The Democratization of Fashion: A Brief History

The material world gets closer to the fashion industry with live-streamed runway shows at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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“Fashion for all” is hardly a novel conceit. It has no single beginning to pinpoint; it’s the unceasing stream of information between the fashion industry and its consumers that has existed since seamstresses first sewed custom-designed gowns (haute couture almost literally means high sewing) for queens and socialites.
Long before fashion weeks showcased the next season’s trends some six months in advance, designers held trunk shows for aristocratic clients to order before they packed up and shipped off for extended vacations. Money and status weren’t the only barriers to all-access fashion. In the early days of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, it was called Press Week with store buyers prohibited from attending.

Still, the artificial walls between the people and high fashion have never stood from floor to ceiling. The democratization of fashion largely started when Vogue first pressed pages in 1892 and New York rolled out Press Week runways in 1943 to divert attention from couturiers in Paris, which was Nazi-occupied and therefore impenetrable to the needy stateside fashion world. Its DNA partly lies in Anna Wintour’s choice to put Michaela Bercu in jeans on the first cover she oversaw at the helm of Vogue and her engineering Fashion’s Night Out during the recession in 2009 to encourage full-price shopping through red carpet treatment.

Fast forward to 2013, when Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week announced that all 54 shows would be streamed online from Lincoln Center on Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week’s own website (as opposed to YouTube, which has done so for the past three years), the once-exclusive world of fashion and beauty struts ever further from its once exclusive realm. Not only are the designs and styles more accessible than ever, the entire industry, from inspiration to presentation, are exposed to anyone with a keen curiosity.

(MORE: Fashion Week Backstage: 5 Questions with Publicist Emily Bungert)

Social media’s constructed craving for minute, behind-the-scenes details and access kicked in the door that these institutions opened, which had since been propped open by expository reality TV, diffusion brands and fast fashion.

Here, we take a look at this brief history of the democratization of fashion.

Target/Isaac Mizrahi: Fans of Prabal Gurung, Proenza Schouler and Missoni should thank Isaac Mizrahi for designing Target’s first high-end diffusion collection 10 years ago. Mizrahi was an acclaimed designer with an inconsistent track record before he paired up with Target to design clothing and home goods under his name in 2002. The venture was mutually beneficial—Mizrahi’s clothing, accessories, bedding and more sold for as much as $300 million a year and created luster for the chain bargain store. The six-year partnership made Mizrahi a household name and turned Target into a destination for high fashion. Marc Jacobs and Vera Wang have since lent their name and vision to store items.

Street style Blogs/Instagram/Twitter: When Man Repeller Leandra Medine invites Instagrammers to her arm parties, she lets them simultaneously mingle with Hermes and Forever 21. The fashion blogger’s take on style—“outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex”—exemplifies the ironic nature of haute couture. It is elusive and expensive, but often impractical and unappealing. Medine’s method of mixing high and low is typical of the most popular fashion blogs, which show readers how to mix as few as one luxe item into an outfit. Cupcakes and Cashmere, The Sartorialist, Atlantic-Pacific and others show “normal,” i.e. not (at least prior to blogging) famous or particularly wealthy subjects regularly wearing fashionable outfits. The blogs, whether informative or self-serving (or both), inspire shoppers to binge and/or experiment, which creates curiosity in and consumers for high-end brands.

Social media has become the great equalizer in fashion. Insiders use social media the same way that Medine does, and in doing so, reveal traces of inspiration and mystery. Prabal Gurung Instagram photos of stimulating images like a bright-colored sari and Oscar PR Girl shares behind-the-scenes pictures and anecdotes with Oscar de la Renta to her Instagram accounts. Alexander Wang, Christian Louboutin and Diane von Furstenberg are among the most popular designers on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of followers each. Their tweets, whether mundane or scintillating, demystify the fashion industry and let followers interact with every part of the process.

(MOREHighlights from Haute Couture Fashion Week 2013)

ANTM/Project Runway: The reality show juggernauts are as backstage as it gets. Project Runway shows how a seed of creativity blossoms into a 10-look runway show through the course of a three-month season. Aspects like standby judge Michael Kors’ commentary presented fashion through the eyes of seasoned veterans. The show lets viewers spot uneven hems, critique a gown’s fit, think like a designer and watch a sartorial story unfold as if they are sitting in the front row of an avant garde show. Similarly, America’s Next Top Model turned interest in model from niche to normal. Watching hopeful cover girls walk, pose and mug for Tyra Banks, Twiggy and Janice Dickinson educates viewers on smizing and strutting as a living. The shows aim to entertain, but the effect is also a diffusion of fundamental layers of the fashion cake.

Fast Fashion: As the famous scene in Devil Wears Prada points out, a trickle-down effect is inevitable, but close copies are taboo. For that reason, we have fast fashion. Fast fashion was born in the 80’s, but the public’s keen eye on catwalks has made it a dynamic adult. The process is familiar–stores like Zara, Topshop, H&M and Forever 21 parlay runway designs into similar cuts, colors and patterns to be sold sooner and for less in more stores. It’s not without its controversy; Forever 21 has faced several intellectual property lawsuits for mimicking fashion houses like Anna Sui and Diane von Furstenberg. The temptation to capitalize on the hottest trends is hard to resist, as it is cheap to do, it generates billions of dollars and earns the store a cache for being constantly in vogue, even if the designs are not original. Whatever the origin, the product has the effect of making every sidewalk a runway. Fast fashion stores allow even broke fashionistas to parrot their favorite designers or celebrities at a fraction of the price. It’s ubiquitous, but it makes people care about, say, Rodarte, in a way they might not otherwise.

Broadcasting Lincoln Center Shows: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week’s live broadcasts make the circle of life between designers and the masses a little tighter. Curious consumers can ogle next season’s biggest trends without a press pass or hobnobbing with celebrities, for better or worse. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference–physical presence. Virtual access to high fashion, whether online on TV or on knockoffs is cheaper and easier, it’s far more democratic. But being able to say “I was there?” It seems that that is still priceless.