Crimes Against Design
Donald Trump isn't just ruining lives. He's ruining fashion.
Reconcile yourself with the idea of the Trump Presidential Library.
In the next four to eight years, a temple of Donald Trump’s contributions to America while in office will be built. The last one hundred years has seen every president receive one of these installations (even Nixon), which usually serve as a cross between a research archive, a charity headquarters, and a time capsule.
There’s no doubt that this presidency will be studied tweet-by-tweet by generations of Adderall-chomping poli-sci undergrads, and we already know how Trump’s charitable endeavors shake out. The time capsule portion is the one that seems the most hard to imagine at this point. What relics from the Trump era will populate the dioramas and displays of the Trump Library, his equivalent of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats or Bill Clinton’s saxophone?
We’re starting to see the answer in an unexpected place. Fashion, from inaccessible couture on down to everyday wear, has started to show the signs of being consumed by Trump and his presidency’s themes of greed and authoritarianism — either by falling to his cultural influence or reacting to it.
Fashion often gets left out of leftist critiques of the arts, likely because it’s viewed as empty consumerism and because many socialists dress like shit. But fashion and the fashion press have more access to the average family’s budget than any other art form. Short of never leaving the house, you’re going to see how people dress. Clothing and shoes have a direct line of cultural and financial influence across all genders and demographics.
This is especially true at the intersections of young people, people of color, and the working class: one of 2016’s most popular memes was kids shaming kids for not being able to afford expensive sneakers. As a massive capitalist tool for driving expenditure, and one that spends billions in advertising targeting the people with the least discretionary spending, why shouldn’t socialists pay attention to fashion? Especially when the influence of our demagogic, gaudy president starts showing up in that world?
You don’t have to be a Vogue subscriber to see that the current, dominant trend in fashion, especially menswear, is unrepentant opulence in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1980s.
Maximalism was likely due for a comeback after the industry went through a grey period throughout the late 2000s to 2014 or so. But the timing of its return lines up a little too well with the man who is the embodiment of everything wrong with the eighties getting elected president.
As Meryl Streep explains in The Devil Wears Prada, fashion, unlike good economics, tends to follow a trickle-down policy. Looks from established names like Dior or buzzy, rising labels like Gosha Rubchinskiy are showed on the runway, sold at a huge premium, then copied a season later by Zara and H&M, before finally infiltrating the realm of what normal people wear about a year and a half post-debut.
Following the ugly chain of garish maximalism all the way back takes us to creative director Alessandro Michele’s debut at Gucci in January 2015. You’ve probably heard of Gucci, but maybe not of Alessandro Michele. Michele was promoted from accessories director to heading the entire label, which was desperately in need of someone to shake things up after years of looking somehow trashy and boring at the same time. Michele did more or less exactly what he was paid to do: his first big move was to take Gucci’s signature loafer, chop the back off and fill it with kangaroo fur.
At first, things weren’t all bad. Michele showed a willingness towards gender neutrality and racial diversity in his shows, and the colors were a nice break from minimalist tedium.
But things got a little weird as we moved into the Trump administration. Kellyanne Conway rocked one of Michele’s coats to the inauguration, which she described as “Trump Revolutionary Chic.” Milo Yiannopolis began to make a point of staying draped in it.
At the first Trump-era Gucci show, the colors got brighter, patterns clashed harder. Clothing went from stand-out pieces you could feasibly work into your wardrobe at a normal-person job to the completely unwearable — Borat’s mankini showed up. The “fuck-you” factor of the clothing was ratcheted up a great deal. Gucci’s red-green stripe used to be a tiny, subtle (yet still annoying) indicator of affluence; now it’s plastered across the front of the suits and shoes.
The Trump-Gucci connection goes back quite a bit: the brand’s Manhattan flagship has been installed in Trump Tower for some years. Briefly following the election, name-dropping the brand was one of the only ways to get by security at the Tower.
This perhaps isn’t surprising, as the brand’s current direction and Trump have a shared love of impractical items designed to telegraph wealth. There’s a shared logic between shipping literal tons of obscure Italian marble into the United States to deck the lobby of Trump Tower and dropping $5,000 on a pink satin bomber with beadwork that looks like it would fall apart if sneezed on. The unwieldiness of the object represents the owner’s ability to bend the world around themselves to accommodate for their eccentricities.
Gucci brought this trend into the limelight and onto the backs of the Trump clique, but the originator and perhaps greatest culprit is Vetements (French for “clothes.” Edgy!) a “design collective” that has catalyzed a comeback of some of fashion’s worst tendencies.
