This weekend The New York Times published an Op-Ed article by Vanessa Freedman, the paper’s fashion director, in which she bemoaned the contemporary culture phenomenon called the “new mediocre.” She gave instance after instance, beginning with fashion and extending it to other areas, of mediocrity as the new normal. This, she said, is the marker of the zeitgeist. As far as fashion goes, she wrote, “The reason for that feeling of déjà vu I had as I sat through fashion show after fashion show during the last ready-to-wear season and saw yet more ‘reinventions’ and ‘homages’ to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, ‘How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?’ The new mediocre.”
I nodded along, until I realized that there is nothing new in the new mediocre. What Freedman was bemoaning was essentially the prevalence of mass taste, which existed ever since the masses learned how to read in the mid-19th Century. Contrary to what the intellectuals of the day thought, their ability to read did not automatically translate into a penchant for Tolstoy novels. Ooops.
In vain, I waited for Freedman, as I have done for so many other commentators on the zeitgeist, to put the blame where it truly belongs – on the shoulders of mass taste. Of course, being a writer for a major publication, she did no such thing. Instead, she blamed it on the uncertainty of economy that supposedly drives people to make safe choices, which in turn drives creators to produce mediocrity. Well, then, allow me.
What truly drives mediocrity in fashion and other cultural disciplines is bad taste of the majority. And, since we live in consumer society, we increasingly manifest our tastes through purchasing decisions, which results in a lot of mediocrity being produced to satisfy the demands of mass taste.
But, there is nothing new about this. Mass taste has always been mediocre, and you don’t have to be Theodore Adorno to know this. What has changed in the past decade and a half is fashion itself. In the 80s and the 90s, fashion was the purview of, let’s call them the weird and the wonderful – a self-selected mix of creative professionals, musicians, club kids, editors, and so on. This all began to change at the beginning of this century, and it was not only because fashion conglomerates figured out that luxury can be peddled to the masses. The masses wanted it.
By the year 2000, two things happened. The Western society has become much richer overall, and there formed a slew of emerging economies, Russia and China being the prime examples, where newly minted wealth ran amok. A new, vast class of consumers ready for luxury, of which fashion is a subset, was formed. But, just like mass literacy did not automatically lead to interest in literature, mass interest in fashion did not lead to interest in Alexander McQueen (except for his scull scarves).
So, what do the masses want? They want something that makes them feel fashionable and simultaneously makes them fit in. The marker of mass taste is the mortifying fear of standing out. To anyone genuinely interested in fashion this is a paradox. To fashion conglomerates this is a mandate to produce mediocrity.
The paradox of mass taste is easily solved through branding. On the designer fashion front, no one knows this better than Hedi Slimane at Saint-Laurent. He has truly tapped into mass taste by offering fashionable blandness. What he offers is accessible – jeans, hoodies, sneakers, bags, and so on. Saint-Laurent is a perfect brand for someone who does not want to stand out but also wants to feel stylish and is willing to pay the price. Slimane is giving the masses what they already want.
His counterpart for the older generation is Brunello Cucinelli, whose clothes the journalist Guy Trebay called “The Gap for the 1%.” And, of course, there are Michael Kors and Tory Burch, the Ralph Laurens of today.
And while you may chuckle, these companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Michael Kors is a publicly traded company worth a billion dollars, and Tory Burch undoubtedly plans to join that club. In 2012 Brunello Cucinelli took his company public. And, a recent Women’s Wear Daily article reported that sales of Saint-Laurent have doubled in the last quarter in China.
Fashion today is decidedly postmodernist, meaning that there is no longer a division between the high and the low, the good taste and the bad taste, the elite taste and the mass taste. The term “fashion” itself no longer has any meaning. Chanel calls itself fashion, and so does H&M. Anything goes, which really means anything sells. For me this point was hammered home last week with two fashion events I attended in New York on two consecutive days. One was the swan song of Ann Demeulemeester, who retired last year, and who came to Barneys to sign her monograph, a compilation of her oeuvre. Another one was by the high-end streetwear brand Hood by Air who chose to unveil the third part of their collection at the Museum of Modern Art. The meaning of this event as a symbolic gesture – bad taste in a museum – could not be clearer.
It is true that today it is harder to have interesting ideas because so much in fashion has been done. But, this does not mean that no new ideas can exist and that we are condemned to an endless parade of blandness, rehashes, and greatest hits. There are plenty of designers who do interesting things, but they are drowned out by major fashion brands that make major money by producing major blandness to satisfy mass taste. We will continue to be mired in mediocrity until mass taste develops. Don’t hold your breath.