The fashion world has long been considered a home for the flamboyant, the outspoken and the bizarre; as such, it is and has always been dogged by controversy. From Vogue Italia’s trend piece on ‘slave earrings’, to John Galliano’s 2002 Christian Dior collection inspired by the homeless (no, really), the fashion industry has proved time and time again to be comically out of touch.
The vapid and vacuous cast of characters in the fashion world has spawned many a spoof including Ugly Betty and Zoolander, which lampoon the elements of the ridiculous in a world that seems so totally alien from every day life. Where are the Karl Lagerfeld’s shopping for shampoo in Tesco to keep their immaculately platinum ponytails in good nick? Where are the Vivienne Westwood’s queuing up at the bus stop, tugging their netted skirts out of the way of passing mobility scooters? Have you ever seen John Galliano fixing his pirate-y moustache in a New Look window? High fashion gets a bit of a free pass on controversy, because for most of us it isn’t part of our day-to-day lives. It is so divorced from normality that if we see something we don’t like we can just look away and continue on in our separate spheres.
However, this craving for controversy has trickled down into the highstreet and is becoming increasingly common. News broke this week that Urban Outfitters, in its infinite wisdom, had been stocking sweatshirts that appear to allude to the 1970s Kent State University shootings, in which four students died in a political protest. The sweatshirt features ‘distressed’ holes with the appearance of gunshot wounds and a red dye that pools around the punctures giving the impression of a bloodstain. Urban Outfitters’ management has thus far pleaded ignorance on the subject, denying that any such connotation had occurred to them, but let’s be honest, they’ve been caught with their hands
“Were we offended? Yes.
Were we surprised? Not a chance.”
firmly in the cookie jar and crumbs down their front. This shameless attempt at bolstering their lackluster sales year (a 10% drop in the first two quarters) merely comes across as desperate and has sent their brand approval rating through the floor. Were we offended?
Yes. Were we surprised? Not a chance. This flagrant move to introduce some ‘edge’ to their image is one of a number of tactical missteps by a grossly mismanaged brand. With hits such as ‘Holocaust t-shirt’ and the ‘Eat Less’ v-neck, this is one tune the public are sick of hearing. Media mongering like this doesn’t make people want to spend their hard earned ducats on your products, it makes them want to put their money back into their purse and then hit you round the head with it.
At its best, high fashion is art, it is expressive and creative and at times controversial. Meanwhile the high street, which is charged with producing imitations of high fashion trend pieces for a lower price and as high a profit as possible, lacks the kooky charm and innovation that gives high fashion the occasional pass. What we’re really seeing here is just a case of laziness, a thought process that says: ‘why innovate and advance when we can instead shock and offend?’. It further entrenches the view that high street fashion is just a profiteering exercise, which largely takes the fun out of the whole affair. If high street brands want to be ‘edgy’ and turn a profit, they have to put aside shock tactics and create something unique, something that creates excitement rather than anger.