Fashion is a label, style is a look
Fashion is branded. Style is designed.
Fashion is fast. Style is slow.
Fashion is loud. Style is quiet.
Fashion is premium mediocre. Style is everyday luxury.
Fashion is wasteful. Style is sustainable.
Fashion is iterative. Style is refreshing.
Fashion is a corporate identity. Style is your own.
Fashion is a matching outfit. Style is a combination of elements.
Fashion is marketed. Style is discovered.
Fashion is copied and mimicked. Style is individual.
Fashion is a business. Style is a skill.
Fashion is influencers. Style is influences.
Fashion gives you feedback that’s reflected back from others’ reactions and judgements. Style gives you independent inner satisfaction.
None of this is to say style is flatly superior to fashion, but there is a difference. Style takes practice. Fashion takes funds.
In a 1999 episode of Will & Grace, Megan Mullally’s character Karen attempts to curtail her limitless spending. She’s a carefree Upper East Side society wife and part-time assistant to Grace (played by Debra Messing). After just discussing the idea of a budget, she returns to the office one afternoon with several large, characteristically orange shopping bags. That is, Hermès orange.
“I told them to give me $5,000 worth of anything!” she proclaims. [What a difference twenty years makes — that sum could scarcely buy a single ensemble today at the big H.]
Then, admiring one of Karen’s purchases (a sweater) and clutching a hefty set of shears, Grace threatens to slice and dice the delicate knit.
“Oh wouldn’t I? Maybe I’ll just start with…the label.”
“No honey, that’s the best part!!” pleads Karen.
I don’t know why this scene sticks in my head all these years. I’ve had debates about what a label means to a garment and vice versa, and which part is in fact more…magnetic.
I’ve concluded, after buying things for the label only, entirely excepting the label, and points in between, that the label or brand resonates more up front, at the time of purchase. This is for a number of reasons — the controlled, designed-to-delight purchase experience, the satisfaction of a nonessential, non-functional need (like acceptance), or even the dopamine high of shopping and acquiring.
Thereafter, the aspects of the garment or item — beauty, whimsy, quality, utility, durability, versatility — are what provide true satisfaction and value, from a long-term, individualized, highly subjective place.
Have you ever browsed clothing online and not looked at the brand (if shopping from a retailer)? It’s hard to do. Or, browsed in person and avoided the label?
I find that it’s easier to judge garments in person by their intrinsic qualities first, label second, because touching and feeling has a more immediate visceral effect. Online, it’s easier to filter and focus by brand first, or at the least, orient oneself by brand, because there is no touch and feel.
A recent piece by StyleZeitgeist noted how “Premium Mediocre” fashion has come to dominate runways, social media, and fuel the business of many brands.
SZ Editor Eugene Rabkin explains that the term was coined by blogger Venkatesh Rao in referring to a segment of economic activity largely dreamed up by marketers to give the masses the illusion that they are consuming luxury, when in reality they were doing nothing of the sort.
Think: t-shirts, bags, shoes, accessories, and other items emblazoned with recognizable logos or text. “BALENCIAGA” printed boldly across your billfold or a pair of sneakers, branded bottom, top, front, and back with “Louis Vuitton Paris” or its signature L-V monogram.
Did you know there are staff designers at prominent luxury brands whose primary job is to decide where logos should appear on products?
This practice is nothing new of course, just embraced anew with the help of social media. Brands and designers discovered it was a lucrative market decades ago, when fashion brand licensing was rampant. The difference now? Brands understand they must tightly control access, sales channels, and the brand narrative that goes along with these goods.
Rabkin goes on to argue that “premium mediocre feels good, even if this feeling is fleeting and illusory.” In other words, a rapid high and then crash. After all, they’re not made to an exacting standard of sturdiness or quality, just one that is authentically “Gucci” enough. And thus, the cyclical, ever-pressing need to consume more.
