Some Thoughts About Fashion Studies

Parsons Fashion Studies

The field of Fashion Studies can be a little bit of a muddy area, and it constantly confuses many. Most people, when they hear me say I’m doing a Master’s Degree in Fashion Studies, think I am studying to be a designer. But I’m not. And although it’s difficult to explain exactly what Fashion Studies means, mainly because it’s a multidisciplinary field and is influenced by a wide variety of areas of study, ranging from home economics to cultural studies, it is definitely not a design field—although I believe knowing about it is useful to designers.

From Sneakers To High Heels: Reflection On Wearing Shoes In NYC

I wrote this article originally in Spanish, to be published on Iné

Entre tenis y tacones

Much has been said in the history of fashion about high heels. Not so long ago, in the exhibition “Killer Heels,” at the Brooklyn Museum, over 160 high-heeled shoes, both contemporary and antique, were brought together in order to explore what is considered to be one of the most provocative of fashion accessories.

Style Reflections: Facing Unbearable Heat

summer style flower shirt

In terms of my personal style, one of the most difficult things about moving to New York has been the summer. Some of you might not be aware of this, but living in Colombia doesn’t mean being in over 100ºF temperatures year round and wearing shorts and bikinis all day. If you live in Bogota, the capital city, as I did for over 20 years of my life, you’ll probably be cold most of the time, and you’ll have to bear with a lot of rainy days. This, as you might already imagine, is close to being the exact opposite of summer weather in New York City, where temperatures rise above 86ºF almost everyday, the sun shines stronger than ever, and the humidity is so intense that you even have trouble breathing.

Why I Quit Fast Fashion

I wrote this article for a friend’s blog at the beginning of the year and, for some reason, I haven’t stopped thinking about it lately. The issue of fast fashion and its impact both on the lives of consumers and those of industry workers has been huge, and it is something that I am really interested in. So I decided to bring it back to life, revamp it with a few necessary edits, and share it with you.

A year ago, during orientation week at Parsons, one of my professors my brand new class of 35 graduate students to raise their hands if they had ever bought something at Forever 21. We were all probably too terrified about our first day of class to even be able to raise our hands, so when she saw the dead silence that invaded the room, she said: “Come on! Lingerie for 3 dollars? Who doesn’t buy that?”

Now You're in New York…

New York City

Yesterday marked one year since I arrived in New York. Not for the first time, but definitely in a brand new way: I arrived in New York to stay—for two years, at least.

I took an overnight flight and it was, certainly, one of the most exhausting flights of my life. I’m usually the one that falls asleep before the plane even takes off and most of the times I won’t wake up until we’re about to land, at which point I intend to read the book I always carry with me, and usually manage to go through a few pages on the way back to the ground. But this flight was different. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep at all, and I most likely couldn’t read a single word either. I was so excited about everything that was coming to my life that my mind couldn’t settle!

A Visit to Bergdorf Goodman

I wrote this article originally in Spanish, to be published in Iné

Christmas Windows in Bergdorf Goodman

New York is a global city, with millions of tourists visiting every year in their quest to immerse themselves in the glamorous lifestyle of this city, which has been home to fashion icons like Audrey Hepburn, Mae Murray and Edie Sedgwick, to name a few. Always in fashion, these wonderful women strolled down the stores of Fifth and Madison Avenues, assisted the most important gala events in the city, and no doubt, were frequent clients of Bergdorf Goodman, that paradise that lies right in front of Central Park, besides the unmistakable Plaza Hotel, where you live and breathe the best of global fashion luxury.

With such a legacy, Bergdorf Goodman is a necessary stop for any fashion lover who visits the city, and a wide variety of tourism guides recommed the visit, and even stopping by for coffee if time—and your wallet—allows. Bergdorf Goodman is, additionally, the place where the female character of the movies is taken to transform her style, her being, into a fashionable lady. It is the place that symbolizes the best of New York fashion luxury, in a way similar to Galeries Lafayette in Paris or Harrods in London.

Behind the always enchanting windows, which reflect this luxury and the extravagant style of some of the most avid shoppers, lie large quantities of garments and accessories, all of them carefully created in the atéliers of those who are considered the most important fashion designers in the world. Each floor, motivated by a different aspect of fashion—shoes, casual wear, party clothing…—shows an amazing collection of products that I wonder every time I see them, who buys them?