The brand grabbed the spotlight when it tricked a bunch of celebrities into thinking that paying $350 for a $10 DHL uniform t-shirt was cool. Subsequently, it tricked a bunch more people into paying over $1,000 for jeans with the pockets moved around a bit.
Coasting off the strength of these two stunts, Vetements launched a collection where they collaborated with intentionally “downmarket” brands, releasing their own “takes” on Hanes t-shirts, Carhartt work pants, Canada Goose jackets, and Juicy Couture sweatsuits.
The takes share two characteristics. First, they’re utterly unwearable by “normal” people. The Carhartt pants are blown up to snowman proportions to render a piece of “workwear” completely useless in a “work” context. The Goose jackets (normally expensive, but at least practical and warm) are inflated to make the wearer look like a deranged Kenny from South Park. These are mutations of practical clothes, aimed at the type of person who have no need for practicality as they’re wealthy enough to remove any real work from their world. Sleeves that reach to your ankles are fine when you’ve hired someone to open doors for you.
To that end, Vetements’ versions of these clothes are also marked up by about ten times their original price point.
This philosophy is distinctly Trumpian. I have little doubt that this poor guy will haunt the “design” exhibit of the Trump Presidential Library and Luxury Resort.
The draw of the “luxurious impracticality” that characterizes so many fashion developments in the new Trump era is multiplied by “insider appeal.” As opposed to Gucci, whose clothes broadcast your wealth to every onlooker, Vetements telegraphs its message only to those in the know, or who have the leisure time to track down who made that hoodie Kanye was wearing in that one photo with Lorde. It’s a claim at the avant-garde at a price point that automatically disqualifies it from being remotely avant-garde.
Vetements’ influence is spreading: label Enfantes Riches Deprimes (French for “Depressed Rich Kids” — also edgy!) is trying to pull roughly the same trick by convincing buyers that there has to be something subversive about a $4,000 leather jacket or a $7,000 cashmere noose. Meanwhile, the quality of the clothes is nothing better than you’d find at Target, and the graphics are mostly minor photoshop jobs — what you’d expect from your local skate shop for $25.
While more practical than either of the two brands previously mentioned, the implicit purpose of the garments is still the same: reminding those around you how rich you are. Credit to ERD designer Henry Levy for at least being honest, when he said in his recent Guardian profile, “The price point is not only a marker of value, but intrinsically part of the piece itself … I have no interest in making affordable pieces for the masses.”
Rich people twisting working-class culture into signifiers of affluence is nothing new, but there’s still something irritating about a rich French kid making bank by ripping off the logo of working-class stalwarts like Black Flag and then decrying “the masses.” But this is exactly where fashion seems to be taking us under Trump: clothing whose design is devoid of artistic merit, existing only to show how many zeros can fit in a checking account.
This doesn’t have to be the case. As easy to parody as it may be, fashion can, and often is, still interesting and subversive at a reasonable price point.
Angela Missoni put pussy hats on every model in her last show, a gesture that’s very much in character from a label with a long history of aligning itself on the right side of women’s issues. Designer Raf Simons used his entire collection this season to showcase the works of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, re-introducing a hugely influential queer photographer to another generation of fans. His arrival this season as Calvin Klein’s creative director took all the worst elements of Trump’s mid-eighties milleu — double breasted suits, square-toed shoes — and made them look remarkable.
Of course, these top-tier brands are completely unaffordable to most of us, and are better off as sources of inspiration than objects of desire. But there’s still plenty of worthwhile, artistically inclined clothing found at normal-person prices. Supreme, the streetwear brand which has kids lining up for miles in Lower Manhattan, regularly serves as a great intro to amazing art of all forms by collaborating with Rei Kawakubo, Daniel Johnston, or Basquiat. On the journalism side, blogs like Man Repeller have extolled a way of dressing yourself expressively without blindly latching to a brand or reaching an insane price point.
Self-presentation can be a liberating, beautiful thing, but as of this writing, it’s under siege by those who believe the world spins around them and would like their clothing to reflect this notion. Let Vetements, Gucci, and ERD cover the Melania mannequins in the Trump Library’s half-assed fashion exhibit. But don’t let these influences corrupt an art form that’s been at its most empowering when it’s at its most inclusive. Go thrift a denim jacket and spill beer on the next pair of Kangaroo loafers you see.