This wider willingness to judge high fashion by the consumer creates a paradox for the designers at the major fashion houses. Shoppers at Old Navy feel comfortable critiquing non-mass-market runway looks. This comfort is in part derived from an underlying understanding that the items shown on the runway are not meant for daily wear. Of course the New York Times Style section has always covered runway looks, but the current information age has allowed people to play Monday morning quarterback with these designs without understanding their histories or influencers. And for those that judge a designer’s collection on the metaphorical Monday, a favorable judgment results in the desire to purchase those designs on Tuesday- not six months from Tuesday.
Here is where the problem becomes clear. People want instant, mass access to styles they identify as appealing. This pressures your H&Ms and Forever 21s to make quick imitations. Boutiques and highend department stores now must push to get their (somewhat more original) versions to the floor as fast as possible. This is why retailers mark down swimwear and put out fall jackets a little bit earlier every year. Once this starts happening in late July, suddenly swim is being put on sale at the exact time when people are most likely to pay full price to look stylish for their weekend trip to the Hamptons.
To combat the quickening style assault by the Forever 21s of the world, some of the high end design houses have started producing 12 distinct collections a year. Is this bad? Anna Wintour thinks so. Wintour wants couture and prêt designers to voluntarily cut production to force demand and prices to rise, presumably returning some of the intimidation and caché to the fashion world. Despite the illegalities of this plan, Ms. Wintour has a point- it’s hard to be awed by a world where everything is always being put on sale, and Anna needs awe like the rest of us need coffee.
Current consumer culture – comfort in passing judgment, demand for immediate satisfaction, decline of the high fashion caché – is creating fashion victims, though not in the traditional sense. The cycle begins with ego and ends with despair because it will always leave people wanting what they cannot have and devaluing the things they can. An increased perceived knowledge of fashion has only left us – and the designers – more confused. Some like Betsey Johnson want to make Fashion Week more immediate and consumer friendly, less about trade. Others like Wintour seem to think this will only add kindling to the fires that are burning down designers like poor Christian Lacroix. Let’s all hope there is a third way.