Long after the internet was supposed to have driven print to extinction, the fashion magazine is still as desirable an object as it has ever been. Maybe even more than ever – more and more new titles seem to pop up on the shelves every season. While other types of magazine, along with newspapers, continue to die a slow death, fashion magazines are thriving. There are lots of theories out there as to why this might be. I think one answer lies in the particular way that fashion is consumed. Fashion is about things, and a peculiar species of things at that: highly fetishised objects, magically charged with a seemingly inexplicable power to make us desire them, and that power lies in the way the object sums up a view of the world in a moment, a season. Fashion magazines are part of the process which makes those objects meaningful and desirable, through editorial shoots and advertising campaigns. But importantly, these magazines are also fashion objects in their own right. Maybe online equivalents don’t have enough… thingy-ness to make them desirable in the same way. (I’m using the word ‘thingy’ here as a less pretentious alternative to more jargonistic terms describing the way the quality of materiality is perceived as inherent. ‘Thingy’ is to ‘thing’ as ‘sticky’ is to ‘stick’ in the joke, ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick’.) While online offers additional and amplified material, and gives us the chance to do lots of wonderful things that we can’t do on the printed page, the core of every fashion magazine brand is still the ‘thing’ of the magazine itself. The foundation needs to be concrete, so to speak.
The online versions of magazines aren’t ‘thingy’ enough because, whatever the title you’re actually reading, the actual ‘thing’ you’re holding will always remain the same device, untransformed: it’s still, say, an iPad. Of course, Apple products are subject to a similarly intense level of fetishism as any fashion object: witness the queues that form outside Apple stores to greet a product launch as long as any waiting list for a ‘must-have’ bag. Product fetishism isn’t restricted to fashion, but it’s in fashion that it is at its most mysterious, its most mystical, its most powerful. A computer can rationalise its desirability according to its function (‘you want me because I have more memory and a faster processor’ – even if these aren’t the real reasons for the consumer frenzy it inspires). It’s a similar story for cars, or coffee-makers. But in fashion, no one pretends that it’s function driving this level of product lust. No one ever bought a high-heeled shoe because they thought it would help them walk more efficiently.
I used the phrase ‘must have’ just there. It’s a horrible phrase, partly because if a product is genuinely ‘must have’, it doesn’t need spelling out verbally. Desire is supposed to be aroused, not dictated. But this quality of ‘must-have-ness’ is key to the fetishistic nature of fashion. What is it about a product that makes you feel you’ve got to have it? It’s not about function. It’s not a shoe that improves posture, or a coat that is warmer or more waterproof; those mundane considerations are for engineering and technology. It’s something far more elusive and magical. It’s part of a fashion designer’s job to understand this quality of ‘must-have-ness’, to evoke it, to manifest it in objects – and, season after season, plenty of them succeed.
You can’t talk about fetishism for very long without at least a hint of kinkiness edging its way onto the horizon. The popular notion of fetishism I’ve lent on so far – fetish objects as transcendent commodities – can be traced back to Marx. That other godfather of critical theory, Freud, had his own definition, one with which we’re perhaps more familiar: fetishisation is the process by which an object becomes so sexy that it supplants the activity of sex itself. Funnily enough, the primal scene of fetishisation is itself a fashion moment. According to Freud, when the boy child suffers castration anxiety at the sight of his mother’s genitals, he fixes on the last object he saw: a shoe; pieces of underclothing; pubic hair perceived as fur or velvet. (Curiously, Freud never bothered accounting for fetishism in women).
The magical desire that compels us to lust after fashion objects is supposedly sexual in origin, which is why we’re told that sex sells. It’s certainly true that fashion ads are often very sexy. In fashion, the sexuality of product-lust isn’t that deeply hidden, even when it isn’t explicit. Prada campaigns are a million miles from those of, say, Victoria’s Secret, yet I can’t think of Prada without remembering the French maid’s uniforms and the foot-fetishist’s collection of shoes in Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid – one of Miuccia’s sidekick Manuela Pavesi’s favourite films, who was turned onto it, incidentally, by Helmut Newton. Manuela describes her infatuation with fashion as a ‘sickness’. She’s a psychology graduate, so it’s a diagnosis she’s probably qualified to give.
This sense of sickness, unconscious compulsion, of the sort experienced by fetishists, haunts the notion of desire in fashion. You’ll often hear someone say ‘She has a fetish for…’ when strictly speaking they just mean a penchant or taste. But ‘fetish’ is a bit stronger. It speaks of a desire that is perceived to be obsessive, excessive, perverse – one that threatens to overwhelm, even extinguish, the one who is desiring. It’s there in phrases like ‘shopaholic’ and ‘It’s to die for!’, which people really did use to say about clothes, and sometimes still do.
This idea, that fetishisation can lead to the consumer being consumed, is one shared by many within anticapitalist movements. One slogan from Brazil, which you might have seen graffitied on the walls, what with the world’s media being gathered there this summer for the World Cup, is ‘consuming will consume you’. But it’s a fear that surely lurks in the heart of even the happiest of happy shoppers too. Of course, it might be a great way to go, to drown in a sea of the thing you desire.
If fetishism is the sine qua non of fashion, then fashion is, arguable, the most powerful site of commodity-fetishism. Nowhere is desire for a consumer product less rational, more mystical. Why these shoes and not those? It’s all instinct and gut reaction. Even the designers don’t know. The design process is often as irrational as the desire it intends to invoke. In our interview with Joseph Carter, Marc Jacobs’ head of womenswear, he describes how it works with Marc and the team in the studio when they’re looking at samples and references: ‘What do you think? Maybe this; I’m not sure about that…’ It is fetishism that has kept the catwalk show at the heart of the fashion calendar. That was another institution marked for extinction a few years ago. Thanks to digital mass communication, fashion has a global audience, and the fashion show – with its one-off performance and small, crowded auditorium – should seem creeky, inefficient, outmoded. Some designers have tried to replace it with something more contemporary. For several seasons Gareth Pugh presented beautiful visions of his collections in the form of digital films. But they just weren’t thingy enough for the fashion industry. The show always prevails. Nothing can top the sensation of actually seeing it, the real thing, paraded right under your nose, back and forth before row upon row of scopophiliacs, ready to watch, dressed to be seen – not to mention the envy it inspires in those who can’t get in. All that effort and build-up and waiting for 10 intense minutes of fun, and then it’s all over and on to the next one.
For autumn we saw French maid’s outfits in Saint Laurent, and Alex Wang seemed obsessed with pockets. Chanel even fetishised the very process of shopping at its most everyday by creating a supermarket for its autumn/winter show. But even when it’s not doing the obvious and raiding sex shops for inspiration and filling collections with corsetry, leather, shiny surfaces and straps, fashion is always fetishistic. If we go back before Marx and Freud in its anthropological context a fetish meant an object imbued with imaginary powers through mystical rituals. Fashion designers are shamen, wizards, magically summoning up desires and founding cults of covetousness. In that sense, every collection that ever hits the catwalk is fetishistic. The sensuality of the touch, the texture of the textile, the cut that draws attention to certain parts of the body, or exposes them, or obscures them, or denies them all together… That covers pretty much everything in the wardrobe.
– Murray Healy for LOVE Magazine FW 2014