THE POWER OF FASHION as a purveyor of possible selves has long been documented and discussed in fashion literature from a plethora of vantage points. Yet with the fashion weeks in full steam around us, I couldn’t help but contemplate this phenomenon; fashion savants in all their glory vying for uniqueness whilst simultaneously maintaining a firm identity as ‘one of the gang’.
This tension between wanting to stand out and wanting to belong is a crucial component of the fashion system. Already in the early twentieth century German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote extensively about fashion as a collective activity in which its participants all yearn for a certain individuality, thus creating categories of people who are, somewhat paradoxically, all searching for the same form of separateness.
There are a myriad of ways in which the fashionable can distinguish themselves from the unfashionable, but the power of the logo is no doubt one of the most effective. The visual theorist Malcolm Barnard has written that ‘differently cultured bodies communicate different meanings’, and this could indeed not be truer of the symbolic nature of the fashion logo or brand identifier. Universally recognisable branding such as Gucci’s well-known interlocking G’s or Louis Vuitton’s intertwined LV logo, both offer a certain level of status to their wearer, yet not one that is any longer necessarily desired by fashion’s inner circles. These logos are, to put it bluntly, no longer fashionable; some would even say that today they are considered downright vulgar. Simmel pointed out that fashion works according to a ‘trickle down theory’, which we’ve mentioned on this page before. To recap, the trickle down theory stipulates that what the upper classes deemed fashionable would eventually, due to class imitation, end up in the wardrobes of the lower classes. Once the lower classes desired an item, garment or fabric they were no longer excluded from recognising its appeal, and thus it became highly undesirable for those higher up the social ladder. Fashion in a sense represented a calibre of dress that could never be achieved or accepted by all, thus providing the stimulus for change.
Today the talk of classes is no longer very au courant, but the division between fashion’s leaders and its followers is still very much with us. In our current cultural climate, where fashion is increasingly becoming evermore popular and populist, an effective way of maintaining your distinction is for example the possession of a level of fashion-focused knowledge that the general public is unaware of. In the case of the above-mentioned logos, Simmel’s trickle down theory would then stipulate that the logos that are immediately recognisable incur a lack of separateness from the masses. In other words, if everyone knows what you’re wearing and are wearing it too, what’s the fun of wearing it? As a result overt branding has retreated in favour of more discreet logos; hidden symbols that only the fashion intelligentsia will recognise, and that offer safe passage into this desired clique.
The four simple white pick stitches on the back of the neck of Maison Martin Margiela garments offer a poignant case in point here. Granted that MMM is experiencing a current and ongoing change in terms of brand image and management, this brand is still largely unknown to a broader public. Those in the know however, instantly recognise the four white stitches that symbolise this mythical brand. They are as instantly recognisable as the LV logo, albeit to a much more niche consumer. But then again, this is precisely the point. Due to his invisible and much fabled persona and rigorous as well as clearly identifiable house codes, Margiela has managed to build an almost cult-like following from fashion elites, whilst remaining almost invisible to the general public.
To instantly recognise the brand behind the four white stitches, or say, the signature weave of a Bottega Veneta piece or even the leather tassel of a Balenciaga tote, is to hold a certain level of, to appropriate French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase, ‘cultural capital’. These less conspicuous brand markers promote interaction with other like-minded arbiter’s of taste and provide differentiation from the mainstream, to who they would be practically imperceptible. These hidden signals provide the perfect test of connoisseurship in this time of apparent fashion democracy, with the truly fashionable still remaining one step ahead of the masses.
Camilla Flodin is a writer based in Stockholm.