The Unsustainability of Luxury Fashion by Whitney R. McGuire, Esq.

Uma Thurman for Louis Vuitton S/S 2005

There’s a class war happening in fashion and it’s getting worse.

First it was Amazon and Valentino, then Facebook and Gucci. They’re the four most prominent behemoths in a growing trend of team ups and crackdowns, the teams ups being the hyper-rich corporations and their egos. The crackdowns have fallen upon counterfeiters, aka people who engage in scamming large corporations to fund a certain lifestyle they aspire to — the same lifestyle luxury fashion and it’s bestie mainstream media amplified as the standard of the appearance of wealth. The premise and outcome of this war, like many of its predecessors, is cannibalism.

If you’ve ever doom-scrolled your Instagram feed on a Wednesday with mascara stained cheeks and your third *full* glass of red wine, then you understand what aspiration means. Instagram is the leader in a culture of aspiration that has mushroomed since we first heard those high pitched static sounds followed by “you’ve got mail.” Actually, since our computers became pocket sized appendages. Many argue that this culture of aspiration has its origins in European

standards of wealth and royalty. Hello feudalism. But there’s also varying caste systems in different cultures and I’m not sure whether this is a “chicken or the egg” situation. My somewhat limited historical knowledge aside, I think it’s safe to say settler colonialism and imperialism has a looooot to do with it. Then there’s the unspeakable, yet real forms of violence inflicted upon any bodies that got in the way of the process of valuing property over people.

The Origins of Aspiration Culture

Of course the subjugated have always wanted to look like their oppressors to perhaps experience the privilege of power, safety, and respect. We’ve been taught (first by violence then through powerful propaganda disseminated via mainstream media AND violence) to respect the wealthy including their neighborhoods, their clothes, their cars, their kids, their lives. My grandmother was a domestic worker before she had my mother. Her father was a sharecropper. His father was enslaved. Most Black women descendants of enslaved Africans became domestic workers once slavery took a different form. My grandmother emphasized eating, dressing, and speaking “properly”, like the wealthy white people she worked for. In fact, this culture of respectability informed a tactic of an entire movement for integration, severely diluting and distracting from the urgent unmet needs of our most vulnerable. Somehow, between Johnson and Nixon the fallacious bootstrap narrative Kool-Aid was consumed by entire generations (ahem Gen X…y’all can really be unhelpful sometimes) as the median household income rose at its fastest pace in history, between 1971 and 2000.

Oh hey Hip Hop, gorl! We see you emerging out of this transition from an imperialistic warmongering administration to another. We see you echoing sentiments of aspiration as you comment on the neglect of communities. We also see you becoming less radical the more mainstream you become. Ultimately, Hip Hop became a mass marketing tool for luxury fashion, solidifying a culture of aspiration as a pop culture necessity. If they don’t aspire to be you, are you really relevant? It’s kinda like the tree in the forest trope. For the record, any fall makes a sound, but when you come from the bottom, looking like a million bucks is a marker of success. Of COURSE WE ARE GOING TO RAP ABOUT THAT!

Cardi B for Balenciaga F/W 2020

Cardi B says:

Now I like dollars, I like diamonds

I like stuntin’, I like shinin’ (Yeah)

I like million dollar deals

Where’s my pen? Bitch I’m signin’ (Signin’)

I like those Balenciagas (Those)

The ones that look like socks

I like going to the jeweler

I put rocks all in my watch (Cha-ching)

I like those things too. Or at least I think I do. The truth is, most of Cardi’s listeners are not flexing on hoes like this, yours truly included. By nature of the rarity of her ascent, she is catapulted into a realm of “celebrity” — a bridge between the poor and the rich through the extension of opportunity (mixed with misogyny). Celebrity culture is the mouthpiece of luxury. We see this phenomenon played out on a strip of crimson carpet several times a year, in magazines, on television shows echoing the same punditry as they nitpick the fashion and bodies of human beings, and now on the computers in our pockets. The question “who are you wearing?” on the right celebrity at the right event could mean a sharp increase in relevance for a particular fashion brand. The point is, they are NOT us and we are NOT them. And that makes us WANT to BE them. As much as luxury subsists on the illusion of exclusivity, as an industry within a system of capitalism, it literally can’t afford to not be in demand.Words like high quality, expensive and non-essential, rare, exclusive, prestigious, and authentic signal a certain status. While economic inequality, whether measured through the gaps in income or wealth between richer and poorer households, continues to widen, billionaires like Amazon, Facebook, Gucci and Valentino continue to employ the same cops and robbers binary tropes to eliminate issues they in fact caused. According to a 2019 Pew Survey, a greater share

of the nation’s aggregate income is now going to upper-income households and the share going to middle- and lower-income households is falling. I don’t know about Hao Pan of Kaitlyn Pan Group, the party Amazon and Valentino are suing, but I do know that a culture of aspiration, a luxury brand did make.

How Did We Get Here?

