Paris’s famed Pont Neuf—the French capital’s oldest-standing, and busiest, bridge—was closed for days. Hundreds of guests sailed down the Seine on the city’s bateaux-mouches river boats, inching closer towards bright lights and the iconic bridge adorned with Louis Vuitton’s bold signature monogram print. Almost every seat featured a celebrity dressed in the monogram or a new, digitized version of the maison’s Damier check. Live vocals from an 80-person choir filled the air. These are just a few of the viral moments that Pharrell Williams, the longtime musician, tastemaker and newly-crowned Louis Vuitton Men’s Creative Director, brought to his debut show in June. His appointment to one of fashion’s most coveted design jobs stoked controversy—with fans and dissenters debating for months—but one thing the masses agreed on was that Williams’s appointment indicated a shift in luxury conglomerate LVMH’s focus, one that placed culture at the center.
The countless headlines recapping Williams’s debut largely centered on the show’s elaborate production and the who’s who of attendees, rather than the garments themselves: a clear signal that the culture of fashion has shifted. Even in an industry where stunt-y collaborations, over-the-top shows in far-flung locales and celebrity partnerships have become the norm, the stakes of spectacle continue to be raised. What is fashion’s place in culture? Is it a form of art, or simply here for our entertainment?
In the 1970s, the late Vivienne Westwood was arguably the first designer to show the world that fashion can be a byword for what was going on in culture. Westwood partnered with Malcolm McLaren, a designer and the manager of the band, Sex Pistols, to bring London’s punk sensibility from the streets to the runway, ultimately helping to shape the look of punk rock. That audience followed her distinctly uncommercial designs as she transitioned into the realm of commercial fashion, which paved the way for design students, musicians, artists, art gallery owners and club kids to not just be wholly embraced—but creatively influential—in the world of fashion.
Simultaneously, Dick Hebdige published Subculture: The Meaning of Style, that synthesized how Britain's postwar youth subculture styles became symbolic forms of resistance. As fashion began to infiltrate culture at large and globalization began to mete out monied power brokers looking to assert their status towards the end of the ‘80s, its audience continued to expand. Every older millennial fashion fan likely remembers the pricey Prada sneakers that became ubiquitous seemingly overnight, worn more as a symbol of status rather than as an appreciation of their style or quality. This, among other things, signaled a transition from fashion as art towards a more commercially driven sensibility.
At its best, the Spectacle is a display of design excellence- Ana Andjelic, The Sociology of Business
Throughout the early 2000s and into the 2010s, new luxury conglomerates like LVMH responded to customer desires to flaunt status by commodifying designer goods designed to sell to the masses, kickstarting a logomania craze that originated in the ‘90s with Black creatives like Dapper Dan. Celebrity culture fueled this craze, with Louis Vuitton monogram bags hanging off the arms of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, extending its life span well into the 2010s. All of this led these major luxury fashion conglomerates earning record profits each year. And for many, this dumbed down fashion in the process—turning the fashion world into the fashion industry.
In the 2020s, the spectacle has overtaken fashion, taking on a new purpose: breaking the internet in order to break your bank. Logomania might have been the new designer stunt of the early ‘00s, but recent years have seen a thirst for internet virality. Take, for example: videos of the closing look of Coperni’s Spring/Summer 2023 show, where a team of technicians sprayed a liquid fiber dress onto supermodel Bella Hadid. (Commenters were quick to note this felt like a dupe of the now-iconic finale of Alexander McQueen’s Spring 1999 collection.) Capitalizing on their popularity, Coperni followed this for Fall/Winter 2023 with an airy runway set featuring Boston Dynamics' instantly-recognizable "Spot" robots. Several of the yellow, canine-like machines moved as models strode between them and eventually began interacting with the cast, resulting in a slate of eerie, unreal content.
Even the teaser for Williams’s Vuitton debut, an ad campaign featuring a massive billboard of Rihanna laden with colorful green, yellow and red Speedy bags in an unbuttoned leather coat with her pregnant belly exposed, resulted in Rihanna—not Louis Vuitton—trending for days and creating a true pop culture moment and spectacle.
“At its best, the Spectacle is a display of design excellence,” strategy executive and author Ana Andjelic argues in her Substack The Sociology of Business. It sells, wows, and communicates the brand image. It is another canvas for brand expression, combining multiple marketing executions into one: event, live-streaming, celebrities and influencers, social media, content, entertainment.”
The fashion industry sees entertainment as a way to sell items to everyone. Although luxury fashion brands aren’t accessible to many, this approach has intrigued Gen Z and younger Millennials as they observe fashion becoming more accessible to people outside an exclusive community. In short, we’re living in a world where fashion is far less about artistic expression and almost exclusively about creating cultural moments. As German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Hokheimer predicted in their 1944 book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, the average consumer of culture, overworked and overstressed by their daily life, is not going to look for meaning in art but for entertainment, simply because they don’t have bandwidth to delve deeply into culture. Art demands effort—attention, thought, education. All that entertainment demands is money.