NEW YORK — Consumer spending may have slowed since the start of the war with Iraq, but America is still home to a growing populace of fashion victims — those who consistently buy into whatever trend the fashion business is pushing, even when it doesn’t suit them or is downright outlandish.

It’s a dynamic (and phrase popularized by WWD) that’s chronicled and analyzed by author-journalist Michelle Lee in her recently published book, "Fashion Victim" (Broadway Books $24.95).

Lee, a 27-year-old former fashion editor, unabashedly admitted to her own status as a fashion victim as she recounted the inspiration for her project. In 2001, Lee, then a senior editor at Mademoiselle, spied a fellow fashion editor in the Condé Nast cafeteria who was poured into a very fitted, black strapless dress and Manolo Blahnik nosebleeds. "She looked fabulous for a cocktail party, but not for work," Lee recalled. A rapid-fire series of similar spottings — most memorably a striking twentysomething roaming NoLIta in head-to-toe Burberry plaid — made Lee realize that fashion victims like herself were becoming increasingly common in the 21st century, driven by the twin engines she dubs speed chic and McFashion.

The wheels of America’s pop culture machine are spinning ever faster, turning out mass versions of high-end fare like designer duds, Lee writes, all the while shortening trend cycles and encouraging a growing swath of consumers to snap up the latest thing. Lee herself got caught up in the frenzy during stints at Glamour and Mademoiselle. "It struck me that people who worked at Condé Nast had to look great to go to work," she said of the magazines’ parent company, which, like WWD parent Fairchild Publications, is owned by Advance Publications. "It affected my self-esteem. I shopped every weekend for things to wear to work."

Also instrumental in making fashion an evermore pervasive influence in our lives, Lee observes, is the heightened media exposure it has received in the past decade or so, from the worldwide reach of style sensibilities seen on MTV, to the print media’s portrayal of celebrities, which, since the early Nineties, has increasingly featured their clothes as well as their faces.Given today’s media cascade of celebrity images, it’s hard to remember another time, as recalled by People’s managing editor Martha Nelson, when she was editor of In Style. "When we started [in 1993] we couldn’t find photographers who were shooting the clothes — it was all about the faces," she told Lee. "Then we started having to say ‘Be sure to give us the full length.’ If you go back into the archives, you get a very different kind of celebrity coverage." And despite her fashion-insider status, Lee expresses surprise at the prevalence of designer references in today’s music videos, such as a Burberry scarf worn by Ja Rule or T-shirts proclaiming "J’adore Dior" in Jay-Z’s "Girls Girls Girls" video.

The media’s expanding coverage, in turn, fuels speed chic, or what Lee perceives as a never-ending desire on the part of consumers to hurry up and be cool, a condition whose earmarks she likens to those of crack cocaine: "cheap, fast and addictive."

Mix in the growing availability of affordable, highly visible versions of designer style — like the $15 copy of a Prada dress Lee bought recently at H&M — and it adds up to an increasing number of shoppers chasing the latest trends. This rise of McFashion, Lee claims, ironically has come at the expense of people developing their own style.

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