generate a huge amount of publicity and buzz around the collaborating brand’s name. If I controlled a high fashion brand, though, I would seriously question how valuable this publicity really is. Perhaps brands take a long term view, reasoning that today’s collaboration customer might be tomorrow’s full price customer (the argument which keeps brands interested in publications like Teen Vogue), but it is debatable whether this justifies putting your name to products of very dubious quality, to be sold in a way which would make most high fashion designers wince.
The collaborations hardly bring affordable 'designer' clothing to the people anyway. Compared to regular H&M prices, the collaboration prices are steep, and it is only a lucky few (who are prepared to camp outside stores overnight, in some cases) who get their hands on the best items anyway, with others having to make do with the further inflated eBay resale prices. Something like the +J Jil Sander x Uniqlo approach is more sympathetic, with much less hype, better quality, more reasonable prices and a continuity so it’s not a ‘blink and you miss it’ scenario.
H&M designer collaborations pick out a few of the worst stands of fashion, from the absurd over-hype to the rip-off prices, and really emphasise them. There is something incredibly raw and primal about how people flood into the stores, frantically stripping the shelves bear and grabbing as much as they can hold, as if their lives depend on it. Of course the commodity is by no stretch of the imagination something needed for basic survival, consisting mostly instead of over-priced synthetics ostensibly designed by a famous name. I’m not even convinced that people truly enjoy the whole experience of H&M collaborations, or are genuinely making a free choice when they decide to camp overnight or queue from the crack of dawn to join the scrum early. The media and marketing hype machine is so powerful, constantly telling us that we must have vastly expensive designer clothes to be better people, to be more successful and to attract partners, so when a glimpse of this is offered at a relatively affordable price it all gets a bit much, and people are strongly drawn in. I’m not interested in judging people who queue for H&M collaborations, I just think that the whole thing is a perfect illustration of one of the worst aspects of how our western economies work. It troubles me not because I find it vulgar or distasteful or have anything against people who go crazy for the collaborations, but because it seems genuinely quite sad.
The final irony which annoys me is that H&M is constantly producing its own rip-off versions of designers’ work, often much to the high fashion brands’ annoyance, but this fact is completely ignored by both parties when it comes round to collaborations. How many ‘Lanvin inspired’ items have graced the racks of H&M over the past few years? Now, though, it would seem that Lanvin and H&M are the best of friends, illustrated clearly by the natty little heart which is placed between the respective brands' names on the publicity material and store bags. The funny thing is that because the Lanvin x H&M line is such a literal interpretation of certain Lanvin items, it really looks more like ‘H&M rips off Lanvin’ that H&M collaborates with Lanvin. The H&M collaborations which take elements from the designer's work and re-work them for the high street always seem more credible than the ones that either replicate existing designer products in a bad quality, poor value-for-money way (Lanvin) or create new products from H&M with very little bearing to the designer's work (Jimmy Choo).
In a sense it is amusing to laugh at people degrading themselves to get their hands on something with no real substance or longleivity to it, which fashion types can knowingly deride as being over-priced, low quality marketing fodder, but ultimately that gives me no great joy. I'd much, much rather the whole system didn't put so many people in that position in the first place.
Think I'm wrong on something (or everything)? Feel free to comment..