Photo image by the legend Ben Park.

Crocs, 80s Excess, and Christopher Wylie: How Fashion Is a Conspiracy of Trends

How do we explain how certain decades, muses, and looks show up on the runway at the same time?

by Haley Mlotek
Apr 6 2018, 2:12pm

Photo image by the legend Ben Park.

I have often thought that the correct collective noun for fashion must be “a conspiracy of trends.” To look back on Fashion Month as a whole always makes me suspect collusion: how can practically everyone at New York Fashion Week, for example, arbitrarily decide that we’re into the 1980s again? Did they all read the same chapter of the same history textbook, collectively deciding to reference the excess, power, “more is more” style of fashion that we recognize as being specific to a certain time and a certain place within the span of that decade? (Or—the paranoiac’s refrain— who told them to have that same reading of history?) Well, differing and overlapping interpretations of a shared history is the core of art, maybe.

“Hallelujah!” begins Jo Ellison in a Financial Times op-ed about Christopher Wylie, a PhD student for fashion trend forecasting at the London School of Economics who is now the center of the Cambridge Analytica story. “One of my brethren has been revealed as one of the most powerful political influencers of the modern era,” she says, explaining that “one of the men behind the greatest shock political victory of all time…is a student of fashion.” Wylie’s theory that an understanding of how fashion trends function can be applied to political strategy is, in Ellison’s reading, a question of visibility. There is a long-held belief that the success of a fashion item depends on a “three’s a trend” mentality, and Ellison quotes an update of this theory courtesy of Moda Operandi founder Lauren Santo Domingo: that seeing a product in three separate contexts—runway, on the street or in a magazine, and then in a store—will convince a consumer to purchase or adopt the style. Crocs and Uggs, Wylie and Ellison remind us, are ugly, but if they’re seen enough times, eventually people wear them. Trump, the implication goes, is ugly, but his ideas proved purchasable and wearable. We all know, however, that the damage a pair of Crocs does is nowhere near comparable to the damage the Trump administration is doing and will continue to do. Ellison wrote her editorial as she prepared for a debate about whether or not fashion is “dumb.” “No, I will cry, when challenged about the vapidity of my industry…[Wylie’s] appreciation of fashion and his understanding of its behaviors was so profound that he used his technical ability to help maneuver a huge political upset.”

Her exuberance over Wylie as an example obscures the fact that even fashion’s most ardent defenders cannot, in good conscience, applaud Wylie for applying the most rudimentary fashion knowledge to the political victory of an abhorrent president. I don’t find this moment to be a rallying cry for trend forecasting. Manipulation is neither a science nor an art, despite what master manipulators would have us believe. The fact that, as Ellison points out, this kind of maneuvering only proves that Trump’s time is as finite as anything else off-the-rack, will do nothing to reverse what’s been lost through secrets and lies. Whatever Cambridge Analytica did—or whatever they’re willing to take credit for doing— only shows that there is a level of intelligence in fashion that was previously underestimated, and proved politically advantageous, and that intelligence is not synonymous with goodness.

I’ve probably said too much; who knows who could be listening.

The paranoia certainly isn’t helped when I see some designers stage shows entirely around conspiracy theories, like Jeremy Scott, who seems to be spending a lot of time on the wrong Wikipedia pages—I can’t imagine what else would have inspired his “Marilyn Monroe was killed by JFK because she knew about aliens” collection. His models were dressed like Jackie Kennedy, if she had been an alien or an android.

The Moschino collection was just one example of a designer reckoning with the present by rewriting history—which makes the process of untangling the conspiracy of trends even more complex, and the paranoid among us even more so. Unfortunately, for those of us who believe in patterns and narrative arcs if only to avoid thinking about the alternative—which is a chaotic void of nothingness, lol—there are very few true conspiracies. There are coincidences and there is context. Trends congregate because designers are participating in the same world as their peers; they pull their references on one leg at a time, just like you and me. There is little meaning to be gleaned from the fact that, let’s say, both Off-White and Comme des Garçons referenced Susan Sontag’s work in their Spring/Summer 2018 collections, but there is certainly a lot of pleasure in having an opportunity to listen to Sontag debate John Berger on the uses and meanings of storytelling as a cultural practice, which is what Virgil Abloh offered as part of his runway soundtrack. Abloh has used Berger’s voice before—snippets from “Ways of Seeing” as part of his playlist at Fall/Winter 2017, for example—though I’m not sure how it connects to Abloh’s intentions in his work. The connections were clearer with Rei Kawakubo, who cited Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” for her collection, which calls our attention to the Oscar Wilde quotation Sontag used to begins the essay: “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” Wilde wrote, and in a Comme dress, of course, you are both. Camp, in Sontag’s reading, is the “markedly attenuated and the strongly exaggerated,” which makes sense for Kawakubo, an artist with a tendency for extremes.

