By Kristopher Fraser
Last Friday, October 3, 2015, Uniqlo unveiled their collaboration with former Hérmes creative director and designer for his own eponymous label Christophe Lemaire. The collection has been such a hit after nearly selling out in stores this weekend that a spring collection is already planned. While Lemaire isn’t a household name like some other designers who have done collaborations with fast-fashion brands, like Alexander Wang for H&M, he’s still managed to pull off a sell out designer collaboration that everyone is raving about.
For some, Lemaire’s collaboration with Uniqlo represents a very divisive topic in the fashion industry: the democratization of fashion. Once upon a time, the high fashion aesthetic was left for those who could afford to pay a high price tag. Being one of the most stylish people in the room required much deeper pockets, but, since 2004, when Chanel Artistic Director Karl Lagerfeld collaborated with H&M, the democratization of high fashion has run prevalent throughout the fashion industry.
The idea behind the democratization of fashion is that designs will be more accessible to the masses. While the idea might seem like a very modern or contemporary topic, truth is it’s a tale as old as time.
The democratization of fashion can be traced back to the days when fashion magazines like Vogue began acting as catalogs for the fashion industry. Prior to the popularity of fashion magazines, Parisian couturiers and high fashion brands would stage trunk shows for high end clients to order what they want, making the world of fashion extremely exclusive. In the 1940s, Press Week became a thing in New York (the equivalent to the current highly popular New York Fashion Week) as Europe was occupied by Nazi’s during WWII.
Fast forward to 2015, where you can view runway shows on Youtube, and Fashion Week has a live stream so you can watch shows as they are happening. The world of high fashion has become more accessible than ever, and for those who didn’t have $1700 to spend on a new Stella McCartney jacket in 2005, they were sure happy for her collaboration with H&M where her coats cost $99.
The argument that has been made against things like designer collaborations with fast-fashion brands and the democratization of fashion is that it ruins the exclusivity and cheapens the product. The 2007 New York Times Bestseller “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster” was a staunch critique of the democratization of fashion. The book discussed the consolidation of small family-run luxury businesses into luxury goods holding companies, and how they made them available to sales for masses in the forms of handbags, clothing, and accessories. The book mentioned Kering, Richemont, and LMVH which collectively own the majority of the world’s luxury brands including brands like Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, and Cartier.
Author Dana Thomas has said the democratization of fashion has led to poor quality, outsourcing to developing nations, and a massive surge in counterfeit products. While her critique was harsh, there is something to be said about the importance of the democratization of fashion.
Apparel choices for those who can’t always afford the high fashion choices are good for both the consumer, collaborator, and a companies business, in addition to helping designers gain name recognition. In 2013, designer Isabel Marant did a collaboration with H&M that sold out very quickly in stores, and unlike many of other H&M’s designer collaborations, Marant wasn’t the typical household name. Upon the announcement of her collaboration with H&M she quickly became one of the most searched names on google because everyone had to know who she was.
Compared to some of H&M’s other designer collaborations like Versace and Lanvin, Marant was only known to the fashion crowd after her H&M collaboration. With these collaborations and through the democratization of fashion, companies are finding customers that they normally wouldn’t have had before. With the level of success the majority of these collections receive, it’s no secret that they are good for business, the overall economy, and the entire fashion industry. Sure, that level of exclusivity from the 19th century might not be there, but the democratization of fashion has certainly led to a happy customer and better dressed society.