Thursday, September 18, 2008

Understanding Fashion Controversies: The Marc Jacobs Case Study

According to a 2004 article entitled Ethics of the Fashion Industry, “politics and fashion have never been a trendy mix”. Formerly, designers and fashion companies with strong messages about “global welfare” were most often considered unappealing to the masses. Fashion has always been an industry obsessed with mass marketing and appealing to the largest amount of [wealthy] customers they can, so why "stir the pot", and risk offending potential clients who would have otherwise made a purchase? I can’t think of anyone more suited to answer this question than Marc Jacobs, creative director of Louis Vuitton and his own Marc Jacobs brand. Since I am not personally friends with Marc Jacobs, I will have to walk you through his affinity for fashion controversy myself.
Let’s start with the Louis Vuitton Monogram Joke bags, created in late 2007. These bags were created when Marc teamed up with Richard Prince, American painter and photographer, who created a line of “joke” themed paintings in the 80’s. It was these joke paintings that fueled the inspiration for a new, colorful twist on the monogram print created by the Paris Fashion House 112 years ago. The only perceived problem with the bags is the text sprawled across them. Jokes like “Every time I meet a woman who can cook like my Mother....She looks like my Father” and “My wife went to the beauty shop and got a mud pack. For two days she looked beautiful. Then the mud fell off” adorn all of the bags, and unsurprisingly, many people hate them. On, a reviewer wrote that the jokes were “lame ass jokes your 80 year old sexist uncle tells” and many commentators on the site backed up the review saying:

“The biggest joke of all is the LV label. Is there no concern for devaluing the brand?”

“What woman on this planet would want to be seen with this bag? For me, this is in the same category of offensive as that swastika bag.”

“I think Marc left rehab more messed up than he was before. This line is becoming a joke (no pun intended).”

But the controversy doesn’t just stop there. In mid-2008, just in time for gay pride parades across the globe, Jacobs released the "Rebel Pride" shirt, designed by Jon Lynn. The shirt had many elements typical of gay pride: stars and rainbow flags. The caveat- it was superimposed on the confederate flag, an image displayed with prominence in the South during the Civil War. As a result, the confederate flag is deeply associated with racism, intolerance, and the United States' very own bible-belt. Not exactly what gay pride is all about, is it? Commentators on said:

“I think it's more for the shock-value than anything else. I mean, if the meaning behind it is so elusive then what's the point?”

“I'm from and live in the Deep South and will always consider the confederate flag offensive. I can only imagine how hurtful it must be for black people.”

It seems risky to offend both women and the gay community, two HUGE consumers of high fashion. So why not take the advice “Ethics of the Fashion Industry” has to offer and avoid alienating your biggest clients? Let me try to explain what I see in both the bags and the t-shirt (I think they’re both great).
I think that sexism and homophobia are both serious issues facing American society, but I also believe avoiding discussion of the subjects all together is the WORST possible way to deal with them. Keeping divisive issues like this secret and taboo ensure their long-lasting persistence within a culture. Marc Jacobs forces us to consider issues like sexism by placing them out in the open for all to see and discuss (and check out the blogosphere- they have been discussed plenty!).
I think women brave enough to carry the Monogram Joke bag are the same women that are strong enough to stand up to men and assert their individuality. The bag is being carried by women who are literally saying to the world, “I have a handle on sexism; I use it to carry my makeup”. And gay men and women sporting the “Rebel Pride” t-shirt are saying, “I can cover up a symbol of racism with one of acceptance”, a message revered by the gay, and various other minority communities. To end, I want to clarify that I am not one to give blind praise to a designer because he is currently dominating the fashion world. I saw the Marc Jacobs collection for Fall/Winter 08/09 – I was appalled. But as for these two fashion controversies, I think Marc's ideas are innovative and direct. It might not be for everyone to own, but it certainly should be something everyone can appreciate.

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