But there is also a broader application for this idea, outside of someone as singular as Kawakubo. “To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion,” Sontag wrote. “For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it.” The other major trend here—one that goes beyond decades and cultural critics—is the fashion industry’s attempts to take their place in a chaotic, unpredictable world, marked by surface readings of volatile politicking and violent divisions.

While students across the country were planning a walkout to protest gun violence, both Gucci and Dior were channeling the 1968 student riots in Paris. In her time at Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri has been deliberate with her political intentions, including famous feminist slogans on t-shirts. Chiuri said that she found, in the archives, photographs of women protesting the Dior store in 1966 for…not having enough miniskirts. The British Society for the Protection of Mini-Skirts may seem like puffy stuff compared to the May 68 protestors—students and workers standing up to “capitalism and its compounding interests,” as Vogue’s Nicole Phelps wrote in her review of the show. The miniskirt had, by that point, become a symbol of the youthquake, and the protestors felt that Dior’s refusal to show them on the runway amounted to a lack of respect for their generation’s influence. Phelps mused that maybe in 50 years, Dior will be making a t-shirt with Emma Gonzalez’s face on it—one of the teenagers who, in the course of their activism for gun control, have been made into the crux of a cruel and appalling conspiracy. Gonzalez’s image is already becoming shorthand for a movement that goes beyond silhouettes and screenprints, the way today Dior’s berets and belts are trusted to represent a remembrance of youthful strength, conviction, the power to stop a city…and miniskirts.

Gucci, which owes a great deal to the youthful interest in, and the youthful consumers of, Alessandro Michele’s interpretation of the brand, pledged $500,000 in support of the March 24th walkout. The company’s commitment to gun control in America comes from their own recent tragedy: two Gucci employees were at Pulse the night of the shooting. A manager of their Miami store, Leonel Melendez, survived, while Javier Jorge-Reyes, a salesman, was killed. The brand’s ads for Pre-Fall 2018, which include a short film made by Glen Luchford, are designed to look like historical photos of the 1968 riots—students occupying a university campus, in which everyone happens to be wearing Gucci. The brand is promoting a hashtag #GucciDansLesRues (“Gucci in the streets”). Together, Gucci’s donation and Gucci’s collection suggest that they are not designing clothing for the future, but designing their company’s influence. In fifty years, Gucci will not need to recreate images of the marches with people wearing Gucci because they were there.

Even fashion’s most ardent defenders cannot applaud Wylie for applying the most rudimentary fashion knowledge to the political victory of an abhorrent president.

Marine Serre’s work relies on deliberately dueling readings. The collection that won her the 2017 LVMH Prize, titled Radical Call For Love, was purposefully covered in crescent moon logos. Reminiscent of old Turkish and Soviet flags, as well as Islamic iconography, Serre told Cathy Horyn in The Cut that there are people who consider the print “quite radical, and there are others who don’t know anything about politics and think it’s just cute. And that is exactly what I love.” The waxing new moon has become her signature, a way of referencing how many different meanings can exist in our shared sight, and our eye is now trained to look for it everywhere. Serre knows the delight that comes when we find it on her shoes, or on tights seen under the skirt, or printed all over a smooth head-to-toe catsuit. Jackets with pockets, or cargo pants, represented freedom—women have enough symbolic material to carry with them. Their hands should be free.

In the fashion industry’s attempts to make revolutions into slogans and pin political symbols to moodboards, the question is not whether fashion can be good or evil, or smart or dumb, but even more simply: what is it that fashion should do? What role should it play in our histories and our cultures, and how should clothing be used to communicate our values and our beliefs? It makes me remember Sontag again—designers may share a given sensibility with their whole hearts, but the question is whether they merely are exhibiting political values or truly embodying them, reading history as their attempt to write it. There is not one all-knowing answer to one all-encompassing question—not in fashion, at least. To look at the present by reimagining the past and think, how can we put ourselves in there, how can we make it something wearable—that looks, to the trained eye, like the beginning of understanding that we conflate the simplified with the significant and the complicated with the conspiracy.

marine serre
Christopher Wylie
conspiracy theories
Susan Sontag
Comme des Garçons