Staging a Situationist Fashion Revolution

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Barbara Kruger, I shop therefore I am, 1987

As commentary around commodification in the fashion industry crescendoes once again, AnOther explores how principles from the anti-capitalist intellectual cell have punctuated style history

Fashion loves an audience and, from the cameraphone snaps of the front row to the changing room selfies of Instagram, technology has only enhanced its performance. ‘Appearing to have’ – as the French philosophical movement the Situationists would call it – has always been the industry’s currency but, in recent years, an entire economy has developed around it. Fashion might initially seem at odds, then, with the core principles of the sixties intellectual movement (and its anti-capitalist search for true authenticity) – but there are suggestions to the contrary.

Several moments in fashion history seem to have learnt lessons from the Situationist, and their steadfast view that people ought to question, engage and provoke. “So far, philosophers and artists have only interpreted situations; the point now is to transform them,” wrote the Situationist International, a formal organisation of avant-garde creative and theorists united by their revolutionary message. Their agenda was clear: ‘stay woke’ to the perceived structures in capitalist society that keep the masses subservient, conforming, consuming worker bees.

Punk Participation
In the documentary The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, punk impresario and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren said, “Forget about music and concentrate on creating generation gaps. Call all hippies boring old farts and set light to them. Terrorize, threaten, and insult your own useless generation. Suddenly you've become a novel idea and you've got people wanting to join in. You've gained credibility from nothing, you're the talk of the town.” With all the cold, hard cynicism of a marketing exec, McLaren seemingly takes credit for masterminding the Sex Pistols’ success. More than that, though, his speech a call to arms to create disruption, to engage in society and to challenge it, echoing the Situationist instruction to participate. 

“Je participe, tu participes, il participe, nous participons, vous participez,” was a mantra that appeared on protest placards during the Paris riots of May ’68 – and McLaren echoed this clarion call his Kings Road boutique ‘Sex’: the one-stop shop for British punks. During a period that saw prudish queen of censorship, campaigner Mary Whitehouse, complaining about the innuendo-filled performance of Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-ling on BBC’s Top of The Pops, punk McLaren began selling provocative, fetish-inspired clothing. Unlike later movements like grunge – whose anti-capitalist, anti-fashion position manifested in disengagement from fashion – punk added it to its arsenal, utilizing fashion and incorporating it within its disruptive agenda.

Rejecting Rampant Consumption
It’s risky for a designer to criticise the business approach of an industry that is his bread and butter, but that’s exactly what Demna Gvasalia – the newly-appointed artistic director of Balenciaga – did in an interview with WWD. The Russian designer, who, ‘delivered’ his SS16 collection for his own label Vetements wearing a yellow t-shirt featuring the logo of couriers DHL, spoke out against the relentless thirst of an industry demanding more and more collections (the drive towards expansive pre-collections in recent years has been a notable development). He said, “I’m not really sure if the market actually demands all those clothes... [there] is a lot of money wasted as well, on development, on selling things we don’t really need.” Underscoring the Situationist’s position was a rejection of society’s commodity fetishism. Key Situationist player, writer Guy Debord talked about society’s “decline of being into having, and having”; like the Situationists, Gvasalia seems weary of being part of a society that requires so much ‘having’.

When luxury department store Selfridges installed artist Barbara Kruger’s slogan works on the shop floors – effectively captioning shoppers’ experiences with mantras like, “Buy me; I’ll change your life,” and “It’s new, it’s you, it’s everything, it’s nothing” – it seemed like a bizzarely progressive statement: focing customers to become aware of the futility of their consumerism. This season, fashion ecommerce platform Lyst revealed an unexpectedly deadpan advertising campaign, which overlaid generic fashion imagery with text reading “pointless” and “wrong” – and Diesel have run a similar campaign with catchphrases like "this is where we tell you what to wear" or "blah blah blah" in place of traditional advertising slogans.

These cases of anti-advertising might pander to the vanity of the astute shopper, who thinks of themselves as sophisticated enough to be in on the joke, but they also look to be examples of détournement, a device employed by the Situationists to flip of the meaning of recognised work to show the other side of the coin; “the reuse of pre-existing artistic [and mass-produced] elements in a new ensemble.” On the motivation behind her Selfridges collaboration, Kruger has remained quiet, perhaps satisfied that her anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist messages had finally found their perfect setting.