Image via @gasparddal
These last couple of years, the fashion industry has undergone an intense boot camp on the do’s and mostly don't's of cultural appropriation. But another form of appropriation has continued to emerge. It is called class appropriation and its proliferation has serious impacts on the working class, whether it comes from thrift shop culture or the high fashion market’s obsession with ‘authenticity,’ a marketing buzzword that has become associated closely with millennials and Gen-Z shoppers.
Compared to many start-up clothing lines that, unfortunately, often flop within their first few years of business due to a lack of sales, the re-sale market has been alive and thriving since even before the introduction of paper notes/”cash.” Despite this fact, second-hand shopping only became a mainstream phenomenon in the 90’s, when vintage shopping really took off. It is important to recognise the distinction between vintage and thrift shops; while vintage shops are geared towards a ‘collectable’ culture and having an authentically nostalgic look, the initial objective of thrift stores has always been to provide garments at a lower price for those who might be in need. In fact, some of the largest thrift store chains like Goodwill and The Salvation Army were created under the common banner of non-profit and charity, which means that the people they serve are first and foremost those who cannot afford to shop at larger or higher-priced retailers, and the stores are not seeking a profit first and foremost. It isn’t difficult to guess why thrift shops have managed to survive the ups and downs of fashion and the economy - it’s thanks to an ever-present and loyal clientele: the working class.
Last year, however, Forbes reported that the re-sale industry is worth a whopping 18 billion dollars with no signs of slowing down. In fact, the numbers are adding up by 11% every year, which means that by 2021, your local thrift store will be a part of a "$33 billion industry." Yet these numbers aren’t reflecting the indirect results of the 2008 economic crash and shrinking budgets. It isn’t because of newfound awareness of the fashion industry’s textile waste. And it surely isn’t a sign that brand names don’t hold cachet with younger shoppers. These would all be decent and logical explanations. Yet, the real source of the bills in this “billion-dollar industry” is an increase in wealthier secondhand consumers who treat secondhand shopping as a new kind of trendy pastime.
Many second-hand store owners have seen this as a chance to hike up their prices in order to profit from their new customers’ willingness to spend. As a result, this shift in supply and demand, means that lower income households can at times no longer afford what for them is necessary, and for others is a rare collector’s item. And while the loyal clientele, the working class, is usually motivated by their wallet when they scour the racks at thrifts shores, these new deep pocketed consumers pay less attention to the frugality factor and more attention to fashion. They are motivated by the uniqueness or ‘authenticity’ of the available goods, unfortunately now at the expense of those who cannot afford to be.
What is interesting to note from the popularity of the thrift shop culture is the parallel that can be drawn with the recent emergence of many “deconstruct and reconstruct” concept fashion labels. These brands reuse existing pieces, patterns or logos, parade them down a glamorous runway, add a few zeros on the price tag, and rebrand it through their cultural and creative status. One brand that has often been criticized for this controversial marketing strategy is French mega-label Vetements, founded by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia. The label’s most iconic piece to date is its DHL logo t-shirt, which can retail for up to $750 USD. This simple garment, which originally served as the international courier company’s standard uniform, embodies the essence of overpricing for what has otherwise been considered to be ordinary, or even undesirable for its somewhat blue collar connotations. In fact, even the designer himself has admitted that, at that price, he’s not “crazy fashion enough to go and buy [it].”
Not to bash on Vetements’ approach to deconstructing and subverting fashion’s opulence, but the idea that the most expensive and revered items are inspired by – if not a replica of— the ‘mundane’ also highlights the underlying double standards in fashion right now. It has become apparent that it isn’t about what people are wearing, or even who wore it first, but rather about who had more cultural capital when they started wearing it. In other words, elitism, with a few drops of creativity, and the right kind of popularity, means that a wealthy and successful person wearing a DHL t-shirt is considered more fashionable than the DHL employee wearing his or her regular work attire. In many cases, the only thing creative about pieces like this is the price tag and the high-fashion apparatus that supports it; if it weren’t for these two things, the trend would still belong to those who had it first. Instead, those who can afford these “new” pieces don their badge of ‘authenticity,’ which ironically is anything but authentic, considering that those who wear the same t-shirt for a living probably couldn’t afford to buy the trendy version.
In all fairness, from a certain perspective, all of this is understandable. Some argue that since, creatively, many industries have already reached their peak saturation point, the law of gravity must be applied - what goes up must come down. And so, it makes sense that once the elite have acquired everything they desired from the bottom of the creative food chain all the way to the top, they inevitably have to slide back down to the bottom to find something to rebrand and claim in the name of newness. It’s peak capitalism when the dominant class feels the need to consume and own every style, even those that they otherwise look down upon.
This refashioning of existing pieces has helped the fashion business profit from a form of appropriation of the working-class attire while creating a double standard on the runway and causing inflation on the second-hand racks. Of course, some may dismiss this class exploitation as a crybaby movement against the experimental vision of the creative and powerful. But that is exactly the point. Since the elite often feel entitled to everything, everything becomes a disposable trend. What most fail to understand is that the search for authenticity, nostalgia, and rarity can sometimes have indirect impacts on a whole segment of a population’s lifestyle and livelihood. Especially if that means that the working-class work attire can easily be reduced to an image on a mood board.