Monday, April 5, 2010

Purchase Power

by Rahkua Verderosa-Ishakarah

Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, installation of shopping bags, 1990

"Magic Flute" - Theodor Adorno
Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrun (later adopting maternal surname Adorno) (September 11, 1903-August 6, 1969) was one of the most important philosophical and social critics in Post-World-War II Germany. He examined Western philosophical tradition and radically critiqued modern Western society. Adorno belongs to the Frankfort School (a term delineated for several different institutions based in or around Frankfurt, Germany) of thinkers who re-engaged Marxist philosophy as it applied to the critique of modern capitalism. He focused on the application of these critiques to an "exchange society" in which fetishized commodity production is central to Western society's cultural aesthetic and value system. His theories are largely based on those of philosophers like Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, and Sigmund Freud.

"Life does not live."

Theodor Adorno approaches the subject of disenchanting and enchanting illusions of beauty, power, and art through a sociological, psychological, cultural, and theoretical lens that focuses on the fetishistic/magical endowment of power and its captivity of certain objects and consequently (as a product of the general predisposition) luxury. He intends to dispel the notion that enlightenment, through its invocation of reason, dissolves the beauty of art and objects, instead positing that it simultaneously dissolves and assembles the qualities of the beauty aesthetic.


Adorno also strives to question the failure to disenfranchise commodity and its spellbinding mysticism through realization of its existence. "Contemplation, as a residue of fetishist worship, is at the same time a stage in overcoming it." Adorno briefly recalls the origins of gold and precious stones as once magical entities with the power to subjugate nature through its illusory omnipotence. "The radiance they reflect was thought their own essence" rather than a mere encapsulation and emittance of an outer light source. Thus the stones were feared and revered as inherently powerful. Even when enlightenment expelled these illusions of the stones' self-generated light, the magic of the object was no less potent. Giving the objects such careful thought and reverie imbued them with residual interest. In other words, in order to become fixated with an object, one must give it credence; this contemplation can breed suspicion and spur discovery, allowing for the mystical, uncanny elements to be uncovered and overcome; and the residual effects of such deep consideration transforms the motivation behind the reverie but makes it no less powerful.

Versace gearshift adornment

Through his assumption of capitalist society's gullibility and easy enchantment with the culture industry, Adorno critically debases the validity of actualized enlightenment. He implies that humanity is trapped within the bounds of spectacled illusion and enchantment and only entangle oneself differently through the freeing from one ideology into another of the same object. Thus, synthesis of a new thought as a product of consideration of a thesis an its antithesis. To an extent, accepting this sort of defeatist reasoning further entangles and perpetuates the delusion of a non-existent autonomy, further infatuating society with the culture it is being accused of over-valuing; yet at the same time we can be pulled into a deeper condition of human ontological consideration and possibly break free of the fetishizing society that Adorno describes.

The fashion victim is held captive by brand and trend.

The fact that this contemplation/enlightnment/
fetishistic commodicizing is applicabe to our current (as Adorno calls it) "exchange society" (where the exchange, mythic, and quantitative value of products/people/ideology have exceeded their qualitative "use" value in both importance and consideration) is apparent in every aspect of the socio-cultural construct. While Adorno provides example through the once feared now coveted jewel, the same concept can be found in the enlightenment of the superficiality of the celebrity image - which is still highly pedestaled; or of commodified brand power - which is still an object of desire despite realization that its inherent value and its cultural value (which has more credence in capitalist society) are separate entities. Adorno calls attention to this recycling phenomenon of interest and bestowed the responsibility of deciding whether and how to escape on the society in question.

"Magic Flute" was originally published in Adorno's Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life in 1951 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main and translated in 1974 by New Left Books. It was written while the author was exiled in America during World War II as a gift to friend/collaborator Max Horkheimer. The book draws its name from one of Aristotle's works on ethics, Magna Moralia and centers around Adorno's idea that a "good", "honest" life if no longer possible because of the inhuman/inhumane industrial society in which we live.

