A young woman strikes a subtle, learned pose in a short, flippy, drop-waist tunic made of canary-yellow and white checkerboard polyester. She faces the camera head-on with poised stillness, like a model in a live fashion presentation. The image is cropped close around her body, but visible behind her are the whitewashed brick, exposed pipes, and crooked crawlspace grate of a suburban apartment complex.
The dress is a facsimile of one from the Louis Vuitton Spring 2013 ready-to-wear show. Critics were initially dazzled by the spectacle—models descended two-by-two down a set of four escalators onto a giant yellow and white checkerboard catwalk, a set designed by Daniel Buren, the French conceptual artist known to work in situ.
Louis Vuitton Spring 2013 ready-to-wear; image ©Style.com
The collection itself, consisting of bold striped or checkered separates in black, brown, chartreuse, yellow, and a milky coffee tan, was inspired by Buren’s 1986 installation piece at the Palais Royal titled Les Deux Plateau. The three distinct skirt lengths intended to echo the three different heights of Buren’s bold-striped columns arranged on a grid. To the fashion press, the bright 60s palette and flashy emphasis on efficiency (the escalators, coupled with the models coming out in pairs as opposed to singles, allowed the seventy plus-look presentation to take place in just under six minutes) signaled a kind of optimistic minimalism, a slight break in the clouds after so many seasons of post-recession sartorial sobriety.
The models’ heels had barely cooled though, before some critics began to look warily on the wearability of the collection. The graphic dresses, matchy separates and unfiltered mod sensibility started to look costumey, and worse yet, supremely knock-offable.
The copy in the young woman's picture has been supplied by one of several ubiquitous “fast fashion” clothing lines—companies who specialize in the rapid reproduction of runway looks, and whose clothes often hit the racks even before the source designer’s. This particular online store offers an affiliate program with an eight percent commission for anyone who generates sales via an embedded ad on their blog or website. There is also a fashion blogger program where users who generate a certain amount of traffic to the site are rewarded with free clothing.
The girl has accessorized the dress with a black wool varsity jacket, snapback baseball cap, and a necklace with bunches of yin yang charms, undermining the optimistic simplicity of the dress with concurrent streetwear trends. The back of the jacket is embroidered with the word “Fresh” in thick sport script.
Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874, oil on canvas, 31 in × 25. inches; Courtesy The Courtauld Gallery.
In Pierre-August Renoir's The Loge, 1874, pearls drip from a lady's open neck into a diaphanous puddle of a dress. Her bored, expectant face is twinged with anxiety. Icons of coquettish, debutante fashion—pearls, fresh flowers—are multiplied and placed on her person in an extraneous and probably deliberate manner. The thick stripes of black velvet mimic the bold trimmings shown on evening gowns in many of the Parisian fashion plates of the period, but these too, are multiplied to excess. The slimming effect of the stripes might serve to offset the shape of the dress, its balloon sleeves a bit démodé for the time when slim bodices and tight armholes were standard eveningwear. She’s sitting down, so it’s impossible to tell if her dress does or doesn’t have the fashionable bustle, but all other signs point to no. She has one hand on her skirts, pulling them up slightly, perhaps to give the impression of an open front of cascading ruffles, when they’re really just petticoats struggling to add volume to all those bold stripes. For all these gestures, and her dominance of the picture plane, she projects invisibility, eagerness. Her little gold binoculars hang unused in her listless, gloved hand. Her starched male companion points his elsewhere, away.
Another 21st century girl takes a stab. Hoping to project an air of knowledge while circumventing the stigmas of fast-fashion consumerism, her brown and cream checkerboard blouse is 1960s vintage, as is the short brown rabbit-fur coat and black suede skirt she pairs it with. A previously unnoticed stain on the skirt has been digitally cleaned. The wall of blue graffiti behind her is picked up by the super-saturated, Yves Klein-y blue of her bag. This is on purpose. Her hands are shoved into the coat’s tiny pockets, shoulders shrugged, staring off camera as if the photo were being taken slightly against her will, even though she has orchestrated it.
Though it may be the source material for the very collection it references, the blouse—with its oversized collar, gathered sleeves and attached, dangling tie—bears the indelible mark of its time. There is none of the sharpness, the efficiency, the optimistic minimalism of the thing she had in mind. The girl feels goofy in it.
After the photo is taken, I never wear it again.
—Christina Catherine Martinez
(Image on top: Daniel Buren, “Les Deux Plateaux”, permanent sculpture in situ, 1986, cement, marble, stone, galvanised steel, water, electricity ; © Daniel Buren / ADAGP, Paris.)