For most people in the digital age, the fascination with fashion and the stories behind the clothes starts through their screens. Technology and the immediate availability of information have made fashion knowledge more accessible than ever before. Online fashion critic Bliss Foster once mentioned that Balenciaga exists in two universes: the world of people who can financially afford Balenciaga and want to be a part of Demna’s world by wearing his creations and the consumers who only experience Balenciaga online, fuelled by an emotional connection to the brand. The latter might be based in suburbia or in central London, but their loyalty to the designer brand is created through a digital connection. For once, one can feel a sense of belonging in a world that you’d never be able to buy yourself into.
Additionally, the rise of the “buy now, pay later” culture, or in other words, the glorification of casual debt has technically allowed us to pretend we are part of “the club”. The language of things is being redefined; nothing is as it seems anymore. Stepping into Central Saint Martins or any other prestigious artistic educational institution for the first time almost feels sacred, something like a religious ceremony. You are finally invited into this club of artistic individuals, expressing themselves through their image. A place of niche knowledge, where people can perform the privilege of being able to tell the difference between vintage and ready to wear, or between Yamamoto and Kawakubo. Walking through the corridors, you spot the latest thrift shop finds with Rick Owen’s Kiss boots, carefully layered with vintage Helmut Lang.
“There is a pressure to dress in a particular taste-level in fashion school, which can translate into designer clothing.” – Stevie Ngyuen, Fashion Communication student, X University
There are several ways to decode the meaning of designer clothing. There is the Avant-Garde, there is the casual, and there is the mainstream. Different designers tend to signify different messages. Wearing a Maria Grazia Chiuri bag for Dior does not signify the same meaning as wearing a rare 1994 Maison Martin Margiela piece. Tabi boots used to be the pinnacle symbolism of anti-fashion, now they are practically running into the closets of the mainstream. Clothing, just like any other artistic luxury, is connotated to cultural capital. Stevie Ngyuen, a final year Fashion Communication at X University, formerly Ryerson University, states that there is “a pressure to dress in a particular taste-level in fashion school, which can translate into designer clothing.” The taste level varies from school to school. This “taste level” is the varying cultural capital, influenced by the schools’ reputation, the surroundings, and the country it is being situated in.
64% out of 4195 respondents voted YES, when being asked if they feel the pressure to dress in designer clothing at school or at work.
We live in a narcissistic culture fuelled by a perfectly curated self-image. Standing out in individuality is not an option; it is a requirement. A full-on designer uniform is traditionally connotated to the “image” of a fashion student, proof that they belong in the industry of their professional dreams. Going to a prestigious fashion school puts one under pressure, especially when some people around you are buying Bottega bags as casually as a Tesco sandwich. The ones who cannot afford it, feel shame, low confidence, and are even seduced by the idea of giving up. In a recent Instagram poll we conducted for the sake of this article, 64% out of 4195 respondents voted YES, when being asked if they feel the pressure to dress in designer clothing at school or at work. 72% of the voters have struggled financially in order to afford a certain piece, and only 17% said that their fashion job would casually allow them to purchase a designer item. Studying fashion is expensive and especially design degrees require huge funds to create collections confirms MA Fashion graduate Brais Albor. Pauline Dujancourt, another MA Fashion graduate, admits overdrafting her bank account in order to afford the materials for her projects.
“You get sucked up in a designer’s entire story and you want to become a part of their journey by collecting their clothes.” – Alessandro Todisco, Graphic Communication Design student, Central Saint Martins
“When I started studying fashion art direction at the Manchester School of Art, I had this desire to brand myself. I spend so much money on clothes that were eccentric, just to create an image of myself”, says Meg Parrot, creative copywriter at Sevenstore. The items she spoke of weren’t necessarily designer, but she felt pressured to to live up to “the art school individual”. Alessandro Todisco, a first-year Graphic Communication Design student at Central Saint Martins also agreed that he feels the pressure to dress in designer clothing at university. But against all common assumptions of peer pressure, he started feeling this stress once he started getting more and more interested in fashion. “You get sucked up in a designer’s entire story and you want to become a part of their journey by collecting their clothes. Every decision of a designer garment has a meaning behind it, there is a concept and a thought, which is something very beautiful”, he continues.