In my most recent visit, I found, in the shoe salon, a wonderful woman: the typical New Yorker you can always expect to find wandering around the empty streets of the West Village on a Monday morning or having lunch with her friends in the Members Dining Room of the Met Museum. She, probably in her sixties, adorned with a beautiful red and black hat with enormous feathers, and accompanied by a younger personal stylist, is surrounded by open shoe boxes, and captures all the attention of the seller that helps her. There is, somewhere near, a group of Asian youngsters, carrying more bags than their arms seem to be able to handle, showing the increasing purchasing power in the region, while a couple of very tall, blond women, speaking a foreign language, seem to be discussing their shoe options. These seem to be the classical types of shoppers in Bergdorfs: the high society New Yorker, the wealthy foreigner, and the tourist who wants to purchase a luxury souvenir from their visit to New York.

Bergdorf Goodman

In a magical and mysterious way, sales agents seem to be able to recognise those who can potentially become clients and those who will never be. In a very educated way, the welcome everyone in, but never offer any help or give away any details of the products and—God forbid—their prices. Only when they see someone getting really involved with a product they offer their help and, more often than not, it is actually the customer who needs to go find it. It is only when they see the promise of a fulfilled sale, with a sneak peek to the credit card that will be used to pay the product, that the seller finally trusts the promise of a consumer. Although, it should be said, a little purchase is never enough to make the consumer an expert, and it’s even less of an achievement when trying to become one of the seller’s favourites.

These distinctions between the frequent client, the one-time consumer, and the window-shopper, are what make Bergdorf Goodman so representative of the current state of fashion. Despite the process of democratisation that has been developing recently in the fashion world, with an ever-growing amount of people that has the opportunity to dress according to the latest fashions, this world continues to be a hierarchical system, of which only a few can benefit. The rise of fashion bloggers reflects these dynamics: we can see how normal people can dress to attract the general public with their point of view on fashion; but their increasing popularity attracts luxury brands that hire them for all sorts of “collaborations,” take them to fashion week, and turns them, finally, into “fashion insiders.” The most democratic views of fashion are absorbed by the same system, which, as sociologist Thorstein Veblen announced over a century ago, is the most faithful example of capitalism, and has the immense power of maintaining itself in a hierarchical structure, in which only those in power can succeed.

In the case of Bergdorf Goodman, we see the frequent client—which is not necessarily the high-society New Yorker or the wealthy foreigner, but extends to include fashion editors, royalty, and the real fashion insider that lives and showcases the luxury—that maintains a house like Bergdorf Goodman alive, despite the massive participation that fast fashion has achieved in the market. The one-time client is the person that, with some effort, manages to buy a few products in Bergdorfs; the person that chooses to buy a “good” bag or a “good” pair of shoes for a special occasion, or even as a type of investment. This person, as Bergdorf Goodman clearly knows, is someone that might have the potential of coming back and that, no doubt, contributes somehow to the chole business, but is nowhere near being a fashion insider or any type of fashion character. This type of buyer is the one that imitates, the one that follows the big names in the industry, wanting to buy the latest “it” item that just appeared in magazines. This type of buyer, despite their purchase, is not far from those that limit themselves to seeing, the window-shoppers, which are the most vivid representation of an anti-democratic fashion world; that world Simmel described at the beginning of the last century, where the upper classes are in charge of defining a style, and the rest limit themselves to mimicking such a style.

Although we tend to refer to a democratic fashion system nowadays, the truth is that Simmel’s theory, which so many consider outdated, can continue to be valid under a certain point of view. If now, why is it that we enjoy so much seeing that high fashion, when in reality it is only a few who can dress head-to-toe in Valentino or Chanel? Why is it that the proposal of luxury that Vogue and Harper’s Bazzar illustrate, promoting the purchase of products that only a few can afford, still sells millions of copies around the world? Why do we see fast fashion, the peak of what we consider a democratic fashion system, being nothing different than the crude imitation of designs created in the houses of high fashion?

Although more people now have access to fashion, this does not imply that democracy, undersood like in social sciences as the phenomenon in which power is in the hands of the majority, the normal people, as the main characteristic of fashion. And this does not mean, either, that the hierarchies existing in fashion have been taken down, or that they will be anytime soon. And these hierarchies, the power of fashion and luxury insiders, and the desire of knowledge of the masses, are what, to me, Bergdorf Goodman represents.

Photography: Laura Beltran-Rubio