The Paradox of Designer Pricetags

It’s no secret that designer fashion is expensive. Names like Prada, Burberry, and Saint Laurent are synonymous with luxury and decadence. There has been much debate among fashion enthusiasts over whether it’s it’s worth spending big bucks on designer gear or if doing so is merely paying for the ego boost afforded by the garment’s label. The general consensus among people that aren’t plebs is that it’s okay for other people to spend their own money on whatever they want, since surprisingly enough them doing so doesn’t actually affect the rest of us.

But while there is plenty of discussion on whether or not consumers should pay the high prices on designer clothing, I have seen relatively little on whether the designers themselves should be charging what they are. Hero that I am, I have taken it upon myself to fill this obvious void in the internet’s catalog of pseudointellectual rambles.

Now, viewing designer fashion houses solely as capitalist businesses, the question posed is deeply uninteresting; who really cares whether Versace would make more profit if they reduced their prices a bit? Literally nobody. Except maybe Versace. Instead, I’m considering the impact of designer pricetags on fashion as an art form.

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Fashion is a very multidimensional art form. If we regard a full outfit as the final work of art, it is the result of the collaborative effort of the designer(s) who created each item, and the stylist(s) who put them together. Depending on the outfit, the contribution made by each party can vary: a stylist working with pieces all from the same collection by a given designer doesn’t need to do a lot of work to produce a decent outfit, and similarly it’s not exactly rocket science to design a decent white tee. I think it’s pretty clear that the most interesting stuff happens when both parties pull their weight; when a talented stylist pulls together interesting pieces from several designers into a unique final outfit.

Of course in reality, most “stylists” are largely just regular people like you and me, dressing ourselves. And unless you want to literally live in a department store fitting room, that regrettably means that you need to actually own the clothes that you’re styling.

And so we come to the problem of pricetags. As I already mentioned, the top-tier powerhouse fashion houses are universal symbols of wealth and opulence. But it seems to me that at least in theory, they play a more important role, namely as the people at the frontier of the artform; the people pushing the boundaries and creating the most creative and interesting pieces. Unfortunately, these two positions appear to be at odds with each other; by charging the prices they do, they reduce the number of potential stylists doing cool shit with their pieces to the relatively small number who can afford them.

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I’d like to briefly clarify what I mean by the word “afford”. While designer clothes are certainly expensive, they’re obviously not on the same level of financial unobtainability as, say, sports cars, or classical art, or even watches at the very high end. I think most people with a reasonable level of disposable income can save up for a few designer pieces relatively easily if they so choose – I mean, I’m a student and I have three pairs of designer shoes, plus a number of “mid-tier” shoes, jackets and tops.

But the important part is that notion of saving up – almost all my designer/pseudo-designer items were the result of months of searching for that perfect thing, and then lusting after for a further few months while I waited to get them to go on sale or turn up on Grailed. I took great and extensive care to be absolutely certain that I truly wanted each item and knew how to wear it effectively in advance (I explained this questionable process in great detail in a previous post). What I have never done is find something cool in a designer boutique and bought it on the spot just so I can see what I can do with it, because I can’t afford to risk that much money on something that might not work out.

The point I am attempting to make in my meandering way is that while I can afford to save up for key designer pieces that perfectly fill a hole in my wardrobe, I am in no position to splash out on anything that could be described as “weird experimental shit”. But experimenting with weird shit is exactly what is any artist needs to do to produce truly interesting work. Moreover, the nature of experimentation is that lots of experiments don’t work out – so you’re going to need lots of weird experimental pieces, the pricetags of which start to add up rapidly. And that’s what everyday plebs like myself can’t afford.

One example that illustrates this problem is the currently very popular Saint Laurent aesthetic. One of the common criticisms levelled at both Saint Laurent itself and the people wearing their clothes is that the items are very expensive, but really not that interesting or inventive – by far the most popular items are their checked flannels, black skinny jeans, chelsea and harness boots, biker jackets, and the other staple items of the “rockstar” look – sure, they’re all slightly unique in their own way, but none of them are exactly groundbreaking works of art. However, Saint Laurent do produce quite a bit of more “out-there” stuff – from 3.5″ mens’ heels to leopard-print tux jackets. They might not be on the absolute cutting edge of forward-thinking design, but they’re certainly more unique and interesting than yet another iteration of the black Perfecto. And yet, these pieces are almost nowhere to be seen – because among the people who might want to experiment with a leopard-print tux jacket, how many want it enough to drop several grand on it?

The problem is essentially that the intersection of people who want to experiment with people who can afford to experiment isn’t big enough.

Singer Kanye West performs during the last concert on the main stage of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California, April 17, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY) ORG XMIT: MB253

“That means Saint Laurent is my Zara”

One of the few people in the aforementioned intersection is of course our lord and saviour Kanye West. I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about the influence Kanye has had on fashion trends in recent years, even ignoring the clothes he designed himself. But if you polled a bunch of mildly fashion-conscious on how much they like Kanye’s style, I doubt you’d see anything near unanimous positivity. Even moreso when considering his Yeezy Season lines. It’s not that Kanye always dresses incredibly well – what makes him such an influential and interesting figure, besides his fame, is that he is constantly actively experimenting with the near endless array of designer pieces he has access to. Sometime he hits, sometimes he misses (which is which depends on who you ask), but it’s impossible to deny that he’s constantly trying new things.

Now imagine if all of us had access to the pieces Kanye does. Of course it’s extremely unlikely anyone would come close to usurping Ye in influence without the backing of fame in another field, but there would certainly be a lot more interesting fits floating around. Many of them would undoubtedly be absolutely gash, yes – but with so many different perspectives and minds at play, all feeding off of each others’ ideas, I have very little doubt that some truly great and unique things would arise.

Closing words

I make no claims that the foregoing ramble is anything but precisely that. I am under no illusions of the brutal reality of the situation; that fashion is a business like any other, and that designer clothing is priced at the point that people are evidently willing to pay. I am well aware that my fantasy of everyone having access to designer clothing is never going to happen; indeed I haven’t even bothered to provide any potential solutions. But I still, perhaps naïvely, believe that my opinion is worth sharing; I think the question of what this art form could produce without the limitations that designer pricetags impose is one worth discussing.

TL;DR: People can only make dope fits with the pieces they can afford, and there aren’t enough people who can afford the dopest pieces. This makes me slightly upset.

My intention with this article was to raise discussion, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts.

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