The rise of the fashion trolls

A version of this article was originally published at LeanLuxe

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the Dover Street Market in Tokyo. Among the usual posse of DSM brands, there was Gosha Rubchinskiy’s latest for Adidas: a long-sleeved t-shirt with the word “Adidas” written in Cyrillic. Other t-shirts used Cyrillic to spell “football” and “Dover Street Market Ginza.”

To me, as a Cyrillic reader, this elicited a solid and prolonged eye roll. How stupid, uninformed, superficial — or all of those — do we, fashion consumers, come across when this is served to us as luxury fashion? Gosha, Vetements, Balenciaga, Off-White, and Yeezy are all in the race of who’s going to best turn a mundane object into a luxury commodity. Trendy clothes become ironic jokes in the tangible form: spend $110 on a pair of socks for an opportunity to walk around wearing a joke at your own literal and figurative expense in the name of being cool. Oh, irony, you are a cruel mistress.

Or, should I say a “cruel mistress,” to adhere to Off-White’s brand handwriting? On my jacket, its inner label is appropriately called “inner label,” as someone can possibly confuse it with something else.

Still, in the Internet culture of over-memeification, hidden references and snark, confusion abounds. It’s like a jester winking all the time. Off-White fans for the longest time thought that this brand’s tags were yet another message to be decoded. To clear the air, Off-White released a “HOW-TO” video instructing fans to “CUT THE TIE” and “LEAVE IT ALONE.”

Lest you think that quotation marks are random, they serve as the key pillar of Off-White’s brand identity. So is Gosha’s use of Cyrillic and Vetements’ re-appropriation of the mundane, like the IKEA shopping bag, DHL t-shirts and most recently, a souvenir NYC tote bag at the JFK airport.

The problem is, trolls do not have the identity of their own. They are free-riders on the identities of others. They capitalize on the instant recognizability and familiarity of these already known identities, which took their true owners years or sometimes decades to establish. As Jessa Crispin, author of “Why I Am Not a Feminist” notes, “It is always easier to define yourself as ‘not that,’ rather than do an actual accounting of your own qualities and put them on the scale.”

This trolling strategy is genius shortcut if there ever was one: take the identity of say, IKEA, DHL or whoever makes that New York City tote bag, and ridicule it (and those buying it) by making a $1950 version of it. President of the United States does the same thing.

As a business model, it works. As a brand-building model, it’s bullet-proof. Being reactionary and snarky means that one never has to come up with anything new or original. Ironic brands are beyond criticism. Everything they do is for the lolz.

This is the ultimate irony in the modern fashion space riddled with ironies. The brands lauded as the freshest and the most original are those who do not create a single new point of view. All they do is embody their anxiety of not belonging to the fashion world that they mercilessly mock and that embraces them all the more for it.

Today’s high fashion is in flux. Anxiety is only natural, but the fact that the leaders of the industry, like Balenciaga, define it only in terms of what high fashion is not is troubling.

Fashion is the important engine for visual culture. It’s a documentary snapshot of our society at any given moment. The same idea can live as a $1950 New York City tote or as the President’s tweet or a Pepe Le Frog meme. We live in the socio-political climate of anxiety. What fends it off is having a clear identity of one’s own. IKEA does IKEA just fine. So does DHL. And so does the inner label on my jacket, without quotes.

Strategy Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Forbes’ one of The World’s Most Influential CMOs.

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