The same week, I happened upon this story from The Outline, which covers the history of branding and brand-building. It became necessary for businesses to brand so they could help the consumer differentiate between superior and inferior products.
Once we collectively began to produce more than we could consume (around 1900), there had to be a way to establish a hierarchy of goods. Rather than a decision to buy a hat or have no hat at all, it was “which brand of hat?”
Thing is, once upon a time, branding and labeling largely stood for a level of quality — a guarantee. You lusted after a particular milliner’s hats because the designs were unique and made more sturdily or beautifully, with elegant materials. They cost more than other hats, but you could count on their overall superiority.
Then once you acquired said hat, you kept it, and it became part of your personal style.
Today, branding is often more about an idea than a standard. It’s a lifestyle. You’re buying a product, yes, and it may be physically superior in part. But its price more often reflects the cost to access a sense of belonging, a tribe, and to assume unto yourself the values a brand has told you it stands for, than it does for anything else.
Fashion is an identity, just not your own. It’s someone else’s. It’s belonging, but not original.
Style is your identity, created from a set of colors, fabrics, shapes and drapes, the labels of which may be obvious but often are not.
Some observations about fashion and style from years of shopping, browsing, buying, wearing, and observing others, across geographies:
(1) There’s an inverse relationship at commercial luxury brands like Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton, between an item’s price and its saturation of visible branding. As the instances of a logo or monogram decreases, price increases. Ever noticed that the most “affordable luxury” goods also make a point to have the biggest, brashest, most obnoxious branding?
It’s almost like those buying the entry-level items are subsidizing this accessibility by visibly displaying the logo on the brand’s behalf — like a walking, talking billboard.
(2) Brands and labels are rarely consistent over time. Case: James Perse. Not ultra high-end, but there was a time when the $50 t-shirt was pricey. And those shirts (circa 2013) were amazing. I still have a few, which I wear around the house. The label’s current offerings? Cotton is thinner, stretches out more easily, and isn’t nearly as soft on the skin. Most of the production used to be in Los Angeles. Now it’s in Asia.
Prices have only increased, of course.
(3) My theory on the arc of a brand/label: it starts with a standard of quality, but that strictness isn’t infinitely scalable. At some point, scale necessitates a loosening of the quality standards, and it becomes more about scaling the brand. Storytelling, sponsorships, partnerships, and expansion into other categories. Eventually, some brands completely shift who they serve. Michael Kors was once a very high-end designer of gowns, expensive ready-to-wear, and elegant accessories. Now look at the brand — staple of T.J. Maxx and Nordstrom Rack.
(4) Perhaps we are still stuck on consuming branded products because branded experiences are simply harder to brand. They’re not physical, and therefore have a shorter lifespan. I’m sure there are agencies and creative firms working to address this.
(5) On the other hand, unbranded or minimally-branded goods, with the promise that they offer a comparable product for less, are gaining popularity. What’s more, savvy dressers are rapidly catching on that specialness is better than conformity/instant recognition. It’s why we see independent local retail and designers popping up all over, albeit with mixed success.
And, a growing interest in looking back in time, at vintage and contemporary resale rather than always looking to buy new goods.
(6) The internet and its mature digital tools have lowered the barriers of entry for new brands. Almost overnight, it’s easy to establish a website, a logo, and a suite of products for sale. But, all this crowding has made it harder to stand out. And, without physical retail, which is increasingly unaffordable in dense urban cities, brands have to compete by deluging potential customers on social media, via e-mail, etc.
I also feel like most digital-native brands have found it easier to base their offer on the functionality of their goods, not the beauty or elegance. This could be because the latter are both more subjective and harder to judge through a screen.
To conclude, fashion and style aren’t synonymous. It’s up to each of us to make conscious, informed judgements about how we want to dress ourselves.
Will you go out of your way in life to discover unique looks, support local creators or curators, and take a few leaps of sartorial faith…or go with what’s convenient, inexpensive, and ultimately forgettable?