Fashion vs. Finance

Annette Yoo

There is nothing more recognizable than a pair of stilettos with shiny, blood-red bottoms. A bag spattered with a pattern of LV’s. Red and green stripes across a handbag adorned with a snake. We see these iconic features of clothing and immediately position them as the epitome of luxury, wealth, and most importantly, fashion. Christian Louboutin, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci are revered as some of the most iconic fashion brands of the industry, with their luxury items  retailing for thousands of dollars. To the average person, purchasing products at these prices simply isn’t practical and many fashion “trendsetters” are quick to spend their latest paychecks just to say they own an item from these brands, whether it’s a $600 Fendi keychain or $900 Balenciaga sneakers.

In an industry that thrives off of exclusivity and caters to the wealthy, the true essence of fashion and its creative outreach is overshadowed. If I can’t spend a grand on a Vetements hoodie, am I truly fashion-forward or a worthy member of the fashion world? This mentality, bred from the particular audience these brands seek to reach, exposes the toxicity luxury brands can foster by making their products accessible only to the wealthy. So if it isn’t a brand name, what can we say defines fashion trends? What is most relevant and exploitative about these brands and the cultures they cultivate? What measures a person’s “fashionability” if they lack wealth or financial security? If it isn’t finance, is it fashion?

The fashion world is in constant motion, constantly shaping and reshaping with the rapidly changing ideologies of society and modern times. From the chokers of the 90s to the low-rise pants of the 2000s, iconic luxury brands have stayed relevant and profitable. Much of this can be attributed to their close following of the trends, or what is “in” at the time. Now, streetwear has been popularized, as well as oversized clothing, big sneakers, and dangly hoops are taking over the scene, products and aesthetics that were appropriated from Black culture and hip hop. Many fashion brands are also expanding into this realm, claiming territory over the low-key aesthetics of people of color, like the obscenely large platform sneakers seen in recent Gucci, Balenciaga, Off-White lines. What Tupac once flaunted, we see suburban white boys wearing. Brands are also including street aesthetics such as graffiti, something that is not in itself a label of “luxury” but is simply a means to appear different and follow this streetwear trend. All of this illustrates exploitation in its simplest form, performed for the maximization of profit rather than awareness or appreciation. This can be seen especially in luxury brands’ obscene prices that many marginalized people cannot afford, the same people from whom these designs and aesthetics are appropriated.

There is also a trend of profiting off of social movements, such as activist groups—a good example of this is Dior’s simple white t-shirt with the statement, “We should all be feminists” which retailed for $600. Although a portion of the proceeds were donated to Rihanna’s non-profit the Clara Lionel Foundation, the marketization of such products highlights the exclusivity these brands seek to cultivate to maximize profit, whether it be for a good cause or not. Fashion is largely influenced by its audience, so while these brands all boast unique approaches, it is the social marginalization and exploitation of nonwhite bodies that keeps these brands alive through updated trends and waves of fashion forms.

Another facet of luxury fashion that continues to be problematic is the financial pressure that it puts on young people who aspire to be fashionable and expressive but do not have the means to afford luxury items. We can all appreciate luxury fashion and its glamour, but most of the population does not have the privilege to go further than that. Before coming to New York City, I was never one to worry about a brand name or looking better than the person next to me. But after just a few months here, the culture of “flexing” had grabbed my wallet and I was sucked in—looking up items I knew I could never afford and feeling worse and worse about myself and my own identity as crafted by fashion. How could my closet even compare to that of the girl next to me whose bag is worth more than all of my clothes? Under this pressure, we can lose sight of ourselves and our priorities in a desperate attempt to fit in. We forget the true essence of fashion: self expression, aspiration, a lifestyle beyond a person’s measure of material success.

Participation in fashion should not be bound by brand, measures of wealth, or “flex.” In fact, at its core, true fashion isn’t any of those things.  It is a lifestyle, a statement, a sense of creativity; it allows a person to be their own individual. While trends exist, we can decide how we interact with that trend—whether we expand on it, reject it, or follow it religiously. From the girl with bright hair clips and flared jeans to the boy with a button up and khakis, fashion exists to say something about a person and what they value and appreciate. It is not luxury but individualism that makes fashion so relevant and powerful. Fashion should not be a tyrant of exclusivity, a machine that consumes and appropriates the cultures and aesthetics of marginalized people to gain popularity, or one that exploits minimum (and under-minimum) wage workers to serve a privileged audience. With and without its faults, we must remember that fashion allows us express what we cannot say in words. Luxury fashion aims to exclude, marginalize, and exploit, and we must work to reposition fashion as an inherently valuable method of self-expression that is accessible to everybody, regardless of wealth. We must bring fashion back to what it has always been.