It was a year in which no moment around style was too big or too small to scrutinize. From the intense discourse around a coat to critiques about the pseudo-spiritual commercialization of healthful habits and suggestions that influencer marketing has jumped the shark, here are five lessons learned in the 2018 cultural conversation.
It wasn’t enough that we got fake news, we got fake shoes. Payless Shoe Source became The Onion of pop-ups in November with a (mostly) harmless prank. The company disguised its inexpensive shoes with an 1,800-per-cent markup, fancy labels and branding in the guise of a luxe but entirely fictional new footwear brand called Palessi. For their supposed gotcha! moment, it held a media preview at the gleaming new “Palessi” Los Angeles boutique, where duped social-media influencers gushed on cue over the disguised cheapies. No influencers were harmed in the making of their point. Fashion media revelled in the influencer schadenfreude (puns about selling one’s sole were almost too easy) and Payless got its 15 minutes of virality, But it missed the point: Everyone may have been talking about their publicity stunt, but nobody was talking about its shoes. Branding context and experiential shopping environment are part of what consumers value in a product, but truly viral bragging rights on style finds are priceless. Take, for example, the so-called Amazon coat. The bestselling army green down parka from Orolay is ubiquitous this winter and as beloved for its Balenciaga overtones as its shamelessly cheap ’n’ cheerful US$100 price tag.
Lesson learned: Pay less attention to influencers and more to product.
“Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself,” Audre Lorde, the black feminist poet and self-described warrior, famously wrote in her 1988 essays A Burst of Light, “is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The struggle is real. And selfishness can be a virtue – up to a point. This is not to discount the cultural capital of advice columns, but what was a powerful rallying cry to take deep care of oneself has, with the rise of wellness goop, co-opted self-care into a marketing con – a 2018 buzzword to rival cannabis. From jade facial rollers and mentholated candles to the full-on festival that is Self Care Week, it’s become a product category and sell line on packaging. Usage means the category now includes, but is not limited to: manicures, blowouts, personal training, pizza, tattoos and binge-watching The Great British Baking Show. It’s become a convenient label for lifestyle privilege. In tandem with the rash of popular “not giving a f*ck” how-to guides to life, glib self-care culture even absolves self-absorption. There’s a way to look after oneself without rejecting others. Self-care isn’t permission to turn on a Himalayan salt lamp, skip the rules of civility, and not show up for people you respect and love with a semi-ironic sweep of charcoal-activated body scrub.
Lesson learned: When simply washing one’s face with water is self-care, read the fine print.
With apologies to Mad Men, television fashion hasn’t had this much of an off-screen ripple effect on women in the real world since The Good Wife premiered. It’s fair to say the retro style and rich colour palette of Amazon’s hit show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel captured my imagination and, since its debut last winter, influenced contemporary style more than any runway show has. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s acclaimed new series is about a middle-class 1950s housewife turned stand-up comic and she has a seemingly bottomless closet. The character’s playful style confidence together with costume designer Donna Zakowska’s parade of tailored tea dresses, perky pencil skirts and especially vibrant swing coats has been catalogued, dissected and the inspiration for wardrobing tutorials and shopping pages. Over on Netflix, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (with costumes by Moulin Rouge! Oscar-winner Angus Strathie) has similarly galvanized viewers, especially enchanted by the fairy-tale red-hooded coat the young witch wears to topple the patriarchy. In both shows the overall art direction and storytelling are rooted in heavily stylized fantasy, yet the functional, pretty clothes themselves empower the women who wear them. Kind of like the fashion runway once did. Designer brands could learn from this in 2019. I like to think that the meme-tastic vivid red Max Mara coat Nancy Pelosi wore to the White House for a contentious meeting with Donald Trump and Mike Pence was equally inspired by both.
Lesson learned: The winner in the streaming wars is fashion.
If you see something, say something: It worked for lawyer Chinyere Ezie, who voiced concerns over the racism of Prada’s Pradamalia range of charm accessories in a Facebook post. Ezie identified the gewgaws as not only retrograde but extremely racist iconography. Putting aside my initial shock that these anti-black caricatures with monkey imagery trinkets were created in the first place, I was also surprised to see that Prada prominently featured the merchandise in its New York Soho holiday store window display – until Ezie called them on it. Any consumer with the reach of a social-media account has the potential to be an influencer.
Lesson learned: Everything, even and especially fashion, is political.
Every month, it feels as if I’m reading a nostalgic encomium about things I thought would last forever. The Village Voice and Interview magazine ceased publication, and teen fashion glossy Seventeen and Glamour magazine are decreasing or cutting their print issues, pivoting, respectively, to digital-first and all-digital strategies. J. Crew seems on shaky ground. I don’t want the idea of a being a devoted long-time reader or customer to also become a thing of the nostalgic past, so these shake-ups have reminded me that although I don’t shop much, when I do I need to actively support the designers and places I value, places such as Ad Hoc, a female-centric shop I recently discovered in Penticton, B.C., that stocks only women-designed and women-owned fashion companies. It’s easy to forget to patronize a favourite magazine or shop or label. I was heartened to watch local brand loyalty help Canadian label Birds of North America mark a decade in business by opening a store, for example, and see other venerable Canadian companies such as Cougar (70). Comrags (35), Lilliput Hats (30) and Ewanika (20) celebrate major milestones.
Lesson learned: Put your money where your mouth is, while you still can.
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