The Fashion Edit: Can mass culture be a currency of democracy in fashion?

Structures of western fashion were set in Paris and Milan where fashion still remains the “real deal” in terms of heritage, tradition; capitals where fashion old houses are revered as shrines that shine the light on the direction fashion takes that season, where pilgrims line up – season after season – to pay homage and get their fashion salvation or their direction. New York and London are more dynamic and experimental, and let’s say, can depart from the tradition at times.

With a constant undercurrent, how does democratisation of fashion pan out in an environment like Paris? How do fashion houses embrace this trend? Is it too much of a shift and a compromise to the identity, or can it still be accommodated in smaller doses? Inclusion of “mass culture” as an influence is seeping through and finding its place on the fashion canvas, but the measure at which it will be palatable is still being worked upon. How extreme is extreme? Some are definitely more directional than others.

Demna Gvasalia
Two years ago, one brand made me sit up and take notice and that was Vetement – French for ‘clothing’. While watching their collection, I had mixed feelings. There was boldness, there was direction, and none of that added to anything of what Paris is all about. What were these guys doing? They were breaking every rule; in just three seasons they became one of the most important fashion labels in the Paris fashion terrain, and the world took notice.

Not one designer, but a collective; the band of creative forerunners were led by Demna Gvasalia (Google for accurate pronunciation), his brother and five other friends who had cut their teeth at important fashion houses like Maison Margiela, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Celine. I don’t think I have come across a design team comprising seven members with CVs as these.

And they break the rule; their first show was at a sex club in Paris. Their models were Instagram followers. Their designs included DHL logo on their garments, and their colours. Later on, they collaborated with DHL to do a pop-up in the delivery van of DHL. Their next collaboration was with IKEA, which didn’t see the light of the day, but showed the intent of their thought process. They also had some less exciting collaboration by their standards with Levi’s and Reebok.

Demna was convinced they will make a mark in Paris, and this was a first of sorts – almost a blasphemy in the “purity” of Paris Fashion royalty – and this influential entry in Paris was greeted by a position for Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga as their Creative Director. This heralded a new position. The mass culture influence was being accepted for the first time. Demna described it as down-to-earth that the youth-of-today wear. He now plays two roles as he continues to be the Head Designer for Vetement.

Simon Porte Jacquemus
The other entry in this evolving fashion environment was the label Jacquemus by Simon Porte Jacquemus; one who also won the LVMH designer prize. Simon Porte tried a new approach. He went on Facebook to reach the press announcing his first collection with a simple message, but it didn’t go far. However, the “new season” in the Paris circles had made the entry, different than what Paris had seen before; it was a direction which was not rejected, but well accepted.

This was a dimension of democratising fashion by a young crop of designers who saw the societal impact, and also brought in freshness that was much needed. The question still remains: If fashion as an industry is driven by aspiration, can it continue to remain so with a broken mould or this new mould, which is influenced by streetwear, and is also strongly influenced by mass culture?

With the consumer word, which is most common in everyone’s vocabulary nowadays, the “Millennials” and which is also stated commonly as the key reason for change in approach, can it also make the hierarchy of the fashion change? Can aspiration have a new place in mass culture?

Is it a reboot or the very essence of fashion?
The mass culture and streetwear are finding expressions in newer ways, and no other item has singlehandedly made that clear than the sneaker. It is the glorious age of the sneaker. We will talk about this more later.

The use of the sneaker in the last few years is a testimony of the influence of mass culture and streetwear combining. Bill Cunningham said: “There was a time when handbags made statements; now it’s the sneakers which do that every season.” The relationship between streetwear and high-end fashion is finding greener pastures, and it can be seen on various brands starting from Balenciaga, Off-white and Vetements. Is it a fashion reboot or just the very essence of fashion?


Pic of Simon Porte Jacquemus:


By Ajai Vir Singh

Founder and President, Colombo Fashion Week and winner of the Global Effie, Ajai Vir Singh is a visionary who has fathered the fashion movement in Sri Lanka.