Key Terms: Enlightenment; Kantian Theory; contemplation; magic/power/illusion/myth; domination; commodity

"Great Aspirations: Hip Hop and Fashion Dress for Excess and Success" - Emil Wilbekin

Emil Wilbekin, born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1968 is the former Editor-in-Chief for Vibe Magazine (Quincy Jones' creation for urban culture and fashion with an emphasis on uban music). He was educated at Hampton University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. Wilbekin is now the vice president of brand development for designer label Marc Ecko as well as a member of the editorial board for the brand's magazine, Complex. He was also named as one of the top 100 influential homosexual people of 2002 by Out magazine.

Tupac in two styles, Karl Kani left and Versace suit right

"Soon, hip hop would start to change the sartorial landscape of Seventh Avenue, Paris, and Milan."

Emil Wilbekin takes a journalistic approach to an examination of urban culture's permeation into the high fashion lexicon (and vice-versa). He demonstrates, through a brief yet expansive overview of hip-hop history, how the culture has been integrated into haute couture brands and fashion in general and how many of the "hip-hop heads" have embraced the practice to the extent of creating their own clothing lines. "Beyond the blatant courting by both sides, fashion now takes aesthetic direction from hip hop cuture more than ever." Wilbekin takes the position that at the center of it all is capitalistic desire. The hip hop moguls represent the image of popular culture and thus prove to be profitable marketing venues. At the same time, the designer brands like Versace, Chanel, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, etc. represent an image of success and hold mystical/glamourous value for hip hop culture who want to emulate these same values and do so through the promotion of these brands in music, clothing, advertisement. The mutualistic symbiosis is guided by the ultimate desire of capitalist societies: money. As Wilbekin states in the last line of the article, "It's the American Way".

Jay Z in street wear and power suit

While Wilbekin takes for granted the reader's knowledge of many of the hip hop names references, he does very clearly elucidate this symbiotic relationship between urban culture and high fashion and challenges the perception of the merger (or hip-hop influence solely) as a short-lived phenomenon. "Cultural critics (the same ones who said that hop hop was a trend that would never live more than five years) and fashion editors (the same ones who once said, "A Vogue girl would never wear a ski cap") declared that the baggy pants look would be a passing phase. Fast forward to the present, and see how much bigger skate kids' pants have gotten, how all rappers and R&B artists wear size 36 waist jeans, and how wide legs have once again become the cool silhouette in high fashion. Like hip hop itself, wide-leg pants are now simply part of the style lexicon." It seems obvious that the longevity of the collaboration will continue because of the high profitability of the trend.

WuWear, ALife
Urban brands connected to Hip Hop

"As rap diversified, it was clear that for hip hop heads, clothes did define the man." Though the massive impression that urban culture has made on the aesthetic of the fashion industry is proof that the man also defines the clothes. The desire for the fashionable image (which is a desire to be associated with richness, privelege, and high society) is advertised in many rap lyrics (Tupac/"Him 'Em Up" - Now it's all about Versace/You copied my style/Five shots couldn't drop me/I took it and smiled; Young Jeezy/"Hard" (Rihanna)- "See my Louis tux, Louis flag, Louis frames, Louis belt What that make me Louis mane?) making the brands more popular and the associations with success and glamour (of both the artist and the brand) stronger.

Lil Kim by David LaChapelle

Not only are the hip hop moguls finding collaborations with established high fashion brands a profitable market, but also the creation of their own labels and aesthetic images. "Naughty by Nature launched Naughty Gear...Def Jam's Russell Simmons started PhatFarm...Puffy...debuted his Sean John line in 1998". This continues to occur (with artists like Beyonce Knowles launching Dereon and House of Dereon) today and just the people behind the established brands of Gucci Calvin, Klein, Chanel, etc. these artists are extending the brand's name to cover more than just the clothese and shoes, but also perfumes and jewelry, bags, sports gear, key chains, and a range of other products (including even liquor - P Diddy and Ciroc).

Above Baby Phat backed by Russel Simmons and Hip Hop influenced Chanel in 1991 below.

"As we approach the millennium, what we're experiencing is a global remix of individual urban ideas combined with the marketing of big business."

"Great Aspirations: Hip Hop, and Fashion Dress for Excess and Succes" was first published in 1999 by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc in a chronological examination of hip-hop - The Vibe History of Hip Hop by the editors of Vibe Magazine.