Cotton Plantation – Tennessee 1914

The United States has been the world’s largest exporter of cotton since 1830 and the fashion industry has been dependent upon cotton since its inception. Slave labor has been and remains to be one of the most essential elements of the fashion industry. We see the advent of the sewing machine in 1850, which allowed people other than those in the upper class to copy and produce fashionable dress. To this day, home sewing is a protected category in proposed legislation addressing infringement and counterfeiting. Fashion hierarchies and their simultaneous signaling of class differences were catalyzed during the nineteenth century on the heels of the ratification of the thirteenth amendment, reconstruction and with the growing popularity of fashion magazines (cuz once you take the chains off, the possibility of us having access to property and fashion makes that whole skin color argument as an objective delineator of status even more of a reach). We are also seeing an industrial age that is booming. Post WW1, we see a rise of commercial urban centers which created ideal conditions for the rise of capitalism and the solidification of class signaling within the fashion industry. The reign of the new commodity culture allowed for the connection of mass audiences’ tastes and preferences to the important features of the industry, visually.

Fashion magazines became the voice of fashion during the rise of fashion photography culture in the 1960s. We see this during Diana Vreeland’s tenure at Harper’s Bazaar, later Vogue and amplified by Anna Wintour. In 1984, Vreeland explained how she saw fashion magazines. “What these magazines gave was a point of view. Most people haven’t got a point of view; they need to have it given to them — and what’s more, they expect it from you.” So the point of view of wealthy class white women became the point of view of fashion amplifying the power of privilege.

An Anecdote

I spent the first thirteen years of my life in Dayton, Ohio. Born into a predominantly working class family during the height of MTV era shows like “My Super Sweet 16” and “CRIBS,” I aspired to have access to the aesthetic of luxury. For me, luxury fashion was such an unattainable idea, that I instead fantasized about trips to Canal Street in NYC. On Canal, the possibility of attaining luxury-adjacent items right now, was palpable. I was 21 when I purchased my first handbag on Canal Street: a boho Louis Vuitton bag with embossed signature print in a nice buttery (fake) brown leather with a gold chain link and faux leather strap. For the entire 10 months I owned that bag before the fake leather started to peel and the chain strap broke….YOU COULDN’T TELL ME NOT A GOT DAMN THING! I welcomed that confidence, even if it was fleeting and attached to a material item. I welcomed the confidence of perhaps becoming slightly closer to the safety luxury grants you (with a few exceptions). And it wasn’t just me who felt the vibes. I received preferential treatment when I went shopping or out to restaurants. Even at my law school, I received a non-sarcastic, “hey nice bag,” every now and then. It was just a bag, but for me, it was a game changer like straightening my afro, which I don’t do anymore because there’s a limit to my colonial coping mechanisms. It didn’t matter to the folks who now acknowledged me when I had otherwise been overlooked, that my bag was fake. And it definitely didn’t matter to me that my bag was fake.

Counterfeit culture subsists on aspiration and aspiration is the natural by-product of exclusivity, one of the most defining characteristics of luxury fashion. If counterfeit culture is the parasite, then luxury fashion is most certainly the host. Perhaps this is why crushing counterfeit culture has been such an evasive process for luxury brand lawyers. Over the past ten years, I have been an active contributor to fashion law discourse and without fail someone versed on the procedures of lawsuits like these will inevitably mention the game “whack a mole,” to describe how difficult it is to pin down and eliminate counterfeiters from the internet. Now these luxury brands are joining with Amazon and Facebook, two places where the worst of us can thrive capitalistically, forming a bigger hammer to whack more counterfeiters. But just like it’s difficult to uproot counterfeiters, it’s impossible to eliminate aspiration culture without eliminating luxury altogether. By cracking down on counterfeit culture, luxury fashion eats itself. Any projected loss of revenue as a result of the existence of counterfeit products pales in comparison to the free marketing these brands receive by nature of creating and thriving because of a culture of aspiration. If luxury wants counterfeit culture to go away, luxury needs to be all the things that it is not: affordable, equitable, accessible. If these lawsuits are any indication of the future of luxury fashion, it doesn’t seem like this will happen anytime soon.

Listen, with the exception of Kanye types, most of us know a Louis Vuitton handbag won’t protect us from being the targets of state-sanctioned violence. But we also know looking good and feeling rich is a temporary marker of progress during otherwise dismal forecasts and calls for equity. At the end of the day, the needs of the most essential element of the supply chain: humans, remain unmet as a result of both luxury and fast fashion companies’ reliance upon exploitation. The theatrics bore me. I’m not advocating for criminality here, but what I am advocating for is nuance in these ever increasing cops vs. robbers narratives, especially in luxury fashion where the cops ARE the robbers.

If our popular culture has taught us anything, it is that the pool of aspiration is becoming deeper, more vast and we’re all effectively scrambling for only a few metaphorical life preservers. Luxury fashion is safely sunbathing on the shore, hoping none of us (lower income earners) can swim. In other words, sustaining the idea of luxury is actually not sustainable. Unless you’re ok with widening income inequity…and drowning. Despite where we fall on the hierarchy of capitalism, we all deserve to look good. The more celebrities and rich people tote their shiny objects, the more people will aspire to be like them. That’s the goal anyway, right, luxury?

Whitney McGuire, Esq., is a mother, a New York state licensed attorney, a sustainability consultant & strategist, and co-founder of Sustainable Brooklyn, an organization that disrupts the whitewashing of sustainable fashion, agriculture and well-being in order to concretize equity for those first and most impacted by the climate crisis. Whitney is a pioneer in the field of fashion law and supports the sustainability of BIPOC artists as an attorney and advocate. 

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