“With my friends, I joke that I will be eternally writing about the clothes I can’t afford.” – Alice May Stenson, Fashion Journalism student, Central Saint Martins
Despite the beauty of the concept, the price tag of designer clothing starting in three-digit numbers can easily exceed a student’s monthly budget. Charlotte Ballard, an MA Fashion Critical studies student at Central Saint Martins, recalls the pressure to keep up to date with designer clothing during her bachelor’s degree at Institutio Marangoni. In our conversation, Ballard says that a friend of hers even put herself in debt in order to fit into the designer-dominated class.
“Financial struggle as a student is considered normal but affording a designer item when one is starting out in the industry, is nearly impossible,” says Alice May Stenson, MA Fashion Journalism student at CSM. When she started out in the industry doing celebrity styling assistance or writing articles for magazines, the big paychecks remained to be a dream, rather than a reality. “With my friends, I joke that I will be eternally writing about the clothes I can’t afford”, she says. Stenson’s nature is far from being materialistic, just like Todisco, she admires designer clothing for the vision. “As a working-class Northerner, I have seen awful poverty in my hometown and so I tend not to consider what I don’t have, I’m just grateful to receive the opportunities I do. One day, I would love to launch a creative education fund for those from similar backgrounds,” she adds.
According to Josef Hoffmann, we buy luxury because we believe that “owning beautiful things, will make us beautiful too.”
“I always joke about fashion school as a literal outfit competition”, says Elza Rauza, a second-year Creative Direction for fashion student at the London College of Fashion. In the following sentence, she confirms that despite designer clothing being unaffordable to her, she tries to stand out with thrifted items. Thrifting is an aspect many students mentioned during our research. The gentrification of used clothing might be the new Rick Owens. The pressure to wear designer goes hand in hand with the expectation to socialise, which is also expensive, she says. Besides her studies, she works as a styling assistant, another job that does not allow her to “casually” buy a designer item.
Fashion education is described as a product. A product you are required to purchase your way in.
According to Josef Hoffmann, we buy luxury because we believe that “owning beautiful things, will make us beautiful too.” Fashion is a tale of belonging and not belonging. A designer label signifies belonging as much as subcultural dress or a uniform says Deyan Sudjic in his book “The language of things”. Fashion school can be reminiscent of a cult, where the individual is able to tell the difference between a 1991 and a 1994 Helmut Lang jacket or can absorb the codes of class-influenced dressing within seconds. Do these parameters also exist outside the golden gates of university? In the book, Deep fashion state of mind, fashion school, or more precisely, fashion education is described as a product. A product you are required to purchase your way in, as long as the school is not publicly funded. In our poll, many students mentioned a relief once they quit fashion.
Monica Jae Yoeon Moon, a freelance journalist from Seoul says that if you catch young people working in fashion with a designer item, it’s either free or a family heirloom.
Stepping outside the fashion sphere, or what one may call “the real world” allowed them to see beyond the judgement of these parameters. Not being surrounded by designer clothing made them feel less pressured to buy items they cannot afford. Monica Jae Yoeon Moon, a freelance journalist from Seoul says that if you catch young people working in fashion with a designer item, it’s either free or a family heirloom. Also, she remembers “spending a stupid amount of money on Ader Error pants”, which was about 20% of her salary. The pants didn’t even fit well. “This is what we need to change in fashion- not everything should be about your outlook”, says Brais Albor.
Do designer garments make us better professionals at the end of the day?
After more than twenty interviews, four thousand poll participants, and countless anonymous confessions, it is clear that the pressure is more reality than an illusion. For the most part, the new question is whether it is fair to accept it as the desire to be individual or whether it is time to change the unrealistic assumption that appearence and talent are the same thing. Maybe, the answer to the question is deeply rooted within the workings of the industry. Do designer garments make us better professionals at the end of the day? The answer to this shall remain a myth.