Key Terms: hip-hop (fashion/brand); urban market; ghetto fabulous


"Ethical Fashion: Myth or Future Trend?" - Catrin Joergens
Catrin Joergens is the Global Product Manager of Men's Apparel at Addidas Originals in N├╝rnberg Area, Germany where she is responsible for creating globally relevant products and concepts and men's apparel. She was educated at The University of Manchester and Hochshule Niederrhein.

What makes something ethical or sustainable? Many factors from production to consumption as well as their lasting influence and consequences.

It is first important to understand what "ethical fashion" really means and what societal implications it may have. Ethical fashion, which Joergen refers to as "a contemporary phenomenon in Western societies", basically describes the practice of designing, producing, selling, and purchasing in an ethics conscious manner - taking into consideration the working conditions under which the clothes were made, animal welfare, the sustainability, or ability to recycle the material and its affect on the environment, etc.


Catrin Joergens approached the concern for ethical fashion's existence, success probability, and consumer purchase influence from a purely research/emperical standpoint. She is trying to determine whether or not ethics have a significant, if any, effect on consumers' decision to purchase clothing. This article basically demonstrates these findings - consumer's attitudes and beliefs about ethical issues as they relate to the fashion industry and subsequent purchase behavior - in an attempt to give insight and understanding of ethical fashion and its consumption and possibly spread interest/action in the topic.

The key question that Joergens is attacking is whether consumers are willing to "sacrifice their personal needs to support ethically produced clothing" and what marketing potential does ethical clothing have. Through a series of focus groups and questionnaires administered to UK and German 18-26 year-olds, Joergens provided first-hand accounts of how ethical fashion is viewed to the relevant consumer. This ag e group is employed because of the relevance of the "ethical fashion phenomenon" to this particular consumer base.

Recycled dresses

Joergens predicts that "young consumers will be the next generation of ethical consumers...who could really make a difference by forcing retailers and brands to take action", yet the results of her study show that many of the consumers are not very concerned with ethical values insofar as it affects their purchasing. Although some are interested in animal welfare, environmental preservation, and safe/fair working conditions, the price and style/comfort of the clothes seem to take precedence over the decision on whether or not to buy. The "culture industry's" preoccupation with glamour and image in Western capitalistic society rings true in this battle for ethical consideration as many consumers choose brand over conscience. "The image and brand name influence me to buy the product more than the ethical awareness or social responsibility of the company": this seems to be the sentiment of the majority of the participants in the focus groups who admit that it is just cheaper, m
ore stylish, and easier to shop for looks rather than ethics. "GM: 'I want to look good and make an impression on people'".

Joergens points to the fact that the delineations are not clear enough between the companies producing ethical fashion and the ones that are not. Many of the participants showed concern over the role the media played, targeting certain companies for being unethical, while ignoring the overarching problem as a whole. "CD: I don't think it makes a difference if I boycott Nike or Gap. Doing so I would just be following what the media says." "DR: At the end it is just a shifting of buying to another unethically acting company". Thus the industry and issue as a whole needs be examined in order to shift the dynamic not from one store to another, but from one major form of producing and purchasing to the other.


Furthermore, the concern for ethical issues is also undermined by the low accessibility and awareness of the products. "One of the main difficulties they perceive is the limited offer of ethical products as well as the price of these." Many of the participants imply (some even explicitly state) that they might be more inclined to consider the ethical issues if there were a wider range of products to choose from, things that would personally fit their own styles. Also, if there was some clear demarcation of which products are being generated ethically rather than continuing to follow the flawed system that exists today where many company stake claim to ethicism for the public image but don't actually practice. Thus, it seems clear that more information is needed not only about the products but about the phenomenon in general in order for people to be able to make informed decisions. The ethical fashion companies need to communicate this more effectively and the consumers need to put more pressure on the other companies and the media in order for us to move toward a more ethic-conscious society of buyers.

Noir, Danish Eco-Fashion label, London Fashion Week, 2009

"Ethical Fashion: Myth or Future Trend" was published in 2006 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management. Vol. 10, Issue 3 in Manchester, England. The research/focus groups were conducted in the UK and Germany.

Key Terms: purchase power/behavior; trend; ethical fashion; customer satisfaction; ethical issues

"We adress... ethical or ecological... questions in every other part of our lives except fashion. Mind-sets are changing, though, which is encouraging." -Stella McCartney ("What is Ethical Fashion"
www.vam.ac.uk. Victoria and Albert Museum.)

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