May 08, 2017

Luxury’s youth culture appropriation

Streetwear's Cinderella Story

Where does luxury stand relative to popular culture? Although designers have always inspired the masses through their avant-garde, innovative creations, this purely top-down influence is now obsolete. Facing a crisis of legitimacy, luxury’s notorious conservatism has been drawing inspiration from the most public of spaces: the street and its modern digital components.

In 2004, H&M released its first collaboration with a high-end designer: Karl Lagerfeld. In a TV ad for the collection, aristocrats appear shocked and disoriented upon learning the news, feeling « betrayed » and calling the project « cheap ». Karl appears at the end of the spot to settle things: « cheap » is a matter of attitude, not a matter of material wealth. One can argue such work was motivated by a desire to make luxury and high-end style accessible to all, democratizing designer clothing because wealth does not make one stylish, style does. Since then, H&M has developed 14 collaborations with luxury designers such as Lanvin, Versace, and the latest to date, Balmain. Although it allows both brands to get great publicity, the biggest benefit arguably went to the Swedish retailer in terms of fashion credibility and noble-inspired legitimacy. Luxury branding used to be hesitative prior to engaging with popular culture or popular brands. The relationship would be as perceived as the luxury brand almost doing a favor to popular culture by elevating it to its level. However today, this dynamic has shifted, not in the sense that designers benefit from H&M’s image, but because the luxury sector is being drawn toward a rather popular set of codes: the streetwear scene.

It first seems unlikely that the ancient mores and conventions of luxury designers would aspire to the ways of the cheap and simple youth. As a matter of fact, brands have generally been repositioning themselves to adapt to the Millennial generation, a population segment that tends to perceive luxury as “a lack of common sense”, standing for “overpriced, poorly considered products” (Jasper Morrison, stylus article As a response to the youth going back to basics, luxury brands have been aspiring to turn everyday commons into something unique and precious. Appropriating streetwear codes has become a way to restore luxury’s major feature of being a source of avant-garde creation, with the street being the main cradle for inspiration.

Among this aspirational pauperization, the skater culture is a trend that has become highly relevant in the luxury fashion world, through collaborations such as Louis Vuitton x Supreme, but also as a whole new aspect of brands such as Chanel, whose latest Gabrielle ad campaign portrays Cara Delevingne with a beanie and a skateboard, a rather casual stance on high-end fashion. Maison Valentino has also been showcasing its products through the skater culture lens on its Instagram. While skate might be streetwear’s original “turf”, luxury fashion adds street credibility to its heritage by appropriating this environment.

There’s more than the products at stake: the luxury sector has adopted a laid-back, unexpected communication tone. Brands such as Gucci have been playing with this attitude by communicating about their latest accessory collection through memes on Instagram. Memes generally involve a picture, taken out of context, with a derisory caption. Here, the “Gucci starter pack” puts together elements from both Classical art and 90’s “cheap” fashion. The public space has transitioned from a place where people admired prestigious luxury brands, to a major source of inspiration for the latter.

Self-derision is a way of countering the luxury sector’s tacky reputation, by acknowledging the fact that brands are not socially or morally above their public, but have flawed personalities just like everyone else. Such a positioning has allowed more people among the youth segment to identify with their essence, while brands still benefit from referencing their classical heritage. For this game plan to be successful, it needs to be credible in the eye of the public from which it appropriates codes. One should not construct the street as a low-end, lawless space where people live with no marks, because brands can in fact tap into this scene as a source of strong and timeless values they have always claimed as well, such as the importance of work and family. Although these are quite significant in the public’s eye, their meaning is different from their traditional conception that brands have long been offering. Indeed, while they used to embody flawless success, a perfectly pure family and pragmatic hard work, today’s youth has moved away from these outdated ideals and has reconstructed its own meanings, allowing for imperfection, spontaneity and messiness in family and work. Gucci’s avant-garde has thus managed to encapsulate the fun in one’s flaws that Millennials have been fighting for.

Authored by Brand Strategist Chloé Rinaldi



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